Exiles Become Nobodies

Ian Buruma’s chapter, “China in Cyberspace,” begins thus:

The problem of exile is that it becomes increasingly hard to go home. You might eventually be able to return physically, but not to the country you left. Too much will have happened in the meantime. Those who stayed behind will have changed, but the exile, because of his peculiar experience, will have changed even more, marked by exposure to an alien world. There are cases, it is true, where exiles have gone back to be leaders. At the beginning of the the twentieth century, Sun Yat-sen plotted the Chinese revolution in Tokyo, London, and Honolulu, and he returned in 1911 to lead the Chinese republic [though not very effectively]. But this is rare. Former exiles are not usually welcomed back into the fold. [How about Khomeini?] Like Brahmans who leave India, political rebels tend to lose their aura once they step away from their native soil. I once asked an academic in Hunan, who was critical of the Communist regime, what he thought of overseas dissidents such as Wei Jingsheng and Fang Lizhi. He replied that once a dissident leaves China, “he has no right to speak out anymore.” This was not an isolated opinion, which, by the way, is never expressed about overseas Chinese who get rich.

“All the nobodies who cannot return are going home.” This line is from a poem by Yang Lian, a writer from Beijing now living in London. He carries a New Zealand passport and lived in four different countries before arriving in England in 1993. His flat is on the third floor of a redbrick early-twentieth-century apartment block. All his neighbors are Chasidic Jews, who speak Yiddish and wear clothes reminiscent of eighteenth-century Poland. Exiles of a different kind, they regard Yang Lian and his wife You You as exotics. Yang wrote that poem in London. Those who live abroad become nobodies. Home is a land of their own invention.

SOURCE: Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, by Ian Buruma (Vintage, 2001), pp. 108-109

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