Tuesday, January 5, 2010
I spent a long time researching for nonprofit volunteer programs and finally found something that wouldn't cost me a fortune. Once I've accepted that I must pay to volunteer, the search became easier. IVHQ is the non profit volunteer program that appears to suite my goals for this trip and the prices are much more reasonable than others. The organization is based in Australia and has partnerships all over the world with local non profit organizations. With its extensive networking online and on Facebook, I was able to find past volunteers that vouched for the legitimacy of the program. I chose Africa over Nepal, then narrowed it down to Kenya. IVHQ's partner organization in Kenya is Fadhili helpers. I signed up for 3 months of volunteering in the area of HIV/AIDS education, but what the work actually entails, I won't know until I arrive. I hear the placements are very flexible and there's room for volunteers to take initiative.
I will be leaving in a week, and vaccinations are the only things I've done to prepare for this trip. Polio, H1N1, typhoid, Malaria pills... thank god my Yellow Fever vaccination is still good from Ecuador in 2005. I usually don't pack until the night before and read the travel book for my destination on the plane. But this time, I'm actually a bit nervous, and want to start packing early. There are things that I normally don't have to worry about packing... like flashlights, permethrin treated mosquito net and gifts. What added to my nerves was the recent news I learned, from an outside source , that the program coordinator for Fadhili Helpers in Kenya, Mr. James Njuguna was shot dead outside of his own home. While the program did inform us of his passing, they did not give us any details of the tragedy behind his death, which made me a bit uncomfortable. But the plane tickets are bought, the program fees are paid, and I need to get out of the states.
I am going to pass on purchasing my first DSLR and rely in a small discrete point and shoot for this trip. Getting my first DSLR broken or stolen in Africa would be devastating to my nerves and my finances. Although I am looking to get a waterproof point and shoot instead. I usually don't do a very good job documenting my travels except when it's for a class (like previous Berlin posts) but I think I will try harder this time.
The current plan is that Russ, Fay and possibly even dad will be able to come visit me for a couple weeks in April and do some traveling around Africa with me. I have no idea what to expect, but I think it will be an exciting opportunity to experience and learn.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
What met me in Berlin and what I experienced in Istanbul, was more than I could ask for. I was not prepared for the new perspectives I gained looking at Germany face to face, existing in its space and absorbing in its history and culture. Neither was I prepared to fall so hard for the city of Istanbul. Like a love affair, it still stirs constantly in the back of my mind and lingers in my dreams.
In general, my trip this past summer included pre-program backpacking through Eastern Europe (Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Warsaw, Krakow), post-program visits to Northern Europe (Stockholm, Copenhagen) and an exploration of the middle east (Israel, Jordan, Egypt). It was one of the most amazing experiences in my life. With the combination of ancient history, 20th century history and the present day social and political events occurring right before my eyes, my trip was rich and thought provoking. I saw conflicts between people of different race and religions that was rooted thousands of years ago, and clashes of ideologies still being formed today. In addition to the magnificent sites and the interesting people I met along the way, I saw the world in layers of new perspective gained from the collection of my new experiences.
At the surface of Berlin, I was initially disappointed at the insignificant differences between the former East and West Berlin. Where the menacing Wall once ran, a path of cobblestones lay in its place. No man’s land is now populated by trendy boutiques and cafes. Soviet style GDR life was reduced to a romantic tale in the DDR museum, through Trabi tours and communist memorabilia. But when I dug deeper, I caught a glimpse of the “wall in the head“ that still exists 20 years after the Fall of the Wall and Germany reunification. This Wall was not just a social division between the former East and the West residents, but it was also a wall that separated a socialist utopian dream from a cruel capitalist reality. This wall also stands in the way of the acknowledgement of Germany history from the establishment of a German future. But the reality is, this Wall of separation has created a unified identity.
In Berlin I also found delightful surprises. The nightlife pulled me away from sleep to techno clubs and beach bars much more often than I anticipated. Daily transportation on the metro system of the U-bahn and S-bahn gave me a peak into the daily lives of Berliners. Youth culture was always prominent on the streets after 10 PM, and I’ve learned to enjoy beer. I came into contact with the Roma women and children of Berlin, and now I am curious. Lastly, I’ve found that German food does not appeal to me, but Döner kebab is on the list of the top culinary discoveries in my life.
I think many of us fell in love with Istanbul soon after arriving. Was it the beautiful mosques? The exotic environment? The hospitality? The food must have had something to do with it as well. I certainly did not know what to expect. Looking past surface of this intriguing eastern orient, we were exposed for a brief moment to the identity crises also apparent in Turkey.
Istanbul is not without Walls, in fact no city is. The rising division between the rich and the poor, the demolition of Gecekondus and the establishment of uniform high rises. All these social changes to meet the demands of a globalizing city seem oddly similar to the gentrification process in Berlin. These themes of identity struggle transgress borders and are present in every society. The desire of Turkey is to belong to the European Union, and to live a Western lifestyle, but it cannot shake the Eastern identity that is prominent in the walls of its mosques, the hospitality of its people and the history on its land.
I took the themes and perspectives gained from studying in Berlin and Istanbul with me for the rest of my travels: East and West, walls and borders, personal identity, national identity and unspoken conflicts.
To visit the Middle East after a few days in Northern Europe was a drastic change. Although located in the center of Middle Eastern countries, Israel and its neighbors considers it a Western State. It is a young country formed by an ancient population on a piece of land with history that marked the beginning of time after Christ.
Israel is defined by walls. After millions of years of persecution, fueled by the events of the Holocaust, the Jewish people re-established their place in the Holy Land and built a wall of enemies on three of its four sides. Divided by religious and ethnic affiliation in such a small proximity of Israel, people of the same land redefined themselves.
Their identities are defined through a combination of ethnic, religious and ideological associations: Orthodox Jew, non-religious Jew, and Russian Jew with a Russian mother and Jewish father who see herself as a Jew, but legally is not according to the rules of the religion.
Their identities are defined by the level of Israel citizenship: a Jewish citizen of Israel is required to serve the Jewish army, but a Muslim or Arabic citizen is not.
Their identity is defined by who they are not: Palestinians are not Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian or Egyptian.
Their identity also transcends pre-established borders: Muslim Arabs, Christian Arabs, Jewish Arabs. Muslim Jew, Christian Jew, Jewish Jew.
As an atheist living in secular Western system that denounces discrimination at any level of identity, it is difficult for my relatively inexperienced mind to wrap around the existence of such a complicated place such as Israel. Everyone wants a piece of the dry barren hills of Jerusalem and its walls.
The Holy City itself is nothing but walls. The walls of Jerusalem is cut into four quarters of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Armenian territories. The West Wall is defined by what is speculated to have stood behind the wall thousands of years ago, the Second Temple. And though it is meant to be a place where people come together to wish for a better future, the West Wall itself is divided by a wall between the genders.
There is a very unimpressive wall around the West Bank that has major precautions it was accidentally crossed. It can be seen from the major freeways that extend north to south and separates the Israeli citizens from the Palestinian Islamic extremists that wish for the end of Israel. There is a wall around Gaza for very much the same reasons.
Where Germany left off, Israel filled in the holes of my very incomplete and very naive picture of the world. The more I see, the more questions I have and the less certain I am about my rationality, the basis of how I form my thoughts and my understanding of the world. One thing I’ve learned is that there is no certainty. History is written by the winners and people get left behind when their histories are not told. Walls cannot organize the world and tuck differences into neat little categories. Walls inflict divisions. Walls create identity. Walls define its nation.
Here I am now, back in the sterilized serenity of Seattle, reflecting on my trip, confused and lost as ever.
While there were many walls on the trip, they managed to remove the ones in my head. My thoughts are now a jumble of cultures, religions and histories and I haven't been able to erect my walls back up again to logically sort it out. So though my thoughts are scattered and disorganized, and my writing resembles my jumbled state of mind, my heart is content, because this trip has opened my eyes. Right now I see a world of confusion, but I am not worried because this is only the beginning of my journey.
After WWII, in 1949 the Soviet Zone of occupied Germany became a Communist state known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR) while the Western Sectors controlled by France, UK and USA merged to form the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), informally known as East and West Germany respectively. Berlin, situated in East Germany, also became divided into East and West Berlin. Political power in the GDR belonged to leaders of the communist-controlled Socialist Unity Party (SED) and their exclusive powers were ensured by the Stasi secret police. Every aspect of society was carefully monitored and controlled by the East German government, and in return, the basic needs of the population were supplied at low cost by the state.
West Germany developed into a Western capitalist country with a social market economy and democratic parliamentary government. With continued economical growth and rising standards of living, many East Germans looked to the West for economic affluence and political freedom.
In the early 1950s, East Germany sealed off the East-West border in response to massive emigration westward by its citizens. However, refugees continued to flee through Berlin. On August 1961, the communists erected the Berlin wall between East and West Berlin and strengthened the barrier around the rest of West Berlin along the East and West German border.
To the world, the Berlin Wall came to symbolize the Iron Curtin between Western Europe and the Eastern Bloc. To the West, the Wall signified the oppressive communist regimes. And to the East Germans, the Berlin Wall became another part of their daily lives in the GDR.
Life in the GDR was similar to that in most Eastern Bloc countries. All affairs, public and personal, were highly regulated by the state through censorship and surveillance. Some described the lifestyle as “drab and dreary” and others described it as “simple and secure.” While the essentials of life such as food, housing, transportation and basic clothing were cheap, most other things were regarded as luxuries which were rare and expensive to obtain. The communist ideology discouraged materialism and worked hard to keep out Western influences. This regulation and forbiddance made Western products even more desirable to the residence of the GDR.
In 1989 the Berlin wall fell. Former citizens of the socialist GDR rushed to embrace West German capitalism. East German products disappeared rapidly from the shelves and were replaced by Western counterparts. However, a few years later, East Germans began to feel nostalgia for their former everyday lives before German unification. This preoccupation with the GDR era was so prevalent, that a term was coined to describe this phenomenon – Ostalgie - a portmanteau of the words Ost (east) and Nostalgie (nostalgia).Twenty years after reunification, it is said that Ostalgie is still strongly present in society.
Research Question and Personal Interest
When I first heard of this Ostalgie phenomenon, it made perfect sense to me. Everyone can think fondly of the past, of how much more simple life was back in the days. But when I thought about it more, especially during my backpacking trip through Eastern Europe and experiencing the prominent negative attitude of many of these cities towards the Soviet communist regimes even to this today, I began to feel uneasy. It was not rare to walk down the street of Prague or Budapest and see an informal memorial as general as “to the victims of the communists,” written on cardboard or carved into stone with candles and flowers lying beneath. I was advised by travel books that the topic of communism in was a touchy subject and should be spoken of sensitively, similar to the topic of the holocaust.
I also have personal experiences that have taught me that communism should not be taken lightly. My great-grandfather offended the communist party and spent most of his short life in prison. My great-grandmother raised their eight children alone in the countryside, without help or support from relatives and neighbors because their family name became blacklisted. My grandmother, the oldest, managed to make her way out into the city, a rare event for those born to the countryside even today in China. Most of my grandmother’s siblings and their off springs are still confined to the country side by politics, economics and the limited opportunities in China today. My grandmother met my grandfather who left the Red for a life as a scholar. My father never once saw eye to eye with communist teachings instilled in the school systems in China and with the first chance he got, he left to study in the states.
Two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, while protests against communism broke out all over the world, an unforgettable event took place in Tiananmen Square that rattled students everywhere and prompted the US government to immediately issue green cards to Chinese students studying in the states at that time. With my parents guaranteed new future in the States, I joined them shortly from China.
Although my family is not big on politics, I have been influenced by their negative views towards the communist Chinese government. My father did not like it when I sang songs I learned in school praising Mao and the Red Army. Whether it’s discussing current events, reading a history book or touring through a museum, he always added his two cents on his personal perception of the world. And through his smart remarks and short critiques, I inherited his negative views of past communist regimes and I grew to be critical myself.
In Berlin, when touring memorials to the victims of the Nazis, he was sometimes surprised at their existence at all. “Mao was responsible for the death of more than 60 million people – Hitler’s massacre was nothing compared to what Mao did in China, and there is no memorial for the Chinese.” Surprised and speechless I let his message sink into me.
With my history and experiences, you could imagine how surprised and somewhat offended when I arrived in Berlin only to see communist symbols used everywhere. Red and yellow stars on clothing, slogans that say “Red Bang,” on energy drinks advertisements, hammer and sickle in altered forms used in almost every context promoting shoes to rock concerts, and Soviet memorabilia sold on street side stands. Among the Russian fur hats and babushka dolls are gas masks and KGB uniforms.
But there were no swastikas or Third Reich memorabilia, because that would be offensive.
My understanding was that millions of innocent people fell victim to the oppressive rule of the Soviet communist regimes in the Eastern Bloc. In Berlin, Soviet communism and the pre-Wall era is used as a tourist magnet and former East Germans are fondly recalling the days under the GDR regime.
Perhaps the Germans are too preoccupied with being sensitive about their Nazi history to consider whether it is socially acceptable to use communist symbols for the tourism industry and whether it is appropriate to be nostalgic for a regime responsible for the suffering of millions.
After a few quick internet searches on the topic, I realized I was not alone on this view. Since reunification, there have been many articles published that discuss the existence of Ostalgie in Germany. Especially after the 2003 film Good Bye, Lenin! which successfully portrayed general feeling of nostalgia, the world began to discuss the controversy of the phenomenon.
BBC News, 09/09/04: Germany battles the right to reminisce
“As the [nostalgia] phenomenon grows, so does the debate as to whether it is appropriate to be sentimental about life under a regime which shot those who tried to escape its clutches and persecuted those who disagreed with ideology”
It is difficult for many people that the GDR is being glorified in such a way. The nostalgia that became prominent a few years after the collapse of East Germany appears to ignore the censorship, the oppression, and the intimidation.
“history is somehow being rewritten.”
More recently -
Time, 09/09/08: Raising a glass to East Germany
“Victims’ organizations don’t see the joke: They reacted furiously when the pub, situated only yards away from the large gray building complex that used to house the Stasi, opened last month. The Union of Organizations for the Victims of Communist Oppression called for a boycott of the bar, warning that it would “negate the suffering of thousands of former political prisoners or victims of persecution” by turning it into a “fun factor” in order to make profit. Owner Wolfgang Schmelz, not unhappy with the publicity generated by the controversy, dismisses the accusations. “Nothing is being trivialized here, no victims are being mocked,” he insists. “All it is, is satire.””
GDR themed bars, restaurants and communist chic hotels have popped up after German unification almost as if Ostalgie is a new vogue. Visitors and tourists are eating up the “authentic” GDR memorabilia, staying at “Ostel” a hostel decorated in GDR fashion, and taking “Trabi-safari” to tour the landmarks of the communist past of Germany.
"People really seem to think the GDR was a big joke, which results in such crudities as a Stasi pub," says the professor of political science at Berlin's Free University. "What's gonna be next, a Gestapo Inn? It's absurd."
Ostalgie is not without controversy and I became curious in exploring this phenomenon in Berlin.
To explore the phenomenon of Ostalgie in present day Berlin, its prevalence in society 20 years after reunification, its roots and its effects on the establishment of a new unified German identity.
More specifically some of the questions I have are:
- What makes the perception of communist rule in Berlin so different from other prior communist states?
- Is nostalgia still prominent 20 years after reunification? What is it stemmed from?
- What kinds of people are nostalgic and what exactly are they nostalgic for?
- Are the post-wall generations affected?
- Is this nostalgia contributing to the infamous “wall in the head” that is contributing to the existing division of East and West?
- IS this phenomenon being addressed within the society? Are there ways in which nostalgic people share their feelings and thoughts with others?
- How is this nostalgia affecting the unified identity of Germany as a whole?
- Start by visiting the Stasi Museum and DDR museum for an overview of life in Pre-Wall East Germany
- Talk to as many people I can find from both the former East and West about the phenomenon of Ostalgie and discuss with them the preconceived questions
- Visit shops that still carried Ost-products (East products) to see what kind of products have come back, who still buys these products etc.
- Visit GDR themed bars and restaurants, find out what the purpose of these establishments are, whether they are aimed to attract tourists and if it really is a hangout for former East German residence
- Walk through the neighborhoods of former East Germany and see how I feel, whether I can feel this nostalgia, whether I can see a difference between the East and West
Results and Discussion
With a small sample size of n=10, I interviewed former East Germany residents, visited GDR themed restaurants and vintage stores, and spoke with owners and employees. I collected memories, stories and gained different perspectives on how they viewed the GDR, nostalgia and the German identity.
Part I: I began by visiting the Stasi Museum and the GDR Museum to establish a background of life in the GDR era.
The surveillance equipment at the Stasi Museum seemed slightly ridiculous to me. Large bulky cameras were hidden in tree-stumps, garbage cans and other very day things, as if trying too hard to be sneaky. Never the less, they were surveillance where massive amounts of data were collected for each citizen of the GDR. I decided to start my research here by asking the guide some questions regarding German perception of Soviet communism and the GDR era.
Q: It appears to me that communism here in Germany is regarded almost less negatively, with GDR memorabilia everywhere and nostalgia for East Germany. Why do you think that is?
A: Hmmm… I’m not sure… I think that perhaps communism was done more elegantly here in Germany. I think the Soviet communists did a good job infiltrating the society. Germans felt that their government was their own, German, instead of feeling that an outside regime like the Soviet Union was in charge.
Could it be that the oppression and cruelty of the communist regime was hidden under the elegance so well that when former GDR citizens reminisce, they can easily overlook the bad parts of life?
The entire GDR museum seemed like a make-belief fantasy reality, a utopia that communist and socialist regimes always dream about. Cute Trabi cars, childhood TV heroes, youth organizations, family vacations to the country, full employment. The lifestyle of perfect GDR citizens was perfectly portrayed. With this point of view, it’s difficult not to be nostalgic.
It didn’t show what would happen to you or your family if you were to upset the party, it didn’t show how your neighbors or even wife spied on you behind your back, it didn’t show the censorship or brain washing the GDR government did to maintain a tranquil lifestyle.
It did give me a sense however, of what the GDR lifestyle strived for, equal opportunities, guaranteed education and employment. I can see how someone who has had a lifetime of struggle can easily find comfort in such an environment.
Part II: I wanted to find places where I could still witness nostalgia first hand and see exactly people were nostalgic for. I ended up wandering the streets of Pankow looking for communist chic establishments, vintage stores and markets that still carried “Ost Producte” (East products).
It is difficult for a visitor to spot remains of the GDR just by walking through the neighborhood. There are some well known restaurants, bars and hostels that have opened after reunification decorated with GDR style and nostalgic pieces.
Pankow is a DDR-elite neighborhood with beautiful pastel colored buildings, elaborate carvings in the classical style. Very different from the drab concrete mass produced apartment buildings I am used to seeing from a communist neighborhood. Here in this district, I spent some time chatting it up with people at a GDR themed restaurant and browsing through vintage shops.
Mauerblumenen is a restaurant, decorated with GDR memorabilia from party leader portraits to GDR propaganda posters to East German products. They also claim to serve authentic Germany foods. Take a look:
Here I chatted with anyone at the bar who was willing to talk to me. The waitress was in her early twenties, too young to remember much, she did not seem interested in the subject of GDR era. I ended up having a lengthy discussion with a man in his late 40s from East Berlin who spoke almost no English at all. Through a series of hand gestures, pictures drawn on napkins and half hazard interpretations from the waitress, he managed to tell me that he was nostalgic for Eastern bread -
- Western bread crumbles when you try and cut it, there is no substance. Eastern bread is full and rich and stays in one piece when it’s cut. But it is a big debate still today which bread is better and if the subject is mentioned at a social setting, with the right people around, it can rise into a large argument.
Stiefelkombinat is a vintage clothing shop where I was first introduced to real products from the GDR era. Since the production of some of these products from the daily lives of East Germans stopped, they have become mostly collector items.
I heard that some former East Germans are redecorating their home with GDR style furnishings like the vintage orange lamps I saw there. But mostly these shops suit the taste of young people who may or may not realize what they are wearing and the history behind these clothing and accessories.
VEB Orange is another vintage shop that collects and sells original GDR products. I spent a lot of time with the owner and finally witnessed some nostalgia in his shop.
Ost Kost is a grocery store that still carries Ost Producte, East German foods.
There were candies, cigarettes, dish soap and pickles in this shop that have become symbols of GDR life. I realized here that GDR residents did not just lose their chocolates and their wines, but some lost their jobs, their homes and their securities almost overnight. And though they speak of these food items that they can no longer enjoy on a daily basis there is really much more. These products are proof that their former lives existed beyond that of an oppressive regime. These products are confirmations that their history existed before it was swallowed up by Western capitalism. These products are validations that these people had a very real past, even if it has been reduced to tourist attractions.
Part III: Interviews
The difficulty of interviews is that I don’t speak a word of German, and most people who were born early enough to have personal memories from the GDR don’t speak very much English. I conducted both formal and informal interviews with a random people, and would like to share the two that I found gave me the most insights.
Madeleine Helinski, student. Born: 07. April, 1988 in East Berlin.
Madeleine is a 21 year old student who grew up in East Berlin. She did not have any personal memories of the GDR since she was born a year after the fall of the wall. Her father faced unemployment after reunification (no details given) and other than that her parents never spoke much about the GDR era. She only remembers her mother complaining a bit about the new school system after reunification. She does not feel that nostalgia is very present, although she sees that former GDR fashion is returning , including clothing and hair styles. In general, this topic is not something she has thought about, not prevalent in her life at all and not brought up within her family friends. (Thanks to Toby for the interpreting)
Through this interview I realized how disconnected some people from the post-war generation are from their parents. I also realized that for whatever reason former East Germans don’t always like to talk about their past, and therefore may not pass on their experiences to their children. This led me to think that perhaps this nostalgia phenomenon may not be around much longer when the pre-wall generation is gone.
Cornelia Krell, Student at Humbolt. Born: 1981
Cornelia was born in East Germany and was 6 when the Wall fell. Although she has very limited personal memories of pre-wall East Germany lifestyle, she has an older sister and parents that have passed some of their experiences down to her. She gave me a list of foods, products and music that disappeared after the fall of the wall that were missed around the house. She told me stories of her mother’s attachment to the old kitchen appliances and her mother’s view on the new school system. She says her mother still offers her bananas repeatedly when she goes home, like bannanas can still dissapear and she can't get enough of it.
Much of the conversation was focused on Cornelia’s mother, like how she always made her own clothes. Cornelia still remembers when he mother made a jacket for Cornelia so that she did didn't have to wear the same jacket as everyone else in her glass. There were only a few different styles back then, and everybody knew how to sew and made their own clothes to find a bit of personality in a world of conformity.
This led me to think about the identity crisis of youth today. In the socialist era where conformity was the goal, people were more pressured to find their own identity. Some of the most unique fashions came out of the underground during GDR era. Today, in a world of free market where originality is promoted everywhere, there seems to be less uniqueness, but more of a mass identity. In this capitalist society where cooperation has taken over, everything is becoming the same again. Globalization of the world is dulling our personal identities. When you can find the same fast food joints and clothing brands all over the world, massed produced so that everyone can afford it, what is left? It seems to come full circle. A desire to escape the clutches of forced conformity has only lead to a new world of uniformity. Given the freedom to be whoever you want in this capitalist society, people are choosing to go back East Berlin, shop for vintage clothes of the GDR era and look in private boutiques to find that originality that seems to have disappeared.
It appears to me that Cornelia’s mother is perhaps more nostalgic than her father, which leads me to think about the women’s role more in the GDR era. Communism teaches that everyone is equal, everyone must work. These ideologies gave women great benefits in society through childcare, pregnancy leave and equal pay. Although at the end, the Party was still ran by men, women enjoyed a sense of equality with men that vanished with the assimilation of the East into the West. In the new competitive capitalist society, women lost their childcare programs, faced gender discrimination in the work force, and saw the stability of their family unit fall apart.
I asked Cornelius about her understanding of the GDR era, and after thinking about it for a long time, she looked t me and replied that she didn’t know. She realized that while WWII and Nazi Germany was covered in greay detail in her years of schooling, the Cold War and GDR history was barely touched upon. Her sister, a few years older than her, is a high school teacher in Berlin. When her sister showed the movie Good Bye, Lenin! in class, she had to repeatedly pause the movie to explain things to her students. Cornelius sister, having grown up in the GDR, is also upset that the curriculum she teaches has so little substance about that history.
I did some research about students and education, here is an interesting article from TIME that address this disconnect between the younger generation and German history.
TIME 09.09.2008: Raising a Glass to East Germany
Schroeder is the author of a recent study about how little German youngsters today actually know about the GDR. He and his colleagues surveyed over 5,000 students aged between 15 and 17, and found that many, especially those actually living in areas that formed part of East Germany, have an extremely distorted view of the GDR. More than half of the respondents, for example, believe that the GDR was "not a dictatorship," and that the Stasi was an intelligence service like any other, deployed mostly against people of other countries rather than against its own citizens. The figures are slightly lower among respondents in western Germany. The study also found that students tend to remember the social policies of the GDR in a very positive light, often ignoring the repressive character of the system.
"What people remember is not the real GDR, but a fictitious country that never existed," says Schroeder
So how is it that a political system that many remember only for the pain and trauma it inflicted is a source of nostalgia for others? Schroeder is sure that parents and teachers are to blame. "The older people are aware of what the GDR really was like, but they don't say it," he says. "People generally tend to have a blurred vision of their own past lives. And the public and schools have failed to act as a counterbalance."
It appears to me that many former East Germans are now living in a fast moving world and feeling that their past is being left behind. Their history is either lumped together with the rest of Soviet communist dictatorships or romanticized for the sake of tourism in Berlin. Their accustomed daily products are no longer being produced, disappearing from their lives into vintage shops and becoming collectors’ items behind glass shelves. Their children, growing up in this Western capitalist society do not live by the same work ethics and morals, do not understand a world far removed from materialism. And worst of all, their country has silently decided their history in the GDR is not important enough to be passed down in schools. It is far more important to forget about the past, the division, and become a reunified Germany so that it is possible to step into the future.
No wonder there is nostalgia.
I think I can conclude that if you dig deep enough in Berlin, nostalgia is still very prevalent twenty years after reunification. Whether it is appropriate or offensive, whether it trivializes the oppressive GDR regime, I cannot say because it depends and it differs greatly from case to case. After four weeks in Berlin, I have only touched the surface of this topic of Ostalgie, and have already discovered so many new questions. Like all social complications and dilemmas, there is no right or wrong view points, and definitely no simple way of resolving the issue. In general though, I believe that before Germany can establish this new unified German identity, it needs to take a even closer look into its not so far behind past, and include it in its building of a future.
The first and major challenge I came across was the language barrier. I found though it was relatively easier to talk to students that can speak English, it was their parents and people over 30 with firsthand experience of the GDR that was most useful. However, the older generations typically did not speak very much English. So my interviews became limited. Deep thoughts on personal nostalgia was reduced single English verbs such as “bread” “wine” and “comrade” along with series of hand gestures and facial expressions and sketches on napkins. Interviews with German students became a series of speculations of what their parents were like after unification, memories of some of the things their parents might have mentioned or complained about. But these interactions were precious. At the end I feel that both parties gained something .
Translation to stage
Initially, it was very difficult for Amy, Daniel and I to find a theme to tie our projects together. When something finally clicked and made sense, It made me realize that everything is connected in society, no matter how different the topics seem to be, everything is intertwined just like everyone is intertwined. There is no direct cause and effect, one thing affects another, changed by another, and can be seen through the perspective of another.
Our themes were nostalgia, capitalism and busking.
With a white bed sheet, we tied the tree topics together with a common symbol and tied everything together on stage. There is no distinct meaning of the white sheet, it can almost be interpreted as anything. It is what ties people together, east and west, past and future. At the same time, it is the conflict that separates people, the border that separates the east and west, the past from the future. Something that can so easily break people apart but also something that can pull people back together.
Initially the white sheet serves as a border between the East and West, past and future, with the busker straddling the line, nostalgia to the East and capitalism to the West.
On stage, a brief presentation of the existence of nostalgia and its controversies are presented through quotes, images and music as shown below.
Capitalism enters cutting short the East's reminiscence, advertising for its consumer goods and cooperation such as fast food chains and coffee shops that have infiltrated Germany.
The buskers plays his music at a street corner, at a park, where residence of both side meet to chat, to walk, it is a public space shared by unified Germany.
At the end, the struggle and pull between the East and west is translated on stage into a tug of war of the white sheet. The music intensifies and stops.At the end, it was the musician, the artist, the public space that pulls the white sheet forward and exists off stage as both the East and West follows closely behind.
I guess at the end, there is hope for reunified Germany to reach a new identity, who knows who will be pulling forward and leading this change. The art community of Berlin is becoming global, using art to portray the past and present turmoil f this country with a heavy past. Perhaps it will be through art and culture that the two walls in the heads will fade away and join together for a new German future.
Today the Great Wall of China is the pride of the Chinese people, not to mention a great tourist attraction along with the Terracotta army that guards his tomb. Today, unified China speaks of this emperor with praise and reverence. We are taught that China would not be so without his military determination.
After WWII, the Nazi regime in Germany’s past is now a shameful part of the country’s history. The symbol of Nazi Germany, the swastika, is a forbidden symbol and represents the worst acts of humanity almost worldwide. Hitler’s image is the epitome of evil. To say anything to defend his ideals is to offend the world.
I am not comparing the actions of one dictator to the other, almost 2000 years apart and in very different circumstances. But I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if Hitler won, if he succeeded in conquering all of Europe and spreading the Aryan race. A decade or two later, a century or two later, what would our history books say? Would he be praised, despite his cruelties and murders for his vision and determination?
Even as a monster to society, he has contributed greatly to Berlin's tourist industry. Hitler’s bunker, site of Gestapo Headquarters, Olympic Stadium, Sachsenhausen. After all, we have come to Berlin to see these places and to study this past.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
For this assignment, postcards were collected on almost a daily basis and "writing of the moment" was conducted standing in the position of where the photograhper of the postcard stood. I chose to take pictures of the postcards instead of purchasing them and wrote in my journal on a space similar in size to that of the back of the postcard. This saved me about 20 Euros and some time I would have spent on technical difficulties trying to scan everything. I typed up my writing excactly as it appeared in my notebook under each picture of th postcard I didn't buy. It might have been slightly more interestng to see the writing in my own handwriting scanned from real post cards, but I hope this will also suffice.
Between each postcard and writing of the moment, I have included "writing from memory." I recalled something that took place between each postcard writing.
Tourists everywhere, climbing all over the green/bronze statues. A man standing in the lady statue’s lap, holding her head into his chest, afraid of slipping. Posing with the statues, cameras clicking. Little boy leaning over the edge of the fountain, a mother nearby watching with another baby in the carriage. Hear more English than German here. Evening light breeze, sun hidden behind trees. Gray sky not blue like the postcard, no clouds at all. Drum beats from buskers behind me, echoing through the square
Two little girls and a little boy no older than four years of age ran passed me screaming and butt naked. I turned just in time to see them splash straight into the fountains beneath the TV tower. Frying under the Berlin sun and melting under the Berlin heat, I was envious. For a moment there, the moist cotton tank top was no longer stuck to my back and I could feel the soft breeze caressing my buttocks. I could feel the droplets of sweat on my face turn cold into the droplets of fountain, chilling my body down to my toes. I could feel the steam evaporating away into the air as enthalpy flows out of my overheated body system to the cooler sink of the fountain…driven by Le Chatelier's Principle. And with that thought, reality struck back quick and hard with heat and exhaustion. I felt dizzy and collapsed into the shade of the old brick church.
TV tower can be seen peaking through between the main dome and the right one, edited out from the postcard. There is a gold cross in the grass, on the left side of the structure in the postcard that cannot be found. Similar to the postcard, tourists are scattered along the fountain, in the grass, posing, cooling down, lounging, picture taking. An Italian group of friends speak loudly to my right, laughing. The gold of the cross on top of the dome is much brighter and stands out much more in front of the gray-blue sky. I cannot come up with a word to describe the color of the dome, will need to look at color grid later. Dark streaks, weathered stone, more black at the base of the domes… acid rain or just normal weathering? So grand compared to everything else around it, colors so bright seems unreal against the backdrop. Looks like a large painting.
A women with dark long hair dressed in a long skirt approached me with a baby carriage and asked me if I spoke English. I said yes and she quickly handed me a notecard. I read the sloppy hand written message and realized she was the Roma that the tour books warned me about. I handed the card back t her and shook my head. "Please! Please!" she said over and over again as I tried to walk away. "For the baby!" she cried. I walked away.
There is a stark difference between the gray sea of cubes and the pastel colored apartment complex in the backdrop, surrounding one side of the memorial – especially bright yellow and salmon colored walls with green roofs. Depending on its height and level of the path can be anywhere from my elbow to over my head, easily drowning me from the streets and from the conversations. Walking into the memorial, a few blocks in, I felt as if I was in my own world. Can hear the outside world, but in private to mourn, to think, or anything else. Packs of students, mostly American students, stepping on blocks, taking pictures on blocks. Security. Little girl giggling, can hear her but cannot see her. Oh there she is, a glimpse through the rows and quickly gone again. I am in an ocean of blocks, waves, engulfing, overwhelming.
I had forty five minute to run back to the apartments to get the passport because I forgot in the morning despite the many reminders. Running down Unter dun Linden, squeezing onto the bus, I noticed how much easier it was to move through the city without a large group. It felt like putting down a giant hiking backpack, I fit better between crowds of bodies, I blended in, and I can people watch instead of always being watched.
There is no doubt that the rubble on the post card is the Reichstag, though bombed and on the verge of collapse, the structure is firmly standing in the form of what it is today. Today, the grass is neatly laid and green. The line of people stretch down the stairs and onto the side walk, I hear the have been waiting for hours to climb to the newly erected glass dome. The German flag flies in front, and on the four towers of the four corners.
I devoured the döner too quickly while speed walking towards Heinrich Hein station. I wished I could have prolonged the taste, the texture, the unyielding craving and instant satisfaction with each bite, chew and swallow. The garlic and yogurt sauce filled my mouth and managed to squeeze through my lips. Pieces of red cabbage fell out of my mouth and onto my white top. I hoped they wouldn’t leave a hint of purple. The cucumber was crisp and refreshing, complimenting perfectly tender bites of chicken. I love you döner.
20+ years later, only the gate is recognizable. The wall is down, along with the signs. The square is cobblestone now. Buildings have risen up where the trees once were on both sides of the gate, the American embassy on the left and something else on the right. Lamps are more decorated and stylish. Iranian flags – groups of protestors forming/ People scattered everywhere, bikers and bikes everywhere. Metal fencing stacked up under the Brandenburg. Orange construction boxes, cars, vans, trucks, parked near the square, right on the square. Construction noises, blue tents, metal construction beams in the foreground. Uniformed guards under the gate, stepping on boxes for tourist pictures, U.S. and Russian flags. Talking, honking, yelling, cars, engines, construction, cameras clicking. Smells of coffee sweets, smoke, and sulfur pockets. Storm trooper under the Brandenburg Gate.
Two kids on the train sat across from each other, slouched and rocking their heads to the loud rap music roaring from their headphones. They looked to be maybe 8 or 9 years old. Everyone once in a while, they would rap along, “F*** this F*** that…” I turned, surprised by the profanity spewing from the two little boy’s mouths. They giggled and exchanged conversation in German. Did they understand the lyrics they were screaming on this quiet train? One pulled out a package of chocolate, ripped it open with his teeth, dumped the candy in his mouth, and tossed the wrapper aside on the floor besides him. The other swung his hands around in the shape of a gun, motioning with the music beat. Loud, inappropriate. Where were their parents? Finally, and annoyed woman turned to them and lectured in German. Probably something about shutting up, acting more appropriately and pick up the candy wrapper. They did and got off at the next station.
It is rainy today, not bright and shiny like the postcard shows. The umbrellas over coffee tables on the sidewalks above the museum are down. Signs on the bridge and building have changed since the postcard picture was taken, there is now a taxi commercial near the clock on the dock where boats depart. The room above the museum has large windows; these are gray and not bright blue as in the postcard, probably reflecting the gray skies. The NOODLE restaurant originally next to the museum as shown in the postcard is no longer present here today. Water is brow. Rain drops. Smell of smoke.
It was hot, too many bodies crammed into such a small space. I squeezed pass with my beer, one hand on my purse and sat down at the nearest booth, crammed with people. If I closed my eyes, I would spin out of control. More people threw their purses at me. I sat guarding them, sipping Becks and trying to stay awake. My clothes were soaking up the smoke. Someone grabbed me with the beginning of American Boy, and pulled me through the bodies. I began to bounce with the beat, swing my arms, bob my head, move my feet, rock my hips, sing to the American lyrics and dance with German bar hoppers.
I cannot tell which statues are which. The white statues on the marble tends are surrounded by metal frames and covered in plastic wrap except for one. Something on Unter de Linden is always masked under cleaning or construction sheets. From where the picture on the postcard was taken, there is a fence surrounding the river, and I cannot get close enough for the same view. The Berliner dome is still apparent in the back, the domes are much greener than the postcard. The golden cross on top stands out the most. Tractor, machines, constructions, gravel and rocks piling, shovels, footsteps. There is a distant accordion playing from across the bridge.
If I die in Berlin, I will die by bike. Over and over again I am pulled or pushed away by dear friends or passer-bys from approaching bicyclists, oncoming bicyclists or bicyclists that seem to come out of nowhere. There is something inviting about the smooth lanes painted brightly with white paint over the gray sidewalk. After a long day of walking on cobblestone and carefully stepping over dog droppings, I am drawn to this evenly laid path. So, repeatedly and daily, I find myself unknowingly walking on the bike path. And each time, I am startled by bell, a shout, or a small hectic dance of feet and wheels as I scramble to remove myself from the path of a bicyclist to save my life.
Museum flags are flying today, but not in the postcard picture. The red tinge of the sky and water in the postcard looks as though it was taken in the early morning or sun down, with a light fog that obscures the details of the buildings in the background. Today, it is afternoon, the sun is bright and everything is clear and the colors more apparent. Above the museums on the island, yellow and red cranes fill the skyline. The river is busy with tour boat traffic there is a smell of burnt rubber. The bridge I am standing on rattles with each vehicle that passes over. The seagulls are loud over my head.
I finally succumbed to my ice cream craving. For one Euro, I treated myself to a single scoop of pistachio ice cream on a small waffle cone. At home I would have probably ordered at least three scoops and end up having only about a third before feeling sick from the sugar and cream. But here, Euros are valuable when realizing that I may not have enough at the end of the trip to take me home, and a single scoop of ice cream can do wonders. So I sat at the fountain in Alexanderplatz, people watched, and slowly licked the small green mound.
The gold edges and the star on the tips of the synagogue stands out more so than in the postcard. The trees in front are larger, taller and more green and full. Doors are closed and fenced off from the sidewalk, cool blue light coming through the windows. Looks uninviting. Two police officers stand to the right of the building. Crowds of voices at the restaurant to the left. Tour buses pass on the street behind me, their loud speakers echo.
He walked up the steps and sat down right in front of the door outside Kaisers. His wagging tail dropped down heavy with gravity the moment his bottom hit the ground. He had a collar, but no leash, like the rest of his kind that resides in Berlin. Chest out and nose up, he eagerly awaited, undistracted by passersby walking past with bags full of delicious eatables. He did not notice the little toddler run up to touch his nose slightly before being pulled away by a large pair of hands. He did not turn his head to the fresh bread that bobbed beside him as the shopper stopped to dig her phone out of her purse. He did not acknowledge my remark about what a pretty dog he was. Minutes later, his tail went up and active, his mouth dropped open into a smile and his long tongue slipped out with the approach of a long legged man. The moment the pair of long legs stepped over the frame of the glass door, he jumped up, turned around and followed the long legs down the stairs, around the corner and disappeared with the legs into the evening.
Gravestones with beds of bushes and flowers: roses, lilies, irises, small pine trees and plants that stick low to the ground. The cemetery can’t be seen in the picture of the postcard. Seems like a pleasant place to sleep through eternity, surrounded by such luscious growth and facing a magnificent white mosque. The colors are easy on my eyes, white, grey, blue stones; gold rims scriptures on the doors. The white clouds pass behind the minarets, life seems to stand still under it. There is no Turkish flag as shown in the postcard. This postcard does not do any justice to this building. I think I can fall asleep here and my worries would somehow melt away in this serenity.
Behind me the music rumbeled. The lights from the beach bars across the water glistened in the reflection of the Spree. Far away a lit passenger train glowing with ambient white light tunneled through the city. I sat with a beer in my hand and my toes burried in the sand of the river bank and thought about what I would remember from this night.
Colors are much more vibrant here than the postcard. The burnt red walls of the Hagia Sofia, the gray of the towers and especially the orient blue windows painted on the towers sticks out. The trees are trimmed down more. Tourists, loudspeakers, car horns, train bells so much noise it just becomes a hum. Pretzel shops, corn shops and other vendors fill the sidewalks and courtyards. Little boy and old men run around with blue buckets of bottled water “colwatta colwatta colwatta.”
On the way from Hagia Sofia to the Blue Mosque, I was tempted by the smell of corn from the street vendors. I traded the young corn vendor the change in my pockets for a lightly salted yellow corn on the cob. The entire interaction took place with a series of pointing. I pointed to the corn, he pointed to the price on the side of his stand. He pointed to the salt, I gestered a little with my fingers. At the end of the transaction I said thank you in English and he nodded but did not smile. The corn was rubbery, but I grew to like it more and more with each bite, the corn taste was rich and pure. It nothing like the sweet American corn I had become accustomed to eating, but more like the corn I grew up with in China.
The green serene scene of the postcard is littered with people, locals, vendors, tourists all over the lawn, the flower beds and fountain. The trees are just as green as the postcard and the flowers just as vibrant. The bushes are cut slightly differently, I see many more palm trees her than on the postcard. The blue mosque is more gray and white. It’s hot and the spray of the fountain carried to me by the wind feels good. People posing, cameras flashing, above the noise the vendors sing. Tour buses and trains roll by. Bodies everywhere. The carpet is lush inside, I am sinking, but it smells like body odor and feet. It is dark inside, nothing like the Turkish mosque in Berlin that was right and pure. It feels dirty, hot and smelly. I want to leave now.
I left the girls undressing in the bathhouse and walked up the slightly creepy alleyway back to the main street of Taksim square. It was evening, the sun was down, the lights were fluorescing and the clubs were bouncing. In the predominantly male filled streets, I can feel everyone’s eyes on me. Some stood outside restaurants and bars and their eyes followed me as I walked passed. Some walked towards me and literally stared me down as we passed each other. Some I felt were even following me. Some approached me and asked why I was alone, and whether I needed company. I was nervous, annoyed and didn’t know how to walk or hold my arms, or carry myself.
The tallest building today is no SHARP AQUOS. There are people everywhere, sitting on luggage, standing, pointing, talking on cell phones. Groups of bikers pass – bike tours. Young German punks linger by the fountain. Yellow man with umbrella and hotdog stand marked “Grill” “1.20 E.” The top of this monument is spinning. Loudspeakers sound of somewhere to my right – PUMA races. Breaks of train on the tracks behind me squeal. Distant drum beats from street artists with distant guitar music. Babies crying. Shoppers with bags, travelers with backpacks. NEW YORK, ESPRIT. Punk girl with necklace and long leash, pulled by another punk boy. Yellow PUMA bike taxi. Smell of fried foods. All these are absent in the postcard.
Sitting outside at a Café under the TV tower, a little girl came behind me and frightened me with a large “Speak English!?!” She had big eyes and a brown little face with spots of dirt around her cheeks and crumbs around her lips. Her white shirt was stained and her shoes were ripped. She shoved her open hands in my face and I had to move quickly to avoid being punctured in the eyes. I shook my head and gave an apologetic smile. “Please!” She screamed and collapsed to the floor hanging from the edge of my table, rocking my coffee. From the corner of my eyes, I see a Roma woman pushing her carriage of a sleeping child through the crowd, reciting her lines. I wonder how is it that the babies these women carry with them are always asleep. I shook my head again and gave her a glare. She rolled her eyes and stumped off to the next table.
My view of the statue is obscured by the crowd of Asians taking pictures, talking, pointing. I think everyone in the crowd is going to take a picture with the statue. I am standing here in a park, surrounded by trees and green grass. The postcard does not look like a park. The shinning glass building in the background is replaced by empty space. The palace is no longer there, just open green grass now. Marx’s knees are more coppered colored, worn down by people’s hands. I can hear children and dogs splashing in the fountain behind me.
I opened my eyes only to shut them quickly again to the sharp piercing rays of the afternoon sun, slowly disappearing behind the Berliner Dome. My stomach was damp from the grass and my arms were numb and asleep beneath my face. I had been asleep on the grass where the Palace no longer stood for nearly 25 minutes now. The butterfly kite was still floating over my head, the little girls were still chasing each other on the boardwalk, and the lovers were still cuddling near the Spree.
I think this is my favorite train station. The entire structure is made of glass windows, reflecting the sun, the sky and the river that runs beside it. The red trains pull in and out from the same way. The windows on the terminal are all open and slanted. Backpackers appear to be the most abundant travelers today. Bikers seem to be everywhere. Sand bars beneath the station let off distant beats. People sit along the river bank. The windows look black on the other side, where the sun shines on directly. I am on that boat, seen in the postcard. Shielding my eyes from the sun and taking in Berlin from the perspective of the Spree.
I few steps away, I quickly ran back to toss him a coin.