Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Game: Zevenaar

Apologies for the lack of posting. The past couple of weeks have been very full.

First: shoutout to my sister for graduating college. I don't post a lot about family here but my sister is one of the most ambitious and hard-working people I know, and she's going to make a top-notch surgeon one day. Although I can't take any credit for her success, I am damn proud of all that she's done.

Second: Lieutenant Sarcasm came to visit Berlin and we attempted to hit many highlights of the city, which is a bit difficult because there's just so much stuff that's all spread around geographically. Then last week I was traveling from Wednesday to Sunday: first a trip to the Rhine-Ruhr region (Ruhrgebiet) and then a weekend in Paris.

Third: The end of the quarter is coming up so there's a lot of work to catch up on and final assignments and exams for which to prepare--so today, taking it a bit easier with a game.

The game is a poem. For the form we will be taking the Zevenaar, which is a seven-line form about which you can read more here. That page is in German, so as a further explanation:

1 - setting: time and place
2 - the plot, using first person
3 - question or comparison
4 - a detail
5 - go deeper into the detail
6 - line 1
7 - line 2

For a topic, pick your favorite photo you've taken in the past two weeks. Since I've been taking a whole lot more photos than usual, and like different ones for different reasons, I will add the additional optional constraint of having the photo match the song I'm currently listening to.

Go forth!


My attempt below. I'm going to try to write in German first.



Blue Sky Thinking - Monuments

An einem grauen Tag im industriellen Herz Deutschlands
Bekomme ich das Blutgeld
Schweigen ist wie Schwerkraft
Die Wolken blockieren Sonne und Schall
Als die Maschinen drehen sich um und immer um
An einem grauen Tag im industriellen Herz Deutschlands
Bekomme ich das Blutgeld

On a gray day in the industrial heart of Germany
I receive blood money
Silence is like gravity
The clouds block sun and sound
As the machines turn and turn about
On a gray day in the industrial heart of Germany
I receive blood money

...this is somewhat grim. I'm going to try again.



Regenbogen - Wincent Weiss

Frühling in Paris
Ich denke immer an dich
Was bedeutet dieses Wort, Liebe?
Ein Blick entlang die Straße--brauche ich nur Perspektive?
Aber alles kommt wieder zurück zu dir, obwohl ich noch nicht kann
Frühling in Paris
Ich denke immer noch an dich

Paris in the spring
I am always thinking of you
What does this word mean, love?
A glance along the street--do I just need perspective?
But everything comes back to you, although I cannot yet
Paris in the spring
I am still thinking of you

...don't read too much into it.


If you do this, I'd love to see it. Enjoy.


We wrote some Zevenaars in German class which I quite liked. I've misplaced the original paper, so here are paraphrased translations:

In a small city in the west of Poland
I saw the word "Amadeus"
What does that mean today?
Classical music is my favorite kind
The instruments sing softly through time
In a small city in the west of Poland
I saw the word "Amadeus"

This was a collaborative one--we each wrote a line and then passed it along.

Last year under a blue sky
I mowed the grass
But why should I do this?
Every day, every month it will grow back
Everything must be put in order once again
Today under a blue sky
I mow the grass

This was mine (inspired by an ad in the station for a lawn mower). Actually quite disappointed to lose the original, because I think the original phrasing flowed better.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Ascension Weekend

I haven't really posted any photos (whether to here or to other social media). We had a four-day weekend last Thursday to Sunday, with glorious weather. Here are some highlights:

Thursday 05 May - Museuminsel

My favorite Romans at the Altes Museum:

I spent a solid twenty minutes cycling among these pieces. What a strange sense of historical vertigo to read the words “Kaiser Augustus”–because Kaiser comes from Caesar, a title that only came to be adopted as a signifier of power because of everything Augustus did to win and consolidate both power and auctoritas during his lifetime. Festina lente, and like a tectonic plate, you will move the earth.

Monk by the Sea - Caspar David Friedrich
Frederick the Great Flute Concert at Sanssouci
Some amazing pieces from the Alte Nationalgalerie. Caspar David Friedrich's art makes me feel as though time is long enough that we can breathe. When I saw the Flute Concert through the hall I may or may not have gasped out loud and rushed to get a closer look at it. The painting was done well after FtG's time, and the audience in the painting is not actually that attentive to their King. Friedrich the Great may be becoming one of my Mana Personalities. Certainly I want to write a short story about him.

// I also went through the Neues Museum and the Pergamon Museum, but the pictures don't seem to want to upload.

Friday 06 May - Grunewald

The weather was too good to stay inside another day. Hence going for long walks in Grunewald.
Teufelsberg reminded me of Spirited Away. One could set a good story here.

Lake in Grunewald
Not shown: many adorable dogs splashing around in the water.

Saturday 07 May - Potsdam

We went to Potsdam for the field trip "class" near the beginning of the quarter but didn't really see any of it. This time, I still didn't see much beyond Sanssouci, but it was glorious.
Apparently the University of Potsdam has administrative offices in the buildings to the left. Imagine!

Fake Ruins built for FtG
Fake ruins. Fake ruins?! Friedrich the Great had these built on the hill across from the main entrance of Sanssouci, presumably to remind him of the transience of empires. The greater effect may have been to show other people that he was thinking of such things. The more I think about it, the less sense it makes. Friedrich was a complex person, with a very particular sense of humor which I am sure confused even other Prussians.

Sunday 08 May - a park

Not sure exactly where I wound up, since I had dinner near the Botanischer Garten S-Bahn stop and then took a long walk. Looking at Google Maps this was probably Bäkepark. Whatever it was, I saw foxes.


In other news:
-Lieutenant Sarcasm is visiting me!
-my sister is graduating college!
-next week I'll be out of Berlin for an extended period of time again, from 18 May to 22 May. I only have a month left in Berlin--where did the time go?

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Den ersten Mai

Here's the promised post about the first of May, or International Workers' Day. As a brief not before launching into the topic, though, I find it terrifying that Donald Trump as good as has the Republican nomination.

Onto our regularly scheduled programming. The First of May was first established as a celebration by the Second International, an organization of socialist groups, to honor the Haymarket demonstration in Chicago 1886. Socialist, communist, and anarchist groups all demonstrate on the first of May. In Bertolt Brecht's play Die Mutter, a group of revolutionary workers stage a protest on 1. Mai to ask for better wages, shorter hours, etc., and are shot at, which leads to the main character Pelagea Wlassowa's political awakening.

I've written about Die Mutter and about 1. Mai in two separate essays already, but separately and in German, and I think there are still thoughts I have about it that may be easier to formulate in meiner Muttersprache. Some things to consider: when I asked my host mom about her experiences of 1. Mai, she said that one time she and my host dad found themselves in the middle of a black block of student protesters who were confronting the police. But, according to her, the situation was not actually dangerous. Furthermore, the student protests were not coordinated with those of the workers, because the workers wanted better living and working conditions while the students were pushing Marxist ideals.

When we watched Die Mutter, which Brecht intended as a Communist "teaching play" (Lehrstück), I noticed a tiny framed picture of Stalin in the corner of the stage. In the production they ended up doing absolutely nothing with it. But it was there, and even if it hadn't been there, a German theater--in the western part of the city, no less--putting on a production of a Communist play would be aware of the shadow that Communism has cast, historically.

One of the songs in the Brecht play, das "Lied vom Flicken und vom Rock," criticizes the labor unions and more moderate protesters for asking for just "patches" (Flicken) instead of "the whole garment" (Rock). The choir says--"We don't need just work positions, we need the whole factory, the coal and the ore and the power in the state. That is what we need--but what are you offering us?"

The play didn't do just Die Mutter, but rather had interspersions of extratextual content. One was a monologue by a character dressed in a golden cape, representing Capitalism. In his monologue, he criticized the way that many Western commentators refer to the refugees as a "flood" rather than seeing them as individuals, the way that capitalism sees people. One sentence later he referred to refugees drowning in the Mediterranean as making an unsolicited application (eine Initiativbewerbung).

That line stuck in my head. I am pro-capitalism, because I have been raised in competitive, individualistic, consumerist American culture on the myth that the world is a meritocracy. Communism, even in its theoretical form, does not pass the compatibility test with my intuition of human nature (which, of course, is strongly influenced by my culture). But even so--capitalism has done evil in the world as well. I don't think the whole philosophy is rotten, but reducing people to their economic value throws aside some very important questions about quality of life, justice, freedom.

I lack the social science background and the life experience to say anything substantive about what system of societal organization does the most to protect those who have the least. I know that I have a tremendous amount of social, economic, and educational privilege, and I am slowly becoming aware of how that plays out. While I am here to enrich my mind and enjoy myself, there are others in Berlin who are here fleeing war, fleeing violence, fleeing the violence of poverty. I have an address, a mail box, enough to eat and drink, heating, clean water. The basic necessities are, I believe, more or less provided in many refugee camps (zB at Tempelhof), but I also have a sense of security that cannot be taken for granted.

Some of the 1. Mai demonstrations were in solidarity with refugees. Some of the summer housing accommodations I'm looking into say "refugees welcome."

What do people really want, and what can we do to help them get it? The easiest way to answer the first is to ask.

I don't believe that what people want is a horde of populist demagogues who preach intolerance and insularity. But if that's what we're getting, what does it mean? For all that it crashed and burned, Communism inspired and mobilized a significant portion of the population in the late 19th century and early 20th century to take actions that actually did improve their lives. It called on people to think beyond national boundaries and see themselves as having a fight in common with workers in other countries. It asked for empathy.

Ideals are not enough to create something workable (see the students imposing their ideology on workers, see the tiny picture of Stalin on the side). But ideals, ideas, give people something to rally around, and the ones that are gaining the most traction now are deeply, deeply troubling.

Sunday, May 1, 2016


Dance of the Knights - Prokofiev - from Romeo and Juliet


This will be a brief post; I am working on a longer one about the first of May because a lot of thoughts about workers and solidarity and responsibility swirling around. Bits and pieces of those thoughts are going to various essays for various classes, but I need a coherent place to think it through, which means I have to clear my mental cache of unrelated content.

Last Thursday we went to see Romeo und Julia at the Deutsche Oper. Beautiful production, amazingly talented dancers, and incredible music. The above is my favorite song from the production, probably in part because it was also the only one I had heard before but also because of the bassline and because the aggressive brass part returned in other sections to herald the arrival of Tybalt Capulet, the Prince of Cats and my favorite character from Romeo and Juliet.

I have written at various points about identifying strongly with figures from history or literature. My latest reminder of how great I think Tybalt is brought to light a pattern: I identify with rivals.

Tybalt from the 1968 film
...and from the 1996 film

Tybalt Capulet, the aggressive guy who pretty much single-handedly drives the spate of deaths in the second half of the play. Cannot even relax at a party and is told by his uncle, who perpetuates the Capulet-Montague feud, to chill out. Frequently cast to look devilish. A talented swordsman. "Peace? I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee."

Turnus, King of the Rutuli, the aggressive guy who is responsible for the death of many Trojans and presents the main resistance to Aeneas. A powerful warrior, much beloved by his troops. I have written a poem about him.

Laertes, son of Polonius and brother of Ophelia, the aggressive guy who forces Claudius to take action and whose duel with Hamlet is responsible for the spate of deaths in the last act of the play. I have written about him already too.

The trend is aggression and action in defense of something--family honor, land and love. These guys drive the conflict of the stories in which they take part, and are not afraid to fight for what is important to them. They are honorable to a fault--that is, their sense of honor pushes them to confront people violently.

There are rivals with whom I do not identify. Hector (Iliad), for example; Luke Castellan and Octavian* (Percy Jackson); Draco Malfoy (Harry Potter). In these cases the heroes (Patroklos, Reyna, Harry) are more compelling. 

*It kills me that the character named Octavian is the villain because, as I am constantly prattling on about, the real Octavian (Augustus) is my idol and I want to be like him.

These rivals, the ones that don't resonate, are missing...something. Hector is too happy with his family life; the Percy Jackson villains and Malfoy are too sneaky and, in any case, are not the main opponent but rather servants to a larger evil. These are rivals that the hero outgrows.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Politics and History in Budapest

Monument and Counter-Monument
Budapest, Hungary

It's been a busy couple of weeks since my last post. Since Friday 15 April I've spent less than half my time in Berlin, and being home now is giving me a much-needed chance to catch up and put these thoughts in order.

So what have I been doing? I spent a day in Hamburg, exploring the city and having a 30-minute interview. Thoughts this brings up: educational privilege, connections, the difference between Berlin and Hamburg (and how Hamburg feels much older and more secure). This past weekend I was in Sweden visiting Lieutenant Sarcasm. Thoughts this brings up: civilization, desire to fulfill responsibilities vs. ability to do so, the concept of being able to have a relatively un-angst-filled relationship to the past.

Most importantly for this post and my political awakening, though, were the roughly 3 days the entire Berlin group spent in Budapest from Sunday to Wednesday last week. We met various people, from professors and opposition NGOs to Hungarian students and members of an institute that supports the Orban administration.

I went in knowing very little about Hungary besides that the country is shutting its borders to refugees. Our trip organizer sent us several links to help give us some background. There's a definite bias to these materials:

I share this bias, and living now in Germany in a very liberal homestay family as a college student from one of the most liberal states in the USA, it's very simple and easy for me to listen to critics of the Orban government and agree. The countries of the EU must act together to meet a great humanitarian need. Of course! Refugees should be welcomed and given a chance to start a new life away from danger. Of course! However, with the rise of the National Front in France and the AfD in Germany and the Free Party in Austria and the continued popularity of the Orban regime, it is clear that messages running counter to those which I find self-evident are in fact resonating with large groups of people. Therefore, I was most interested in hearing what the Hungarian students and what the Orban supporters had to say.

The Hungarian students tended to be liberal-minded and much more politically aware and sophisticated than us, or so it seemed to me. The one sitting at my table at dinner was actually just in her last year of high school, but had already studied a semester abroad in Vienna and knew four languages (Hungarian, English, German, and Italian; may also have had a little instruction in French). Yet even these students' mindsets show some of the levers that Orban and people like him (nationalists, conservatives) are pulling. These students were very, very proud of being Hungarian in both blood and nationality. Our student, an open and friendly girl with lots of suggestions for where to go and what to do, asked me upon hearing me say that I was American, "but what about your blood?" Later in the evening, when asked a direct question about politics, she said that she saw the two trends in the EU as the worrying rise of right-wing extremism--and in opposition, homogenization.

As a first-generation Chinese-American kid, I've always had to deal with the bullshit idea that your ethnicity and your nationality must be the same. It is an idea which I have only ever seen paired with racism--maybe not open and hostile racism, but racism from even well-meaning folks is harmful. In the current political climate the hostile kind is growing increasingly likely.

Such an attitude was, in fact, taken up by the Orban supporters we heard from. One speaker on the "migrant crisis" said that integration and immigration are issues that are better taken up by the "Germans, who are more used to mixing with Asians and Muslims" [sic] (yes, actually [sic]). One of our group questioned him on this point, asking if he really had such little faith in the Hungarian people to welcome people who are not ethnically Hungarian. Admittedly, Hungary is pretty ethnically homogeneous--but this guy taking it as a given that Hungarians could not integrate with people who are different.

This leads to a question of leadership. What does a leader do, if not unite people behind a vision? Sometimes that vision is grotesque--Hitler is the obvious example, but pick any of the recent politicians who spew hate and intolerance--but it does not have to be. Yet something that the critics we heard from all said was that the current wave of right-wing extremism has been exacerbated by the failure of the political left to offer a compelling competing vision. Austria's traditional centrist parties, which have ruled either separately or in coalition since the end of WWII, aren't even going to make it to the second round of presidential elections. Where is the center, where is the left?

A lot of people are flocking to these right-wing parties and movements because of dissatisfaction with the existing order. So saith this TU-Dresden survey of Pegida participants (link is in German but mostly graphs, so only a few words to translate). If these people are just out-and-out bigots, then (in my mind) catering to them is a step that only the craven would resort to, but if they are normal people whose economic and social fears are being manipulated into hatred, who could be convinced to see opportunities where now there is only uncertainty--what have the ruling parties of the past been doing?

Normatively, people don't need a politician or TV personality or anyone else to tell them what or how to think. But our sense of what is right is socially influenced, and people in positions of power have a responsibility to use their greater/broader access to information in order to present interpretations of reality that are truthful and that move us forward.

(There's a lot more ideology in the previous paragraph than I usually put in, but since I'm just beginning to form my political consciousness I'm going to leave it as is for now. It will get stress-tested.)

To return to Budapest: the same guy talking about the "migrant crisis" (I use quotes because this is how he referred to it; this is how the government is framing it, as a "migrant" crisis and not as a "refugee crisis") spoke of the need to distinguish between asylum policy and immigration policy. Immigration policy meaning "who we decide to live with" [sic] and asylum policy meaning how to help people fleeing violence. His answer to the first was vague, aside from not wanting to let Asians and Muslims into Hungary. His answer to the second was a little more concrete but seemed to boil down to: lob money over the fence to Turkey and let them deal with the problem of housing and clothing and feeding thousands upon thousands of people. And maybe to have the EU take a more active role in foreign affairs in order to "reduce the numbers, reduce the excess" [sic].

The week before the Budapest trip, in my theater class we watched a production of the play FEAR. (A brief intro in English here.) It is about the current rise of conservative national extremism in Germany, and is full of the plea/protest/vow of "never again." The shadow of National Socialism lies heavy on Germany, and in Berlin especially. The theme of Vergangenheitsbewaltigung is in the background of the current discussions. Germany, as the main perpetrator in WWII, has not had the option of turning away from the past.

Not so in Hungary. The current regime is eager to deny Hungary's participation in fascism. The picture at the top of this post is of a monument the Orban regime put up, showing Hungary being attacked by the eagle of the Third Reich*, along with the counter-monument--mementos belonging to or symbolizing those who were persecuted--put up by Hungarian citizens angry at this revisionism. The House of Terror, a museum put up by the current regime which explains fascist and communist rule in Hungary from the latter years of WWII to the fall of the Iron Curtain, takes a similar line.

*Note on the anachronism/mixing of symbols: one of our later speakers, a professor of politics with some expertise in history, explained to us that many times in its history, Hungary has been a conquered or subjugated nation--under the Ottomans, the Habsburgs, the Soviets. The conflation of the Habsburg Empire with the German Third Reich is, presumably, meant to appeal to this historical "underdog" narrative. The current regime is also trying to frame the European Union as another such conqueror.

As a kid born in the late 90s, it's a shock to think about how recently the Cold War ended. It's hard to see oneself as part of a historical trajectory. Part of this may be because my perspective is warped by the US's selective, oftentimes revisionist, certainly inadequate history education. Part of it may be because I'm first-generation, and feel no real connection to my ethnic heritage because I haven't grown up living or at least hearing about it and feel only a tenuous connection to my national heritage because is the history of the US as we're taught it really a history about/for people who are like me? Part of it may just be because, growing up in the US, it is easier to overlook the trauma of past conflicts because our cities haven't been bombed and invaded and burnt down in the past century. Since coming here, I've had a lot of moments of historical vertigo--at how long the past is--and anti-vertigo--at how near the past is. I am three degrees of separation (meaning, I know someone who knows someone who knew/met) away from both Martin Niemoller and Adolf Hitler.

Maybe the nearness of history has made such a large impression on me precisely because it's different from what I'm used to. But from my perspective, it seems impossible how easily these "civilized" nations, with such educated and clever and sophisticated citizens, fall back into the patterns of nationalist thought that swallowed millions of lives just a century ago. I have no doubt that these people are on the wrong side of history. But what consolation is that in the present?