In Home is Not Here, Wang talks about his multicultural upbringing and life under British rule. He was born in Surabaya, Java, but his parents’ orientation was always to China. Wang grew up in the plural, multi-ethnic town of Ipoh, Malaya (now Malaysia). He learned English in colonial schools and was taught the Confucian classics at home. After the end of WWII and Japanese occupation, he left for the National Central University in Nanjing to study alongside some of the finest of his generation of Chinese undergraduates. The victory of Mao Zedong’s Communist Party interrupted his education, and he ends this volume with his return to Malaya.
Wang Gungwu is one of Asia’s most important public intellectuals. He is best-known for his explorations of Chinese history in the long view, and for his writings on the Chinese diaspora. With Home is Not Here, the historian of grand themes turns to a single life history: his own. Wise and moving, Home is Not Here is a fascinating reflection on family, identity, and belonging, and on the ability of the individual to find a place amid the historical currents that have shaped Asia and the world.
Soe years ago, Wang started to write the story of growing up in Ipoh for his children. He knew it was also for himself as he tried to remember what his parents were like. His childhood until he was nineteen, with the exception of nine months in 1948, was the only time when he lived with them in the same town. Wang thought he should tell his children how different his world was before he left home so that they would understand what has changed for them as children and for him as their parents. The author’s wife Margaret knew his story and agreed that he should tell it while he could.
His decision to publish this story came about when he met a group of heritage activists in Singapore. They made author more conscious of the personal dimensions of the past. As someone who has studied history for much of his life, the author have found the past fascinating. But it has always been some grand and even intimidating universe that he wanted to unpick and explain to himself and to anyone else who shared his desire to know. Even when he read about the lives of people high and low, he looked from a critical distance in the hope of learning some larger lessons from them. In time, he realized how partial his understanding of the past was. He was using a platform that was dominated by both European historiography and elements of his Confucian self-improvement background.
The author’s heritage friends reminded him that, while they talk grandly of the importance of history, they are insensitive to what people felt and thought who lived through any period of past time. They often resort to literature to try and capture moments of joy and pain, and that can be a help to imagine parts of one’s past. But they have too few stories of what people actually experienced. Focusing on local heritage is a beginning Encouraging people to share their lives might follow. He began to think that what he wrote for my children could be of interest to people who are not family. So Wang set out to finish his story and have taken it to the time when he left Ipoh in 1949 to study at the newly established University of Malaya in Singapore. His parents moved to Kuala Lumpur after that and never went back to Ipoh. In preparing this account for a wider readership, he have revised and updated parts of the story wherever he could.
Many friends tell the author that they wish they had talked to their parents more when they were alive. He remember thinking the opposite when he was in my teens. He thought that his mother talked too much about China and not enough about the things that he really wanted to know. Instead, Wang recall how he wished his father would tell him about himself, especially about his life as a child growing up in China along the Yangzi valley. His parents both loved their China very much and, as long as the author can remember, they constantly dreamt of returning home.
China was strangely imbalanced in Wang’s mind. There was his mother’s view of a traditional China that she was afraid would disappear. She wanted her only child to understand something of that. She saw it as her duty to let Wang know as much as possible because he was growing up in a foreign land.
Wang thought he should tell the story of how all that came about for his children to read. As he did so, he came to regret he did not talk more with his parents when they were still alive. His mother did finally write about her life and the author have included here what he had translated for his children. He wish he had asked her to tell him more. But what he missed most of all was to hear his father talk to him about personal things, about his dreams and what it was like when he was growing up. Wang sometimes wished that he did not live so close to his ideal of a Confucian father and showed him something of his real self. Wang would have loved to know how his father turned from child to adult in the turbulent times his father lived through. Perhaps it is that sense of loss that has driven Wang to tell this story—Home is Not Here.