Monday, November 28, 2016

Neither Here nor There

When I was in secondary school, our English teacher in school used to speak to us every week about the sense of belonging. Everyone needs to find and build a sense of belonging as it is a human need, says the teacher. I cannot recall the textbook we were using then. Every human being is looking for a place to settle in and to flourish and grow.

This year, the theme for the  Georgetown literary event in Penang is Hiraeth, a Welsh word. A poignant theme indeed. It suggests nostalgia and a yearning for some place that probably only exists in our imagination or memory that is in all likelihood distorted. A homeland could be anywhere so long as you are clear about who you want to be.  But awareness is not something that comes naturally, so often we are distracted. Our thoughts are influenced by our desires, our fears, our expectations, our ambitions and our resolve.
Opening Lecture by A.C. Grayling
George Town Literary Festival 2016
Often when things do not go well where one is, one tends to seek another place for better or worse  . Even when things are going well, one may still leave for certain career prospects or a possibility of an advancement or an improved lifestyle . The move could be an exile, a necessity or simply feeling  hopeful for a change and a new start elsewhere. 

In The Wangs Vs the World, a debut novel by Jade Chang, Charles Wong has lost everything. It’s 2008 and Charles has over expanded his cosmetic business and as  he loses all his fortune during the financial crisis , his last resort is to make it to China and make a claim on his lost ancestral lands in China. 

CHARLES  WANG was mad at America.
   Actually  ,Charles Wang was mad at history.
If the death-bent Japanese had never invaded China, if a million—a  billion ---- misguided students and serfs had never idolized a balding academic who parroted Russian madmen and couldn’t pay for his promises, then Charles wouldn’t be standing here, staring out the window of his beloved Bel-Air home, holding an aspirin
in his hand, waiting for those calculating assholes form the bank ---the bank that had once gotten down on its Italianate-marble knees and kissed his ass –to come over and repossess his life.
     Without history, he wouldn’t be here at all.
      He’d be there, living out his unseen birthright on his family’s ancestral acres, a pampered prince in silk robes, writing naughty, brilliant poems, teasing servant girls, collecting tithes from his peasants, and making them thankful by leaving their  tattered households with just enough grain to squeeze out more hungry babies.’

When their whole charmed life disappears, Charles Wang leaves his Bel – Air home and together with his wife Barbra travel in the powder blue Mercedes station wagon that he has earlier given to his Ama as a gift. The car is a 1980 model. He drops his Ama at her daughter’s home, picks up his younger daughter , Grace from boarding school and pulls his college son , Andrew out of college as he makes his way across America to his eldest daughter’s home in upstate New York. He tells his eldest daughter, Saina, “ All. Baba lost all.”  Charles’s parenting style is not the typical strict disciplinarian kind that Asian Americans parents are often portrayed as practicing. While his children are gifted, they are not typically the studious and high achiever type of first generation migrants kids. Saina is a conceptual artist who is nursing her pain and humiliation of being unceremoniously dumped by her artist boyfriend. His college going son, Andrew dreams of being a stand up comedian while the teenage Grace is rebellious and has her own fashion blog.
During the road trip, Andrew does his comedy gig when they stop over in Austin.
       “ By the way,” continued Andrew, valiantly, “I know that the only thing that white people love more than jokes about white people is when black people make jokes about white people.  Right, guys , right? But you know what white people really, really , really love? When Asian comedians make fun of their parents. Yep, because you guys just want an excuse to laugh at Asian accents. Black people, no offence, but in this joke you basically count as white people. Admit it, as soon as I came up, you thought to yourselves, ‘Oh man, I hope he says lots of r words, just tons of them, I hope this whole night is brought to you by the letter r.’”

Wang was born in Taiwan.Wang’s parents and their friends had to escape to Taiwan during the cultural revolution. They created an island within an island , a mini-China in Taiwan, but that wasn’t enough.

‘…They were a colony of escaped mainlanders who never accepted their lives among the people who had no choice but to give them refuge; they spoke their home dialects and taught their children the geography of an unseen motherland, taught it so well that Charles knew he could have driven from the wilds of Xinjiang to the docks of Shanghai without so much as glancing at a map.’

Charles’s father had wanted him to stay at National Taiwan University and become a statesman in the new Taiwan, a young man in a Western suit who would carry out Sun Yat Sen’s legacy ,but Charles dropped out because he thought he could earn his family’s old life back.

Charles left  Taiwan for  America.  By the turn of the millennium he became rich enough.

Chang writes,‘Rich enough, probably to buy back all the land in China that had been lost , the land that his father had died without ever touching again.’
Then he over expanded and lost it all .

Now ,now that he had lost the estate in America, all Charles could think of was the land in China.’
    The life that should have been his.
    China, where the Wangs truly belonged.
     Not America. Never Taiwan.

The story of the Wangs is an immigrant story. It is a poignant story about how Charles Wang and his children as first or second- generation immigrants have to wrestle with the reality that no place is truly home.

Hiraeth, the longing for a homeland that is no longer there. The story of the Wangs, indeed. The Wangs Vs the World  is an enjoyable read and from the time  the Wangs hit the freeways  across the continent and fly over to China, the reader warms up to them as the siblings are such  a  delightful and sweet combo. It is a smart debut novel about racial identity and Chinese Americans in search of a homeland.
 Kudos to Jade Chang.

George Town

Friday, November 11, 2016


Human relations are definitely complex and fragile as each one of us has our own fears and insecurities. Not everyone possesses the same sense of humour and sensibilities and we are inclined to form our views and perceptions based on  our  predispositions and what we think we know.

You may think that the society is oppressive when you are not in the position to negotiate what you really want, you feel life is insufferable.  If you think you are a victim or that luck is never on your side, your brains start to emit all the negative responses and they will eventually become who you are. In the long run you will very likely become resentful and bitter. Life can never be perfect because that is life. Perhaps happiness is devoid of meaning if you do not choose to be happy.

If you google “the happiest man in the world”, the name Matthieu Ricard appears. Ricard is a Tibetan Buddhist monk, originally comes from France and he has participated in a 12- year brain study on meditation and compassion led by a neuroscientist from the University of Wiscousin, Richard Davidson. According to the scans carried out by Davidson, when Ricard meditates on compassion, his brain produces a level of gamma waves and his mind was unusually light. Ricard’s advice for how to be happy is to stop thinking “me ,me ,me”. This is because thinking about yourself, and how to make things better for yourself all the time, is exhausting and stressful. We have to train our mind to  become altruistic and benevolent and not let selfish thoughts creep in. Altruism and benevolence are the answers.

In The Buddha of Suburbia, the first novel written by Hanif Kureishi. Karim Amir, a dreamy mixed parentage teenager is desperate to escape suburban South London and experience the forbidden fruits which the 1970s seem to offer in the city of London. Karim is in his teens and unknown to his dad, he drops out of school to his dad’s disappointment. When he is landed with the unlikely opportunity of a life in the theatre, Karim starts his acting career and  he meets vain and self- possessed Eleanor , a fellow actor whose father is American and owns  a bank and her mother is a well-respected English portrait painter. Karim realizes how na├»ve and stupid he is when he has thought that Eleanor is less middle class than she has turned out to be as she dresses roughly, wearing a lot of scarves, lives in Notting Hill and – sometimes-talks  with a Catford accent and says ‘shit ‘ and fuck every ten seconds. Eleanor conceals her  social origins and she  appears to have  taken her connections for granted.

Eleanor had been to country houses, to public school and Italy, and she knew many liberal families and people who’d flourished in the 1960s: painters, novelist, lecturers, young people called Candia, Emma,Hasper,Lucy,India, and grown-ups called Edward,Caroline,Francis,Douglas and Lady Luckham. Her mother was a friend of the Queen Mother, and when Ma’am turned up in her Bentley the local kids gathered around the car and cheered. One day Eleanor had to rush away from rehearsal because she was required by her mother to make up the numbers at a lunch for the Queen Mother. The voices and language of those people reminded me of Enid Blyton, and Bunter and Jennings, of nurseries and nannies and prep school, a world of total security that I’d thought existed only in books. They lacked all understanding of how much more than anyone else they had. I was frightened of their confidence, education,status, money, and I was beginning to see how important they were.’ 

 Karim’s main rival for Eleanor’s affection is  a man called Heater. He is the local road-sweeper, ‘a grossly fat and ugly sixteen-stone Scot in a donkey jacket whom Eleanor had taken up three years ago as a cause.

Karim’s Indian father, Haroon is described as small, elegant and handsome with delicate hands and manners. His English mother is described as ‘ a plump and unphysical woman with a pale round face and kind brown eyes.’ His dad gets to know Eva, who is into Oriental philosophy and there are guru gigs where he has been invited to speak on one or two aspects of Oriental philosophy and he is well received and became known as the Buddha of Suburbia. When Karim accompanies his dad to Eva’s house in Beckenham , not only the display of money  impresses Karim, he is seduced by sensuality and intellectualism.

 It wasn’t far, about four miles, to the Kays’, but Dad would never have go there without me.  I knew all the streets and every bus route.

Dad has been in Britain since 1950 – over twenty years – and for fifteen of those years he’d lived in the South London suburbs. Yet still he stumbled around the place like an Indian just off the boat ,and asked questions like,  ‘Is Dover in Kent?’ I’d have thought , an employee of the British Government, as a Civil Service clerk, even as badly paid and insignificant a one as him, he’d just have to know these things. I sweated with embarrassment when he halted strangers in the street to ask directions to places that were a hundred yards away in an area where h’d lived for almost two decades.
Eva is into mysticism and she is ambitious, a social climber.

‘In the old days, when we were an ordinary suburban family, this pretentious and snobbish side of Eva amused Dad and me. And it has seemed, for a time, to be in retreat –perhaps because Dad was its grateful recipient. But now the show-off quotient was increasing daily. It was impossible to ignore. The problem was ,Eva was not unsuccessful; she was not ignored by London once she started her assault. She was climbing ever higher, day by day. It was fantastic, the number of lunches, suppers, dinners, picnics, parties, receptions, champagne breakfasts, openings, closings, first nights, last nights and late nights these London people went to . They never stopped eating or talking or looking at people performing. As Eva started to take London, coving forward over the foreign fields of Islington, Chiswick and Wandsworth inch by inch, party by party, contact by contact, Dad thoroughly enjoyed himself.  But he wouldn’t recognize how important it all was to Eva.’
Apart from Karim, Haroon, Eva and Eleanor, there are other colourful characters who have also had a part in   and caring for the susceptibility of the human heart.
 Karim's coming of age experience. The themes of the book span identity issues faced by immigrants, multiculturalism, oriental mysticism, coming of age, social class, success, suburbia and the city. Hanif Kureishi’s writing is punctuated with wry humour. The story is about how we connect with people we love and it does not matter where you come from and where you settle in, life is about navigating human relations, managing the vulnerability of human desires.

Incidentally the book has been made into a four-part drama series by the BBC in 1993 and the song featured in the programme is by  David Bowie  whose 1993 soundtrack album bears the same name as well.