Liya Yu — Writing. Neuropolitics. Activism.

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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.

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.

References

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.