Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Final: Me, my research, my travels

After numerous hours of walking, several painful blisters, and a whole lot of pictures later, I was able to experience a small part of Berlin, but quite an important one. My research truly helped develop me into a traveler. I had to put myself out there in the city, talk to people and observe their movements, expressions and interactions. I travelled to places I was not familiar with and just let myself get lost. In my disorientation, I discovered a whole other side of Berlin, the unguided one. My hand hung by my side, held by no one and led by no one. I was independent and I explored. I found my research everywhere I went. Berlin was a city of Vietnamese people. In my last performance, I was able to show this idea through both movements and still frames. I showed the place I saw and the people I knew. To me, they were the city and very much a part of Germany.

My research concerns the minority experience in Germany with a focus on the Vietnamese community. While studying in Berlin, I was able to learn new facts about German immigration policies and integration projects, but more importantly I discovered the many unheard stories of the Vietnamese people. Before diving into my research in Berlin, I had prepared myself by reading old newspapers, selected chapters from books, and journalistic articles about the Vietnamese life in Germany. I learned about the history of the guest workers and the refugees. The differences between the two groups were my main interest. The guest workers were North Vietnamese who had work contracts with the Soviets in the East while the refugees were South Vietnamese who were seeking political asylum in the West. Both groups integrated into German society in fairly different manners. I gathered all of these facts about the Vietnamese community and then formed my interview questions. To my surprise, I never used many of those questions. Instead, I sat down and had personal conversations with the individuals that I interviewed. I listened as these people recollect on their immigration journey and life story. My intimate glimpse into these people’s lives and my new knowledge about German law and society acquired from an actual German immigration officer was more than I had expected for my research. I talked to East and West Berliners, professionals and non-professionals. Their stories and my own observations of the city not only helped with my research, but it contributed to my overall travel experience in Berlin.

When I first arrived in Germany, I was worried about my research. I did not know whether I would find people to interview or if they would even talk to me. I had a lot of doubts, but they dissipated as soon as I discovered that my research was just right around the corner. Near my apartment, there was a small neighborhood plaza where I went to eat tasty doners and buy groceries. It was my first time walking to Kaiser when I noticed the large orange sign that said NAILS. Although I tried hard to suppress the typical American stereotype that most nail salons are own by Vietnamese people, I could not help but wonder if a Vietnamese person owned that place. I crossed the street to have a closer look and the small letters underneath the word NAILS proved my prediction to be right. I did not go in, but this encounter with a small Vietnamese business sparked a new confidence in me. From then on, it seemed as if my research was right at my fingertip. It was in the metro that I rode on everyday, the streets I walked through, and the stores I shopped at. Everywhere I went I was able to find a Vietnamese person and all I needed was to strike up a conversation.

The train screeched to a stop and I stepped out into new territory. This was the dreaded metro stop between Alexanderplatz and Friedrichstrabe, the one I had to wait through each time I travelled to Humboldt University. I got off at Hackescher Markt and wandered the streets. I found another nail place called Rosa Nails. This time, I decided to go in. A short Asian lady, who looked to be in her mid 50’s, greeted me. There were two other Asian women, one of which was busy with a German customer. They all looked at me and perhaps it was the small room and the staring eyes that blurred my thinking. The next thing I did was asked the lady if she was Vietnamese in English. Of course she did not understand a word I said. I felt stupid and panicky. I was contemplating whether I should speak to her in Vietnamese, but I did not want to make assumptions. Then, the German lady intervened and asked me in English if I wanted to get my nails done. I told her that I was a student from America who was doing research on the Vietnamese people in Germany and I wanted to know if the owner was Vietnamese. She looked confused and said that the Asian ladies could not speak much German. I decided then that I should talk to the storeowner in Vietnamese. After she heard me speak, she laughed and said, “phải rồi, cô là người Việt Nam”, “Of course I am Vietnamese.” I noticed from her accent that she was North Vietnamese. I was only able to have a short conversation with her and learned that she had been living in Germany for fifteen years and was there on a work permit. When I left, I kept thinking about the interactions between the German woman and the Vietnamese ladies. There was a wall between them, a language barrier. It was obvious in this situation that Vietnamese people have not quite integrated into German society.

Part of my itinerary for my research was to go talk with people in restaurants and stores. I went to the Asian market in Alexanderplaz. The sight of large, plastic rice bags and the distinct smell of raw meats and fresh vegetables hit me as I entered. It was a smell I knew too well from the many times I went grocery shopping with my parents. I browsed through the instant noodles simultaneously scanning the room for a Vietnamese person. My ears heard the familiar sounds and perked up. I listened as two men discussed their night. When they were finished, I came over to one young man with golden blond hair and an eye piercing. I explained that I was doing research on the Vietnamese community and wanted to talk to him. He said that he was busy, but next door there was a person that might be able to talk to me.

I headed over to the place next to the Asian market, which turned out to be a sushi bar. Later on I would discover that Vietnamese people owned nearly all the Asian restaurants in Berlin and sushi bars were the more popular ones. As I walked up the wooden step, I saw an Asian man sit at a table smoking. The stoop in his shoulder and the gray in his hair reflected his old age. He had a somber expression on his face. Each time he let out a cloud of white smoke, his eyes would intensely stare down at the table as if he was trying to see through it. He noticed me and looked over. In Vietnamese, I asked him if he could talk to me about his experience living in Germany. He said he was busy, but pointed me to a young man nearby. The young man and I introduced each other and then sat down at the table to talk. It was my first long conversation with a Vietnamese person. I learned that his mom had immigrated to Germany on a work permit in 1993 and it was not until 5 years ago that he was able to come join her. I asked whether the immigration process took a long time and he said it only took a year for all the paper work to go through. We talked about his experience going to German schools and he explained that most of his Vietnamese friends do not speak their country’s language and they have adapted the German culture completely. I told him that in America there are cultural clubs such as Vietnamese club or Chinese club where students can get together to celebrate their culture. He said he had never heard of any in German schools.

After my conversation with the young man, I thought more about integration in Germany. Although it seemed that integration was unsuccessful for the older generation, it has made a huge stride in the younger generation. The children of the guest workers and refugees are losing their Vietnamese identity. In Germany, there are fewer mediums through which these children can keep their own culture alive. It is as if they can only have one or the other, be German or be Vietnamese, not Vietnamese-German. These ideas about Vietnamese identity in a German society kept lingering in my mind. Thus, I was very excited when I had chance to discuss them with Reinhard Isensee, an American studies professor at Humboldt University. Professor Isensee agreed that it is difficult for the Vietnamese people to find their identity in Germany because Germany is still trying to figure out its own identity. He suggested that most immigrants are interested in economics rather than politics. They do not apply for citizenship because they can take advantage of social programs without it.

I had a chance to speak with Shawn during an office hour visit. He mentioned something that I had seen in Berlin but had not quite scrutinized. Shawn noticed that in Berlin there are more Asians in service-based jobs and fewer professionals, unlike in Seattle where one can find many Asians dressed in business suites walking in the streets. It stroked me that many of the Vietnamese people that I have observed were indeed those working in small businesses such as restaurants, nail salons, grocery stores, and flower shops. I had also asked Professor Isensee about this idea of service-based jobs for Asian immigrants. He explained that unlike America, where a person who learns to speak English will have better access to economic success, the immigrants in Germany are limited to certain jobs and there are little opportunities for them to escape the stereotypes of being a successful flower shop, nail salon, or restaurant owner. He also mentioned that it is very rare to see Vietnamese minorities as high-level professionals or holding political positions.

My research took a groundbreaking step when I met Markus Heidi, another American Studies professor at Humboldt University. I explained my research to him and he kindly helped introduced me to a Vietnamese storeowner, an actual guest worker from East Germany. Markus also gave me contact information of his wife’s Vietnamese PhD student. I had my longest conversations with these two people and was able to learn about the guest workers’ life after the fall of the wall and the political tension between North and South Vietnamese in East and West Germany.

The first time I saw Loan I had a really warm feeling on the inside. She looked to be about my mother’s age with long black hair and dark brown eyes. Her wide smile, soft voice and welcoming demeanor made me feel at home. She spoke to me in Vietnamese and at first I was at a lost of words. I could not think of what to say so she kindly filled the void in my head by telling me to say “Chào cô Loan”, which translates to “Hello aunt Loan”. It was around 10 A.M and she was preparing to open her shop. I walked around the neighborhood of Oranienburger as to let Loan finish setting up her business. I love observing a new place in Berlin. At every different metro stop, there is another unique location, different in sight, feel, and smell. I feel as if I had experienced more than one culture, on country, and one group of people.

I slowly stepped into the small room crowded with refrigerators, magazines, postcards, cardboard boxes, and cigarettes. Loan sat behind a glass table near the cigarette displays. As I entered, I was once again greeted with a warm smile. Loan pulled out a tall bar stool near her table for me to sit on. We started to have a small conversation in which she asked me about myself. I told her my immigration story of how I came to America with my parents and brother when I was eight years old. We talked about my family, aspirations and goals. She was very much interested in my life. I sat with her for hours as each of her customers would come and go. I watched as she laughed and chitchatted with the German man from across the street, said Tschüss to the dad buying ice cream for his kids, and waved goodbye to the pleasant lady in a nice business outfit. Then, I began asking her questions about her own journey to Germany. I learned that she had been living in Berlin for 27 years. She came to East Germany when she was 19 years old as a part of the work contract that the Soviets had with North Vietnam. Loan explained that in her time, many North Vietnamese would sign up for the guest worker program right after they finished secondary school. She came to Germany alone and worked in the textile factory until the fall of the wall. I asked Loan about the challenges she faced as a Vietnamese guest worker. She told me that there were strict rules that prohibit the guest workers from having a family. She was not allowed to meet men, get married, or have children. If she had gotten pregnant, she would be sent back to Vietnam right away. I learned that after the fall of the wall, it was hard times for many guest workers. They needed jobs to live out the days until their contract expired and they would be sent back to Vietnam. Loan said that seeking jobs in the west was very difficult and when the guest workers’ contract ended in the early 90’s, the German government gave them two options. They could take a stipend and head back to Vietnam or stay, receive no money, and be “độc lập”, independent. There was going to be no help and they had to fend for themselves. Loan chose to stay in Germany with her husband, who was a fellow guest worker.

My final talk with Toan Nguyen, a Vietnamese PhD student was a good way to end my research. I spoke with mostly North Vietnamese people from East Germany, but Toan gave me the perspective of South Vietnamese people from West Germany. Interestingly enough, Toan was researching about identity and German social issues. We discussed his parents’ experience as refugees seeking political asylum in West Germany. He explained that the refugees were better integrated into German society than the guest workers because there was public sensitivity towards the South Vietnamese in the West. Perhaps the West Germans felt this way because they empathized with the refugees’ situation as escapees of communism. The refugees were welcomed to their newly adopted country with support in housing, job placement, and social benefits. I asked whether there was still political tension and division between the Vietnamese people living in East Germany and in West Germany. He told me that every year in Berlin, there are two different New Years celebration in which the East Vietnamese would wave the current communist Vietnam flag while the West would wave the old South Vietnam flag.

The people I met, the places I saw, and the stories I heard will forever be kept in my memory and have a place in my heart. My research was not just for the class; it was for me. I learned about the people who shared my same heritage but different life experiences. I discovered a side of me that I never knew I had or was always afraid to tap into. I can be a writer, a performer, and an artist. My fears transformed into curiosity and my worries morphed into creativity. Europe did not change me, but rather it unlocked me. It provided me with the means to discover myself. Although my research has reached its end, my travels and exploration will not.







Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Assignment 2 and 4 (postcards and in-betweens)

As I sit on this bench facing the front of the building where the photographer might have been, I see the differences in the people and their actions, objects and their placement, and the clarity of the view. I see the huge crane, which did not exist on the postcard, standing still behind the left side of the building. There is no longer a small and yellow cross sitting near the bushes on the side of the building. A think silver needle attached to a red striped ball sneaks up from behind the right side of the building is replaced with artificial blue sky in the postcard. The cool wind blows on my skin and I can smell a mixture of fresh grass and cigarette smoke. I see a few people relaxing on the grass in front of the building but not as many as in the photo. The sunset radiates yellow rays over the building lightened some parts of it while
others remain in a shadow.

I crossed a bridge near the Berliner Dome. The sky had that beautiful deep reddish-orange and dark pink color surrounding the disappearing sun. I saw a vendor who probably stood hours upon hours by his stand as cars zoomed pass, tourist walked by, and ships flowed on in the river beneath. The wind was blowing hard and a furry Russian hat flew off of his table. I felt bad and I wanted to help, but all I could do was watch; watched as he ran, uncertain of each move and eyes darting back at his unattended merchandise. I understood his frustration, the struggle with split second decisions and fear of the unknown future. I have always dreaded the moment when my body freezes as the voice in my head starts to scream out questions and demands. Go! Wait, should I? No? Yes? Maybe. Go!

It is evening time and not many tourists surround this place. In the photo, there are no people climbing this statue, trying to reach a comfortable spot to sit and take a picture. I admit, I am tempted to do the same soon. There is a couple on the right of me taking pictures of each other. The woman wears white capri pants that are too tight for her body. Her shirt is filled with flowers that are both colorful and tacky. Her ankles seemed to be begging for released from those suffocating, uncomfortable heels. The man has a grin that seems genuine, yet it does not match with the annoyance in his eyes. Aside from these people, there is not much that goes on around this fountain right now. It is a quiet time in Berlin. The breeze begins to activate the goose bumps on my skin. I can hear the quiet splashing of the water.

I sat in the fast moving U-bahn and stared out of a dusty window at the dark and gray tunnel wall. As the train screeched to a stop in front of Jannowitzbrucke, I noticed a man come in. He was nicely dressed in black pants and a light blue striped shirt tucked under his belted pants. A bright red Voda phone bag hung from his left wrist and his right hand held a phone next to his ears. The phone was a warning sign. I anticipated dark glaring eyes and stern faces sending out a death stare that would make anyone stop speaking in mid-sentence. Somehow, this man managed to ignore all the angry eyes and flaring nostrils pointed toward him and continued on with his conversation.

I stand outside the memorial and stare at it blankly. All I see were large gray stones erected from the ground and a few trees scattered here and there. Little children jump around on top of the stones that were just tall enough for them to reach. I hear Toby telling us the history of this memorial, but I am more focused on figuring out what it was all about. I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the reason these stones appeared to be the same level and yet people just keep disappearing into them. The wind is blowing the tree behind me and leaves starts to fall, interrupting my focus. Now I notice the city behind me. It is strange that a memorial sits in the middle of a thriving city center where tourists shop, businessmen speed walking to their meetings, bicyclists pedaling fast. These stones remain still as the world around them moves past them. I walk in and see the hill-like ground. The stones grew taller and around me were just large, gray stones and small pathways. I felt at peace and realized that this place is its own world apart from the loud crowded city bordering it.

I heard the gurgling noises from my stomach. My mind, no longer able to ignore the empty feeling and watery mouth, spun in circles and made me dizzy. I was weak and lazy. I finally found the strength to walk down three flights of stairs and out of my apartment. I walked along the uneven pavement until the small red stand with large letters that spelled out Döner appeared in the far distance. Perhaps I was too hungry because the Döner Kebab house appeared like a mirage as my eyes concentrated hard on it. I kept walking and finally reached a point where I could smell the delicious Döners. I breathed in the smell of greasy chicken mixed with mysterious spices that had never failed to please my taste buds; then everything became real.

My eyes were half-closed. My head spun and I felt my heart pounding hard at my chest. I sat up. For a second, I was blind. There was a black nothingness. I did not know whether I was dreaming or not, but I felt that terrible panic, the one in nightmares where my legs remain stagnant as I am being chased after by a killer. The walls around me were closing in and I needed to get out. As I crawled, I started to make out something in front of me. The blindness disappeared as fast as it came. I recognized the room; it was my room, my bed, and my closet. Perhaps my experience in the bunker had followed me into my dreams.

I stood outside in my balcony and watched the street with its orange glowing lamps, uneven sidewalks and dark green trees. It was a warm and peaceful night. The city was alive and the good times were out there, but I enjoyed sitting where I was. That night reminded me of home for some odd reason. My house has a large window that bulges out from the wall and I used to read by the window so I could watch joggers, bikers, and cars that passed by. It was intriguing to see different types of people interacting with the city. It is great to be the observer rather than the doer at times. I believe we can learn a lot about a place when we just sit back and watch.

This postcard shows the old checkpoint Charlie, which I would say seems much more serious and intimidating than how it is now. The checkpoint Charlie now sits in front of an U-baun station and in the middle of a busy street. Cars rush by and people speed walk across. Aside from the tourists, this place seems to be ignored. The glory of checkpoint Charlie is no longer existent. Surrounding this place are clothing shops, restaurants, cafes, and stores. It is loud here. People are talking on their phones, to each other, dogs bark. It is definitely a busy area. There are guards standing at the checkpoint just like in the postcard, except they are not real. They are only there for display, just like the ones at Brandenburg gate.

The smell of that morning reminded me of mildew and frosted grass on a cold winter day. Although the music was blasting from my ipod headphones, I heard the sound of the street with speedy cars crashing against a strong opposing wind and gravel crunching beneath my feet. As I ran, I could see the pond’s calm water, green from the reflection of giant trees lining the sidewalk above it. I squinted to see the distant garden with red and yellow flowers. It was a pleasant attraction distraction for a morning run in Berlin.

I hear car rushing by and the sound of the metro roaring across the train tracks above me. I have seen this building twice now and each time it never fails to amaze me. When I found the postcard, for it, I was really excited. Now I am here at the small corner across from the building. I see a few differences between the one in the postcard and the beautiful building right in front of me. There are flowers on the windows and people sitting at the café underneath. It is a busy day for this place. There is a good breeze here where I am standing. I am close to the edge of a curved roadway. Cars are driving fast and when they speed past me, I can feel the strong, cool wind. This is the sensation that I crave and love during a hot summer day. I crossed this dangerous highway to a calmer area to look at the building at a different angel. Now I start to notice the while window blinds and a woman standing out in her balcony. I can smell cigarette smokes mixed with greasy foods.

I saw people rushed in and I heard the loud voices, music, and sizzle of grilled food. When I actually stepped into the Turkish market, I faced an overwhelming amount of shoppers, vendors, and products. I felt lost at once. It was like déjà vu and I was back in Longview during the Terry and Taylor garage sale. This was a big event in my hometown. Cars were parked everywhere, on lawns, sidewalks, and all sides of anywhere a driver could squeeze his or her vehicle into. The horrible memories of waking up at 6 in the morning to walk for miles came back so suddenly. However, this time it was noon and I was excited to see the different clothes, books, jewelry, and nearly anything imaginable.

I stare up at the huge dome, perhaps, at the same spot the artists pointed his camera from. It is bright outside and the dome is filled with young children, babies, couples, adults, families, you name it. There is a lot of diversity here. I see people starting to walk up the stairs circling the dome; they have their ipods in their ears, probably listening to the history of this place. I look down to see more and more people rushing in. I hear my name and look up. Natalia gives me a warning face and says, “It’s hot up there”. I continue walking up anyway. As I got higher, the view of Berlin below becomes clearer and more magnificent. However, the air becomes humid and I can feel the terrible heat that I was warned about. I sweat easily so my clothes are starting to stick to my body. Walking down was much faster and I can actually have room to breathe. I stare up one more time to look at the clear glass, with the blue sky on the outside.

I scanned at the various postcards displayed on a stand in the front of the Souvenir shop. Most of the postcards were basic ones that had several pictures of famous Berlin buildings and places in it. I looked up to see that price was fairly decent and worth buying for my friends at home. I was indecisive standing there and looking at the same postcards many times over. I guess I was looking at the postcards longer than I thought, because when I looked up, I saw a set of blue eyes with wrinkles lining the corners watching me intently. I decided to be quicker and picked the postcards that were already in my hand.

I walked through Alexanderplaz after getting the desperately needed money from Deutchbank’s ATM. In my hurry to get home and eat dinner, I speed walked across the front of the Galleria, seeming to be a true Berliner who just got off from a long day’s work. I didn’t expect to be an observer of the city that day, but by chance I heard the words, “toi mu di thiem”. My ears perked up like it often does when it recognizes a language. However, I needed to be sure. What I did was creepy, stalker like even, but it had to be done because I did not want ignore my curiosity. In my own justification, it was for research. So I followed a Vietnamese lady and listened to her conversation on her phone. I could tell from her accent that she was a North Vietnamese and it occurred to that after this event, I began hearing many voices alike her in Berlin.

I walk into this grand mosque not quite expecting to see an icecream stand. At the side of the mosque is a little candy shop with tables and chairs placed in front of it. I sit down and look around me. The tombstones, black, gray, titled, carved are scattered all over the entrance of the mosque. I am curious about this small little cemetery. It is quite unique, but barely displayed on the postcard. My concentration on the tombstones is interrupted by the sound of water running through a hose. I hear this splashing noise and looked up at the man who was watering a huge evergreen tree that sits near the edge of the cemetery. A quiet and peaceful place this is. Above me and to the right is a white balcony with pink and red flowers covering the edges. I look down a little bit to see two men drinking their tea in a cup shaped like pears sitting on a pedal. The mosque is located in a Turkish area so I assume these men are speaking Turkish. The mosque has two huge towers that point upward, making it very visible.

I was packing and preparing for the long awaited trip to beautiful Istanbul. After reading Orhan’s book, I was unsure of what to expect of Turkey. The book told stories of an old country, a black and white era even. The book was of memories, but I was going to be there in the present. The only other view of the city and picture I developed in my mind came from reading my cousin’s essay on Turkey. She had spent a semester studying there this past year so I assumed her descriptions were accurate of the present country. Then, I realized that I had to erase every bit of knowledge about Istanbul. I wanted to experience the city as it was through my eyes, free of a filter. Of course I needed to have references to make connections to after I had seen the city for myself, but until then, I was a new sponge ready to soak in everything that this city had to offer.

It was six o’clock in the evening and I heard the angry gurgling screams from my stomach. We were lost and the busy streets filled with vendors and shoppers seemed like a distant past. All I saw were narrowed streets curving in ways that reminded me of my hometown’s annual Halloween corn maze. Every turn was a surprise, an unexpected new view of the city. This alleyway was empty and abandoned like the garbage that laid on it. I learned from travelling that getting lost in a whole new city is great. It allowed me discover something unique about the city and experience the culture.

I stared out of the bus’s window as Istanbul flew past me. The buildings, houses, people, and green trees were all a blurred. I tried videotaping the city because I knew that I would have a fleeting memory of this place. I needed a way to revisit it and slow everything down. The idea of bus tour was great at first because to be honest, I did not know if my legs could have endured Istanbul like it did Berlin. The luxury of relaxing in an air-conditioned vehicle while observing Istanbul was brilliant idea. I was wrong. The bus was an enabler of my sleep-deprived body. I tried hard to resist it, but sometimes the mind over matter does not work.

I sat on my black leather couch and turned on the TV. All the channels were in German except MTV and CNN. I kept changing the channel but I couldn’t find MTV or CNN. I noticed something weird about the numbers on the TV screen. It was in the 70’s, so I decided to change it back to channel 3 to start my search over. However, as I changed the channel, I started to recognize the same shows. This was very odd, so I went up to the big numbers again to see if the channels are really repeating themselves. Indeed they were because channel 13 and channel 61 were showing the same commercial.

I squinted my eyes to get a better view of what seemed like thin shadows on a white wall reflecting the sunrays. My eyes burned as I tried hard to stare at this art. The artist was explaining the artwork, but I chose a very bad time to concentrate on the art rather than the artist’s explanation. This made it much harder for me to figure out what it was that I was looking at. As it turned out, the small black lines were arrows. An artist had managed to shoot with enough force that three arrows pierced through thick, cemented wall and remained there for days.

The salmon colored jeans caught my eyes right away. I sped toward the pile of clothes that lay under a large red sign of which I assumed meant “sales” and indeed it was. The joy of shopping at a European store I had been anticipating for a long time was obvious from the wide grin on my face and the butterflies in my stomach. I grabbed a few shirts and pants to try on. The typical long line of shoppers formed in front of the dressing room in a blink of an eye. I waited patiently for my turn being fully aware that perhaps I was about to waste a lot of time. Shopping is a tricky game and I dived in with no regrets. True to my prediction, I left the store empty handed after two hours.

I must tell my melon favored ice cream story, a sad story indeed. It was a hot and humid day I must say. All I wanted was the taste of a soft and sweet cold cream, a heavenly feeling I deemed. But my tongue was too greedy and swung fast at the rounded ball stuffed quite loosely on the brown cone. All too quickly the delicious thing was taken from me, leaving only a lingering taste that I could never forget. It would be at the store again I had bet. Oh I was terribly wrong. When I returned the next day and the day after and another day after that, it was not there. That was the thing I regret most about Berlin.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Assignment 3- I miss Istanbul

Melancholy, a feeling that Orhan described so eloquently in Istanbul, was intangible, existing only as some old memory written on thin, white pages filled with black printed words. Or so I thought.

My mind was blank, filled with only quiet voices and soft Turkish music playing from the speakers above my head. I registered little else from my surroundings. Shoved against the dreaded window seat, I sat upright in an uncomfortable position. The blinding white light outside shined through the two small oval windows next to my cheek. I squint. My hands jumped at the tan blinds and shut them before my eyes stung and my vision blurred from moisture. I heard the plane engines roar and braced myself for takeoff. While above the world and among puffy white clouds, I waited with both eagerness and impatience for that rare view of the pocket-sized city below. Unexpected, I felt the bittersweet sadness. I felt it in the way my eyes stopped blinking and lingered at the disappearing land below, the way my mind flashed pictures of Turkish delights, tulip shaped tea cups, yellow taxis, stone pavements, and mosques on hillsides, and the way my mouth lifted up in a simple, transient smile.

I miss Istanbul.

I miss the weird, drowsy feeling of waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning to a man’s voice, seeming to echo all around me. In my half-sleep state, I tried to locate the source of this noise. Was the sound coming from a radio in the room? It was dark. I could only see the outlines of bunk beds, a table, and the window across the room. I lifted my body; a failed attempt and I fell back onto my stiff mattress. I heard the ruffling sound of blankets, a sigh, and two clicks. The window closed and so did my eyes. The now distant chant followed me into my dreams. This was call to prayer, the sound of Istanbul.

I miss the sweaty palms, veins pulsing loudly, and my heart racing at an abnormal speed as I bargained for the first time. “I will buy it for two lira”. My voice was quiet, passive in an annoying way. The man in a blue, half-buttoned up shirt and black pants stood with most of his weight on one leg and the other relaxing out in front held up four fingers and smiled, showing his smoke damaged teeth. “I give you for 4 lira”. My mind was racing to tap into the Asian response that would get me what I want. I gave up. Perhaps I did not possess that innate bargaining skill. Tur suk cu lar, I replay each syllables over and over in my head, and gave him the best version of my Turkish thank you. I smiled goodbye and stepped back into the crowd, with cramped bodies pushing, shoving me along the traffic of shoppers.

I miss the steep hills and uneven cobblestone pavements. In Berlin, I walked for hours and felt no tightness of skin around my calves, aching in my leg muscles, or the sore feeling in my back. Berlin, a flat land with large streets, cross walks, and walled in shops was replaced with Istanbul’s narrow alleyways, open fruit markets, and large hillsides. Berlin at night was quiet, peaceful in a sense. Istanbul, with its neon lights illuminating the large streets filled with people walking, talking over loud music and thumping bass, was invigorating. Vendors stood behind their tables yelling out “ni hao ma”, “pretty lady”, and “I have this for you”. Stray cats, like the bees in Berlin, wandered around, fearless among the people. It was nearing 2 A.M and yet this city remained alive.

I miss the fast pace world where crazy ships moved about aimlessly in a vibrant blue sea, passing each other with only a few inches apart. “In Turkey, there are no rules, you create your own”, a Turkish friend announced before I ran, with full force across a street, nervous and praying for survival. Traffic rules did not exist here. I will never forget the Taxi driver with one hand on the wheel, the other holding a grilled corn. With each giant carefree bite of his corn, I gulped in air, a shocked breath. My heart nearly stopped beating and my feet slammed down at an invisible brake. This cycle repeated for the next 10 minutes as the driver continued down the road at 70 km/hr while eating, changing lanes, and passing cars.

I expected Istanbul to be a city of ancient history, rich culture, and cheap shopping. Little did I know that this city would sweep me off my feet, take me out of my comfort zone, and throw me into a pool of new experiences. In just four short days, I was able to discover the place where I felt both at home and out of place. Perhaps I drank too much Turkish tea, eaten too sweet of a peach, walked up too many hills, and sat on too many benches stained with dark green pigeon poop. Perhaps it all ended too quickly because “too much” wasn’t enough. I wanted more of this city than just some 4 days’ memory.

I stared out of the plane’s small, plastic window at a disappearing city. I felt that feeling. The feeling of longing, remembrance for a place I fell in love with.

I miss Istanbul.

Monday, August 10, 2009

No man's land

I found no man’s land, cropped into an even rectangle and placed in the middle of a thriving city. I was reminded of the rice patties in Vietnam, yet this was unlike any countryside I have seen. Wet grass drowned under the constant bombardment of sprinkler water. Empty bottles, black and white garbage bags, ripped cardboard boxes, cigarette butts, and what seemed like all of Berlin’s garbage was scattered around this green land. On each side sits fancy glass buildings, one of which had a lattice structure, strong and flimsy. Strong because it was grounded and build high. Flimsy because with one rock thrown, a hit and a simple crack to the glass could give rise to a domino effect shatter. Parked all along the front of this building were slick black cars, Mercedes Benz and BMW. I half expected men in pitched black sunglasses with clear, slinky-like plastic wires sneaking out of their necks and connecting to their ears. A gunshot and everyone dropped to the ground. A battle ensued. Loud bangs filled the place as fast spinning bullets cut through air and drilled through metal, human tissues, and cemented ground. Yes, I only half expected that. I actually saw newly paved streets full of speedy cars, sweaty joggers, and energetic bikers. It seemed surreal. This was not the Berlin I knew, but what did I know?

Before I came here, I had pictured rare colorful flowers, majestic fountains, and a grand pathway to large front doors guarded by men with stern faces and stiff bodies. I expected a building, centuries old with gothic style architecture. I wanted impact. A bam! There it is, in all of its glory and might. I got no man’s land. By now, I should have learned not to expect, but to experience. Somehow, this place did not seem like it should fit that sentiment. Pupils dilated and sympathetic nervous system kicked in. I am ready for action. No, not something I felt being there at that place.

Friday, August 7, 2009

No pictures, only memories

In the ninth grade, my English teacher assigned our class a short story to read. The book had a dark brown cover with worn out, ripped edges. While reading, I saw the word “Holocaust” and quickly glanced over it. At this time, I was accustomed to skipping over words that I did not know. You may ask, how is that possible? Trust me, I faced many dropped mouths and wide opened eyes that day in room 131. I watched as my classmates’ emotions fluctuate from shocked to bafflement, and finally to genuine curiosity. The funny thing is, my expressions mirrored theirs completely. I was just as confused as they were. I can’t explain why or how I missed such an important event in history, but I missed it.

I enter a crowded hallway. The smell of burnt wood takes me by surprise. The strong odor and small space make my head spin. I take deeper breaths, but I am losing it. I feel aggressive. By some self-preservation mechanism, my body straightens up. I take one big breath and held it in as if I was preparing to plunge into a lake. With an unyielding strength, I shove past the fortress of bodies. One last push and I stagger into a wide, open room. I let out a breath of relief. My eyes scan the hallway that I just escaped from and I see the wooden wall, chipped and blackened by fire. I turn back around to find myself in an oddly familiar place. The spacious room has glass display cabinets line against all sides of the wall. A museum. In this world of black and white, I see old photographs of families, faded names on documents, long unused medical instruments, and stained shoes. For the first time, my camera hangs from my wrist, lifeless. No pictures. My eyes are the lenses and I soak in the details of each item behind the clear glass window, making a copy of them in my memory.

I see color, a yellow star sewn onto striped pajamas. An uncanny quietness penetrates the room. With colors came a change of atmosphere. A silent film plays in my head. I see a life in those pajamas, someone with eyes drooped and puffy. A body curled up, knees glued to the chest and arms wrapped tightly around thin frail legs. The pajamas shake in rhythm with the shivering body that hugs a cold, white wall. No sleep tonight and a hopeless morning.

Far from that room, I stand on tiny rocks scattered across a cemented ground and slowly breathe. A cool breeze blows by and for a second, my skin loses the burning sensation caused by the sun. I walk off, with the final picture of large gray cement walls erected from the ground and lined along a path separating sachsenhausen from a small-town neighborhood.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A tour to remember

Underneath the train station existed this whole different world in Berlin. I first entered a room that was more like a small metal box. Air is warm. Breathing becomes hard as steamy wet particles rush in my lungs. Lights are dim, but I can clearly see the yellow paint spelling out the words Zum Manner Abort. My first guess for the meaning of these words would be “Warning! Dangerous Area”, but it actually translates into Men’s restroom. I was curious as to why the Germans did not use the male and female symbols to indicate the restrooms. Perhaps all the people who find sanctuary in this bunker could speak and read German. Perhaps when one’s life is on the line, trivial things such as knowing how to read and going to the bathroom are irrelevant. Perhaps my mind is wandering because I feel myself losing control of my own body and mind as the oxygen rushing to my head slowly dwindles.

I hear different sounds of shoes thumping, clanking against the hard cemented floors. My steps are forced. I move slowly. The room becomes a bit darker and my eyes stare out of a cloudy film. My fingers attempted to wrap itself around my pen and take control. I am in that phase where my hands are spelling out words but my mind was not making it move. The writings in my journal, like my memory, are random unfathomable scribbles. Images of old toilets, war artifacts, steep stairs, wooden benches and beds flash quickly through my recollections of that small, dark bunker. I was dizzy and I fell forward several times only to have my body’s own reflexes yank me back into position. My mind tried to justify these “symptoms” as my knees were locked for too long and that I am tired.

It wasn’t until I slowly dragged myself out of the bunker with whatever force I had left that my stream of consciousness returned. Right then, I knew that it wasn’t tiredness or locked knees; it was the unforgettable experience I shared with the German people during WWII. I have never felt so many different sensations while being in a place. This was a reality tour. I was actually feeling, breathing, seeing the way a person would while hiding in a bunker during an air raid.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Reality of War

As I sit listening to the many facts about the Nazis, I could only think about the various bullet holes that distinctly marked the building behind me. Thoughts about bombs dropping, guns firing, and dark clouds of smoke raced through my head. My mind filled with vivid scenes from my brother’s favorite movie Saving Private Ryan of soldiers sneaking along the walls, hiding in holes, peaking out broken windows, aimlessly shooting at their enemies. It was all Hollywood right? Maybe not.

It occurred to me that I could be standing in the middle of a battle zone, which made pain, death, and war become very real. It was hard for me to grasp my mind around the idea that although WWII happened decades ago, the ramifications of this war still linger and I can physically touch it on the bricks of a building.

“You cannot just think that these people were stupid.” Toby was talking about the Nazi officials. I listened as I sat on the stones that marked the exact location of the Nazi headquarters. This place gave birth to horrible plans of exterminating millions of people. It is difficult to understand the psychology behind a mob mentality. At that moment, I found myself wondering what I would have done. Would I also be swept up by the Nazi propaganda? Would I diligently plan an efficient way to kill a mass group of people? I would never know. I stand where those men and women of the Nazi party once stood, but I am not surrounded by the same trees, grass, buildings, dirt, fences, or roads as they did. I can only see the detrimental outcomes that they helped create.

I walked further along the path with displays of black and white photographs and writing. This was the Topography of Terror. The title strikes me as fitting to the topic of Nazi Germany, but the atmosphere of this museum was rather unbefitting. The displays were orderly placed in their positions, and I felt peaceful with the warm breeze, shady trees, and quietness surrounding me.

My calm feeling was disrupted by a photograph of a young woman. She had short hair with slight curls at the ends. She had light smooth skin and clear light eyes. I was curious because I never really thought about women’s roles in wars. When I saw this woman, I wonder whether she was a Nazi. Did she participate in the actual battles or the planning? Perhaps she is a victim. Is she German, Russian, or American? So I read her story. She was a French freelance writer living in Germany. She worked for the Nazi party until they discovered that she was illegally collecting pictures of Nazi crimes and helped her husband in search for new contracts in the resistance. I would have never guessed all of these facts from simply looking at her face. However, her picture indeed caught my eye and I was able to learn more about her hardships and role during WWII.