Liya Yu — Writing. Neuropolitics. Activism.

Tagneuroscience

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.

What were the recent Hong Kong protests about?

When I left Germany – or to be more precise, when I left my German cultural bubble in Beijing for my life’s second journey to the Western world, I was idealistic, emotionally vulnerable, naïve and all of those things that one is at age 19. One thing, however, I was not: afraid of authority and superiors. In fact, my German education had instilled in me a natural suspicion of authority figures in any political and institutional setting and a subsequent duty to disobey them if necessary.

The final high school degree, the Abitur, is also referred to as the Reifeprüfung, which literally means a ‘test of maturity’ (I know – so serious, so German). The speeches given at the degree ceremonies – by both authority figures such as principals and teachers, as well as the students themselves – commonly center around the question whether the freshly conferred Abitur students have attained true maturity at the end of their educational journey: Are they critical members of society? Can they show civil courage when they see other people’s rights violated? And most important, can they respectfully stand up to authority and those in power? What is remarkable is that these questions are not just asked by students but by the authority figures themselves. My teachers and principal seemed to feel that they had done a good job if they had raised students that would be able to rebel against them.

I am thinking again about the question of authority and youth in the context of the recent Hong Kong democracy protests. The protests, which at their peak reached participation levels of 100,000 people, were marked by their peaceful, highly self-disciplined and ordered nature. Most of all, what surprised Hong Kong pro-democracy activists and outside observers alike was the overwhelming participation of young people, such as university and high school students. Without them, the protests would not have gained momentum and been sustained. The images of tear gas being sprayed into the eyes of Hong Kong’s students led to a huge outcry within the general population and drove more people into the streets. One of the main protest ‘leaders’, Joshua Wong, only just turned 18 this week and was a high school student until the summer.

Journalists such as Martin Jacques tried to dismiss the genuineness of the protesters’ demands for democratic elections and for freedom from Mainland Chinese control by suggesting that the underlying reason of the protests were not so much political, but stemming from an internal identity crisis, which in turn were fueled by arrogance and hubris towards China. Jacques is certainly not entirely wrong in observing that that a lot of Hongkongers perceive Mainland Chinese as poor and inferior, and that they identify more with a Western identity, even though many cultural aspects of life remain permeated by East Asian norms and aesthetics.

A study on global stereotyping shows that Hongkongers view Filipino maids and Mainland Chinese in terms of disgust (Cuddy, Fiske et al. 2009), the lowest possible category when it comes to stereotyping. We perceive people towards whom we feel disgust as possessing minimum human warmth and intellectual competence (Fiske et al. 2002, in a groundbreaking study on the mixed nature of stereotypes). Research in social neuroscience went further and showed that feeling disgust towards someone can disable core social brain functions such as being able to ‘mentalize’ how someone else feels – in the worst possible scenario, this can lead to dehumanization and treating this person as less-than-human (Harris and Fiske 2006). (Incidentally, in the US, people who fall into the disgust group are welfare recipients and the homeless. Hispanics, Muslims and Blacks are at the threshold.)

And yet, I don’t agree with Jacques on what fuelled the protests. When I was in Hong Kong last year to give a talk at Hong Kong’s City University, I asked the audience about their Hong Kong identity. I had discussed this question with some of the people in the audience already back in New York, when they had visited the States to witness the US presidential elections in 2012 with the New Youth Forum group, a civil society group organized by young Hong Kong citizens. The young Hongkongers in the audience said they felt distinctively ‘Hongkongnese’, but an unsure and awkward silence followed my question of what exactly this meant to them. I believe that the insecurity behind the silence was genuine and not primarily driven by disgust towards Mainland China. Similarly, during the protests this year, slogans and demands were not dominated by stereotypical disgust towards a backward China, but a sincere political voice trying to find its democratic identity.

Journalists like Jacques who try to portray the protests as an unpolitical identity crisis hidden under the disguise of democratic demands not only miss the birth of a new democratic identity that the young people of Hong Kong try to carve out of the hitherto confused silence that I met last year, but most important, he misses the emergence of a crucial dynamic that is the pillar of any well-functioning democracy: the relationship between a country’s youth with authority.

Germany arrived at its commendable cultivation of a critical relationship between youth and authority via a painful path (alas, as with pretty much anything else in Germany history and culture – maybe with the exception of music). The unconditional worship of Hitler and the Nazi regime by a vast majority of Germans, as well as the fanatic reverence of political and militaristic hierarchies by masses of young people during those dark years left a deep mark on Germany’s educational conscience. However, it was not until the 68’ student revolution (I accidentally stumbled across Rudi Dutschke’s grave in the St. Annen Kirchhof in Berlin Dahlem this year) and the efforts of that generation to confront the moral abyss that their parents and grandparents had left behind that teachers and authority figures adopted this new educational and political ideal, of which I am a product.

The Hong Kong protests are dwindling down and we are left to wonder what is left behind. If anything, for a young generation of Hongkongers, it’s walking out of the silence of a complex identity crisis into the hum of political contestation of their uncertain future.

References

Cuddy, A. et al. (2009). Stereotype content model across cultures: towards universal similarities and some differences. British Journal of Social Psychology, 48, 1-33.

Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A., Glick, P., & Xu, J. (2002). A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 6, 878–902.

Harris, L. T., & Fiske, S. T. (2006). Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuro-imaging responses to extreme outgroups. Psychological Science, 17, 847-853.