Friday, June 24, 2016

Spring 2016/Sophomore Year Reflections

In the previous post I already went through some of the questions that stood most prominently in my mind this past quarter, so I'm going to combine the Spring 2016 and Sophomore Year (2015-2016) posts. As I start writing the post I don't honestly know what the second part of that means, because the first two quarters the biggest influence on my life was the people I was living with in my dorm, many of whom I have not seen since the middle of March. Wow. Three months ago. Unglaublich.

This past quarter, because Berlin is Berlin, I've been thinking a lot about personal and collective responsibility and guilt. The need to remember the past, even or especially the parts that are shameful. The need to not get so lost in the past that the present does not get taken care of. I am ashamed that I only volunteered twice this past quarter, and only once pertaining to refugees, although I have known for months that the situation is severe (although the number pressure is down because of increased barriers to get to Germany). But I am glad that I did volunteer, if only once, because small actions are still actions. Going between the personal and the global perspective can lead to mental fatigue without anything actually having been done: either you are solely responsible for saving or damning the world, or nothing you do can ever matter. Both are false, of course, because of course one can always do more, but there are real, material differences between doing a little and doing a little more.

My university has been in the news a lot the past month because a student (who is in my year) raped an unconscious woman last year at a party and recently got a pathetic sentence of six months. People exist who support Donald Trump. People exist who look at the recent massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and see "radical Islam"--and the Senate has blocked attempts at passing gun control legislation. Is the news always getting worse or have I just started paying more attention?

Thinking about the trajectory of the whole year--there's nothing original or unique about this. Sheltered kid goes to college, starts thinking about things they have always taken for granted (who they are, that the world is safe and just), those things crack apart. Somehow in all of this an adult emerges who is capable of being an engaged and responsible and honorable citizen. But this is the first time I have undergone this, so it feels original and unique. As if no one else has struggled mightily to dig their head out of the sand; as if no one else has lain fevered upon a tile floor on another continent and realized that they are not only less of a woman than society would demand, but that they are in fact no woman at all; as if no one else has been unable to continue conversations because they could feel themselves getting angry past the point of reason and were shocked to realize that they cared so much about anything worthwhile; as if no one else has written their life, disguised in the struggles of a previous century; as if no one else has asked themselves the questions "who am I" and "who do I want to be" and been sorely disappointed that the answer to the former is so far behind the latter.

But this is what I've been thinking through and about this year. Gender is a big one. At the beginning of the year, at the sophomore welcome event for my dorm, I said that my pronouns were "she/her, but actually they/them would also be fine, if you want, sorry, I'll shut up now" and then struggled my way through a conversation with a then-not-close friend while wanting to crawl underneath the picnic table and disappear. There were days when the fact that some of my shirts button right over left bothered me, and there were days I wanted to tear out my internal organs because they are a betrayal of who I am. I am a lot more comfortable in my gender identity now--even if I don't necessarily have a specific word I'd use--even if the discomfort with my body and my socially perceived gender remains--I have not thought of myself as a freak in months. I still need to think about my relationship to masculinity and to femininity, because I have been guilty of internalized misogyny in the past and I don't want to throw women under the bus.

Race is always at least partially on my mind. The two quarters I was living on campus I had a lot of good conversations on how different POC groups can do right by one another. Since coming to Germany I haven't had such conversations, because the racial dynamics in such a homogeneous country are different and the problems are different in ways that I haven't thought about as thoroughly because I haven't been living with it as long. Talking about race with white people is still something I struggle with (and it seriously compromised one of my friendships for a while there in the winter); talking about race with other East Asians who don't think racism applies to them, who probably think the term "model minority" is a compliment, is in some ways even more challenging. Related because of the way religion is racialized: Islamophobia is something I've been thinking about more and more since living in Indonesia last summer. Mostly shock at how pervasive it is and how quickly people will fall back upon it at every opportunity.

I've been missing my dorm pretty badly, on and off, since I left the US. I do not regret going abroad for an instant, because I think this experience has been really, really good for me, but there's a big difference between thinking about these things on my own/reading opinions on the internet and sitting on my floor drinking tea with someone around whom I feel entirely safe. In some ways the progress I was making on openness and being a good, supportive friend has been suspended, because how can I be there for someone when I'm not there?

Academically, fall and winter were a lot. Spring quarter was much more relaxed, as abroad quarters are supposed to be, which I appreciated and which makes me concerned for how junior year is going to go because once I get back, it's civil engineering all day every day. At least I've only become more and more convinced that this field is the right one for me.

Because spring quarter was such a sharp break in my routine, it hasn't quite sunk in that the school year ended a couple of weeks ago. But it did, and I am halfway through college, and I don't know if it feels as though I have a lot of time left or none at all. I'm turning twenty in a matter of months. At my age Octavian was already at war. Which, I suppose, should make me grateful that my transition to adulthood is more gradual. I can afford to make mistakes, to take things slowly; I can afford a learning curve. Onwards, then.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

On Berlin

Sorry for the lack of posting. The quarter that just ended was very full, the end no less than the beginning.

Berlin is as of this moment my favorite city ever, and I'm going to be writing probably a few posts about the city and my experiences of it over the next couple of weeks. This is reflections on Berlin. Next will probably be my traditional "what I learned this quarter" post.


Schwarz zu Blau - Peter Fox

One of the strongest reasons I chose to study abroad was because of the need to break out of what we on campus call, sometimes with affection and sometimes with hatred, "the Bubble." Berlin is certainly far from the tawny hills of the Peninsula.

What makes it so different? For one, the history and how it is dealt with. Berlin is a city with scars. Scars from WWII and the Cold War manifest in many ways: the violence of National Socialism, destruction from bombing, east-west divisions. Now, there are signs of the refugee crisis and the worrying rise of the far-right populists. Walk around Berlin for a day or even a few hours and you'll find Stolpersteine--the "stumbling block" paving-stones commemorating victims of Nazis. Look close enough at street sign posts and you're likely to see either a pro- or anti-refugee sticker or flyer--and it'll probably be half-ripped off.

Near the Freie Universität

People are more politically aware and engaged than what I've seen in the US, although, to be fair, the Bay Area is stuffed full of vaguely-progressive liberals who are overwhelmed by the complexity of the world and privileged enough to shut out contemplation of many global problems. (This would be me.) My perception of German political engagement is also skewed in that my host dad was a teacher of politics and history.

To make sweeping generalizations--in Berlin one feels a sense of grave responsibility not to forget, not to let historical atrocities repeat themselves. The world feels very present and, if you let it, very heavy.

Statue of Friedrich the Great along Unter den Linden

People say that Berlin is atypical of a German city, but it does feel very Prussian. A parade of Friedrichs, Wilhelms, and Friedrich Wilhelms of house Hohenzollern shaped the city and region (by the way, Hohenzollernplatz on the U3 is a good place for food). The Prussian virtues of punctuality and orderliness are everywhere to be found. Warning: do not be late to appointments and do not jaywalk in front of children. German directness and German reservedness are both absolutely real. Even the dogs are typical Prussian--that is, they won't go up and say hi to you, and are extremely well-behaved.

Berlin started off as a bunch of little villages, or Dörfer, which eventually conglomerated together into one city. The neighborhoods are still quite different, and the city consequently doesn't feel quite unified. It's a jumble of different sorts of experiences, not so much contradictions as unexpected juxtapositions. Wannsee: beautiful lake, site of the conference where top Nazi officials outlined the Holocaust. Alexanderplatz: no man's land during the Cold War, now surrounded by malls and commerce.

International cuisine is everywhere, such that it's actually sometimes difficult to find a traditionally German restaurant (biased because my eating habits skew cheap). Viet-Thai-Sushi fusion restaurants are everywhere. I can't actually think of what Berlin specialty food would mean. If you're thinking Berliner donuts--they're called Pfannkuchen at home.

Linden trees everywhere

Parts of the city are fairly grungy and urban, but there are also a lot of trees and plants and flowers mostly everywhere. When I first arrived at the end of March everything was still bare from winter, and I remember thinking, it'll be beautiful by the time I leave. I was right.

Living in Berlin involves a lot of waiting for and sitting in public transportation. If you don't get headaches from doing so, reading on the train is great. I sometimes do, so I ended up staring at the ads/other passengers/my reflection a lot and introspecting. All the times I've shown people around Berlin, I've been a little embarrassed at how much time we spend in transit, but sitting in the U-Bahn and thinking about where your life is going is part of the rhythm of life in Berlin--or at least it was for me, and a very important part at that.

I really liked and enjoyed my life in Berlin. I count it as my first quarter actually living in a city more-or-less independently because sometime in the middle of the quarter, I started feeling as though I "got" Berlin. Of course that doesn't mean I understand the city as a whole--as a non-drinker who went to literally no bars, there's a whole facet of German culture to which I have no reference. But I felt comfortable moving around in Berlin, felt confident showing people around, and had a solid rhythm. I knew exactly which grocery stores were where and are good for what, and no matter where in the city I ended up, chances were I could find my way home without looking at the BVG app.

This past quarter I didn't read or write much, because I was very busy exploring and didn't prioritize stories. But now that it's summer and I've had a bit of time to catch my breath (though to tell the truth, I am still catching my breath), I see that I have a lot of ideas for new stories directly inspired by Berlin. The number of places where I imagined monsters emerging is astounding.

Old NSA spy tower on Teufelsberg

Looking outwards--it's still too soon to say if being steeped in a politically aware environment will stick, or if I'll relapse once I go home. But I have been entirely convinced of the importance of the social sciences. The world needs people who look at the way things have worked or not worked in the past, who are able to bring a nuanced and informed opinion to the way things should work today. I am a card-carrying enginerd but I recognize that my core disciplinary education fails to ask a lot of important questions. For all that civil engineering is about serving people, we don't often reflect upon what needs to be built and who needs what to be built and why. Berlin is full of examples of technically competent human effort being directed toward goals with which we do not and cannot agree today.

Berlin is a scarred city, a city with a conscience, a city with blood on its hands--not all dried. I miss it already. Mach's gut.
Top level of Hauptbahnhof

Sunday, June 5, 2016


Not sure how I ever kept up a regular blogging schedule. In any case--it's been a busy couple of weeks since my last post. I've stayed in Berlin aside from a day trip to Hamburg to sort out living accommodations for the summer. Seeing a lot of parts of the city that I haven't made it out to yet. I really do love Berlin as a city, and I'm going to miss it a lot.

(One warning about city life: my wallet disappeared from my backpack yesterday, more likely through pickpockets than through negligence. Beware. Also I'm more pissed off about losing my monthly transportation pass than anything else, because if I had just gotten a weekly pass last week then it would be totally okay.)

I've been thinking a lot in the past week about permanence, because it isn't something I have right now. In a week and a half I'm moving from Berlin to Hamburg, where I will be staying for another three months, and then I start school again and am in one dorm for nine months, and in a different dorm for nine months the year after that, and then real adult life begins. Assuming I get a stable job that doesn't have me moving around a lot, that's two years until I have a place of my own.

Two years is a long time, though. In the early weeks of college I remember often thinking that if asked about what advice I'd give to high school students, I'd say that the people who say that "four years is short!" are wrong. Four years is a long time, too long to waste, too long to spend marking time. Then I wondered if I should also apply that thinking to my four years of college, and of course that is the case. Four years is long. Two years is long. Even three months is long. Ten weeks has been long enough for me to explore lots of Berlin and decide that it's my favorite city I've lived in. No amount of time is so short that it can be wasted, I'd say, only I spent today--my second to last Sunday in Berlin--at home, wasting as much time on my computer as getting work done, because I want to pretend that I have time to waste here.

This summer I am turning twenty. I'll be an upperclassman in college. It will have been four years since I read Thus Spake Zarathustra and the Aeneid for the first time (meaning: I should do a reread). I need to start thinking very seriously about what I'm going to do after I graduate. I also need to build habits that will be sustainable through the rest of my academic and working life, because now that there exist nights where I get 7-8 hours of sleep and eat breakfast I want to find a way to make that more common during the school year.

Who do I want to be for the rest of my life? Someone who is kind as well as competent, someone who doesn't just jump straight to anger when upset, someone upon whom to rely, someone who keeps themselves informed about the world and also helps others understand. Someone who gets enough sleep and eats breakfast and attends to their health and speaks a lot of languages and has their life in order.

I am not the person I want to be for the rest of my life. But a lot of these things are things I can do right now, and time is long, and I should not have to wait to put my life in order.