Liya Yu — Writing. Neuropolitics. Activism.

TagChinese poetry

And all that’s left of me is for you

Where have I been?

A flashback from last summer comes to me. I am standing at a small window on the 15th floor of a modern hospital building in Taipei. The sweet smell of yeast wafts through the corridor. Outside the small window, the magnificent 七星山 Seven Star Mountains stretch out in front of me like a sleepy giant in the dusk. I am visiting the ‘Brain and Mind lab’ of cultural neuroscientist Joshua Goh, whose research on the differences of perception and decision-making between East Asians and Westerners, and on cultural distinctions within the aging brain, I have discussed in previous blog posts.

The smell of yeast, Joshua explains, comes from a colleague’s lab, from feeding fruit flies. Joshua walks through the corridor with swift, bouncing steps. His eyes are alert and restless. You would not be able to tell from his humble demeanor that he is currently directing one of most challenging scientific projects in East Asia: creating the first biomedically comprehensive database of the aging East Asian population (starting with Taiwan) and devising meaningful experiments based on the collected data. We sit in his sparsely decorated office, outside of his window is a bustling, tree-lined street filled with food vendors selling all kinds of delicacies. We talk about how to incorporate the findings of cultural neuroscience into the Western-biased, rational-choice dominated social science discourse; we talk about the future of Taiwan after the upcoming elections and its relationship with Mainland China, about the identity dilemmas faced by both young Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese visiting students on National Taiwan University’s campus – what does it mean to be Chinese for both of them?

From time to time, our conversation is interrupted by a lengthy announcement from a loudspeaker from the ceiling; they are installed throughout the university including in private offices, reminding us that perhaps Taiwan’s 20th-century authoritarian past has in many ways not been shaken off completely yet. As I leave Joshua’s office, I stop briefly at the small window again, sensing the contours of the mountain in the darkened sky, and behind that, I imagine the shore and the strip of the ocean that separates Taiwan and the Mainland, and with it the conflicted pangs of longing and anxiety for each other that still grip people on both sides of sea. I remember my friend from Fujian, the coastal province that is closest to Taiwan and from which many ethnic Mainland Chinese Taiwaners originate, who told me how he used to look on to the horizon from his side of the sea as a teenager, imagining the mighty island of Taiwan with great curiosity as an alternative idea of his self.

I have come to develop a tremendous admiration for Taiwanese society during my extended stay there, as a place where the urban Taiwanese have a double-confidence about their Western, Japanese-influenced (Taiwan was for many years a Japanese colony) Chinese identity that I have not encountered anywhere else in East Asia, where young and old Taiwanese browse effortlessly through Chinese, English and Japanese books in their ridiculously well-stocked and culturally comprehensive ‘Eslite’ bookstores; where in one of the many winding small city alleys you can find a haphazardly set up street eatery selling authentic Italian pasta and house-made ravioli, and right next to it, an eatery that offers hand-pulled Chinese noodles and steamed dumplings. A place where public transport supersedes Germany in its accessibility and efficiency, where the constitution lays down that 15% of the national government’s budget has to be used for education and culture, and where one can arguably find one of the highest levels of freedom of religion in the world (even the English Anglican Church has made it there somehow).

Where have I been?

Another flashback from the summer comes to my mind. I am sitting on a wobbly plastic stool in the living room of an apartment somewhere in the suburbs of Guangzhou, one of the largest cities in Southern China, with a Chinese-edition Bible in my lap. I am looking straight into the face of a young Chinese woman with a delicate, sensitive face. She talks about Jesus and brotherly love, and how God has changed her life. She opens the Bible with a tenderness as if she were caressing a small animal. She begins to read passages out of the Old Testament, closing her eyes mid-sentence. Sweat pearls begin to form on her forehead. Then, suddenly, she stares at me.

“Without the words of the Bible in my life, I couldn’t stay sane. There is so much pressure in Chinese society today. There is nowhere to talk about it. Everyone always has an excuse for all the pain. You have to wait, my teacher told me, then you’ll see where China’s path is leading. But I am hurting now. The Bible and Jesus give me the words to describe my pain. They make me feel that I can bear my life.”

Others in this small, secret Evangelical house church congregation murmur “Amen” in response. I am reminded of the poignant scene in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, where the protagonist’s son, Nwoye, describes the motivation behind his conversion to Christianity. It is the empathetic Christian language of pain and suffering that draws the young boy away from his father’s tradition, which he experiences as too brutal, too raw to fit his sensitive temperament and his longing for understanding what this world has done to him.

China, of course, has a long tradition of poetry that captures individual suffering caused by the ruling government, social hierarchies and natural disasters. China’s language of individual suffering, you could say, is one of the richest and certainly one of the oldest in the history of world literature, starting with the Book of Songs and reaching its pinnacle with poets such as Li Bai and Du Fu. Yet this young Guangzhou woman cannot take solace in it – the effects of the brutalized, dehumanizing version of capitalism that reigns in China in its mega cities and the industrialized countryside, paired with China’s recent political past, are too overwhelming to capture in a language that this young woman could make her own.

I am in China on a trip to investigate the explosive growth of Christianity, both state-sanctioned and most of all secretive, which is potentially turning China into the largest Christian nation by 2030. In the adjacent room, a congregation member is teaching a children’s Bible class to a group of giggling, restless children who are glimpsing out of the window, fantasizing about playing games under the blossoming pink branches of the Kapok trees on the street, instead of reciting passages about Jesus.

Where have I been?

I am sitting in a wood-paneled seminar room in Columbia University, still stuffy from the group before us, with a group of extraordinary undergraduate students, from Native American, Latina, Black, Asian and low-income backgrounds. We are trying to write a coherent manifesto based on the ongoing, much misunderstood student diversity movement (more details in a future post) currently gripping US campuses nation-wide.

What kind of humanity do we envisage on campus? How do we want to feel humanized and included by the ideologies, world views and actual people who teach them? How can low-income students balance krass choices between a daily meal, rent costs, and tuition fees? How can we stop living in double realities? How can campuses begin to represent the enormous demographic changes the US and much of the Western world are experiencing, where more and more people have multilingual, hypermobile and diverse backgrounds? How can we create a new language for this generation, with which it can talk about this experience?

I look at these students, some of them whom I’ve taught over the years, and feel an incredible tenderness and pride. Their resilience, humor and vulnerability moves me deeply. I was by far not as articulate and mature about my identity dilemmas at their age.

Where have I been?

A flashback from the fall. I am in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. A blueish hue emanates from the mountain ridges on some days. This is where the anti-slavery Abolitionists hid away in 1859, waiting for the next fight in the valley.

I am sitting in a room in an old stone-brick house that overlooks the mountain tops and some pine trees. I am writing a feverish letter to my Zwillingsheimatland, my twin homeland, Germany. I am trying to remind Germany in the current refugee crisis that amongst the fear-mongering, this does not have to mean the end of ‘European identity’, on the contrary, it might signal a new beginning. Using the example of my own family and myself, I try to tell my homeland that immigrants can actually end up contributing to their host country in economic, cultural and human ways. I point out the sociopolitical and economic self-confidence Germany has gained in the post-War years and how it should feed from this now in a time of anxiety fueled on by a growing extreme Right, and that a liberal democracy, unlike totalitarian society, can choose to face the future with confident uncertainty.

The letter could have been written to an enraging lover, an estranged parent, a long-lost friend – such is the intensity of my scribbling that I feel dizzy and nauseous after I finish it.

Where have I been?

I am at home, with my real lover and our very young child. I am lying on the floor, unable to move due to sheer exhaustion from the sleepless nights tending to this little human animal who does not know the sleeping and waking hours of the civilized world. I thought I knew what tiredness and despair meant, but really I didn’t.

I feel such a strong universal sympathy and companionship with all parents of this world, and yet never have I felt so isolated and alone. I have the reached the limits of what my body can do but my child is relentless in its need for physical proximity, for care. There comes a point where every parent has been – you float above your body, you could be in another world, you want this pain to end. You loose a sense of who you are, of who you might still be.

That’s where I’ve been. In all of these places where one feels confused and yet strangely complete. I am still full of rage and tenderness towards this world, and I made it back to this blog from there, with more stories to be told.

And all that’s left of me, dear reader, is for you.

Nomadic minds, music and concert halls

In our times, concert halls for classical music are strange places. Why do we still frequent them if we could listen to the same piece, in a more superior sound-quality recording, at home? I know, you could potentially say the same for pop concerts. But there, the focus is decidedly on the performing star, whereas in classical music concerts, people at least pretend to be there mainly for the music itself (in New York, there are of course those Upper East Side ladies that come to check out whether Anne-Sophie Mutter looks as stunning in person in her Dior gowns as she does in the pictures – but that’s New York for you).

I was confronted again with this question last week when I went to my first concert at the Lincoln Center since I had returned to New York. I hadn’t been to many concerts in Europe this year and was thirsty for music – that day, they played Mahler’s tortured First Symphony – and drank up every note with my eyes closed. I still couldn’t help noticing the anthropological differences in concert behavior of the New York crowd to Berlin though (or indeed, Beijing, but that’s for another post), not least because New Yorkers are fantastically noisy.

Our grand German writer on Kultur, Thomas Mann, claimed that the Western theatre and concert hall manners are a secularized version of Christian church mass rituals: the performers stand on the sacred stage in the front, the audience is asked to be quiet and reverent, the performance is not to be interrupted by individual outbursts of emotion from the audience, and the at the beginning of the performance, a besinnlich, a kind of reflective and introspective silence is supposed to be taken up by each audience member. All of this is very hard for impatient, impulsive and constantly fiddling New Yorkers, but they really do try (during my visit though, they still couldn’t help clapping sporadically in between the movements).

Most of all, what I realized this time is that New Yorkers and possibly Americans in general, are nervous about their own cultural self-identity in concert halls. Actually, they are not just nervous, they are terrified. They know that they are ‘doing’ a cultural event right now, that this is Old Europe and they are supposed to know it, that there are social norms and rules of restraining one’s usual behavior in this setting, but at the same time, they cannot help feeling out of place in some profound way. Some will flick restlessly through the program notes and study the pages with the fundraising party photos that display botoxed Upper East Side ladies (there they are again!) sipping champagne a tad too long. Others will simply join the Platinum Circle with a hefty yearly donation that makes them feel like they own the place.

I don’t mean to be unkind here. There are also those who carry some of that nervousness to a level where they become open to the music in a naïve, sensual way, and of course, there are those who don’t experience that nervousness at all. I always feel more comfortable in New York concert halls than in Berlin or elsewhere in Germany – exactly because there is so much insecurity about Western identity hovering around, Americans don’t have a rigid conception of who should attend the concert with them. I don’t get strange looks with my Chinese appearance, or if I occasionally turn up in traditional hanfu clothing.

In Berlin, it’s another story. There, I am almost bound each time to get benevolently condescending comments and looks about my ‘Asian’ presence there. At a performance by the pianist Mitsuko Uchida, people will ask whether I am Japanese (despite the fact that Uchida grew up in Vienna with Japanese diplomat parents and speaks perfect Wienerisch), in a way that makes me feel as if I am a cultural tourist at this concert where usually only the ‘real’ Germans are allowed to go. Because I am not white, people will address me in English (from the ticket booth person to the person who seats me and my neighbor in the row) because they assume that the possibility of me living and having grown up in Germany and of me deciding to attend a concert with them and needing to hear this music just as much as they do is a sheer impossibility.

And yet, despite all the sensory and emotional distractions that I await me (and that I dread) each time I visit a concert hall, I keep going back. There is something about being physically present in the auditory range of the music that is deeply compelling, both intellectually and sensually. There is a communication that happens between the musicians and the audience that is hard to put into words. Indeed, Gao Can, a renowned young Chinese violinist and old family friend, told me that when he performed this year in the Berlin Philharmonic concert hall, he experienced an incredible kind of dialogue with the audience – they seemed to anticipate and understand each musical turn – that he had rarely encountered in other concert halls before. That’s Old Europe for you, too.

One could of course take a different approach to these distractions and like Sviatoslav Richter, one of the great pianist maestros of the 20th century, demand in his old age that performances should take place in small, darkened rooms where the audience could not see the performer’s facial expressions and movements. But I believe that being able to visualize the moving music through the bodily movements on stage gives us a particular cognitive satisfaction. Recent brain research on the neuroscience of music discovered that listening to (classical) music is vitally connected to mental state attribution of others and our social brain functions, and that the ability to recognize emotional intentions in music can potentially hold off dementia (there will be a dedicated post in the near future about the neuroscience of music, so I’ll stop here). In that light, being able to see who performs the music and how they perform it is an integral part of the social aspect of our musical experience.

When talking about the social aspect of music, I am reminded of the way how music was performed in Ancient China. Apart from the more formal performances in Confucian temples, where music was an integral part of the religious ceremonies, musical performances in Tang Dynasty China, for example, were highly intimate and informal occasions. A handful of scholars and poets would gather around the musician, get drunk on rice wine, philosophize, and write calligraphy and poetry on the spot. The famous Tang poets Li Bai and Bai Juyi, for example, discuss music in many of their poems – music serves as poetic inspiration, melancholic expression of exile and home, and has an undeniable sensual-erotic aspect as well.

This is why when I see someone playing the Ancient Guqin string instrument at ‘Chinese Culture Weeks’ in Western-style concert halls today, I always feel that the setting is way too vast and formal. This problem cannot be alleviated simply by moving the Guqin player to a smaller stage and room, because, if you remember Thomas Mann’s analysis, the dynamics there between the musician and the audience are meant to be more hierarchical and rigid. The Chinese Tang musician, however, has to be able to pick up their instrument, carry it for miles and up mountains, and set foot wherever the next occasion of a meeting between nomadic minds arises…