checkpoint charlie

Still as a Tomb

By Joshua Weiner

“Berlin Notebook: Where Are the Refugees?” is a straightforward journal transcription of my experiences in Berlin during October 2015, a time when the influx of refugees in Germany and the rest of Europe was peaking. I have tried to be as faithful as possible in my reporting of interviews. I have not tried to verify the facts that people presented (when they told them to me); I have tried, rather, to convey the experience of talking with them, what it was like to be there, and to listen, to ask. The form of the interviews may seem to move like the “streaming” metaphor one finds everywhere in use to describe the movement of people across national borders. This journal transcript will appear here in daily installments. An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon.


Friday, 9 October

I ride my bike down Friedrichstrasse to the Checkpoint Charlie area to find the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. Originally established by the League of Nations, it was reiterated by the United Nations after World War II, with the idea that it would work hard for a few years to solve the crisis of European refugees after the war. But the need for it during that period was renewed when the Soviets crushed the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Since then, it’s never been out of commission.

I realize quickly after parking my bike and wandering around a courtyard area on Zimmerstrasse that I’ll have to sneak in the building with some other visitors. I loiter a while, and join a small group that gets buzzed in. Luckily, I’ve donned a button down shirt and sport jacket — my official costume — and look like I might have a reason to walk in with them. But I don’t know what floor the office is on. I walk up five stories and find it. Door locked. On either side of the door is a thick glass wall. I peer in. Standing flags and open office doors. A few attempts at ringing the bell with no results. I wait outside the door for 15 minutes, staring intently through the glass. I can’t see into any of the office spaces, even with the doors open, but I can see the sun coming in from the exterior windows, sending shafts of light through the rooms and out the thresholds. I study the dust motes to see if I can make out any swirling disturbances that would suggest a moving body inside. Nothing. Still as a tomb.

Read Joshua Weiner’s essay on the modern refugee novel, Transit, by Anna Seghers at B O D Y.

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Among the Korea Vloggers

By Colin Marshall 

A few weeks before moving from Los Angeles to Seoul, I went to a show at the Downtown Independent put on by Eat Your Kimchi. The word “show” doesn’t quite capture the nature of the event, but then I don’t know quite how to describe Eat Your Kimchi either. The project, the creation of a Canadian married couple called Simon and Martina Stawski, produced years of Youtube videos after brief Youtube videos about food in Korea, pop culture in Korea (their biggest hit being a tongue-in-cheek exegesis of “Gangnam Style”), and life in Korea as a foreigner. When EYK’s popularity blew up in a big way, it afforded its creators the opportunity to crowdfund a real live studio in one of Seoul’s hipper neighborhoods, its logo a beacon to all those expatriates harboring their own dreams of professionalized Korea vlogging.

If 21st-cetury media endeavors live or die by how well they connect with their fan base, EYK struck me in that moment as one of the halest, heartiest 21st-cetury media endeavors going: they’d almost filled the theater, and while the Downtown Independent isn’t exactly the Hollywood Bowl, I’d never seen a Youtube celebrity of any kind do it before. But then, the Simon and Martina Stawskis of the world have redefined the very nature of celebrity, a word that may once have identified only those known by nothing more than name and face to tens of millions, but has now expanded to cover those known much more intimately (if still indirectly, and even if the economics sucks) by thousands or even hundreds.

It stands to reason, then, that these new kinds of celebrities, making their new forms of entertainment, would require a new form of live performance, or rather live appearance, or rather something else intriguingly in-between. Like many events I’ve attended, EYK’s included a question-and-answer session; unlike any other event I’ve attended, EYK’s began with it, and in fact it took up most of the time we all spent there. (I didn’t stay for the post-event fan photo sessions which, for all I know, may well run deep into the night.) Even before Simon and Martina began taking questions, people started lining eagerly up at the microphone, allowing me observe one salient detail of EYK demographic: it’s all women.

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Well, one man did eventually get in line, but he prefaced his question by saying that his wife had brought him there. This broadly aligns with what I’ve seen of the Korea vlogging world in general which, while not one hundred percent female, definitely skews that direction, whereas the actual long-term foreigner population I encounter here in Seoul skews precisely the opposite direction. Male Korea vloggers do exist, but from what I’ve seen, female Korea vloggers occupy the majority of the high-profile spots. And several of the men I’ve seen hosting Korea vlogs do it, like EYK, as one member of a hosting couple — sometimes their wives, in other words, have brought them there.

I found out about one such Korea-vlogging husband and wife through the documentary shows about foreigners I watch on EBS, more or less the Korean PBS. One episode of 한국에 산다 (They Live in Korea, as I might translate it) focused on the life of Sarah from Canada and Kyuho from Korea, who do their thing on Youtube under the banner of 2hearts1seoul, whose popular episodes include their wedding ceremony, the story of how they met, and the story of how Kyuho proposed. Far from Seoul out in the countryside resides another multicultural Korea-vlogging couple, the Australian Nicola and the Korean Sun-hong, who do the series My Korean Husband. They, too, have told their meeting story to the internet, and have much else besides to say on the subject of love: how to get a Korean boyfriend, things to consider when dating or marrying a Korean guy, how a Korean man should introduce his foreign girlfriend, the differences in dating culture between Korea and Australia, and so on.

Their videos give a sense of the standard forms this sort of vlogging has found so far: sometimes the hosts sit down and recount their experiences straight at you, chopped up by jump cuts (a few bloopers strategically left in) and accompanied by an often ukulele-driven score; sometimes you get fragments of their experiences out and about, cut together after their capturing with a handheld (or selfie stick-mounted) camera. Certain expected episode types have also emerged, such as the tour — if we can use the word, given the small size of the dwellings here — of the host’s Korean apartment: 2hearts1seoul have done one, and Eat Your Kimchi did at least four of them. (A vlogger named Cory May, for whose detailed urbanistic explorations of Seoul I tune in, once posted a tour of an apartment that looks eerily similar to mine. Then again, most of the apartments I’ve seen in the city look pretty much the same.)

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The rest of the body of Korea vloggers have collectively shot what comes to a staggeringly, hypnotically long duration of apartment-touring (over the course of which you’ll hear hours of talk about the number pads we futuristically use instead of keys), including one lady known as Smiling Seoul, who made three, and Chelsea Speak, who’s done two so far. Both of them have also put out their own variations on another less common but more telling type of Korea vlogging episode: the elaborate apology and/or self-justification for not speaking more Korean despite having lived for years on the very peninsula that uses it. (Some try to bridge the gap with sheer exuberance, to mixed results.) Smiling Seoul called hers “Why I Don’t Speak Korean,” Chelsea Speak called hers “Why I Don’t Speak Korean,” and both attest, by their very existence, to the fraught relationship between Korea-resident Westerners and the language that surrounds them.

Michael Aronson, representing the male Korea vloggers, has also done a somewhat askew version of that standard, though he packs much more weirdness into his minute-long standoff with a whining pile of kimchi. Sheer oddity has made that into his second-most-viewed video, albeit a distant second to the Seoul Subway Song, a rap that incorporates both Aronson’s thorough knowledge of the conveniences of the capital’s rail system and the jingle that plays over its trains’ speakers whenever they approach transfer stations. It may not have got him anointed with honorary Seoul citizenship by itself, but alongside his raps on the Korean alphabet and traditional Korean clothing, and songs “I’m in Korea” (to the tune of “I’m a Believer”) and “Kimbap” (to the tune of “MMMBop”), it couldn’t have hurt. (He more recently joined the chorus of mockery against the city’s new slogan “I.Seoul.U” with a parody of “I Touch Myself,” but I doubt they’ll revoke his status for it.)

Other Korea vloggers have no need to dedicate episodes to explaining their infrequent use of Korean, because they use it all the time. A highly self-Koreanized American named Dave — or rather 데이브, Deibu — has used it to win a sizable Korean audience with comedic videos on the differences between boys and girls, between the linguistic habits of foreigners with four months in Korea and foreigners with four years, and between the tastes of chocolate and ramen (which he eliminates by mixing them together). An Australian named Sara (not to be confused with the aforementioned Canadian Sarah or Australian Nicola) has, with her channel SeoulSarang (sarang meaning love), narrated in Korean videos of her trips to Seoul Fashion Week at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, Jeju Island, and even her native Sydney.

The prospect of hearing an Australian city described by a genuine Aussie in Korean had intrigued me, but Sara chose to conduct that episode, a food tour, almost wordlessly. Despite that, and despite having been shot far outside Korea, it somehow captured perhaps the most important common quality of Korea vlogs, or indeed, perhaps vlogs in general: a near-fetishistic fixation on things edible (which, in the case of at least one Korean vlogger, has crossed the line straight into fetishism, or the satire thereof). The internet, of course, has come to love food, possibly because, though its capabilities for conveying imagery and description of it food richer by the day, it still gets you no closer to the actual taste; eating remains one of the few experiences for which digital technology can offer no substitute (not that at least one Korean isn’t working on it as we speak).

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But even Percival Lowell saw in the 19th century that Korean life revolves, to a possibly unique degree, around food, a cultural condition to which many more foreigners have since thrilled. And so no Korea vlogger can avoid doing food episodes, and few can avoid doing a lot of them. Eat Your Kimchi made a big part of their name on not just episodes involving the titular fermented cabbage, but Korean ramen, Korean fried chicken, and Korean pizza (not to mention a seemingly endless array of packaged snack tasting videos). 2hearts1seoul have covered street food, kimchi pancakes, and a buffet. My Korean Husband, on breaks from giving relationship advice, shift their focus to things like spicy noodles, spicy rice cakes, and the biggest piece of fried pork ever. 데이브, in addition to his chocolate ramen, has with his coterie of international pals consumed chicken neck soup, mozzarella burgers, and even spicier rice cakes before the camera.

Noe Alonzo’s ROK On!, which I especially enjoy for its occasional episodes in Spanish (a language I study whenever Korean gets to be too much), spends a great deal of time on food even by these standards: there you can see the pork spine soup known as gamjatang (감자탕) up close and hear about it in both English and Español. Josh the “Korean Englishman,” known for the solidity of both his language skills and production values, found a way to continue Korea vlogging even after he returned to his homeland: he now shoots the reactions of his countrymen to various Korean foods. He’s fed his fellow Brits things like Korean barbeuce, kimchi fried rice, and — with a staggering 5.6 million views — that beloved dish of Korean tradition, fried chicken and beer.

If the foreign vloggers of Korea have covered much the same ground as one another, they haven’t done it out of a lack of awareness of one another’s existence. Just as 21st-century media-makers have to connect to their fans, they have to connect to each other. And not only do Korea vloggers connect to each other, they tend to pop up on each other’s vlogs, as when 데이브 and the Korean Englishman had a pronunciation showdown, Sara from SeoulSarang joined Nicola and Sun-hong from My Korean Husband on a day trip (and another in Digital Media City), or when Nicola and Sun-hong use as material for one of their own videos an Eat Your Kimchi meetup in Sydney, something like the one I witnessed in Los Angeles.

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But as of this year, Eat Your Kimchi is no more. Simon and Martina, the king and queen of Korea vlogging, have after a seven-year reign abdicated their thrones and decamped for Japan — where, as English teachers looking for an international placement, they’d wanted to go in the first place. (New name: Eat Your Sushi.) But then, up until recently Westerners who spend years in the Land of the Morning Calm have tended to arrive here near-accidentally, as often as not because it offered them an easier path in than did the Land of the Rising Sun. But as time goes by, more foreigners of all kinds arrive in Korea with serious intent to stay, fewer and fewer of whom have a lack of the language or an unwillingness to look deeper than the surfaces of the culture for which to answer.

Still, no matter how much of a destination of choice Korea becomes, when I see video footage of Asia shot by a traveler with any sense of fresh-eyed curiosity, I do think of Japan. I think of Japan because of one of my very favorite films, Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, a kind of sui generis fictional documentary which spans the globe, but whose Japan passages —  the late-night and early-morning train rides, the video synthesizer, the cat shrine — everyone remembers best. Alain Resnais called Marker “the prototype of the 21st century man,” and now that we’ve seen what form travel vlogs have taken in the 21st century, that rings truer than ever.

I watch Korea vlogs and think of Sans Soleil not just because of the letter-from-abroad construction of the script, and not just because of the movie’s female narrator, but because of its virtuoso passage on the importance of food. The camera fixes on a Japanese okonomiyaki chef named Yamada who practices, as the poetic cameraman supposedly sending all these clips from afar puts it, “the difficult art of ‘action cooking.’ He said that by watching carefully Mr. Yamada’s gestures and his way of mixing the ingredients one could meditate usefully on certain fundamental concepts common to painting, philosophy, and karate. He claimed that Mr. Yamada possessed, in his humble way, the essence of style, and consequently that it was up to him to use his invisible brush to write upon this first day in Tokyo” — or indeed Seoul — “the words ‘the end.’”

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

Berlin day 8

Germany Is My Desire

By Joshua Weiner

“Berlin Notebook: Where Are the Refugees?” is a straightforward journal transcription of my experiences in Berlin during October 2015, a time when the influx of refugees in Germany and the rest of Europe was peaking. I have tried to be as faithful as possible in my reporting of interviews. I have not tried to verify the facts that people presented (when they told them to me); I have tried, rather, to convey the experience of talking with them, what it was like to be there, and to listen, to ask. The form of the interviews may seem to move like the “streaming” metaphor one finds everywhere in use to describe the movement of people across national borders. This journal transcript will appear here in daily installments. An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon.


Thursday, 8 October

I head back to to Lageso. It’s been raining on and off for the last 36 hours, not hard, but hard enough to make a day standing outside waiting absolutely miserable. The grounds have turned muddy; large puddles have joined to create even larger pools that the refugees work around as they navigate each other’s haphazard maneuvering. Bassel and Sami spot me; we shake hands. They’re surprised to see me again. Journalists covering this complicated fast-moving story have so many aspects and pieces to put together, they keep moving on to the next site, the next conflict, tension, announcement, ineptitude, disaster . . . Today there are so many television reporters and cameramen on the grounds with their equipment, you can feel how curtains have parted on a new theater of the situation. What publication do you write for, what kind of writing are you doing? asks Bassel. I’m writing for a journal in the US, I say, and show them a letter from Tom Lutz, the editor in chief of LARB, confirming my assignment. I’m a poet, I add, I teach at the university.

Hamraz, a 39-year old mechanic from Herat, Afghanistan, overhears and approaches. I also am teacher, he says. We shake hands. What do you teach, I say. English, he says. He is here with his wife and two daughters, ages 7 and 13. They’ve travelled for three weeks to get to Germany, through Afghanistan and into Iran (where his parents live), Turkey, Greece, to Hamburg, and onto Berlin.

A non-believer, Hamraz is fleeing religious persecution. In Afghanistan, his atheism puts him in life-threatening danger; were he to move his family in with his parents, his life would be in danger there as well. Here in Germany, he says, is democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of opinions. Germany is my desire, he says. My mind is like the culture of Europe, my opinions are the same. I like the law, my security here is good. I am relaxed here. I cannot be persecuted for what I think. I can wait here. Twenty days. One month. Two month. It’s not a problem. My children are safe. They play every day. My future is here. I want to work. I have to continue my lessons. What is your work, I ask (maybe he teaches English on the side, or as a public service). Big autos, he says, trucks and vans. My father is a mechanic; I learned from him. I learned English in Kabul. You speak well, I say. I reach into my bag. Here, I say. I put a Langenscheidt German-English dictionary into his hand. The bright yellow cover of durable plastic is practically an icon of foreign language study. For me? he says. His gratitude for so little embarrasses me. In an instant three more guys join us, talking to Hamraz in Dari and gesturing at me. They want to know if you have more, he says. I wish I did, I say. I get a troubling cold stare from a square-jawed big-boned guy. I don’t like the look of him. I say good luck and call it a day.

Audio: S7 train from Alexanderplatz to Bellevue, the S-bahn stop for Lageso


The Problem of the “Problematik”

“Berlin Notebook: Where Are the Refugees?” is a straightforward journal transcription of my experiences in Berlin during October 2015, a time when the influx of refugees in Germany and the rest of Europe was peaking. I have tried to be as faithful as possible in my reporting of interviews. I have not tried to verify the facts that people presented (when they told them to me); I have tried, rather, to convey the experience of talking with them, what it was like to be there, and to listen, to ask. The form of the interviews may seem to move like the “streaming” metaphor one finds everywhere in use to describe the movement of people across national borders. This journal transcript will appear here in daily installments. An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon. —JW

Wednesday, 7 October

Die Flüchtlinge = the refugees. You see and hear the word everywhere. (You can hear it at the beginning of the new opening montage for the fifth season of Homeland). The Flüchtlingekrise (crisis) has created a stage for the virtuosity of the German language to invent compound-nouns, new substantives that one keeps stumbling over in German newspapers and magazines.

We are involved in this new Flüchtlingswerk (work), to provide Flüchtlingshilfe (help) to those Flüchtlings making their way on the divergent Flüchtlingsroute, at least when they don’t run up against a Flüchtlingssackgasse (impass). The Flüchtlings have created a Flüchtlingsproblematik, by virtue of the Flüchtlingsandrangs (crush), the Flüchtlingssturm (onslaught).

Both Flüchtlings fleeing existential threat and what they call the Wirtschaftsflüchtlingen (economic refugees, those from the Balkans seeking better wages and working conditions) are living in Flüchtlingsunterkunft (camps). The new situation in Germany is driven by Flüchtlingspolitik, and is leading to what they’re calling the Flüchtlingsfrage (question).

This last neologism is the most troubling in light of German history, the great problem of the problematik, and it echoes down the worst of the nation’s tragic corridors. For prior to the current Flüchtlingsfrage, there was, and still is, in Germany, the Ausländerfrage (the outsider question), and before that, the more pointed Judenfrage (the Jewish question). The Jewish question, which had been floating through European anti-Semitism (and its corresponding Zionism) since the 18th century — what to do with Jews, what to do to them, and to what degree they belonged to any nation — culminated in a solution to the question, the Final Solution of the Wansee Conference in 1942.

The see (pronounced zay) in Wansee means “lake.” Into it flowed the question, which resulted in an abyss we call the 20th century, home of Leviathan, the monster of our methods. Is it any wonder that now we face what we’ve become, a Flüchtlingsströmen (ceaseless streaming). 60 million displaced, globally, and growing . . .


The Next Unicorn?

By Austin Dean

It’s hard to keep up with Chinese economic news: CEOs being detained by the public security apparatus, the release of economic statistics that no one believes, the fluctuations between the Chinese yuan’s value on the mainland and offshore, the day-to-day gyrations of the stock market. It’s enough to keep you up at night, or for those of us in the United States, get you out of bed early to see what happened in Asia while we slept.

No one knows what will happen next. The cautious optimists do not see a Chinese financial crisis around the corner, while the pessimists think a hard landing is imminent. If you want to find the real optimists, though, watch Chinese reality TV shows about entrepreneurs.

The original show in this genre was Win in China, which aired on CCTV 2, the business and finance channel. As James Fallows chronicled in 2007, the program pitted entrepreneurs in a series of challenges to win funding for their ventures. As one of the producers told Fallows at the time, the show wasn’t just about money. There was a larger purpose: “We want to teach values. Our dream for the show is to enlighten Chinese people and help them realize their own dreams […] There is no religion in China, so it is very important to promote the right kind of values. Today for our society, the entrepreneur can be our hero.”

After the season finale in 2007, Fallows hoped the show’s place in China’s cultural landscape would eventually become “an unsubtle and perhaps over-sincere effort to teach people the rules of peaceful prosperity” and not “another bit of evidence about the Chinese bubble: the way people behaved when they thought the good times would always go on.”

And that’s still the important quandary.

A more recent entry in the genre is We Are The Hero (Chuangye yingxiong hui), which began in late 2014 and also airs on CCTV 2. The most noticeable difference from Win in China is the age group — We Are The Hero is much more youth-oriented and aimed at the post-1980s and post-1990s generations. As one entrepreneur said in an early episode, his generation of post-90s youth is not only interested in making money, but also in doing something that that will make people remember them. Some might say this attitude comes off as arrogant, but it might simply reflect that people born in post-1990s China have only known economic growth. For them making money is a given. They want more.

Unlike Win in China, which followed contestants on a week-to-week basis, We Are The Hero runs through three to four entrepreneurs each episode. In that way, viewers don’t have as much of a chance to identify with a particular candidate as they did in Win in China. Win in China was more like The Apprentice, while We Are The Hero is a bit closer to Shark Tank.

After taking the stage on We Are The Hero, entrepreneurs give a pitch to a group of twenty investors who decide whether or not they’re interested in the idea being offered. The contestant moves on to the next round if they reach a certain threshold of investor interest. In the next segment, the contestants interview with two “tutors” (daoshi), who themselves are famous entrepreneurs. People serve as tutors on a rotating basis, and there have been some pretty big names, such as Yu Minhong, the founder of the English-language training school New Oriental, and Lei Jun, the founder of Xiaomi, often called the Apple of China. If the entrepreneurs are able to convince the two tutors they have what it takes, they move on to round three, when investors from round one can make offers. It is at this point that other members of the company take the stage (they’re backstage during the first two rounds). If the entrepreneurs and investors agree in principle to a deal, they sort out the details off camera.

The other big difference between the two shows is what types of ideas entrepreneurs pitch to investors. In the first season of Win in China, one contestant wanted investment in order to expand production capacity for making lingerie; another wanted to get into “direct-response marketing,” which, as Fallows wrote, was “the polite name for the infomercial business.” In We Are The Hero, it’s all about smartphones and the app economy.

We Are The Hero is actually a bit tame compared to a show currently being filmed, The Next Unicorn (Xunzhao dujiaoshou). The point of this show is to find the next billion-dollar company, which in the lingo of Silicon Valley and venture capital are known as unicorns.

The Next Unicorn is also explicitly international in ways the others shows are not. Although Win in China had a handful of international contestants, most famously Henry Winter, it was still very much a China-based show. The Next Unicorn, on the other hand, is filming in Shanghai, Taipei, Singapore, Tel Aviv, Silicon Valley, and other locales. Produced by CBN (Diyi caijing) and offering a $2.5 million dollar prize, the show will feature entrepreneurs based around the world. The Australian creator of an app that allows users to rate clothing flew to China at the beginning of the year to begin filming. As the founder said, “We’ve given our pitch a complete overhaul while keeping it obviously true to our vision. But it’s very tailored to the Asian market, its problems and how we would tap into that.”

Of course, The Next Unicorn is filming at a time when many are beginning to talk about “dead unicorns” or “unicorpses”—companies unable to continue raising money at high valuations that have to drastically shrink or close down their operations. In what venture capitalist Bill Gurley called a must-read article, Reuters chronicled the story of Shequ001, a Beijing start-up that delivered groceries ordered on smartphones. In less than a year, the company went from 2,000 employees to fewer than three dozen, with many of those who left still owed pay.

Maybe it is this show and not Win in China or We Are The Hero that will represent “the way people behaved when they thought the good times would always go on.” Stay tuned. The Next Unicorn is set to air in early April.

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An Ajeossi and His Robot (or, How Korean Film Dramatizes Disaster)

By Colin Marshall 

“Even better if you see it as a family,” exclaimed the ads for a movie that opened a couple weeks ago here in Seoul and has now made it to Los Angeles. The posters showed a middle-aged man hanging out with a diminutive, somewhat R2-D2-like robot and the title Robot, Seori (로봇, 소리). The film bears the official English title of SORI: Voice from the Heart, but I prefer the simpler, more literal translation I’ve seen used here and there: Robot Sound. In some respect it reflects the content more clearly, given that the story concerns a robot fallen to Earth, and specifically to the South Korean coastline, originally designed by the U.S. National Security Agency as a component of a satellite that records the sound content of and, using its formidable artificial intelligence, recognizes the voices in all phone calls made across the globe.

The robot lands at the feet of Hae-kwan, the fellow on the poster, a disheveled late-fortysomething nearly a decade into an increasingly hopeless search for his missing daughter Yoo-joo. “This is crazy talk,” he says in the words that also constitute the picture’s tagline, “but I think this guy knows how to find my daughter.” But the robot turns out not to be a guy, or at least Hae-kwan decides it mustn’t be one after rolling it into a clothes store (having borrowed his wheelchair-bound techie friend’s spare conveyance to cart his discovery around) in order to buy it some kind of disguise. He suggests a black hooded sweatshirt, but Sori (for the robot has by now taken as a name the Korean word for sound) wheels over to a pink one instead, which sets up, for me, the biggest laugh line of the movie: “You’re a woman?” shouts the flabbergasted Hae-kwan. “Yes?” responds the suddenly nervous girl minding the shop.

SORI has its moments of comedy, at other times plays like a geopolitical techno-thriller, and at other times still goes, as so many Korean movies do, for the melodrama. The tone, as well as the human-robot buddy pairing, remind me of Short Circuit, that tale of a gentle animal-handler and an experimental treaded military drone brought to wisecracking life by the strike of a lightning bolt. John Badham, the director of that film as well as others like Blue Thunder, War Games, Stakeout, and Bird on a Wire, lays fair claim to the title of one of the masters of 1980s Hollywood, whose sensibility mainstream Korean entertainment has recently rediscovered and begun reinterpreting. A broad but energetic buddy-cop picture called Veteran (베테랑) last year became the third highest-grosser in Korean cinema history, and at a Q&A after a screening I asked its director Ryoo Seung-wan what other police movies he likes; he cited Beverly Hills Cop and 48 HRS. as his direct inspirations.

Korea has also seen a string of popular film and television period pieces set in the 1980s, a time when Korean society (to use a phrase beloved of the textbooks here) came back into bloom. The controls of the dictatorship began to loosen (albeit with bitterly remembered and often violent clampings-down along the way), and waves of protests loosened them further still, to the point of forcing the introduction of democracy. The period infused works of art, no matter how popularly intended, with a reinvigorated spirit of societal criticism, another of the qualities I’ve come to expect in mainstream Korean films where I wouldn’t necessarily expect it — or at least would expect a more toothless variety of it — out of Hollywood.

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The story of SORI takes place for the most part in the recent past, the year 2013, and in the somewhat far-flung city of Daegu, a former pillar of industry situated in a valley almost 150 miles from the capital that remains known primarily for its American military bases and stifling summer heat. (I’ve heard some positive things about the place too. I once asked a well-known Korean writer if it wasn’t true that Daegu has the most delicious apples in Korea. “They were,” he responded. What about the widely held notion that Daegu has the most beautiful women in Korea? “They were.”) In any case, it hasn’t enjoyed much screen time before, so even if the prospect of a man befriending a stray robot didn’t appeal to me, seeing the rare Daegu movie would.

So what happened to Yoo-joo? Structurally, most of the movie plays like a detective story, with Sori using her accumulated information drawn from all that omniscient phone recording to lead Hae-kwan from person to person from her past, getting a scrap of information from each. Yoo-joo, we learn, had musical aspirations: at one point Hae-kwan comes across her guitar, and from one of his interrogatees he takes her sole extant demo CD. The daughter couldn’t have chosen a lifestyle more at odds with that of her father, presented in flashbacks before her disappearance — in other words, before the rigors of the search make him relinquish control over his appearance and behavior — as a representative of the faceless company men of his generation, cut as clean as possible, dressed as soberly as possible, and brimming with frustration and rage, every inch the stern, bland, middle-aged ajeossi (아저씨) figure of popular culture.

Sori waits until the very end of act three, cornered by authorities both Korean and American high above the dockyards, to reveal the whole truth to Hae-kwan in the form of a tearful voice message left by Yoo-joo on his old cellphone just before she perished in the subway fire of February 2003. That might sound like a spoiler, but every Korean watching this movie will have known it from the beginning, far sooner than Hae-kwan himself does — or at least, far sooner than he finally accepts the obvious. A Korean movie having a character disappear in Daegu in 2003 is like an American movie having a character disappear in Oklahoma City in 1995: sure, she could have vanished off to anywhere, but given the time and place, you have a pretty fair idea of what happened.

KB - Robot Sori 3

The Daegu subway fire killed 192 people, two of whom remain unidentified, and it now appears in the litany of nationally embarrassing disasters, badly exacerbated by incompetence and irresponsibility (the driver of the flaming subway train, for example, ran and locked all the doors behind him), often recited to illustrate the problematic nature of South Korea’s rapid development. It happened eight years after the even deadlier collapse of the Sampoong Department Store in Gangnam, which gave a basis to Kim Dae-seung’s romantic tragedy Traces of Love (가을로), and eleven years before the sinking of the M.V. Sewol, the subject of two documentary films so far which still awaits its own feature adaptation. As a friend very familiar with the Korean film world said when the subject of who might direct the inevitable Sewol movie arose, “I just hope it won’t be Kang Je-gyu,” a filmmaker famous for his high-profile, big-budget, simple and unchallenging crowd-pleasers.

Ho-jae lee, the director of SORI, has made a mainstream movie indeed, though not, to my mind, an oversimplified one. But viewers unfamiliar with the sensibilities of Korean cinema may find its indictment of Korean society, which deals with the poisoned relationship between the generations, rather stark. Hae-kwan’s cohort came of age at a time when South Korea, still in many respects a developing country, could for a little while longer credibly hold out the promise of relative prosperity in exchange for untroublesome compliance with the national program. Yoo-joo’s peers find themselves in a different reality altogether, one with far fewer guaranteed returns on hard-working and conformity — a conformity that, so one narrative has it, got in the way of the older generations creating a country where the younger ones could prosper.

SORI doesn’t come as the first movie in circumstances force a prosperous, set-in-his-ways ajeossi (Hae-kwan has a cellphone in 1990, which even in America would have set him apart as a hot-shot) to the realization that his children’s generation doesn’t live in the same world he does. In 2013, Yang Woo-suk’s The Attorney (변호인) found great success telling the ostensibly fictional story of a Busan tax lawyer in the early 1980s who sees enough light to defend a student against trumped-up charges of sympathy with the communist North. But anyone could clearly see, through that flimsy veil, an early chapter in the life of Roh Moo-hyun, who would go on to serve as one of the few South Korean presidents of whom anyone under age forty still approves.

Big Korean movies don’t generally mystify their allegories. SORI, though, despite all its ajeossi-robot banter, clouds of technobabble, and typically goofy acting by whatever “American” actors the production could turn up (one of whom plays a character called Major Mike), strikes more directly than most. The last view Hae-kwan gets of Yoo-joo, he sees out the window of his car, having just thrown her out of it after what might have been an argument between any number of millions of conflict-prone fathers and daughters in Korea, the former seeing the latter as reckless and impudent, the latter seeing the former as rigid and unwilling to understand anyone but themselves. Hae-kwan demands that Yoo-joo get out at the entrance of the Jungangno station, where, moments later, a disabled and unemployed cab driver (a fellow ajeossi, although one who saw the system as having failed him) would set catastrophic fire to a subway train — and thus one generation literally casts another into the flames.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. Catch up on the Korea Blog’s archives here.


The Greatest of Motivations

By Joshua Weiner

“Berlin Notebook: Where Are the Refugees?” is a straightforward journal transcription of my experiences in Berlin during October 2015, a time when the influx of refugees in Germany and the rest of Europe was peaking. I have tried to be as faithful as possible in my reporting of interviews. I have not tried to verify the facts that people presented (when they told them to me); I have tried, rather, to convey the experience of talking with them, what it was like to be there, and to listen, to ask. The form of the interviews may seem to move like the “streaming” metaphor one finds everywhere in use to describe the movement of people across national borders. This journal transcript will appear here in daily installments. An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon. —JW

Tuesday, 6 October

The weather has turned grey and the temperature has dropped without the sun. At Lageso men and women stand about in heavier coats and hats, hoods and scarves. A man walks by wrapped tight in a bedsheet. A security guy in red fleece and a close cropped Mohawk trails him for a while with his eyes. I’ve been rehearsing my few words of Arabic on the way in. A young fella with a pleasant aspect stands nearby. Marhaban, I say, atadhir, min fadlik (Hello, excuse me, please) . . . Do you speak English? Yes, a little bit . . .

Marwan has been living for the last two years in the adjacent Charlottenburg district of Berlin, where Nabakov spent his years in exile and Walter Benjamin his turn-of-the-century childhood. Marwan is here with his cousin, Sami, who arrived from Damascus three weeks ago. Sami appears by his side, suddenly made visible to me by virtue of my learning his name. In their mid-twenties, Marwan would like to continue his university studies in business (he had finished one year in Damascus before fleeing), and Sami has hopes of continuing practice as a lawyer. Marwan has just completed a two-year state-sponsored language course. (We speak in a mixture of German and English.) Sami’s English is not as good as his cousin’s; it will be difficult for him, I think, at age 26, to learn enough German well enough to practice law in Germany. But maybe I’m simply projecting my own experience trying to learn German — after all, he’s obviously smart and well educated; he has family connections here, and the greatest of motivations: survival and necessity.

We are joined by a friend, Bassel, also a lawyer, who made the journey three weeks ago with Sami. Fearing conscription into Assad’s army in Syria, they each sold their car to raise the 5,000 or more euro to pay the traffickers. I love Syria, Marwan says, we all want to go home. He is thinking of the long journeys here, through Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Afghanistan . . . But we must stay, he says, until the war is over. So you are here now, I say, and you’ve been here for two years, and you’ve learned German, and you want to continue studies at the university — so, let’s say that happens — when will you return, in two years, in five years? Maybe in ten years, he says, or twenty years, or thirty years, when the war is over — I have to think in terms of my children . . . (What children?—he is imagining his future German-born children . . . Will they want to return, should it ever be possible?)

What’s it like here, waiting, I ask.   It is terrible, of course, says Bassel. Marwan explains. They are only calling twenty numbers a day now, he says, gesturing at the console displaying nine brightly lit amber numbers. And these security guys are Turkish, he says, they are very cruel. They pushed a woman down, with her baby, and killed her. Where, I ask. Right there, he gestures to a central area in front of the console. Why, I ask. Who knows, because she was asking about something and he didn’t like it. You saw that happen, I say. No, but I heard about it; it happened. The Turks don’t want us here, he went on, the German people are very good, they try to help, but the government is too slow. Why do you think they’re so slow, I say. Because, he says, they want to discourage more people from coming.

Fathi, another friend, joins us, a 23-year old engineering student from Damascus, who walked for a week without sleeping to get to Berlin. Sami looks at me from under a hoodie he’s wearing beneath a bigger coat. Excuse me, he says, but where are you from? I’m from America, I say, from Washington DC; I’m trying to write about what’s happening here so that people will understand. Sami looks at me with a wry little smile. I am sorry, he says, but America has been part of the problem. I know, I say, that’s why I’m here. What do you want the U.S. government to do now? Marwan breaks in. Russia will not help the situation, he says. Putin is not really fighting IS [Islamic State], he is with Bashar [al-Assad; but they all refer to him as Bashar]. The U.S. only has to fly planes over Syria, he continues, and the army will shake with fear and go underground. That would help? I say. They only have to show they are present, says Marwan. So, you want the U.S. to show its potential for using force in the region, I add. Yes, he says, that would make some difference. Sami looks at his phone. Excuse me, he says, and walks away.

You all have phones, ja? I say. They nod. Where are you charging them every day? Marwan says, I bring a portable battery I charge at home. I scan their faces; they’re a sweet bunch. I can feel the strength of their comraderie, their determination and courage. I have to go, I say, what would you like to say today to Germany? Give me a number, says Bassel, I want to work. Marwan writes down his e-mail address on my notepad. Shukran lak (thank you), I say. We shake hands.


On the way back to the S-bahn station, I stop at a Jehovah’s Witness stand on the sidewalk right outside the Lageso grounds. I’m struck by the cover image of their pamphlet in Arabic, a photograph of a happy modern Arabic family (the mother is not in hajib, the father not in robes, the children’s digs are from any fashionable catalog or outlet—they could be a secular family anywhere in the West). Posed together, they smile into the father’s smartphone as they take a family selfie. I pick up a copy and start leafing through it. A white German guy in tweed—he’d fit in at Oxford or Cambridge—begins to tell me about the contents: Lots of good information about how to manage money, be a good parent, a good husband and wife . . . Are Muslims trying to register at Lageso showing much interest, I say. Oh, yes, they really are, he says. They know about us already because we have people in Syria. But here, he continues, Arabs who were afraid to show interest in Christianity are free to ask questions and come to our meetings. And some Arabs are already Christian, I say. Oh, yes, they really are, he agrees, and we have so much practical information to help them get started in German society. Are you getting many converts yet, I say. Oh, yes, we really are. The Arab people who come to Germany are very interested. I find the cheerful optimism grotesque given the situation of the refugees; the modern family depicted in their literature, pure fantasy, has no resemblance to anyone or anything in Berlin—Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or of any faith. But the Jehovah Witness’ prohibitions (no interfaith marriage; demonization of sexuality outside of marriage, including homosexuality and masturbation), and their control of congregants’ lives, does dovetail nicely with Sharia control of individual personal life. Even their corruption of sacred texts (the Bible, the Koran) as fundamentalist codes of conduct share a common set of ambitions. Maybe the guy’s not exaggerating.   And with the 165,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany living peaceful lives . . .? There could be, and are, worse influences . . . (Though the history of the Jehovah Witnesses appeasing of Hitler is a different story).


I Was Born in a Refugee Camp

By Joshua Weiner

“Berlin Notebook: Where Are the Refugees?” is a straightforward journal transcription of my experiences in Berlin during October 2015, a time when the influx of refugees in Germany and the rest of Europe was peaking. I have tried to be as faithful as possible in my reporting of interviews. I have not tried to verify the facts that people presented (when they told them to me); I have tried, rather, to convey the experience of talking with them, what it was like to be there, and to listen, to ask. The form of the interviews may seem to move like the “streaming” metaphor one finds everywhere in use to describe the movement of people across national borders. This journal transcript will appear here in daily installments. An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon. —JW

Monday, October 5

A typical Berlin night, my friend Susanne said with a short laugh, when I told her about my escapade.  But we don’t do it anymore — we are too much in our routines, we make arrangements now to meet each other at precise times. So, she added, nothing ever happens. We were on our way down to the Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales (Lageso), the first place of registration in Berlin for all the refugees; in a way we were retracing the route I had take from Tegel International through Moabit the previous week. It was another beautiful fall day in Berlin, leaves starting to turn, quite warm in the sun, a little cool in the shade. As we walked up Kirchstrasse, just a few blocks from the Lageso complex of buildings, midday diners sat at sidewalk tables eating Vietnamese, Italian, or traditional German fare, such as Maultaschen (a kind of filled dumpling, like ravioli, a specialty of the south). Cafés were full, people were buying books in a local store. It was difficult to imagine what we would find at Lageso given the happy promenade here. We tried cutting through a construction site and were promptly scolded by a hardhat perched on cinder, drinking from a thermos. As we turned round a fenced off corner, Susanne said, you know, I was born in a refugee camp. What? Ja, she said, (the vowel sound floated away like a bubble), I was born in a refugee camp.

Susanne Gerber, a Berlin-based artist, was born in 1949. Her mother was German, her father Czech, but his German family roots made him one of a minority in Czechoslavakia. It was therefore not a stretch, with the advent of World War II, for him to join Germany’s mobilization. He made his way into the SS. After the war, many Germans outside of Germany were being sentenced to prison; Susanne’s parents were forced to flee Czechoslovakia. They reentered Germany as refugees and settled into a camp in Kornwestheim, near Stuttgart. Susanne was too young to develop many memories stronger than impressions; but she remembers the men who, with no work, whittled away the time talking, smoking, and playing chess. The idle talking was an important influence, as the men, confronted with the vast emptiness of idle hours, often talked to little Susanne as well as losing themselves in the wandering exchanges of those with too much time on their hands. She thus learned to speak early. The general feeling she had there in the camp was of not being quite properly looked after; she was often left on her own. Remarkably, she says, in Stuttgart she never felt marginalized as a refugee; she never internalized that perspective herself. But being a refugee is a strong part of my identity, she said, being a stranger in the world is completely clear to me. When later I saw Büchner’s Woyzeck, or the first production of Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade, she continued, I found myself in there, the origins of my story. I still feel that I am never a local person, but someone from everywhere, from somewhere else.

Once we hit Turmstrasse, the Lageso street, the scene changed. Bourgeois diners and shoppers disappeared, replaced by bands of four to six single men, clearly refugees by their worn dress and stressed postures, walking down the street talking to each other with urgency, or on their phones. Refugee families with small children in strollers passed by. Everyone’s eyes were focused somewhere in the distance, everyone’s gait had an urban quickness and conveyed a 360-degree alertness. There was nothing but immediate purpose, immediate need. We knew we were getting closer. Soon low-price stores disappeared, and set back from the street, behind a set of fences, two very large white convention type tents, with separate free standing toilet facilities between them, provided shelter in bad weather. They stood with the same proximity to the sidewalk as any storefront, and abutted the first set of official buildings. These buildings along the street marked the beginning of the Lageso complex; soon we entered its mouth with dozens of others. Buildings shadowed us on both sides of a small avenue into the opening of the courtyard belly. In this Lageso courtyard, we passed a food tent in which volunteers were ladling hot minestrone soup and handing out Brötchen. Nearby, an elderly volunteer wearing plastic gloves spryly filled plastic cups with water from a cooler cabinet with several taps. Boys climbed on top of a flat-roofed shed next to a Röntgenmobil (for x-rays) and a truck from Zentrum für Tuberkulosekranke parked beneath chestnut trees. The food tent and trucks stood opposite a set of official buildings, further defining the waiting area. At one end, hundreds of people, mostly men, stood in a mass that grew denser towards the front, where a digital console on a tall pole displayed a set of nine brightly lit amber numbers. Women and children sat on blankets to the side, eating, sleeping. Children drew or played a game their parents had grabbed for them in quick preparation to flee. A boy with a cane made his painstaking way along the perimeter. Another passed in the opposite direction in a wheelchair. A jacketed man in his thirties sat sleeping in a bassinet stroller, his legs splayed on either side, heels digging in to keep him propped up—even in a dead sleep his body bound in effort. Some wore hospital face-masks. A few guys in their twenties stood around an iPad, laughing and knocking each others shoulders. Boys chased each other through a slalom course of standing adults, kicked soccer balls, or tried to catch falling chestnuts. Having been fed, they were doing what they lived to do, exerting themselves in play, improvising the day within its terribly narrow confines. A dozen voices shouted in excited cheering—someone’s number had appeared on the console. Susanne and I moved slowly and freely through the grounds, stopping here and there to listen and observe. No one stopped us, no one asked us what we were doing there. We were obvious in our privilege. Security in red fleece milled or stood in fixed positions. Green vests speared trash. A long line snaked outside an office. A woman in a lilac head-covering and dressed in pinstripes emerged with a thick set of files in her arms. She walked over to where we were standing near an exterior wall and leaned against it to rest. Susanne began a conversation in German.

Ishan Wahbi, a Lebanese woman in her mid-40’s, came to Germany over thirty years ago. She volunteers as an appointed legal representative for those too compromised to navigate the registration process on their own. She’s currently representing a single mother from Yemen who crossed the Mediterranean with four small children and a newborn. Are all those files for them, I asked. Frau Wahbi nodded, yes. Several hundred people are waiting in line, about two thousand are on the grounds, with 500-600 arriving daily. She is waiting for the mother to meet her there, having recently been released from the hospital.

Talking about the refugee situation has created some kind of tension in her that is now an uneasy barrier; we don’t know what it is, but we sense it. Susanne and I thank her and move off.   A man wearing a backpack is arguing with a security guy in front of the office entrance. Voices spike, hands gesture with agitation. Susanne becomes a little nervous, so we walk to a more open area under some yellowing lindens, where the people waiting there on the lawn, on blankets, on benches, could be, in another context, pick-nicking or hanging out at a festival. They have relaxed into the interminable boredom of waiting for their number, waiting to take the next step in the process of being granted asylum. And today is a nice day. There are pockets of rest to settle into momentarily before the next push. We head out. I’ll come back tomorrow.


Where Were the Refugees?

By Joshua Weiner

“Berlin Notebook: Where Are the Refugees?” is a straightforward journal transcription of my experiences in Berlin during October 2015, a time when the influx of refugees in Germany and the rest of Europe was peaking. I have tried to be as faithful as possible in my reporting of interviews. I have not tried to verify the facts that people presented (when they told them to me); I have tried, rather, to convey the experience of talking with them, what it was like to be there, and to listen, to ask. The form of the interviews may seem to move like the “streaming” metaphor one finds everywhere in use to describe the movement of people across national borders. This journal transcript will appear here in daily installments. An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon. —JW

Sunday, October 4 

Severe hangover. Head throb pushes me out of bed. I move through the morning routine and get out the door to find a strong schwarzes Kaffee at Karaca, my local joint on Chauseestrasse. The guys who own and run the place, four or five of them, are always hanging out and kibitzing. The café is like a business-cum-frat house for them; it draws people in.   I get my coffee zum mit nehmen (to go), and welcome the fresh air. Beautiful fall morning in Berlin to look for a shop that can remove my head and replace it with a pumpkin. Passing the Brecht Hause, I duck into the adjacent park to find a bench and mentally lick my brain.

Within about 30 seconds I realize I’ve wandered into a cemetery. Empty of pedestrians, the only ones here are prone. The sound of my feet on the small gravel paths is a kind of acoustic cereal for my ears, oddly soothing.   I find Brecht’s grave, then the stones for Hegel, Fichte, Heinrich Mann, Elisabeth Hauptmann, Paul Dessau, Hans Eiler, Ruth Berlau . . . I’ve unwittingly dropped into the Friedhof of the Dorotheenstädtischen Gemeinde on Chauseestrasse, probably the most celebrated cemetery in Berlin. I find a stone bench.

Where were the refugees; who are they; what stories do they have to tell, what songs and poems do they carry with them in memory; what nightmares; what dreams, what hopes, what sorrows. To capture the force of their movement, I only ever hear one metaphor used, that of water — a flowing, a stream, a wave, a tide, a torrent; water moving so fast and hard it’s impossible to stop and difficult to control. And new moving water has no name; it is merely the sum of its parts, anonymous, ahistorical, and once in motion inexorable. My companions here in this plot devoted themselves to thinking about the force of history and the emblematic lives that expressed it, added to it. What was there to add? God, my head hurt. So I sat there a while, very still, in the sun, with the famous German dead.


Reunification Day

By Joshua Weiner

“Berlin Notebook: Where Are the Refugees?” is a straightforward journal transcription of my experiences in Berlin during October 2015, a time when the influx of refugees in Germany and the rest of Europe was peaking. I have tried to be as faithful as possible in my reporting of interviews. I have not tried to verify the facts that people presented (when they told them to me); I have tried, rather, to convey the experience of talking with them, what it was like to be there, and to listen, to ask. The form of the interviews may seem to move like the “streaming” metaphor one finds everywhere in use to describe the movement of people across national borders. This journal transcript will appear here in daily installments. An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon. —JW

Saturday, 3 October

Late in the afternoon I headed out to a reading and talk at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, (a cultural center near the Reichstag) titled ‘Time’s Attack on the Rest of Life: Revolution,’ with the German writer Martin Mosebach and the Chinese poets and writers Yang Lian, YoYo (Liu Youhong), and Guo Jinnin.  I was intrigued to hear this panel discuss the history of Chinese revolts, and how experimental non-linear literary forms that disrupt our conventional experience of time can play a subversive positive role in workers’ resistance. It sounded somewhat grand, but I was game for anything.

As I pedaled along Invalidenstrasse on my brand new old bike, I came up against a set of police blockades on the stretch in front of the Hauptbahnhof. People with rolling bags and kids in tow were rushing to get through the manned entrance to the train station; it was quickly being closed off by cops reluctant to let people through. I turned around to retrace my route but found myself between barriers. The only detour lead in the direction opposite to where I needed to go.

I approached an officer. What’s happening? Demonstration. Of the left or of the right? This is Berlin: of the left and the right. Where’s it happening? Right here. When? Right now. From around the corner of the train station several hundred demonstrators marched behind a large banner: ‘Wir sind für Deutschland / Wir sind das Volk’ (‘We are for Germany / We are the nation’). White haired women in sensible shoes walked alongside chicksas in spiked heels; guys in army jackets and leather jackets, wearing jeans or dressier slacks; young and old, yuppies and geezers, all were marching in a right-wing demonstration against immigration. From out of nowhere ten or so young men and women rode up on bicycles wearing t-shirts that read ‘Refugees Welcome’ in English, some wearing string bags with the same logo, a yellow silhouette on black depicting a fleeing family. The anti-demonstration protestors started screaming anti-fascist slogans, some in English, some in German: ‘Say it now / Say it clear / Refugees are welcome here!’ ‘Nazis out! / Gegen Nazis!’ The demonstrators responded by singing patriotic songs. Birds were flipped and screams exchanged. As the march left the train station area, the cycling leftists took off in the opposite direction, obviously hip to the detours created by the blockades and determined to navigate around the streets of Mitte in pursuit of the nationalist xenophobic parade. I followed.

Bitte, I called out, pulling alongside a hale lefty chap riding with his girlfriend to the next parade point, ‘Ich bin ein amerikanisher Shriftsteller, ich versuche über die Krise schreiben. Sprechen sie englisch? He spat back, Nie! ’Schuldigen! They sped up. And why would they want to talk to a bulky American writer pushing the pedals? Determined, I pursued from a block behind, and when I caught up to them they had unfurled a ‘Refugees Welcome’ banner of the same design as their shirts and bags. The activist swag made it look like a team sport. I thought of Seamus Heaney’s poem, ‘Casualty,’ and his noting the graffiti scrawled on a wall in war-torn Derry, keeping track of the deadly score: ‘PARRAS THIRTEEN, the wall said, BOGSIDE NIL.’ Another war with too many sponsors. Well, not a civil war here, not yet, one hopes not ever; but the proxy wars of the Middle East, political and often divided along religious lines (as it had been in Ireland) now intensified with Russia on the scene in Syria.

As if it weren’t murderous enough. A mixed group of young and old leftists moved en masse into the street and lay down, the demonstration still several blocks away. Thirty seconds later, police picked them up and moved them aside like sacks of potatoes. I had never seen so many cops and vans for such a modest demonstration; it seemed as if a cop was there for every two marchers. A line of them created a human fence between the right-wing marchers and the leftist protestors. From a short distance I peered into the neutral cold eyes of the most stunning policewoman I had ever seen. Without a helmet, her glossy brown ponytail created an athletic look, sehr sportlich. I noticed that the thick power-beard on the stony face of the policeman next to her made a good match. A handsome couple. I pictured them on a sunny day at an open air firing range. I tried my bad German again with a different set of young protestors on their bikes. Yes, they spoke some English. Yes, I could talk to them. Yes, following them was okay. (We spoke in a mixture of English and German.)

There’s no single umbrella or even sizable organization of activists in Berlin; everything is improvisation as the situation develops, small groups posting information on Facebook, Twitter, and the like, with very short notice, from distributing the marching routes of nationalist demonstrations, to regrouping the Oplatz effort, opening up homes to refugee families, picking them up in Hungary in private cars and driving them across the border, to protesting the very idea of national borders altogether—Keine Grenzen! Are you guys putting up refugees in your apartments, I asked. Philip and Johanna, both in their mid-twenties, gave little smiles at my naïve question. No, we don’t have room to do something like that, said Philip, we don’t have the space or the money.   I am doing an internship and she is a student. Our friends are the same. Do you think, I said, that the crisis, die Krise, is creating new feelings against immigrants, or is it waking up feelings that have always been there. The feelings are old and new, he said, but they have always been there, deep down. Do you see more young people such as yourselves joining the right in their efforts to stop the refugees, I asked. Yes, always more young people are joining the right, they are open about it now. I pointed to a cop carrying a large video camera. Even the cops are filmmakers now, I said. Oh, ja, everyone likes movies, he said. They looked at each other. We’re going now, he said.  And they rode down Ackerstrasse, further south into the tough East Berlin neighborhoods of Friedrichshain.

I looked around. I was in the area between Alexanderplatz and Rosenthalerplatz that Alfred Döblin brings to life in his 1929 novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz, a physically brutal and idiomatically vital story unlike any capital-centered work in Anglophone modernism—the rough pathos of Frank Norris, the camera-eye technique of Dos Passos, and something like Joyce’s feeling for city life at street level. Döblin’s talent consummate with his environment, he was one gold standard in the measure of adequate attention.

Powerful thick rock music, abrasive fast melodic, was blasting from a single large stereo speaker on Ackerstrasse pointed at the demonstrators marching along Torstrasse. I listened for a minute and approached a leathered-up sixty-something guy in horn rims and with a gray ponytail standing outside the storefront where the speaker was plugged in. What’s this music, I said, it’s great. Ja, this is a band, he said. My German is bad, I said, but I’ll try. He smiled faintly; he’d humor me. What is the band? Freygang Band, he said. I don’t know it, I said. Oh ja, he said, started in the DDR; it’s playing here tonight. I looked up at the sign over the club’s door, Shockoladen (literally, Chocolates). What time?   Eight. I looked at my watch. It was only five. Are you in the band? Yes. He gave me a little smile. What instrument do you play? Lead guitar. His head angled toward the door. Do you want to come in, he said.

The club owner popped a Berliner Pilsner, a local favorite, and put it in front of me. Egon downed a shot of vodka and lit a Galouise. (We spoke in a mixture of German and English). So, you’re a writer, he said. I’m a poet, I’m trying to write about die Flüchtlingekrise, I said, I think you probably have a good perspective. When did the band start playing, I asked, opting for a crabwalk towards my agenda.

Freygang Band is the kind described as seminal. Although it came together in 1977 in East Berlin, inspired by American bands such as the Rolling Stones, Kinks, and MC5, they were instrumental in more than one way in broadcasting the energy, attitude, and style of American music in East Berlin at that time. From behind the wall, der Mauer, American music of the 1960’s and 70’s was hard to hear, but once heard impossible to forget; and it inspired Egon Kenner to somehow find an instrument and play it. He still plays the guitar an American musician gave him in 1973. The band is a seductive fusion of rock & blues, hardcore attitude, political lyrics, and an open free approach to playing without any jaded irony. Freygang Band is still earnest, serious, straight ahead. But, as I would hear that night, they don’t preach, they just destroy through total commitment and conviction. The structures are simple, the execution resolute, the vision epic with an awareness of history’s long view; but like great poetry, it starts with the sound. (The sound and the sentiments that fueled it earned them persecution in DDR-days that only amplified their bona fides as artists deemed verboten by the state).

With a second round my German was definitely improving, as was Egon’s English.

And what about the refugees? Things are changing always, he said, the most important thing is solidarity. No one can say what’s going to happen. 200 years of colonialization of one kind or another have led us to this moment. But when immigrants come, he continued, the insularity of ethnic groups also becomes a problem. Andreas Kick, the keyboardist, joined us. I asked him what he made of the reports of violence between Syrians and Afghans in the crowded shelters in Leipzig, Bonn, Hamburg, Kassel, and elsewhere. Of course, he said, they will fight, it is too crowded. Now the right can say, you see, they are violent, we must control them. This is just the way it happens, he said. I said, young people forget this history. Egon smiled wryly and added, old people also forget this history.

More of the band showed up, along with the merchandise. Egon gave me a copy of their new cd, Tanz Global, and I unfolded the lyric sheet. There I found a photograph of the legendary East German poet, Bert Pappenfuss, and a poem with his long lines lapping any of the other lyrics penned by the band. Why, I asked, is there a photograph of Bert Pappenfuss and a poem by him on the lyric sheet? Oh, said Egon, he is a good friend of mine; we’ve set many of his poems to music, we sing them all the time. But not tonight: too many words. Would you like to meet him, he asked. Pappenfuss is little known in the US, but his work (translated by Andrew Duncan) jumped out at me from the pages of Rosmarie Waldrop’s anthology, 16 New (To American Readers) German Poets. Later I discovered—late again—that he was one of the heroic figures of the alternative art scene in East Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg Kiez, publishing underground magazines, playing in rock bands, and re-vitalizing East German literature before the Mauerfall. I looked down at the little photograph. Electric eyes peered out from under a plain cap brim and a thick nose bridged to a long fuzzy beard a la ZZ Top. I looked up at Egon. Sicher, I said, for sure. The next day Egon would text me the phone number. (I would write to Papenfuss, but he would decline to respond).

At some point they had to get ready to play, and they left me. I helped myself to some salami and cheese on buttered dark yeasty bread and remembered the stunning judgment of a French baker who set up every weekend in the open market in Winterfeldplatz near where we lived two years ago in Schöneberg: Don’t tell anyone I said this, said the Frenchman, but the Germans make the best bread in the world. I looked around. This small club had filled with a couple hundred people. Time had gone down smoothly with the pils. I moved through a room of foosball and waiting musicians, past the barroom, to the stage area, packed with fans. Smoke from cigarettes folded, furled, and uncurled in the red stage lights. Ann Jangle, the opening act from South Africa, introduced herself and launched into a ferocious and beautiful set of folk rock accompanied on her acoustic guitar by Cami Scoundrel on electric bass.  Jangle’s voice hung in a middle range, capable of dynamic and dramatically meaningful changes. She had an impressive tawny lion’s mane of hair. The duet played with sympathetic joy and personal relish.

Then Freygang Band took the stage. They killed it that night, and for the first time I felt the great positive energy of Reunification Day, not between East and West, and certainly not between left and right, but between musicians and their audience. Teen fans slammed against fans dating from the Mauerfall, and devotees from the band’s earliest days welcomed the physical contact from the pit’s periphery. Everyone sang along, wet with each other’s sweat and the sporadic fountain of beer from an over-jostled bottle. The music ended promptly at 10. This well known club for alternative music and culture, that had started as a squat in 1990, has had its unruliness trained back by gentrification: new neighbors insisting on the German institution of the 10 pm curfew (I thought of the scolding notice in the laundryroom of my building: No Washing After 22.00 Uhr).

Cooling off outside the club, Eric, a young man who had introduced himself earlier, approached me. Hey, American guy, I want to ask you something. Wide eyes and a wide smile played on the most animated expressive face I had ever seen on a German. He could’ve been an actor (maybe he was one). Hey, let me ask you: is war the last opinion? What, I said. He repeated the question. I repeated the question, not quite sure what he was asking. Is war the last opinion? Was he asking me if war is the last word in an argument between nations? Or if history, in order to be written, requires war, and victors in war to tell their side of a story? Whatever, I got the drift, given the context of the evening; there could only be one answer.

No, I said sincerely. The back of his hand gently thumped my chest. Everywhere I go, he said, around the world, in Europe, in South America, I ask this of Americans, ‘is war the last opinion.’ They all say, ‘yes.’ You are the first American to say ‘no.’ Well, I said, I think you’re hanging out with the wrong people; I’m not the only American who would say that. Yeah, he said, but what kind of country do you live in? There’s no democracy there. Everything is controlled by money. Your democracy is controlled by money. You can’t even vote for who you want to, he said, you can only vote for the names on the card. That’s not true, I said, but I couldn’t deny that the political system was appearing more like a plutocracy, what with Trump still leading the run for the Republican nomination and billionaires funding super-PACS to protect their interests. Is Trump your next president, he asked. He had a crazy smile on his face. I couldn’t tell if he was being friendly and ironical, or menacing.

No, I said, but right now he is our Berlusconi. What about the refugees, I said, exercising my prerogative non-sequitur, I’m trying to write about what people think here, and nobody’s asking people like you. Oh, Mann, he said, I should take you to my parents, in Saxony, in Dresden. My father is an engineer. When the wall came down, he lost everything. Reunification ruined him. Now he’s spent 25 years paying into the new system; and the refugees, they want to come here and take. And he says, That’s my money, they want to rob me! Hey, American guy, we are going to a very alternative party, you must come. But I have only my bike here, I said. You’ll get it later, come with us. A taxi pulled up. This is our taxi, he said. I got in with him and four other friends.

I couldn’t make out in what direction we were heading; I had gotten turned around too many times in pursuit of my two-wheeled anti-nationalist protestors. Maybe we were heading south into Kreuzberg’s more derelict bar scene.   The mood in the taxi was frothy, though the German jumping between my five party Virgils was too fast for me to follow. Eventually we pulled into an apartment lot. The door opened. Ann Jangle and Cami Scoundrel, the musicians from South Africa, were standing there with drinks in hand. We’re leaving, Ann said, this party sucks. The others de-cabbed, and Ann and Cami got in. I stayed seated. I had no idea where we were, at least I was in a taxi. The door closed and Ann punted an address to the driver and we took off.

Hey, I said, you guys were fantastic tonight. You speak English, Ann said, oh thank god, where are you from? Washington D.C., I said. Oh, man, I’d love to play there, said Ann. Well you should, I said, you were great. Where are we going? To a bar in Kreuzberg, she said. A flurry of chitchat got us acquainted and I explained why I was there. Where are the refugees, I asked. Oh, man, they’re everywhere, said Ann. But where? Just look around you, she said, human misery is everywhere in this city. Go to Warschauerstrasse or Hallesches Tor, she said (two metro stops in East Berlin), you’ll find them. (I would go there the next day, but I never saw any refugees there, only grimy career bums, young bushy beards with dreads hanging or roped back, playing guitars, drinking beer, and hanging out on narrow strips of trashy grass with happy well-behaved dogs).   You’ll find them, said Ann, the situation. Cami has to leave in two days because of her passport situation, she added. Borders. There shouldn’t be any borders. You shouldn’t need some piece of paper to go where you want, where you need to go. (A world without borders. It sounded like an anarchist theme, but I’d hear it over and again, more centrally au courant in Berlin now–and of course the existence of the EU was predicated, to begin with, on loosening control of the borders).

The bar was a simmering warm Kreuzberg scene, crowded, edgy, friendly. Everyone seemed to know each other but to come from radically different sectors of society. At one table, a beefy goth guy in studded leather, make up, spiked hair and a metal bolt shooting out of his chin was talking to a thin dapper cat in a cardigan and tie. Girls on the lam from American sororities rubbed shoulders at the bar with broad, thick-handed guys in durable work shirts. At least in the bar it seemed to be a world without borders. I asked Ann and Cami where they were living. Nowhere, was the answer. Where were they sleeping? In the flats of friends, or on a park bench. On a park bench? Yeah, said Cami, I woke up on one this morning. Were you guys paid for the performance tonight? Yeah, said Ann, fifty bucks. Fifty bucks for both of you? Yeah, and I sold a few cd’s, but we’ve already spent that. She handed me a Mexicali shot. What’s this, I said. It’s for your health, she said. We clinked and bottomed up.

Ann turned to play a dice game with a huge guy at the bar who looked like he had just walked off a Fassbinder set, Expressionism itself sitting at a bar, killing time as civilization waned into darkness. I asked Cami about her life and her music, what inspired her in each, and she told me about Cape Town and the music she loved, such as Fuzigish (the ska punk band from Gauteng) and the slam poets, Kyle Louw and Roche du Plessis, as well as her grandfather, who emigrated with such resourceful determination to South Africa from Lithuania. Are you sure you guys have a place to stay tonight, I said, you shouldn’t be sleeping on park benches (I was showing my age and sheltered lack of experience). Another round and Ann and Cami were reciting their poems to me, egging me on to do the same.

I had now been drinking slowly but steadily for eight hours. Some things simply are not possible at that point, at least for me, and one of them is calling up any of my poems to memory (a real poet’s memory, of course, would only be turned on by drinking . . . Will there ever be a time, I thought, when you won’t feel like a poser). Cami patted me on the head and looked me in the eye. I see a lot of white, she said. I was being told my age. At some point the two of them disappeared down a staircase. My offer of shelter no doubt having looked like a proposition, they had properly ditched me. I sat and studied the bartender as he tried with some difficulty to light short candles set in glass that he then haphazardly slid along the bar. Berliners love candles, a fetching impulse in a dark city. A sign on corrugated cardboard cut from a box was sloppily taped to the wall. ‘How to Survive Kreuzberg,’ it read. Clocking in at 3 am, one suggestion stood out, ‘Don’t open a map.’

Eric of the bright eyes and broad smile had walked in 30 minutes earlier, but I couldn’t bear another political entanglement, I was fried. I went to say goodbye. He jumped up. You going? He gave me an enormous bear hug. I will look you up on Facebook, he shouted across the two-inch chasm between us. A taxi and a bike ride later, I walked into my Scheunenviertel flat and stood at the window for a while, staring blankly at the shadowed bulk of the new CIA in Berlin.

Read Joshua Weiner’s essay on the modern refugee novel, Transit, by Anna Seghers at B O D Y.