Shabbat Dinner

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. It begins each day with the new installment; to read from the beginning, go to the“Berlin Notebook” archive and scroll down to find the first entry.  An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon.


Friday, 16 October

ExBerliner, the expat Anglophone magazine in Berlin since 2002, is devoted this month to two themes: the refugee Willkommenkultur (Welcome Culture), and being “Jewish in Berlin.” Two good things that go together? Jewish “right of return” by those of German descent has been joined in Berlin by a growing influx of Jews from all over the world, most controversially (for Israelis) from Israel. Willkommenkultur is the welcome to refugees demonstrated by members of churches, synagogues, community centers, mobilized neighborhood volunteers, and leftist activists who are stepping in to fill the gaps left by a government bureaucracy staggering under the burden of overwhelming refugee numbers and underwhelming preparation for a crisis that was apparently on its way from the vantage of many months. This staging of welcome is starting to show fault lines in the German people’s attempt to welcome so many desperate and hurting refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, most of whom are practicing Muslims. (Though when I write “practicing Muslims’ the image I call to mind is of the taxi driver I saw in Washington DC on my way to the airport, on his knees on a prayer rug outside the Marriott-Wardman hotel). While the government tries to expedite deportation of Balkan refugees (the Wirtschaftsflüchtlinge, or economic refugees) and constrict the spout of benefits, Berlin scrambles to find empty buildings and plan emergency construction of 30,000 apartments next year. The Federal Office of Migration and Refugees had been consistently low-balling estimates until the Interior Minister dropped the bomb of accurate numbers in August: not 450,000, but twice that number is now expected; it’s likely to be even more. Much more. Hungary has closed its borders; other countries are sure to follow. The grimmest indicator may be that Munich’s decision in September to house refugees in the Dachau concentration camp somehow made sense; the outcry, writes Ben Knight, was not as loud as when Rhine-Westphalia actually put refugees in an outlying concentration camp building only seven months earlier.

22 ExBerliner (1)

Although no state agencies collect data on Jews, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research estimates that Germany has the third largest and fastest growing Jewish population in Western Europe, after France and the UK. There are 120,000 or more Jews in Germany today; according to estimates, half of the them live in Berlin. Before the Holocaust, the ratios were even greater (170,000 of 195,000 German Jews lived in Berlin). The number of anti-Semitic attacks on Jews in Berlin hovers over 200, but parsing that number in terms of German perps or foreigners, explicit acts of anti-Zionism, and acts “against Israel’ (whatever that means), is rather like separating green beans from wax beans. Anti-Semitic crimes are recorded, writes Sara Wilde, by their political motivation. That’s a murky depth to plumb. Jews wearing kippah have been physically and verbally attacked in Neukölln (the Kiez with the thickest Muslim population); but many Jews who do live in the area say they have not experienced anti-Semitism there. Anecdotes and ambiguous stats make it difficult to draw a clear picture. Amongst Germans, feelings about Jews and the nation’s bloodied history is a deep psychic pool, deeper even than ideology, and something akin to the legacy of slavery in the US. The more time I spend here, the more I feel that anti-Semitism is a core problem in the form of a Gordian knot: the right’s hatred of Jews comes together with its hatred of Muslim immigrants, many of whom also themselves hate Jews. The left, with its self-inoculation against Islamophobia as well as against anti-Semitism and anti-facism, finds itself in a double-bind: how can it strike against Sharia and fundamentalist jihad without appearing anti-Muslim? Some are quick to point out that, hey, these guys (Islamic fascists) are not just anti-Semitic, they’re also anti-homosexual, anti-liberal, anti-democratic, anti-tolerant, and not big proponents of women’s rights. How can the left sympathize with the cause of Palestinian self-determination without reanimating anti-Semitic goblins? Can the German left make meaningful distinctions between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism? For many Jews, any criticism of Israeli policies is anti-Semitic; yet the Israeli left has long attempted an intellectual and activist critique of Israel’s reactionary policies (e.g. in the West Bank). You could spend your life sorting it out; and to some extent, to be determined only by your conscience, you should. As always, talking to people is the first step.

Evening, I head out on the metro. The U-bahn to Charlottenburg is a stewing gumbo of disparate language sounds, and every stop introduces new ingredients — to a German base were added mixtures of Slavic, Arabic, and Asian. Some South American guys boarded with a small amp and brass instruments, and started up “When the Saints Go Marching In.” They smiled and sang and pumped the brass valves for a few coins, broke off abruptly at a stop and moved on to another car.

I was on my way to a shabbat dinner with Rabbi Walter Rothschild, Director of the Institut für Jüdische Besserwissenschaft (Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies) and his family, having been invited through an active listserv that started with an ordained feminist rabbi based in Hollywood, Florida — my aunt, Cheryl Weiner. A short walk past the infamous KaDaWe — the “shopping mall of the west” (and in DDR days greatest symbol of its decadence) — past some kosher stores, and I’m facing the apartment building on Passaustrasse. Two guys outside greeted me querulously as I approached the outside board of buzzers. Hallo, they said; it was a question. Hallo, I said, it was my answer. Hallo, they both said again, meaning what the fuck do you want here. Hallo, I said again, meaning none of your fucking business. I moved past them and rang up. (I later learned that they stand outside as guards for a small Sephardic community that convenes in the building).

I entered another spacious old high-ceilinged apartment with overstuffed, bulging, sagging bookcases, packed cd-racks, and a great milky way of everyday objects everywhere, the evidence of a vivacious and busy household. The home gave off a warm vibe boosted by good smells of roasting chicken. Rabbi Walter greeted me—we had never met—and offered me a whiskey. Shabbat hospitality indeed. We were off to a good start. We walked over to a set of old maps hanging on the wall. I began looking at them closely. One was a colored map of the Middle East, the other a city map of Jerusalem. Notice anything, he said. They were both German maps from the early 1940’s. Well, no Israel, obviously, I said, looking at a territory labeled Palestine, that would later become the State of Israel. These are tactical maps of the Wehrmacht (German armed forces), he said, you can see what they were planning for their invasion of the region. He pointed out where the Nazis were imagining train routes and where they would billet the troops in Jerusalem. Scary shit, I said. Yes, indeed, he said, very scary shit. A neighbor found them in his attic, he said, and let me hang them.

Rabbi Walter Rothschild came to Berlin from the UK in 1998 to help revive the Jewish community here. It hasn’t been easy, he tells me, in large part because of the conservative congregations that turn their backs on interfaith marriages and conversions. It’s hard to launch a revival when the values are stubbornly constrictive. The rabbi talked at a quick British clip, with precision, point, humor and wit. Listening to him and surveying his home, I gathered he was a man of appetite, discernment, ironical play, and intellectual and artistic endeavor. I soon found him to be a kind of Renaissance polymath — a poet, musician, scholar, a writer of short stories and memoirist reports from the front lines of rabbinical teaching. As our conversation took various turns, he pulled down notebooks of scholarly studies, volumes published long ago and just released, a cd of original songs with his band, a quarterly he writes and edits devoted to train systems in the Middle East, a satirical cookbook of cannibal recipes, another of anti-moralisms titled Aesop’s Foibles. His grown daughters were equally charming and full of great humor and openness. They welcomed me as an old friend, and were clearly practiced at the Jewish custom of inviting strangers into the home on shabbat. We were joined by a friend, Eva, and her new boyfriend, who, though he spoke little English, communicated engagement with sharp eyes, quick smile, and expressive brows. Dinner was the kind of bubbling conversation and cross table contact of people who delight in each other’s company. As we moved into dessert — Eva’s “cockies” — homemade joke cookies in genitalia shapes — and more wine, tea, whiskey and schnapps (will Berlin ever not be Berlin?) I grabbed my moment to ask the rabbi about the refugee crisis.

Earlier in the evening the rabbi had said to me, rubbing his eyes, I know you’re here to write about the refugees, but I have almost nothing to say about the situation. Now though, with a “cockie” on my plate and a hot cup of tea, I tried a different tact. The good mood of the table and the sociable atmosphere helped. I know, I said, that the refugee crisis is being covered by mainstream media like flies on an open wound. They seem to be doing a good job, I said, I don’t have anything to add to it myself. But I do have a question for you. I waited for the invitation to proceed. So, I said, I’m wondering: What kind of pressure do you think a million Muslims entering Germany is going to put on the Jewish community here, specifically the community in Berlin?

The rabbi began by telling me about getting mugged by three Arab guys outside the Wittenberg U-bahn station, just two blocks from where we sat. Luckily, when a fist smashed his glasses against his face, the shattered lenses did not puncture his eyes. One of the three perps was detained by a security guard; the other two were later picked up by the police. Their heads, said the rabbi, were filled with hateful shit. I’m concerned with who put it there. So, he said, that’s a worry. One big problem, he continued, is that Germany is not really funding efforts for interfaith understanding. It’s difficult, he said, to educate people without adequate funding. The rabbi described efforts he had taken up with priests and imams to go into schools to talk formally with students — but the stipend is so laughably horribly small, that after taxes and paying for one’s own meals over the course of the day, one has only a few dollars left to pocket. It’s not working, he said, we can’t sustain the effort, and there are too few people who can do it to begin with. What’s going to happen to Jews in Berlin, I said. The influx of Muslims is an issue, he said, but it’s not the main issue. In 10 to 15 years, the meaningful presence of Jewish congregations will disappear because the older generation is not bringing up a younger generation. The average age of congregants is 85. There’s no interest in interfaith growth or conversion through marriage.   What about all those Israelis coming to Berlin, I said. The Jewish Israelis and the Jewish Americans coming to Berlin, he said, are not coming here to practice Judaism. And even if they have an interest, unless they are registered to pay taxes, they cannot formally join a congregation. Because all these congregations are funded by the state. That’s why they exist, he said, because they get money. And whomever gets the money controls what the community does and how it does it. And in the meantime, they don’t really know what being Jewish is. The whole thing is a Potemkin village, there’s no Judaism there; the continuity has been broken. There was continuity in England, he continued, because German Jewish refugees went to the UK, they taught there. I grew up in that German Jewish liberal tradition, he said. And that’s why I came to Germany, to complete that circle of Jewish renewal. But I look around at the rabbinical conference here and I despair. I thought, he continued, in 1998 that there could be a generational change. But people warned me. My big mistake was in not realizing that change couldn’t take place because the only role models here were the previous generation. There is no real spirituality in Berlin; no prayer; it is a Judaism without God. He then explained his own congregational experiment, to see if there were enough Jews in Berlin to begin a community that would detach from the state tit and renew a practice of Judaism determined by individual commitment to a collective spirituality. It’s been very hard, he said. There is very little creative Jewish writing in Germany right now; there is no new German Jewish theology, no new ideas. So, in terms of your question, there is no critical mass here to counter the pressure of a Muslim presence. There are 200 Jewish births a year in Germany. So, say half of them are boys. That’s two circumcisions a week. No mohel can make a living doing two a week! And the Jewish butchers and bakers are slowly disappearing, he added. The disappearance of fresh food expertly turned out seemed like the final exhausted tap on the coffin of conversation. The rabbi rubbed his eyes. I could see the circles under them. It’s been a hard day, he said, maybe we can’t stay in Germany. We poured some more Tullamore Dew.


Zhou Enlai book cover

The Secret Sexual Life of Zhou Enlai and the Limits of Historical Knowledge

By Jeremiah Jenne

Zhou Enlai remains one of the most enigmatic figures in modern Chinese history. For nearly five decades, he served the Communist Party and the People’s Republic of China. He was the original technocrat, orchestrating foreign policy and stabilizing domestic politics in an era of campaigns and the chaotic whims of Mao Zedong.

He might also have been gay. At least so claims Hong Kong journalist Tsoi Wing-Mui in her new book, The Secret Emotional Life of Zhou Enlai (Zhou Enlai de mimi qinggan shijie).

The retroactive outing of somebody of Zhou’s stature is sure to court controversy, and this could well have made Ms. Tsoi’s book the most buzzed about title on the private life of a Chinese leader in years — had it not appeared around the same time that Hong Kong booksellers associated with salacious works on Xi Jinping and Peng Liyuan’s behind-closed-doors activities began mysteriously disappearing.

Homosexuality was illegal in the PRC until 1997. Before then, men who had sex with other men risked the charge of “hooliganism.” And it was only in 2001 that the Chinese Psychiatry Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. While social mores are changing, especially in China’s cities, it is still far from unusual to encounter members of the older generation who believe that homosexuality is a foreign vice, an unfortunate by-product of China’s opening to the outside world.

An admittedly unscientific poll in my neighborhood park resulted in several mocking dismissals of any notion that Zhou Enlai might have been gay, plus one stern lecture regarding foreign slanders of China’s leadership.

Ms. Tsoi is not the first to raise questions about the nature of the fifty-plus-year relationship between Zhou Enlai and his wife, Deng Yingchao, for their marriage has previously been the subject of whispers and speculation. The pair famously never had any children, and Zhou’s courtship of Deng — he proposed with a postcard after having not seen her in over five years — was singularly unromantic.

Ms. Tsoi claims, however, that there is textual evidence — in the form of Zhou’s diary — to support her claim that his deepest love was for a member of his own sex, and that he was generally more attracted to men than women.

That diary, written in 1918 when Zhou Enlai was a 20-year-old student in Japan, contains numerous passages that suggest that the relationship between Zhou and some of his classmates was less than platonic.

In the very first entry, dated January 1, 1918, Zhou wrote: “For the first time in my life, I am immersed in this word ‘love,’ as to the heart of the passion […]” The last line is then blurred with a thick brush stroke across the page.

There is always interest in the sexual lives of famous historical figures, even more so when that sexual life runs counter to popular perception or official history. From Alexander the Great to Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt, history’s alleged closet would seem to be a crowded space.

But retroactively outing a historical figure remains problematic, not because of the sex — Zhou Enlai may well have had erotic relations with other men — but because such studies are often methodologically flawed. Too often, contemporary understandings of romance and sexuality, gay or straight, are read into texts from another time period. But doing so can prejudice the data and lead to shaky conclusions. It is an error of perception when we use present-day standards to judge or categorize evidence of past behavior.

Richard Burger, whose own research into the subject led to the 2012 book Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, knows the pitfalls well. “It is tempting to project our contemporary attitudes about homosexuality onto men in China who enjoyed sex with other men,” says Burger, whom I interviewed by email. “But it is important to understand that these men did not identify as gay. They were family men who enjoyed having sex with boys, who under the Qing were commonly referred to as ‘song boys’ (they often read poetry, danced and sang songs for their patrons).”

Many studies of homosexuality in Chinese literature or history have relied on texts, poetry, and letters, which require close reading and are open to considerable interpretation. The relative absence of gender signifiers in classical Chinese language adds to this challenge. Bret Hinsch’s 1992 Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China is a well-known example of the limitations inherent in this approach. While homosexuality was known to have been commonly practiced in China, in a variety of forms, into the modern period, evidence for specific individuals or circumstances can be frustratingly vague.

For example, an entry in Zhou’s 1918 diary includes this passage:

In these months, the moon or the morning breeze, the rain against my window, and flowers; all make me long for my family, and thinking of my brother Hui, I suffer terribly!

Ms. Tsoi argues that the object of Zhou’s passionate sentiment (“Brother Hui”) was a younger classmate named Li Fujing, who had moved to Hong Kong during Zhou’s time in Japan. But while the passage clearly shows Zhou’s emotional attachment to Li, it doesn’t say very much about the nature of their relationship.

In an American Historical Review (December 2000) essay on “The Male Bond in Chinese History and Culture,” historian Susan Mann argued that patterns of education and career advancement ensured that men spent the better part of their working and social lives interacting almost exclusively with other men.

Many male relationships were homosocial — the strongest emotional bonds felt by the individual were toward someone of the same gender — but not necessarily sexual. One imagines a continuum from non-sexual emotional attachment to sexual and romantic attachment. This continuum might also include cultural practices such as the “gifting” of concubines or, as is sometimes still the case today, sexual expression in a group setting as described by author James Palmer in his 2015 ChinaFile article “The Bro Code: Booze, Sex, and the Dark Art of Dealmaking in China:

Perhaps that’s why some bosses demand a more public performance. The ultimate are what participants describe as frequent forays into group sex, often with more male than female participants. Sharing women appears to bring men closer to each other, in a perversely familial fashion. As one northeastern saying goes, “Once two men share a woman, they’re brothers.”

These wildly disparate examples of male bonding suggest why it can be difficult to find the kind of definitive evidence necessary to out a historical figure who, by all other accounts, presented as straight.

Even the tepid nature of Zhou Enlai’s married life is in danger of being misread. Many descriptions of Zhou borrow heavily from Confucian tropes: he was devoted to his work. He was a loyal official. He was upright in his personal life. In this way, Zhou’s lack of an overt romantic or sexual life contrasts favorably with the notoriously libertine Mao. In the male world of Confucian (and later revolutionary) officialdom, excessive interest in women could be construed as a weakness.

This conflation of devotion to duty with resistance to feelings of romantic or sexual attraction to women could, in some cases, tip over into open misogyny. One of the unfortunate tropes that surround women who get too close to power in China is that these women have an over-developed desire for sex, particularly transgressive sex. The most recent example is Gu Kailai, the imprisoned wife of deposed Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, who was accused of orchestrating the murder of her foreign lover in 2011.

In this way, hagiographic depictions of Zhou that borrow from the tradition of the official unsullied by preoccupations of romance and sex can be read, in another context, as Zhou Enlai living an uncomfortable life as a closeted gay man prohibited from the open expression of his true sexuality.

This critique is not to detract from the intention of Ms. Tsoi’s project. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just as researchers need to take care not to impose contemporary understandings of gay-ness back into history, it’s equally important not to assume heterosexuality as a historical norm. The onus is on Ms. Tsoi to refute a relatively large body of textual and other evidence, including what we know of how Zhou Enlai presented his own sexuality. But wishing for more evidence to support Ms. Tsoi’s claim that Zhou Enlai was gay is not the same as wanting to suppress that evidence or a desire for additional credentials to boost Zhou’s “straightness.”

Zhou Enlai may well have had sex with other men. It’s even possible that his greatest romantic and erotic attractions were toward other men. Certainly that is the case with many historical figures. If this were the case with Zhou, it would be an important insight into not only his life and career, but also the limits of the historical record.

According to Richard Burger, “If Zhou was indeed gay he must have been careful to leave no trace of it, and documenting such a thesis would be extremely difficult. Homosexuality was such a taboo under Mao (and continued to be until the 1990s), it would be unthinkable for Zhou to have left any evidence that would have incriminated him as being gay.”

Unfortunately, while Tsoi’s is a much more carefully researched work than some of the most titillating recent books about Xi and Peng, such as one that claims to reconstruct the night the latter lost her virginity, the evidence presented on Zhou’s romantic inclinations is still too flimsy to be conclusive. The emotional life of one of China’s most respected leaders, like many aspects of just how the five Hong Kong booksellers ended up in custody on the mainland, remains a mystery.























KB - Kim Young Ha Read 1

A Korean Literary Superstar Tells His Countrymen Why to Read

By Colin Marshall 

When I started reading Korean novels seriously, I started reading Kim Young-ha — going on, in fact, to produce a profile of his work right here in the LARB. The world of modern Korean letters has produced few hits in translation, much less in translation into English, where Shin Kyung-sook’s Oprah-anointed Please Look After Mom (despite Shin’s recent and confusing plagiarism scandal or maybe non-scandal) remains the Korean novel to beat in the Anglosphere. But were I a betting man, I’d put money on Kim as the next big thing in global Korean literature; unlike most of his colleagues, he already has a deliberately international outlook, not to mention three novels available in English with major publishers: I Have the Right to Destroy Myself (나는 나를 파괴할 권리가 있다), Your Republic Is Calling You (빛의 제국), and Black Flower (검은 꽃), all of which draw on Korean culture as well as literature’s more placeless powers to make their impacts.

The prospect of reading Kim’s other books in the original has provided more than its share of motivation for me to get a handle on the Korean language. And I don’t just mean his novels, though I do relish the opportunity to read his currently-under-translation I Can Hear Your Voice (너의 목소리가 들려) before it comes out in English next year and Diary of a Murderer (살인자의 기억법) before it does some time in the far-flung, not-firmly-scheduled future. I mean his collections of essays, a favorite form of mine but one which barely any publishers bother bringing into English, even though they can make big splashes in their writers’ home countries. It just recently happened with Kim’s Read (읽다) which completes a trilogy of slim nonfiction books that started with See (보다), which rounded up his columns written for a film magazine, and Speak (말하다), a collection of his talks and interviews.

KB - Kim Young Ha Read 5

With the success of See and Speak, Kim seemed to have tapped into a demand for not just the fruits of his imagination but his observations on storytelling culture as well. This justified spending the time and effort to make Read not out of previous writings, but all new material: a series of six lectures, which he delivered live, one per fortnight, in the run-up to the book’s release. In them, he talks about the classics, what about the stories told in the classics have allowed them to endure, what the classics have technically and thematically in common with modern stories told today on the page as well as the screen, and why one might want to read the classics at all. The result references and analyzes everything from The Odyssey to Collateral, Don Quixote to The Big Bang Theory, Crime and Punishment to Norwegian Wood, The Stranger to The Sopranos.

For much of his twenty-year career so far, Kim hasn’t just written books for his countrymen to read, but has advocated to them the act of reading itself. Before Read, this mission manifested in his podcast Time to Read a Book (김영하의 책 읽는 시간), subject of a previous post here on the Korea Blog, and as it turns out, something of a proving ground for the ideas expanded upon in the new book. These include the features of the 24-hour story as prescribed by Aristotle’s Poetics (and as practiced by Kim himself in Your Republic is Calling You, a day in the life of its North Korean sleeper agent protagonist suddenly called back home), the use of characters themselves absorbed in fictions (not just the Man of La Mancha, but Emma Bovary, Jay Gatsby, Leonard Hofstadter and Sheldon Cooper), and the novel as a kind of natural landscape for the reader to wander while experiencing its joys and pains, savoring all the myriad connections to be found between all the stories written throughout the history of literature.

Asked why he himself reads novels, Kim replies by paraphrasing Sir Edmund Hillary: “Because they’re there.” But according to the numbers, most South Koreans don’t share his motivation: despite impressive literacy rates, the country tends to languish in the middle, or more often at the bottom, when ranked by the amount of reading its people do for pleasure. I’ve heard mostly simple and even dismissive explanations for this, claims that the period of rapid industrialization that stretched from the 1950s at least through the 1990s left Koreans “too busy” for a pursuit as unproductive as reading books. But could it also have to do with the novel’s relative lack of penetration, as a form, into the culture?

In Read‘s fifth lecture, Kim explores “the world of the charming monster,” a character type we in the West know from the examples he puts before his audience: Tony Soprano, Hannibal Lecter, Crime and Punishment‘s Raskolnikov, Lolita‘s Humbert Humbert. These he frames as examples of the most interesting character type, which occupy one corner of the matrix (a matrix, incidentally, I’ve personally witnessed him draw on a bar napkin) with “good” and “bad” on one axis and “simple” and “complicated” on the other. This produces four quadrants: one for simply good characters, one for simply bad characters, one for complicatedly good characters, and one for the Sopranos, the Lecters, and Raskolnikovs, and the Humberts of the world — the complicatedly bad ones.

KB - Kim Young Ha Read 4

Much Korean literature has thus far tended to feature either simply or complicatedly good protagonists tormented by, and sometimes sacrificing themselves to, simply bad antagonists. This jibes with the complaints I’ve heard from Korean friends about the oversimplified way history gets taught in schools here, usually in the form of stories of essentially people — benevolent rulers, brave military men, tireless freedom fighters, peace-loving citizens — against wave after historical wave of essentially bad intruders and occupiers. Just as a history with its eyes open to moral complexity, and especially the complexity of what in other contexts gets called evil, is much more fascinating than those with their eyes closed to it, a novel willing to admit and even examine the existence of the complicatedly bad is much more compelling than those that aren’t.

Kim, on some level, must have known this from the jump; his debut novel I Have the Right to Destroy Myself follows, among other characters paintable in neither black nor white, an artistically inclined professional suicide-enabler. You can rest assured that, when Diary of a Murderer finally appears in English, it will offer no flat condemnation of its title character. In this way and others, Kim has positioned himself on the vanguard of Korean literature, which, in terms of texts written in the Korean alphabet rather than in classical Chinese, only really goes back about a century. That makes it still a fresh literature, and thus one excitingly open to the formative powers of Kim and other writers of his young generation (at least by the standards of the official Korean literary apparatus, which equates prizes with legitimacy and hesitates to hand many out to anyone under fifty). In order to push the Korean novel forward, then, it makes sense that, searching for what makes any literature worth reading in the first place, he would look back.

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


People Will Move

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. It begins each day with the new installment; to read from the beginning, go to the“Berlin Notebook” archive and scroll down to find the first entry.  An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon.


Thursday, 15 October

Dinner plans with the English poet, Alistair Noon, and his partner Sabine, who is German. The U-bahn ride is only a few stops, but Berlin-wise a different world from my secret service block — the blue collar district of Wedding (pron. Vedding). Alistair’s directions have me walking through what he calls “a spooky park.” Without any light at all in the park, I find myself walking long stretches beneath rows of thickly foliated trees that block out any ambient illumination. My urban hackles and sixth sense are raised; it’d be a cinch to jump me here. On the other hand, only an idiot would walk through this park and you’d have to be an equal one to wait for him in such deep darkness (a woman would never make the mistake). But I’ve never had a problem in Berlin, and I go pretty much everywhere — it helps, I suppose, to have some size (what I lack in height I make up for in girth). I get through all right, every other step giving me away with clinking beer bottles in tote.

Their flat is modern, small and neat. They’ve just moved in, having re-done the floors — (in Germany, renters are expected to pay for their own renovations; people don’t move around much and they often rent the same flat for decades — thus the inevitable epic wait to secure new digs). I have beaten Alistair home, he is on a beer run. Sabine and I are soon joined by their friend, Malte Fuhrmann, a cultural historian at the Türkisch-Deutsche Universität zu Istanbul, who slowly strips off his cycling rain gear — he is well protected head to toe, a true all-weather Berliner cyclist. Alistair soon follows and within minutes we’re all drinking outstanding Franconian beer. Conversation percolates over lentils, chard, and potatoes. As I find with Lian (and maybe this is a sign of authenticity) Alistair is very much like his poems — satirical, sharply enunciated, urbane, far-reaching in global reference, and fun to listen to. He’s been living in Berlin since before the Mauerfall, and makes his bread as a translator of legal documents (he also has good working command of Russian, and has translated Pushkin and Mandelstam in addition to contemporary German poets such as Monika Rinck).

Sabine teaches German as a second language to refugees — specifically those who have already achieved some kind of official foothold in the society. She describes some of the culture clashes between the values of Western open societies and Eastern notions of propriety, decorum, and social license (e.g. to live an openly gay life; for women to talk directly and freely and to exercise self-determination; to be openly physically affectionate; to express one’s sexuality without fear of reprimand or punishment . . .) Sabine’s class includes a wide range of nationalities, ethnicities, and religions.

There are sometimes tragi-comical episodes, such as building evacuations over forgotten book bags; but also alarming acts of violence against people with different expectations and ideas about how to act in society — different ideas about what society, in fact, in the West, is.

I ask her if the idea of a million Muslims entering Germany gives her cause for concern. No, she says, what scares me are the right-wing extremists in Germany. (I would hear that again and again, the feeling of many Germans that the far right in Germany, and of Germany, is more dangerous than the foreigners entering).

Alistair breaks in. No one should be surprised by the massive movement of refugees across the border, he says, after all, capital has been moving across borders without hindrance for at least a generation or more; it only makes sense that at some point people will move as well. The system, however, is designed to check people while allowing for the free movement of capital. But who creates the capital, he asks rhetorically. Well now the same system is breaking down. And, he adds, for good reason. Malte, whose focus as a scholar is the Ottoman Empire in the 19th & 20th centuries, breaks in with an especially acute reading of the situation. Unfortunately too much beer from Bamberg, Erlangen, Nürnberg have fritzed the synapses, and all I can remember is my impression that he knew more than any of us.

The evening ended with Malte and I walking back through the spooky park, which, with our blood alcohol levels, had been transformed into a foggy midnight pastoralia. I do remember, however, one of Malte’s subspecialties: Ottoman beer production in the 19th century and the transformation of public space. All hail Franconia! (And one of the main regions of entry for refugees in Germany….)



An e-mail from Malte Fuhrmann arrives, responding to my request for his (lost) thoughts about the crisis.

On the one hand, we are all a bit puzzled how differently things are running now compared with the big asylum-seeker influx in the early 90s (destitute people from economically wrecked Soviet block countries plus mostly Bosnian war refugees). Back then the CDU [Christian Democratic Union party, the center right catch-all party in Germany] kind of welcomed the attention towards the refugees, as this distracted from their obviously economically ruinous policy towards Eastern Germany. Also many mainstream intellectuals and the media jumped on the bandwagon. Now, there is this big consensus from the CDU through the mainstream media to not allow for racism, leaving the racist segment of society (which, mind you, is still big) looking for obscure organizations like Pegida and AfD [Alternative for Germany, one of the right-wing populist parties, fairly new]. Whether this or the old strategy is a better long-term solution to keep the right-wing small, I do not know. 

Other things which are different: back then buildings with people inside were set on fire, now it is “just” empty buildings. Nowadays Syrian war refugees get asylum status, whereas Bosnians in the 90s only received “Duldung” (status of being tolerated). It made it easier to deport them at short notice and excluded them from education, the job market etc. 

Another perspective is of course having lived in Turkey for several years. My friends from Turkey laugh at the fuss Germans make over the arriving refugees, as Turkey has lived with 2 million refugees from Syria throughout the last years. However, Germany offers much more to refugees then Turkey does (welfare, emergency housing, language education etc.), where there are a few mass camps for first arrivals, but many Syrians live in a state of destitution in the streets.  German society is a structurally very conservative one: most people did not really want their lives to change with reunification, and now they also would wish things just to return to normal. However the present dilemma has “possibly shown a split between those that realize that Germany is just a smaller area of Europe/Asia/Africa and cannot ignore if other parts of those continents are at war, live under dictatorships, or in misery. However there is this obstinate lot that still thinks the question is how many refugees Germany thinks “it can handle”, not realizing no one will bother to ask that with their backs against the wall. One immigrant friend (admittedly a Turkish American professor, not refugee) claimed however that while in Germany one occasionally runs into some ignoramus, people are in general more open-minded than in Switzerland, where people seem to generally have the attitude that somehow the system will take care of everybody, and if somebody falls out of the system, it is their individual fault.’

Read Joshua Weiner’s essay on the modern refugee novel, Transit, by Anna Seghers at BODY.



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. It begins each day with the new installment; to read from the beginning, go to the “Berlin Notebook” archive and scroll down to find the first entry.  An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon.


Tuesday, 13 October

In her essay of 1943, “Wir Flüchtlinge (We Refugees),” Hannah Arendt asks the hard question about how Europe allowed the persecution of its Jews, and the even harder question of how the European Jewish loss of identity — the desire not to be perceived as Jewish — is a kind of self-annihilation that leads, literally, to suicide.

“In the first place,” she writes, “we don’t like to be called ‘refugees.’ We ourselves call each other ‘newcomers’ or ‘immigrants.'” Yes, with the current legal parsing of ‘refugee,’ ‘asylum seeker,’ ‘migrant,’ ‘immigrant,’ it’s all too easy intellectually to contain people within an imposed social category. Is it really possible to see people in their full individual humanity, free of that status? Who can one be outside of one’s relation to others? “We lost our home,” Arendt writes, “which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives in the Polish ghettos and our best friends have been killed in concentration camps, and that means the rupture of our private lives.”

The condition of statelessness, which, in Arendt’s historical reading, European Jews after World War II internalized and converted into an inauthentic assimilation in whatever country they happened to adopt, lead to a profound existential despair: “we try to put up a front, to hide the facts, to play roles.” This condition is now a global situation, a global diaspora. The particular aspects of that condition, of Jewishness, remain stubbornly Jewish — (“A nice little fairy tale has been invented to describe our behavior; a forlorn émigré dachshund, in his grief, begins to speak: “Once, when I was a St. Bernard . . .’’)

The refugees in Goethe’s cycle of stories, Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten (Conversations of German Refugees, 1795), are not Flüchtlinge, not so much fleeing, as migrating — they are migrants, Ausgewanderten–and you can hear the wandering in the word. They are not eternally wandering, but circumstantially on the move, displaced by the French Revolution, changing abodes, as the word migrate indicates. (And you can follow the line of this conceit from Bocaccio’s Decameron to Goethe’s Unterhaltungen to Brecht’s play, Flüchtlingsgespräche (Refugee Dialogues)–finished in 1944, Brecht’s conversations take place in a train station.)   In European lore, the Jews are not given even that uncertain status; they are denied the temporal limits of such movement; they are, rather, the Ewige Juden, “Eternal Jews,” their wandering knowing no bounds, only borders, all foreign. The “Eternal Jew” is forced from a native relation to the land, and into an unending unbound relation to time. The best of what European Jewish culture had to offer the world was born in this double bind of denial and conferral.

There is no need to try to draw equivalences between the Jews of Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s and the Middle East refugees now — for the Jews of Europe then had no homeland to begin with. This difference is all the difference in the world, the difference, you could say, of the difference. Yet Arendt puts forward an understanding also larger than the Jewish situation: “hell is no longer a religious belief or a fantasy, but something real as houses and stones and trees.” For those at Lageso, the houses have been destroyed; the stones they sit on grow cold; the trees they lie beneath are shedding their leaves . . . They are in a different brand of hell, because they know where they’re from.

I receive an e-mail from a friend in Berlin who had offered to introduce me to a Syrian woman she knew. But the woman, once approached, refused. She didn’t want to speak to any writers or anyone from the media about the war or about being a refugee–“there is such a shitstorm about it right now,” my friend writes, and “the media is all over it. She just wants to get on with her life and integrate . . .”

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

20 Yang Lian2

The Insider Outside and the Outsider Inside

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. It begins each day with the new installment; to read from the beginning, go to the “Berlin Notebook” archive and scroll down to find the first entry.  An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon.


Sunday, 11 October

Pedaling through the Tiergarten on a bright Sunday in October, you would expect to see plenty of others enjoying the day; but today the park is teeming with thousands of stragglers still in town after yesterday’s massive demonstration against the US-EU trade pact (TTIP/CETA). Hundreds of thousands came out, by the literal busload. The speeches and music floated up several kilometers and over the roofs of the Naturkundemuseum and the new CIA building to tickle my ear through the open window.

I stayed inside, working on these journal entries, studying some German, and losing myself in Joseph Roth’s Weimar-era writing about the city (collected under the title, What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933, translated by Michael Hofmann). Though these dispatches originally appeared in newspapers, they transcend their immediate genre. As flâneur, Roth was not only observant, sympathetic, ironical, and intrepid, paying close attention to the lives of struggling immigrants, displaced Jews, and homeless in the mechanical metropolis with its seedy glamour—his vision is penetrating, his comprehension indelible. “Phenomena and atmospheres and experiences differ,” he writes, “not in their essence, but in secondary qualities like scale.” Everywhere in these reports from the streets of Berlin, Roth shifts the scale so that we can see what otherwise we’d walk right by, “to learn that a slightly bent hand can hold in it the misery of all time.” The novelist is always awake in these sentences. Roth was paid for each one, but a personal relish for the startling detail and comprehensive sweep animates every phrase.

But one cannot always be observing firsthand; one must also stay inside and reimagine, sift, refine, and sharpen sentences. Such was Saturday. And with such a massive demonstration, I would get lost in the scripted sentiments, the replicated postures. But you couldn’t escape the gist: “STOP TTIP/CETA für einen gerechten Welthandel”(“STOP TTIP/CETA for a world of fair trade”). Today, red and green flags still wandered the Tiergarten, the demo anti-corporate/pro-environment/pro-labor/pro-consumer/pro-democracy vibe sustaining a feeling of positive lift.

I pedaled through the aimless political drift zigzagging my way to the Chinese poet Yang Lian (or, as one would say in English, Lian Yang) in Schöneberg, my old Kiez from two years ago. The hookers of Kurfürstenstrasse were already out on a Sunday afternoon, a block or so from Lian’s conspicuously renovated stretch — such is Berlin, where prostitution is legal. They all looked like immigrants from the East, some having perfected their slow sexual strutting, others merely standing in the street as if they were saving a parking space for a friend. Bright high-cut shorts hugged flesh-tone tights—it was getting colder — and made theatrically explicit the parody of flashy mating dance. Maybe women hooking from Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Serbia, Macedonia had the relative privilege of working in the brothels . . . was I seeing a societal labor sub-class? Note to self: ask a German guy in a Kneipe near Oranienstrasse (another street, in Mitte, where I’m living now, also known as a district for sex workers — they hover around the historic Neue Synogogue).

Two years ago, when I was living in Berlin, Lian and I had worked together on translating his verse triptych about Nabokov’s exile in Berlin (1922-37). I hadn’t seen Lian since, though we’d stayed in touch. He and his wife, the novelist and painter, YoYo (Liu Youhong) had lived for many years in exile themselves (first in New Zealand, then London, and now Berlin) having fled Beijing with the growing violence that led to the collapse of the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. Lian is a lot like his poems, full of expressionist intensity and phrasal bursts. Words seem to shoot out of him; he’s like a walking language gun.

Lian and YoYo live in the kind of high-ceilinged pre-war apartment building with big well-lit rooms that were demolished all over the East for their bourgeois decadence. Although they had some difficulty renovating it — Berlin subcontractors, seeing they were Chinese, assumed they were therefore super-rich, and tried to rip them off — it’s now a lovely, warm, spacious flat. Exile has become home.

As we settle on the couch behind steaming cups of tea, I can tell YoYo is antsy as Lian and I slowly lose ourselves in poetry talk. She is getting ready to show her paintings — colorful impressionistic abstract work on large paper, with strong calligraphic elements — to a gallery owner coming later. She excuses herself. Lian and I plunge into our shared obsession — poetry, its cultural history and global reach. Lian, deeply read in several traditions, makes the kind of connections that frame poetry as a trans-historical practice. He carries himself with an elegant modesty, and is instantly recognizable in a crowd with his shoulder-length mane and quick smile. In China, he is famous for joining a native tradition with European modernism, something he shares with other poets from the so-called “Misty School” of late 20th century poetry in China, whose metaphorical language communicated feelings and ideas to Chinese readers that the state deemed verboten. However, as with much of the poetry in communist bloc eastern Europe, the language of poetry is often difficult for the state to prosecute: it’s hard to say, in a court of law, what it means, exactly. The poetry flourished there in its stylistic ambiguities; still, because its subversiveness was understood, it had to be suppressed. Since the collapse of the  democracy movement in 1989, Lian’s body of work has grown in significance; a standard collected works is in preparation in China, and he is translated and published the world over.

Our conversation turned to the refugees. I asked him what he made of the situation given his experiences living in political exile for the last 25 years. Exile, he said, is the grammar to connect people across time and space, it is the grammar of poetry. The real story is the most powerful thing; no one can invent that experience in real life. Tiananmen or Syria now, everyone lives in history, really. We need to see that it is the same story in different countries in order to understand the situation — not only is it their situation, but it is our situation: that’s the most important point. When people talk about China, they often recycle Cold War ideology, black and white — but recycled talking points do not meet the deeper layer of reality of the situation. So in reference to the refugee crisis now, he said, I feel that the reason for the crisis, how IS [Islamic State] has squeezed the internal space within Arabic culture — that’s a real source of worry. Inside of those countries (Syria, Iraq, Iran, even Turkey) the liberal space is getting smaller and smaller. The only hope for the world is that one day a real modern transformation will happen. It has to happen, he says. In 2003, Lian continues, Adonis [the Syrian poet, recognized around the world as one of the great modern Arabic writers] said to me, “I am anti-Islamic because religion is always used to compel people to believe and to behave.” This was so great and such a relief to hear. I see in him, said Lian, one great individual, in his body, speaking for the awareness of this need for this kind of individualism. This kind of thinking has to happen more often with more people. That is the only hope. History goes like that. One person can really decide the direction of history. But we have to think when we see refugees, we are refugees too. We live in a peaceful time and place, but the violent situation driving them from their home is so close to us. I say, said Lian, exile is a grammar crossing time and space — and, really, from our experience after Tiananmen massacre, that grammar helps us to see ourselves and the refugees, both walking here in Berlin.

Why did you guys move to Berlin and make your home here? With our experience in Beijing, said Lian, there is a direct link between Tiananmen Square and the opening of the Berlin wall. The blood in Tiananmen Square [spring 1989] served as the textbook of days for Europe and Berlin [fall 1989]. Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing [that spring] brought students into the street. [Gorbachev was viewed as a figure of increased liberalization, which ran counter to Chinese communist party hard-liners, but excited those involved with the democracy movement]. So all the international TV stations were in Beijing, Lian continued, and that called the world’s attention to Tiananmen Square; and when the massacre happened, it was the first time in front of all the world’s eyes. Tiananmen Square — Berlin Wall: it is almost like one pair of words, each made up of three characters in Chinese, like coupled lines in a poem.

We discussed some of the differences I was hearing at Lageso between the desires of those from Syria and from Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s experience is longer, said Lian, with the question of what can be a stable home. First the British, then the Russians, then the Taliban, then America [took control of the country] — the meaning of home keeps changing — you can live in exile at home. And home is also in this, our body, he gestures to himself, Afghanis are clearer about this than those from Syria, he says.

Why is it so important, I ask, for you to live in exile; after all, at this point, you could go back, right? After Tiananmen Square, says Lian, so many Chinese writers were living and writing in exile. But now, most of them have gone back to China, or to Chinese-speaking areas. It’s a strange feeling. But it is so rare to have a real Chinese writer with open international experience and therefore a larger understanding; and to put in the hand of Chinese people the possibility of a modern transformation of Chinese culture, and to push it. You can be a greater force for change in China, I said, by living outside of it than if you lived there. Lian responded, I don’t want to lock myself in the small space of living in China, but pushing for change from here. We have been called “the Insider Outside and the Outsider Inside.”

Would it be safe if you returned, I asked. For many years, says Lian, when I landed in China and turned on my phone, the first call I received came from the secret police. “Oh, Mr. Yang, you are here again, welcome. We hope we can sit down soon and discuss matters.” In other words, you are being watched. But this has stopped. But this does not mean I feel safe. On the other hand, where is safe? In the West there are commercial pressures, and a huge culture that keeps changing day to day. Always you feel you are a stranger. But I am quite proud to be a stranger. Every new poem makes me stranger and stronger. I abandon my old self to write a new poem. All these challenges make us stronger individuals. I hope this can be shared with the refugees from Syria, but also for those born here, and living here for many generations. It feels like before World War I right now, he said, before the world became separated by two big ideas, capitalism and communism. Exile links everything. We have to be the active Other — that is the point of awareness, he said, the attempt to understand others is part of your own ego, part of your understanding of yourself.

On my bike ride home I thought of the first televised images I saw in 1989 of the Mauerfall. My paternal grandfather, Sam Weiner, had just died, and I was in Hollywood, Florida, for the funeral, and helping to sort out my grandparents’ apartment. Watching Germans from East and West climb the wall, and try, without much effect, to hammer and chip at it . . . It was the end of one era and the beginning of another, especially in light of my grandfather’s own boyhood flight from Russia and his eventual journey into the US through Ontario. With both sides of my family hailing from Russia, I had to wonder about my last name, Weiner: it’s a straight-up German name (related to Wagner, or meaning wheelwright, or in Yiddish, wine merchant) . . .

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

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. It begins each day with the new installment; to read from the beginning, go to the “Berlin Notebook” archive and scroll down to find the first entry.  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.

KB - vloggers 1

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. It begins each day with the new installment; to read from the beginning, go to the “Berlin Notebook” archive and scroll down to find the first entry.  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. It begins each day with the new installment; to read from the beginning, go to the “Berlin Notebook” archive and scroll down to find the first entry.  An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon.


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 . . .