In which the writer muses on the diverging urban experiences of Berlin, Hong Kong and Beijing, while also thinking about how our perspectives on 'here and there' shape such experiences for us.
It still surprises me, the difference having such great stretches of uninterrupted sky in view makes and the calmness it brings. If I look closer at it, for long enough, at the point in which it meets the nearest building opposite us, with its turquoise, yellow and grey tiles that bring a surprising prettiness to an otherwise highly-functional and serious structure, I have a nice perspective on the shades of white meeting the mid-noon azure blue. Swallows fly in and out quickly and chaotically, occasionally in pairs, mostly alone. I’ve tried, but I can’t quite trace patterns of movement. It seems like they don’t really have much of a traffic system up there. But what do I know?
It’s only in the absence of having to face crowds regularly that I realise how much I hate them, the state of hypervigilant arousal they put my body through; how you have to position your elbows outwards a little bit as their sharpness gives you a little bit more leverage in maintaining something of a space bubble as you plough ahead, finding openings and sliding through them using a fighter’s footwork as and where you can, gulping down little breathes of rage as you remind yourself that everyone is in exactly the same position as you, just trying to get from A to B, probably facing all the same time pressures, too. No one means harm by all the pushing and shoving.
We’re told that dense cities are the way of the future. I see all the arguments for this. But on a personal level, I don’t think I’m built for them, for that narrow vertiginous-ness that swallows you up and leaves you dizzy. Although those sprawling cities have their discombobulating strangeness, too. There’s a place and moment I keep returning to in my mind, a point at an interchange between an especially large mall and a series of vast concrete residential structures in an intersection towards the west of Beijing along which I’d walk to see friends most evenings the year I lived there, which coincided with the year in which Xi Jinping rose to power.
On an especially dusty, smog-filled and breathless night you might stare out at that smoky, eerie space between those monumental edifices and suddenly feel incredibly small and fragile, like you’re an ant about to be squished by something vast and impalpable. Is this image a cliché? Possibly. But it’s how I felt.
There’s a similar place in Berlin, on a much smaller scale: The view from over Waschauer Strasse, especially on a snowless winter night where the evening rush of traffic allows for enough space in which you don’t have to play Tetris with the street, but where you might easily find yourself having cigarette ash blown in your face, walking through a puddle of either beer or urine, as someone on a saxophone is drowned out by a drunk person wailing in time to the screeches of a halting train. Everyone is cold and rude, and the tracks and wires seem to stretch into Nothingsville, Nowheretown.
It reminds me of that famous Wim Wenders 1987 film, Himmel Ueber Berlin, in which two angels observe the city in all its dislocations. Again, to bring up this film in the context of the Berlin urban experience is probably a cliché. But it’s what I think about when I’m there.
Journalists are told time and again to avoid using clichés, not resort to the lazy ones, and I agree to an extent (especially given Colonial legacies). I know how I annoyed I get reading flattened depictions of women turned around by men intent on cutting them up into a size they can cope with; so I try very hard not do a similar thing with the places I cover. But, I think, in the pursuit of what I am trying to do, and what many writers like me are trying to do; that is, marking up the contours of these in between worlds, and unknown and ever-shifting places and identities we occupy; I think they might help us map things a little bit, if we’re careful with them. Learn to look behind them to see if there’s anything that’s actually there at all.
There’s a fun and very clever multimedia art piece produced by Malaysian artist Wong Hoy Cheong, a fictional documentary charting the 250-year history of Austria as if it were a postcolonial- once occupied territory of Malaysia. It is a brilliant and very witty work, that casts white Austrians as ‘other’ and disorients our perspective of and associations with global hegemonies. One of my favourite bits is the map it provides of Europe, which is riddled with inaccuracies and misspellings. We see a world mapped by another culture’s blindspots, and it is deeply uncomfortable.
I’ve overstepped my self-imposed deadline. The takeaway? Turn a cliché in and out, watch it wobble into incoherence, cling to it anyway, because very little makes sense otherwise. Look at maps, turned them around, tear them up into bits of paper. Call this art. Go outside, feel the sun’s rays on your shoulders, stare at the shadow between your feet, the blue dome above your head that calls itself the sky. Muse about the smallness of insects. Feel confused about the world and your place in it.
Thank God no one is paying me for these.
It’s a quiet evening, the dull ebb and flow of traffic comforts, there’s an amber glow that lights up leaves turning copper as the late summer months creep towards us. I guess I am almost three quarters through my first year back in Europe, and life has sprung open to an extent that it almost feels like those empty months of waiting never happened.
In fact, everyone is bored of talking about viruses, bored of thinking about viruses, bored of pictures of round, spiky globs, bored of hand sanitiser spray, of face masks and all of that. I’m so bored of all that I’m not even going add any more descriptive words on the subject, but I will note that I no longer check infection rates with any regularity, nor have I signed up for any more of the investigative journalism webinars on the subject for stories I cannot commit my brain to, or hound the scientists I know (read: share DNA with) with questions I am not 100 per cent certain they have the correct answers to. I guess my mind has been on other things.
Germany having the handle on the situation in a way that is not the case elsewhere, I have the privilege of not having to worry too much about the consequences of my actions, which would not be the case in other places. I am pretty sure, at this point, I am not at risk of getting seriously ill, and that the chance of passing anything on to anyone who is and who doesn’t have access to this robust healthcare system we enjoy, is quite slim.
Adaptations to life as we know it have been made, adaptations that are workable, and fine. Adaptations that don’t impinge on too much. There are grumbles from all sides, a lot of people want to have their say in things, and it still surprises me, the level of granular detail over which individuals advocate for their own interests, the amount of noise that goes into decision-making here. But I have to remind myself that I have come from a place in which advocating for anything at all has increasingly felt like chucking water off a sinking ship with your fingers, or, as one campaigner described it to me; “like playing a game of whack-a-mole”.
[Although the above comment comes with a caveat that I am aiming this week not to give too far into gloom. Rebecca Solnit: “To me, the grounds of hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly. And that the unofficial history of the world shows that dedicated individuals and popular movements can shape history and have, though how and when we might win and how long it takes is not predictable.]
Thinking about these things makes me think a bit about a metaphor comparing authoritarian and democratic systems used by Polish poet Czesław Miłosz in The Captive Mind, in which he describes democracy as a cumbersome and rather unfancy paddle boat which everyone to some degree finds themselves operating in all sorts of directions such that it slowly, but safely lumbers ahead at a pace that just about manages everyone’s needs. Conversely, authoritarianism is a shiny, kitsch and bombastic ship operating at full-throttle, crashing into things.
I like to think this metaphor, this dichotomy still holds up. That is in spite of the high number of stupid people there are running things that have been voted in all over the world, making that paddle ship feel like its teaming with idiots poking holes into the deck because they feel like it, because they’re somehow convinced that the laws of gravity will always work how they want them to. Now I think about my mentor, too, and what she once said in one of my more maudlin moments: “Democracy is a work in progress.” So is humanity, too. I guess.
And now let’s bring in another voice that has made reverberations in my head through this week. One of my best friends from university, whose friendship profoundly altered how I perceive myself in the context of my own gender, and the potentials for curtailed freedoms that come with it, recently wrote on the mental labour that comes with living as women in a world where rape culture continues to hold sway and embeds itself all sorts coercive corners of our consciousness.
She writes of the mental arithmetic that goes into navigating interactions such that we feel we can ensure our own safety. I was reminded of it the other day when I came away from an interaction thinking through steps I took that I shouldn’t have taken, that were perhaps unwise. The interaction went as follows: I was buying dinner from a burrito stand. I might have smiled. A friend once told me that monkeys smile when they want to show submission. This I have yet to fact check. Small talk initiated on his end led to me inadvertently divulging details about myself; my line of work, the neighbourhood in which I lived, my working hours.
He wanted to take me out for a drink. I declined. He wanted me to have the burrito I’d ordered for free. I again declined. Politely, but firmly. In the end we got to a point where he was clutching the burrito waiting for me to agree to make some kind of plan with him, or whatever it was he was seeking out of that bizarre behaviour, that I ended up just pulling the burrito out of his fingers, throwing my coins on the counter and storming off.
I broke a rule I have, that is not to give people like that much of a reaction. But I did not break my rule of allowing a scenario a little bit of escalation on my end knowing that if I needed to, I could defend myself. It’s part of the mental arithmetic I make, and that I am better equipped at making these days, knowing my physical capabilities far better than I used to. It’s reduced my worry by about 50 per cent, in fact, I make far fewer fear-based decisions in this area, now.
But the fact still stands, to live with this level of dread poses certain cognitive burdens that are unfortunate. In an ideal world, this dread would not be there, and the modifications to my life I make that serve to reduce it would not take place. I cannot imagine how this life would look. Would I be less neurotic? Or would I just find other things to worry about. Like climate change, germs, shifting world orders, the rise of authoritarianism. What it is Facebook plans to do with my data.
This is to say of course, that the types of cognitive burdens we regularly experience reflect on our privilege. There are things I have to worry about that other people don’t, really, and vice versa. And of course this is relevant in the context of two specific things besides rape culture: the curtailment of freedoms in authoritarian states, and the burdens of bearing witness as such events take hold, and afterwards.
Worry drains, but it also sharpens.
When COVID-19 first swept through China, a well-meaning colleague made a comment I found myself having to correct. She said: “Well, the good thing is that it is happening over there, where there are really strict rules, so when there’s a lock down, people really do stay at home.”
The statement asserts that control tactics in authoritarian regimes actually work. When they absolutely do not. Anyone who has been in a situation of intense coercion knows that what actually happens within these dynamics is that you just get more bendy with the truth. Resistance becomes a delicate cat-and-mouse dance that operates at a level of sophistication and art that history can’t help but remember. And trust, on all fronts, eludes.
I can’t say I enjoyed the most feminist of upbringings. Far from it. But what I did grow up with is that lens one has when one feels constantly obliged to scrutinize power structures, to see the rot that others are privileged enough to be able to ignore (gender was one of our many blind spots). The daughter of a journalist whose way into the industry came as a form of resistance to the political system that had oppressed him and his family, my living without this lens he passed on to me is unconscionable.
That lens comes with responsibilities and problems (let’s open the mental health can of worms another day, shall we?), but one thing it has not done for me is made me complacent in the way that is the case for many who have grown up in democracies.
This has all sprawled into many corners and I am finding efforts to tie it all together a little bit of a struggle, but of course this process I am taking my thoughts through is helping, too. After I have completed this, I will feel calmer. At least for a couple of days, and subject to whether or not I think it might need edits. I will probably bump into things less, forget things less, feel a little bit less like I am coming apart at the seams. Until the next body of text begins its drafts in my head and I’ll have to configure all that while trying to live a semblance of a life that I’d promised myself would look a lot more steady and 'normal'.
I recently joined a writer’s group, though I keep struggling to find our meeting place. Yesterday I found them and we sat, talked words and slapped dead mosquitos in a nice green park with ponds and foxes. They ask me where I am from. At this point, I don’t really know what to say when I am asked this. I gave the summary. “Well, no wonder you seem so lost and confused,” they said.
Anais Nin once said: ‘Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born’.
In the summer of 2018, I made one such new friend, and now, in July 2020, in this is very strange year we have all had - though one that Hong Kong has especially found trying - my thoughts return to her, as it has to many people I care for very much, in that very special city I said my goodbyes to at the end of last year.
I met Yan* having replied to her ad for a room in one of Hong Kong’s best neighbourhoods. And when I say best, I mean that it boasts absolutely everything you could want in a Hong Kong neighbourhood. Especially that thing that Hong Kong has that eludes all other places in this world. That is, a very particular electricity that can fry you up and turn you into toast if you let it. Here, in these parts, skyscrapers wedge themselves between slivers of the sea, as a backdrop of mountains makes this the perfect place to forget how to navigate flat and landlocked cities.
Here, streets stink of dried seafood and a fishy, dusty staleness that sticks in your throat, and here, a stony Sun Yat Sen stands erect watching over a swimming pool that is for some reason never open when you pay it a visit, alongside looming modern-style white structures that are presumably crucifixes and which seem equally strange when considered alongside a calligraphic object one presumes was placed there in a curatorial bid to have the city’s checkered cultural landscape represented in its entirety and which has resulted something of a public space nightmare salvaged only by the view of one of the world’s most breathtaking harbours.
Here, on Friday nights, sweaty, shirtless runners circle Sun Yat Sen, and are joined by the troupe of dancing grannies you get everywhere, in Mainland China, too as they crop up all over the shop here. In fact, when people ask you what your favourite thing about ‘China’ is - and by China what is meant is China AND the special administrative regions that many fear are losing their specialness day by day - you always say ‘the dancing grannies’.
Dancing grannies make everything in the world better. It’s impossible to be unhappy when you see a troupe of them shimmying about to the 80s Mandopop blaring out from their ghetto blasters. Just watch the way they move. Watch the joy in their eyes. Watch the delight they take in being outdoors with their best friends on a glorious summer day.
Watch them and think about everything it is they have been through, how much it is that has changed in the course of their lives. It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around everything that generation has lived through in that corner of the world. And I racked up seven years over there.
Anyway, back to my good friend Yan. The rent she had been asking for seemed implausibly low, so I had my doubts about the place and about Yan, too. But we hit it off pretty quickly. Yan has that edge to her many Hongkongers have, that speaks to the extraordinary pressures its people face day in day out in a city where rest isn’t so much a thing people do but is rather a thing one dreams of constantly. I think she was in her late forties, and was the opposite of polish, living mostly off dried noodles, Japanese crackers and very strong Italian coffee made with a large machine that sputtered and rumbled. She was dry and funny in a way that people are when they don’t really set out to be but have a very matter-of-fact way of thinking about things alongside that ability to laugh their way through dark places as and when they appear.
Case in point: Over the two and a half years in which I lived with Yan - and which proved to be one of the best cohabitation situations I’ve ever had- Yan went unflinchingly through three significant bereavements. First, the death of her father, an extremely jolly and kind man who would leave cakes and sausage rolls for me outside my bedroom after trips to the bakery Yan had attempted to ban after he got sick.
His death was marked in our flat per Cantonese tradition. Yan left out offerings to his ghost in the form of his favourite snacks set out on paper utensils overnight, of which unfortunately one of them was the famously flagrant durian fruit. Yan apologised ahead of the event for the smells and the strangeness, also warning me not to open my door that night in case I’d see his ghost, which might be frightening for me.
Of course I found myself ignoring her advice, opening the door just after midnight when he had been expected to arrive and have his final snacks before departing for the nether world. No spectral apparition presented itself. Rather, feasting on dim sum was one one of Yan’s two beloved and ridiculously stupid house cats, Fufu, whose death that next year would be followed shortly by that of Mimi, his fluffy, flat-faced pedigree girlfriend who was so dumb she would get distressed and bewildered every time a released claw of hers would attach itself to a piece of cloth. I don’t think she ever fully figured out how those things were supposed to work.
My best and oldest friend says I am essentially two very distinct people. A rather serious and grumpy boss figure who shows up to make sure things get done properly and that no one gets hurt or does anything wildly stupid, and an excitable, impulsive child. I suppose she has her finger on something. Just as cities are riddled with contradictions, so are people. Getting to know a person, or a place, only really starts to happen when you enter into that space of contradiction and embrace it. This is what it means to be truly seen.
Yan did legal contract work by day, spending a lot of time in courts, work she’d describe of having to listen to two people snapping at each other for hours and hours on end, often senselessly losing a lot of money along the way.
Her main client was a difficult and socially-awkward to the point of an astonishing rude guy whose work she would take on knowing that he would pay well because everyone else refused to work for him. To me, she called him ‘chrysanthemum’ because that was a word Hongkongers used to complain about people. Chrysanthemums look like assholes, apparently. (Like Hungarians, the poetic Cantonese spirit very much extends to their colourful use of swear words.)
Hong Kong’s security net being what it was, Yan for various chunks of time was a full time carer for her brother, who had a severe respiratory disorder and mental disabilities. That was between carers she brought in from abroad (my understanding was, unlike many employers of foreign domestic workers in the city, Yan was a fair and decent employer). So her life was far from easy, and a lot of responsibilities fell on her lap that she had to suffer through alone.
What she did have was a flat in an area where rent had soared since the arrival of a metro station a few years before. It had belonged to the family for generations in one of the few remaining old apartment blocks in the neighbourhood, shorter than the gleaming new ones, with crumbling corridors once (before my time) frequented by heroin addicts and stray dogs, a front door that never locked, and, most importantly, no lift.
My room, it turned out, was so cheap because I had to walk up nine floors to get to it. Also, because I slept on a children’s bed in what was essentially a cupboard.
Yan had her flat (which, technically she co-owned with an extremely difficult aunt who had divorced her uncle and was trying to get back at the family to by bullying Yan, in some occasions threatening to kill her, something that when the extended family heard about they called in police officers, who showed up at our front door perplexed to find a dishevelled gweilo in pajamas looking not very murderous.
I, in turn, confused about their inquiries into Yan, misunderstood the event to mean she was for some reason in trouble with the police, and found myself lying about her whereabouts in a slightly misguided attempt to protect her from trouble she was not in. It was a very confusing day.
Like me, Yan’s emotional alchemy is made of strong stuff interlaced with a softness in certain places select people get to see. You saw that in the way she interacted with Mimi, and Fufu, as with how she interacted with me.
When her cats passed away, she was sad but stoic.
“One cat come, one cat go,” she said.
She was a good friend, and a thoughtful housemate. Leaving her and her flat was actually one of the hardest parts of the move.
The day I left, pulling the two suitcases I’d whittled my life down to down that ridiculous flight of stairs as the city burned (that was the week students had turned their university into a stronghold, with journalists and all sorts locked in, police lined up outside, a lot of us very worried they’d get out at all, apocalyptic scenes and all that…) I realised how much I’d miss her, and I felt pangs of guilt for leaving, compounded by the fact that she had loaded me down with grapes and Japanese chocolates for my trip.
“I had a friend like you, who lived in Hong Kong,” she said, when I told her I was leaving. “Very smart. Very sensitive. He die” she said. “It’s good that you are going”.
Yan didn’t protest. She wasn’t against protestors at all. She just didn’t get involved in things. She was shrewd. And I don’t mean that in a bad way.
“Something smells bad,” she said, of the unrest, and the government’s handling of it. “You know, the Chinese government. All they like to do is play. They use Hong Kong to play against each other,” she added.
Yan didn't protest, and I am using her as example to talk about how many 'ordinary' Hongkongers responded to events. That's not to mean I didn't or don't support people who did take to the streets. But I am saying I was scared for them, and I saw the sense in hanging back, and wanted to do so myself. Stepping outside and into the throngs felt more maddening each day. And I felt relieved, albeit guilty, for not covering it. It felt like my brain was folding into a paper lantern that burned.
I also worried that the crazier things got (or were swept up to get), the greater a 'justification' there would be for measures to be taken that would 'restore order,' which is certainly one way to read why the National Security Law looks the way it does, now.
People who are not closely following what has happened over the last five years in Hong Kong, which were the five years I spent there, have asked this week what has been lost. Well, a lot.
I arrived in Hong Kong the year thousands took to the streets over the course of 79 days, an event that many young Hongkongers describe of as having brought about their political awakening. A good friend of mine said that up until that point, she had never much identified with her Hong Kong. Now, it felt. for the first time in her life, she was connected to the city. She found her peers. Those were beautiful (and exhausting) weeks for many people. Protest has always been part of the fabric of Hong Kong culture, as have stirrings of a will for self-determination. But this was the first time that took expression like this. And of course, it was peaceful, orderly, leaderless, Utopian. Students built makeshift libraries in which to study. Everyone cleaned up their mess.
I probably wrote better poetry about it than news reportage, but then I was always weird journalist, not really as tough and bulldog-like as you need to be in contexts like these, always burning into a crisp. But anyway, those were the weeks that captivated me, the weeks I fell in love with the city. Yes, sentimental words from someone who had the privilege to leave when the going got really tough. But something about those weeks in a city that had up until that point felt so abrasive, gleaming and harsh cracked open and let me in.
Fast forward five years, and the city feels like it's on fire. In that summer of crazy, you could taste the teargas on the streets. Even on calmer days. It was the first summer I’d spent there more as a civilian than a journalist, after years of work that had felt like a bludgeoning. Somehow, then, fighting became a passion I couldn’t put down. I discovered the fun in ducking punches. Was it fun or was it relief? I couldn’t really tell. I had the arms of a boxer and, it felt, the brain of one - who has eaten far too many left hooks - too. That was, all, very weird. But then, everything that summer turned upside down.
Hong Kong’s electric pulse had gone up by a thousand volts, my anxiety - already something I struggle with a great deal- went up with it. A strange year. Politically. Personally.
A city that never sleeps was given curfews. I abided by them. Messages in group chats warned of possible triad chopping escapades. Reason felt hard to hold on to. Just, all this emotion. This drowning in emotion. Everyone’s emotion. I felt like Mimi staring at her claws, with no clue what to do about them.
I feel tired contemplating talking about it. I feel tired trying to figure out what’s next for the city and for my friends there. Tired and sad.
I kind of just don’t want to think about it at all. I want to think about dancing grannies, and Sun Yat Sen’s sombre stare, and the view of the harbour at sunset. But that’s selfish.
A Berlin-based writer engages in the study of belonging and in-between places after years spent faraway from 'home'.