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.
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.