Friday, March 4, 2016

Rambling Notes on Being Nuyorasian in Berlin

My facebook feed is full of friends in America proclaiming #BlackLivesMatter and #Justice4Liang and most recently, the whole debacle of #OscarsSoWhite. I’m following the stories but here in Berlin, the battle for racial justice is in a galaxy far far away. 

Yes, the refugee crisis is everywhere and racism is definitely part of the problem. But refugees are newcomers fleeing from war or famine or extreme poverty; they’re not citizens battling for justice and equity within entrenched systems. In Europe, the race issue is over having enough pieces of cake to give out, while in America, the bakers are wondering why they just get crumbs.

Obviously, I don’t face the discrimination that refugees confront here. People don’t think I’m dirty or looking for a handout. But being Asian-American has its own weirdness in Berlin. I think this has a lot to do with how few Asians there are. People from the Middle East are the only sizeable minority and they’re only 9% of the 3.5 million people in the city. Asians are just 3% of the population. There is no Chinatown. And Germany never had an Asian colony so there isn’t a history with all its inherent baggage.

On the one hand, this is rather liberating. There isn’t really any fetishization of Asian women here. Germans don’t look at me and see a geisha sex kitten, ready to dispense koan-like wisdom and a tea ceremony. And my added American-ness just confuses them. It seems no one knows what to make of me; an Asian-looking woman with some kind of vintage style who speaks perfect English. I definitely don’t look like I work in a nail salon. I also don’t look much like a student. “I’m so surprised,” a rather drunk friend of a friend kept repeating after every sentence I said. I’ve seen a room full of lonely guys check out every girl in the room but their eyes pass right over me like I’m a table or a chair. It’s definitely not the States, where a recent study of 25 million OKCupid members showed that Asian women are the most desired race of women in online dating. Because, you know, geisha sex kitten.

At times, I rather miss being fetishized. Well, it’s not all that pleasant being looked at from the ass-end of a telescope, but at least you’re looked at. In New York, I often found myself in an intense political conversation and then caught the guy beaming at me with a paternal look that seemed to say, “Aww, it’s so cute. It’s even talking.” Here, the look is more one of utter consternation, “Ack, it’s talking?!! In English??? What is it?!” I wonder which is worse. Or how this compares with Asia, where the general reaction is skepticism tinged with disapproval.

But while there isn’t much of a fetish for Asian women, that’s not to say there aren’t Asian stereotypes in Berlin. I danced at a Chinatown-themed party on New Year’s Eve. All the white bartenders dressed in cheongsams with chopsticks in their hair. I had an interesting conversation with a white guy trying to ignore that he was all done up like Madame Butterfly with a kimono, white face, and slanty-eyed makeup. I think I must have been the only one to notice or care that the only Asian music at the so-called Chinatown party was J-pop.

My feelings about cultural (mis)appropriation are very very mixed. I’m not always offended. It’s the other way around too: I see Asians all the time trying really damn hard to be Americans through some token surface means. They bleach their hair blond, wear blue contact lenses, get a nose job. Or they wear baseball caps backwards and low-hanging pants. For Asians, it does seem to come from some kind of inferiority, as if by dyeing their hair or wearing that hat, they can assume a power they wish they had.

For Europeans aping Asians, it’s definitely the other way around. Here are white people, with all their privileges, trying to find a way to be “other.” They wear Native American feathered bonnets and get all tribal or they put on blackface like this lady attempting to bring attention to those poor African tribes. It's a misplaced magnanimity, thinking they can embrace another culture by adopting traditional dress or other surface representations. The line here is kind of fuzzy. Painting your face another color and taping your eyes in a slant and dancing around a teepee: no no no. But antique kimonos are beautiful and I'm glad some other people appreciate them as long as they're not bowing and shuffling like they're Princess Yum Yum in the Town of Titipu. It's interesting to me; this desire to be the “other.” Most people who come from marginalized communities will basically agree that it sucks and if there was a way to erase all the marks of being "other" and still be true to yourself, then YES PLEASE.

I guess this is what I find hardest to relate to: Germans are not underdogs. I’m generalizing very much of course -- and things were different fifty years ago for half of the country -- but at this particular moment in time, Germans don’t know what it means to live with limited opportunities. It’s rather enviable, actually. There isn’t an entrenched class system here like in England, so they don’t know what it means to be on the bottom even in an economic structure. And women are not considered the low end of the social heap here. Germans can choose to identify with the poor or with outcasts of various sorts, but it’s a choice. They can drop that shitty end of the stick anytime they want. This is part of why I think Germans can't sing the blues.

Sadly, my opportunities are a lot more limited. Yes, having good English and being articulate does give me a freedom that some immigrant Asian-Americans may envy, but being Asian and a woman is definitely a handicap if you want to be taken seriously as a writer or director. It's nearly impossible to get past the gatekeepers. You’re constantly fighting cultural stereotypes that relegate you to a tiny dusty unobtrusive corner of the playing field. 

What’s interesting is realizing how much I am defined by this, like a painting created from negative space. My whole life, I’ve resisted stereotypes about my gender and ethnicity: I’m not a math whiz or a model minority or an immigrant or subservient or kawaii. But without these expectations to oppose, I have much less of a defining edge. I know what I’m not, but I’m not sure what I am.

It’s also interesting that I find myself a bit on the opposite end of my stance in America. Back in New York, the great majority of Asian-Americans in the arts are second generation and college educated. Most of them have only been in Asia a few times. Most of them barely speak the language. I’m different in that I do have language skills and my mother is a barely educated immigrant from a rural area. So in New York, I’m often bringing attention to working-class immigrant Asian-America. But here in Berlin, the general stereotype is that Asians work in restaurants and nail salons and speak very bad German and no English. Being Little Miss Mary, I find myself reminding everyone that the model minority is real and I’m (sort of) it. 

But in Berlin, "second generation" and  "model minority" are really foreign concepts. Am I Asian? Am I American? How can I be both? I suppose maybe liminality is what this rambling article is ultimately about. Not to toss a high-faluting five syllable word around, but liminality is such an interesting idea in terms of mixed ethnicities and diasporas. 

The idea was first applied by an anthropologist in the early 1900s to the middle state of rituals. Now it’s also applied to societies and history and individuals. It’s the state of being between things. It’s the moment when something is being dissolved and something else is being created. The anthropologist Victor Turner argues that liminality is a state of great tension that can’t remain for too long. That might be obvious but it’s an important thought. Another interesting thought is the liminal being, a creature between two different states. In fiction, that would include shape shifters, tricksters, and cyborgs. And in reality? Teenagers, transsexuals, people of mixed cultures. 

We’re the people at the threshold. We are the future. Everyone else just has to get used to it. All that racist hostility in America? Howls of a dying beast. It's inevitable that one day, everyone will be of mixed cultures and race will be totally moot. Until then, my mutant powers of invisibility seem to have developed a weird and interesting tangent here in Berlin. I wonder if there's any use for it. 

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