Liya Yu — Neuropolitics. Literature. Activism.


Survivors’ Children

From my identityelements blog

For Lily Brett

I soak in the silence of the rectangular hall. The muted rooftop light trickles down gently on the black-and-white paintings and calligraphy scrolls that are hanging on the wall. I am in the main exhibition room at the Freer Gallery, one of the country’s most significant museums for Asian art, where Bada Shanren’s paintings are exhibited today. Bada Shanren, the enigmatic 17th century Chinese painter who began his life as a Ming Dynasty aristocrat and then became a Buddhist recluse for over forty years, paints as if no one is left to watch him – yet there is still an intentional tenderness in his minimalist, at times painfully deserted works, which seems to defy this belief.

Somebody with an incredibly posh English accent, reminding me of voices you would hear at a Christy’s auction in London, whispers excitedly to their neighbor “Bada was the Picasso of the East! He foresaw the development of Western modernity, unbelievable”. Then another voice cuts through the silence; it is that of my little son’s. He is asking a stranger to name all their body parts in great detail, from head to toe. The voice that responds to him is a female one. Patiently and with a slightly unusual seriousness, she responds to each of his questions without hesitation. I walk over, ready to apologize for my son disturbing her in this serene hall, but she brushes it away. All dressed in black, her eyes are filled with a curious mixture of humor and melancholy, and an almost childlike oblivion of social etiquette. It turns out she is Lily Brett, the New York-based Australian writer who has just won the Prix Médicis étranger literary prize for her novel Lola Bensky, which features her experience as a rock journalist in the 1960s, and most crucially, her identity of a child of Jewish parents who survived Auschwitz.

We sit down on the wooden bench in the middle of the hall; the room has found its equilibrium again. I tell her I am from Germany, to which she responds immediately “I was born in a displaced people’s camp in Munich, one year after the war ended”. I recognize this – the comfortable rehearsedness with which people who live in the unsettling place between identities have learned to present certain brutal facts of their life story, and yet the unrelenting ferocity with which that very fact still overwhelms them every time they put it into language. She must have told this sentence countless times to bureaucrats, strangers, potential friends and lovers in her life – and yet every time she utters is, the rawness around the pain and disbelief is still there. Our meeting touches me deeply, as a German (I used to feel personally responsible for the Holocaust as a teenager), as someone who occupied herself intensely with Jewish thought and identity, and as a person who is stuck between identities.

Sometime later, after I am back home in Virginia, I start reading her novel Just Like That, which is about a daughter and her survivor parents, who as the only family members – everyone else was killed – survived Auschwitz and the Holocaust. The daughter is a grown-up writer of obituaries, living in New York, with her own children, but the relationship between herself and her parents is unresolved, to say the least. It has not yet reached those borders of the country we call adulthood, where we do not let others question every single step we take, where we might have arrived at some kind of rudimentary certainty of who we think we are. Instead, the protagonist’s own sense of history and self is constantly undermined (as much as it is fed) by the past that her parents survived – a past that is not her own and yet has indelibly etched itself onto every life decision she makes.

Again, I recognize this. Lily’s writing – its honesty, how it describes fundamental human relationships in such a direct and unpretentious way, its humanization of survivors as both extraordinary and resilient, but also traumatized individuals who can hurt and leash out against their loved ones, and most of all, its humor in all of it – allow me to admit the many parallels to my own Chinese parents who survived the Cultural Revolution and things they have said to me (some phrases are almost identical to what the parents say to their daughter in Just Like That) over the years. I am a survivors’ child, I think as I keep circling the pages with my fingers.

In fact, I realize suddenly that many of my friends are in some way or another survivors’ children or grandchildren of the horrors of the 20th century – did we unconsciously gravitate towards each other because of that? When I speak to my Russian friend from Siberia, an inspiring member of the next generation of public intellectuals and activists in Moscow, she shrugs her shoulders and nods at the same time. “Sure, my family has seen starvation, pogroms, labor camps, ethnic cleansing. I guess you don’t take anything for granted knowing that.” We agree that survivors’ children have a special sensitivity towards the fragility of social bonds and the institutions that sustain them, the contingency of political stability and economic wealth, the atrocities that ordinary human beings can do to each other, the way how history continues to weave itself into the consciousness of those who should be free from the burdens of the past. Through their parents, survivors’ children are suspicious of the neoliberal belief – perpetuated by our elites today – that all of life’s success depends on individual attitude and motivation, and that if one has a dream, the failure of reaching it lies nowhere but with oneself. On the contrary, we know how our own parents’ fate was completely out of their control, how the possibility of a life’s dream could be wiped out by one political decision at the top, how my own mother was sent to the countryside for reeducation under Mao as a teenage girl, never knowing whether she would see her family again.

But most of all, survivors’ children carry the echo of a suffering in their chest (that’s the physical sensation I feel, anyway) that is at once overwhelming (knowing that your parents’ bodies, which nurture you every day in such a visceral way that is utterly devoid of history, are the same bodies that were once abandoned, ostracized, beaten, starved, and escaped death in periods that you read about now only in the history books) and yet so abstract (you were not there, you were saved, you will never know how it ‘really was’, you are spoiled because you don’t know, you are nothing because you have never ‘truly’ suffered).

In a psychoanalytic study of intergenerational trauma called Landscapes of the Chinese Soul: The Enduring Presence of the Cultural Revolution (2010), a German team of psychoanalysts trains Chinese psychologists to counsel both the immediate survivors of the Cultural Revolution and their children. There are many parallels to Lily Brett’s protagonist and her parents, but of course, there are things specific to China. Up until today, there is little awareness in China of the individual, familial and collective traumas produced by war and civil war – for obvious political reasons, but also, because culturally China is not used to work through trauma in an individualistic way (other than through the work of individual poets, artists and recluses in Chinese history). You owe your duty and your sense of self to your elders and parents, but what if, as during the Cultural Revolution, those fundamental relationships between parents and children, or teachers and students, were violated, betrayed, and brutalized? How do you come out of that? How can you rebuild trust in society, if that very society turned so heartlessly on you?

As I wonder about this, I make a new friend that week – Helen Verdeli, the director of the Columbia Global Mental Health Lab – and I know almost instantly when we first talk on the phone that she, too, is a survivors’ child. She is originally from Greece but has been in the US for a long while. Her lab studies vulnerable populations in war zones and developing countries, most recently, the mental health of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Her studies show that adolescent survivors of war in Uganda suffer from a range of depression symptoms (Bolton et al. 2007), and in a 20-year study, she shows that the offspring of depressed parents are at much higher risk to suffer depression themselves, especially between the ages of 15-20 years (Weissman et al. 2006). Lily Brett writes about how survivor parents can cope with their children’s physical pain, but are unable to admit and accept their mental and emotional suffering. It brings survivors back to that place that they wanted to escape, where they themselves were utterly helpless, where they were degraded to something less-than-human. They want protect their children from that place, but history, mercilessly, moves on.

Lily is back somewhere in New York and I am writing this surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, to which I have become addicted in the past months (not so much as a climber but as an onlooker soaking up that special blueish glow that emanates from its ridges at dusk). I think back of the hall where Lily and I met, of Bada’s paintings of rocks, lotuses, ducks and fish. It suddenly comes to me that Bada himself, of course, was a survivor, too. He was only a teenager when the Ming Dynasty collapsed and the Manchus overtook major cities, starting with the Yangzhou massacre in 1645. The city was looted and the population killed and raped. It was to serve as an example to other cities not to rebel but succumb to the new rulers. Shortly afterwards, Bada, the descendant of a Ming prince, joined a monastery to become a Buddhist recluse – escaping political turmoil and the pleasures of this world.

And yet, showing both the resilience and brokenness that marks survivors, Bada left the monastery after 40 years and pursued his painting and calligraphy, which are now seen as some of the most enigmatic masterpieces of Chinese and world art. He was said to have had many mental breakdowns in his life, especially shortly before and after he left the monastery. His paintings, as I said in the beginning, are painted as if there is no one left to watch him – a cultural audience and world that had vanished from his life after the fall of the Ming. And yet there was something still, despite the brokenness and grief and years of solitude where he could live without anyone, which he still wanted to communicate to us. It is exactly this irrational, ridiculous, life-saving urge to communicate after all that our parents and we have survived that makes it possible to live on.


Bolton, J. Bass, T. Betancourt, L. Speelman, G. Onyango, K. Clougherty, R. Neugebauer, L. Murray, H. Verdeli (2007) ‘Intervention for depression symptoms for adolescent survivors of war and displacement in Northern Uganda: A randomized controlled trial’ The Journal of the Medical Association 298 (5): 519-527.

Plänkers, ed. (2010) Landscapes of the Chinese Soul: The Enduring Presence of the Cultural Revolution. London: Karnac.

Weissman, P. Wickramarante, Y. Nomura, V. Warner, D. Pilowsky, H. Verdeli (2006) ‘Offspring of depressed parents: 20 years later’ The American Journal of Psychiatry 163 (6): 1001-1008.

Who am I between the cultures? Cultural neuroscience’s new questions for the Self

I stand at the iron-cast main gate of Columbia University and look back one last time onto the snow covered campus before I take down the stairs to the 116th Street subway station. Today was one of those days again on which I did not have to ask myself perpetually who I am. In the seminar rooms, the library, the food halls and rambling corridors of Morningside campus’ pre-war buildings, the peculiar combination of my Chinese looks and British English with a German accent passes without comment. Rather, in the good old New York convention of unshakable indifference and mild impatience, people focus on the essentials: their response to my comments on the seminar text, my overdue library fees, my signature for the Earl Grey tea bill…

It has been a good day for me. This way, I could also focus on the essential part in me. But what does it mean, to be oneself? This question jumps at me the moment I leave the snow covered campus and walk into the noisy subway train filled with identities and chatter from everywhere. Whereas on campus it’s all about the distillation of the thinking Self (and the apparatus that keeps it running), outside of it, we are thrown into expressing, negotiating, enjoying and suffering at the hands of our identities and self-experiments, in wrapping yet another one of those countless cloaks of cultural norms around what we call the Self.

But is the idea of the cloaked Self not in itself a naïve fiction – as if there were something at our core that is awaiting to be peeled out and distilled? Is it possible at all to distinguish a specific Self from all the cultural identities that make up who we are? How far, in Hegel’s sense, can Sitten and Bildung permeate us? Are we literally our cultural customs or is there something that can escape these cloaks? Who am I when I move effortlessly over the snow-muffled Columbia campus and think and talk without having to constantly be reminded of my skin color, my whimsical biography and my language barriers, and who am I indeed when I feel so deeply touched by the snippets of Chinese, German and English that fly across the subway train?

Research in the novel field of cultural neuroscience is asking exactly those questions. Studies have shown that the influence of cultural practices can lead to profound differences in brain mechanisms – affecting how we perceive objects, colors, other human beings, ourselves, and even the way how we reason mathematically (Ames and Fiske, 2010). For example, both Western and East Asian people display activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex when asked to think about themselves (Kelley et al., 2002; Zhang et al., 2006), but only East Asian people exhibit activity in the same regions when asked to think about their mother (Zhu, Zhang, Fan und Han, 2007). What this means is that East Asians have a distinct conception of Self that includes not only themselves but also immediate others – the Self is not understood in an isolated fashion but in a relational manner to others and society.

Cultural psychologists have been claiming cultural differences in one’s sense of Self for some while. The evidence at the brain level confirms psychological theories of the independent Western and interdependent East Asian Self developed by Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama (1991). This theory is based on the hypothesis that cultural influences such as Confucianism contribute to East Asians viewing themselves as socially contextual beings who mainly make sense of themselves through their ties to family and friends. Unlike in the West, the East Asian Self is not treated as an independent entity. Other cultural psychologists studying Western and Japanese children’s idea of self were able to show that this dichotomy might be flawed, since Japanese children could make self-descriptions in both independent and interdependent styles (Killen et al. 2002). However, the brain evidence from cultural neuroscience is still compelling – it shows that at least once people reach adulthood, cultural influences can be powerful enough result in distinctly different brain mechanism during self-processing.

Cultural neuroscientists have also looked into the effect of religion on our sense of Self. For example, only Christians exhibit brain activity in their dorsal medial prefrontal cortex, a brain area engaged in third-person perception, when thinking about themselves (Han et. al 2008). Once again the brain evidence confirms psychological theories; previously, we assumed that Christians judge themselves through the eyes of God and that this affected from which perspective they viewed themselves. Buddhists, however, in accordance with the Buddhist principle of “anatta” (i.e. no-self), do not exhibit brain activity in the typical regions when thinking about themselves – through repeated religious practice of self-denial, they have managed to modify their neuronal dynamics altogether (Wu, Wang et al. 2010). Curiously, the experiment on the Christians and Buddhists were conducted at Beijing University with Han atheists, Han Christians and Tibetan Buddhists, reminding us that differences in self-perception do not just appear between different cultural societies but also within one society.

This kind of intercultural variation in our self-perception opens a host of hard philosophical questions. It certainly throws the universal application of the Western liberal model of Self in a critical light. In John Stuart Mill’s famous work On Liberty (1859), only “cultivation of individuality brings humans nearer to the best thing they can be” because only the individual Self that has freed herself from society’s restraints can find true happiness. Although Mill does take into account the significance of society’s influence and the need to consider our fellow human beings in the ultimate quest for individuality, his message is clear: we can only become full human beings when we are our own last judge and have emancipated ourselves from our surrounding cultural norms. But in light of cultural neuroscience’s discoveries, Mill’s thesis becomes questionable. Are East Asians or Buddhists unable to attain true happiness because their cognitive experience of Self is not based on Mill’s ideal? Can we only find happiness and true humanity in the cultivation of Western individuality?

A rejection of these questions points to the field of postmodern critical theory and its questioning of the liberal idea of Self. Postmodernists argue that non-western and pre-modern societies deserve at least the same level of recognition and consideration as the prevailing post-Enlightenment, modern Western ideal of society. Critics of postmodernism object that this kind of perspective can lead to the circumventing of important normative questions, and even a kind of moral relativism in relation to universal values such as human rights.

An unexpected dissenter of this postmodern turn is V.S. Naipaul, the Trinidadian writer and literature Nobel prize winner, who himself is a traveler between the cultures of his birth place Trinidad, his Indian heritage and his self-chosen home of England. In a speech given at the Manhattan Institute of New York (1992), he pleads for the ideals of a ‘universal civilization’, which he describes as

“(…) the beauty of the idea of the pursuit of happiness. Familiar words, easy to take for granted; easy to misconstrue. This idea of the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the civilization to so many outside it or on its periphery (…) I don’t imagine my father’s parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But is it known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.”

For Naipaul, this ideal could not be found within the cultural confinements of his birth place Trinidad, but only in the Great Britain – and particularly London – of his time. Sure enough, Naipaul mocks the flawed self-conception of the people in the Trinidad of his childhood with a tenderness and empathy that at once forgives and understands them for who they are – yet he is certain that as a writer, he could have only flourished in the societies of Western modernity.

Naipaul’s unusual biography of arriving in 1950s England as a dark-skinned young man from a small postcolonial Caribbean island would not surprise us that much anymore today. In our current hypermobile world people travel and immigrate – whether that is due to economic or political pressures or due to the privilege of socio-economic resources – from non-Western peripheries to the centers of the Western world all the time. So many unforeseeable identity cloaks will be put on within a lifetime. It gets increasingly more difficult to draw clear lines between Western and non-Western narrations of ourselves and within self-conceptions at the brain level. I and other people who are moving along Columbia University’s campus and in the streets of New York are witnesses of this new experience of carrying multiple cultural identities within one brain.

Naipaul’s position has been rightly attacked for many reasons (I cannot help admiring him for doing such an excellent job at being loathed though – it would be much easier to make himself being loved by the postmodern crowd): the arrogance and arbitrariness of his cultural judgments, his limited and unfair depiction of pre-modern and non-Western societies, his haughtiness, his glorification and misconstruction of modernity and Western ideals. And yet, when he speaks of the ‘universal civilization’ in this still crisp talk in New York over 20 years ago, I knew immediately and exactly what he was referring to. It is this experience that I encounter on Columbia campus and many places within New York – but sadly not in my twin homeland, my Zwillingsheimatland, Germany, where I am always the perpetual foreigner to too many Germans – this experience of partaking in what feels like a universal way of being human together, which becomes the basis of a precious sense of freedom. I would counter Naipaul however that this freedom is not necessarily particular to a specific culture but can blossom wherever people find ways within their culture to humanize the foreign Other.

The German original of this blog post can be found here at the Hannover Philosophy Institute’s blog.


Ames, D.L. & Fiske, S. (2010) Cultural Neuroscience. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 13 (2), 72-82.

Kelley, W.M., Macrae, C.N., Wyland, C.L., Caglar, S., Inati, S.&Heatherton, T.F. (2002). Finding the Self? An event-related fMRI study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14 (5), 785-794.

Killen, M., McGlothlin, H., Lee-Kim, J. (2002) Between individuals and culture: individuals’ evaluations of exclusion from social groups, in: Between Culture and Biology (eds. Keller et al.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Markus, H.R. & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98 (2), 224-253.

Mill, J.S. (1993) On Liberty, London: Orion.

Naipaul, V.S. (2002) Postscript: Our universal civilization, in: V.S. Naipaul, The Writer and the World, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Wu, Y., Wang, C., He, X., Mao, L. & Zhang, L. (2010) Religious beliefs influence neural substrates of self-reflection in Tibetans. Social and Cognitive Affective Neuroscience, 5 (2-3), 324-331.

Zhang, L., Zhou, T., Zhang, J., Liu, Z., Fan, J. & Zhu, Y. (2006). In search of the Chinese self: An fMRI study. Science in China Series C: Life Sciences, 49 (1), 89-96.

Zhu, Y., Zhang, L., Fan, J. & Han, S. (2007). Neural basis of cultural influence on self-representation. Neuroimage, 34 (3), 1310-1316.