02 On Being Foreign: Position Oneself in Between/对话异乡人:在“夹缝”中寻找自己的位置

Hello everyone, welcome to Episode two! In this episode, we will talk about experiences, feelings, emotions, and reflections, on being foreign, with topics such as the power of language, how to deal with foreign gaze and stereotypes, Ideology differences, and how freedom is entitled to one’s identity. In the end, we reflect on how to position ourselves in between different backgrounds and identities and try to find our own paths.

As you might notice from the title, this episode is recorded completely in Mandarin Chinese (surprise!) to raise awareness of the political power of language. But don’t panic; you will find a very detailed translation here on our website to help you follow the episode!

This episode is a pleasant dialogue between Qianer Zhu and Bing Liu. Qianer Zhu (she/her/hers) is a Master’s student of architecture at ETH Zurich. She has been actively building up communities of empowerment with student initiatives such as Sekundos (welcome!) and Unmasking Space. Bing is also a Master’s student of architecture at ETH Zurich. He is a homo sapien who lives on earth. The name – BING is written on his passport.

Enjoy listening!

大家好,欢迎来到sekudos第二集! 在这一集里,我们将谈论关于身为外国人的经验、感受、情绪和反思,话题包括语言的力量,如何面对对外国人的凝视、刻板印象、和意识形态的差异,以及自由是如何和个人身份密切相关的。最后,我们试图讨论如何在不同的背景和身份之间定位自己,在“夹缝”中寻找自己的位置。正如你可能从标题中注意到的那样,这一集完全用中文普通话录制,试图以此强调语言的力量。你可以在我们的网站上找到非常详细的英语翻译(www.sekundos.live),以帮助你了解这一集的内容。

本期主持人Zhu Qianer是苏黎世联邦理工学院建筑系的硕士生,她在校园内积极建立组织自下而上的学生运动团体,如本播客Sekundos,学生团体Unmasking Space等。本期嘉宾Liu Bing也是苏黎世联邦理工学院建筑系的硕士生,他是一个生活在地球上的智人,BING是写在他的护照上的名字。

Cover Design/封面设计 © Timo Tiffert


[11:42] hey, Mr. Nazi – Blumio

[37:46] People life, ocean wild – Mayday/人生海海 – 五月天

[54:43] Que Sera Sera – Doris Day

[1:11:06] Ballade No. 2 in F Major, Op. 38 – Frédéric Chopin

/Interview With/本期对话

Qianer Zhu

Bing Liu


Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. 1st ed., New ed. New York: Grove Press, 2008./[法国]弗朗兹·法农,《黑皮肤,白面具》,译林出版社,2005.

Stanišić, Saša. Herkunft. 10. Auflage. Munchen, Germany: Luchterhand, 2019./[德] 萨沙·斯坦尼西奇,《我从哪里来》,上海人民出版社,2021.

Eribon, Didier, Michael Lucy, and George Chauncey. Returning to Reims. South Pasadena, CA: Semiotexte, 2013./ [法]迪迪埃·埃里蓬,《回归故里》,上海文化出版社,2020.


[00:00] Q: Ok, let’s start! (laughs)

[00:21]Q: Hello everyone! Welcome to Sekundos – Morphology of identities. I’m Qianer. In this episode, we will have Bing as our guest. Say hi to our listeners!

[00:32]B: Hello everyone, my name is Liu Bing. I am a Master’s student of Architecture from ETH Zurich. Do I need to say my age?

Q: Not necessarily.

B: OK, then that’s it! (Both: haha)

[00:51]Q: I invite you to this episode because you are also a special “Sekundos”, which refers to the second generation of migrants, usually growing up in a different country than their parents. Since you have a special story of having a German nationality, could you tell us more about this story?

[01:18]B: Actually, my parents are not really “migrants” since they live in Shanghai now. I was born in Hamburg when they were working there. After I was born, I had a rare disease that they did not find any solution with the western treatments, and in the end, they found a traditional Chinese treatment that was working. So they quit their job in Hamburg and moved back to China for me and started their architecture career from zero again in Shanghai.

Later, when I was 11-12 years old, they had a conversation with me and said, look, you see, the school here ends at 4 pm and has so much homework; the school in Germany ends at 1 pm and has no homework, do you wanna try to study there? So I said yes. Actually, it was my decision to go back to Germany.

[02:34]Q: I see. So, was the reality when you went back to Germany different than your imagination? Did you learn german before going there?

[02:44]B: Not really. The summer before I went back, there were two exchange students from Germany that were staying at my home, so I spent some time with them. After I arrived in Hamburg, I had a language class every day after school to improve my german. After half a year, I can already understand most of the conversations and communicate with the others. 

On the power of language

[03:15]Q: Oh that’s really fast. Actually, I would like to talk about the importance or political meaning of language. For me, I often have the feeling that, since my German speaking is not as good as my English, when I am in a German-speaking conversation and I have some thoughts, I would afraid that I cannot say them clearly in German. So in the end I decided not to say anything. There are many self-silencing moments like this for me, and I found out that language is quite political, since it represents the ability and rights for you to express yourself. 

A friend once told me that she is very motivated to learn new languages since every new vocabulary she learns means a bit more rights for her to express herself. 

Sometimes I feel that certain topics I can only think in English, and others I can only think in Chinese. For example, when I want to explain my projects to my parents and my grandma, I find it very difficult to find the right Chinese translation of certain English words. 

[04:45]B: yes. Actually, during our conversation just now, I had many English words in mind and was thinking how to say them in Chinese.

[04:54]Q: haha yes. Actually this was also one of the reasons that we decided to record this episode in Chinese, because I think it is quite important to speak one’s mother tongue, and this importance needs to be emphasized. Also, I imagined if we, two Chinese people, sitting here to record a podcast but speaking in English, it would be quite absurd. 

B: True, it’s actually quite absurd.

Q: Yes, using our mother language should be the normal and natural condition for our conversation. 

[05:29]B: When I just arrived in Germany at that time, I had no idea about the relation between language and rights, since I was just a kid. My first reaction was to integrate as soon as possible into life there. I even did not realize that my rights to speak were limited. I always thought it was my fault that I could not understand, or I could not express myself. I should learn more. Hardly had I ever thought it was normal for me not to understand.

[06:26]Q: You just wanted to be the same as others. 

[06:30]B: Yes. Until I went to university, many of my self-expressions were kept deep in my heart and could not be expressed. 

[06:44]Q: When I first studied a new language, I also tried to learn the expressions of the others and pretended to be as “local” as possible. 

[07:02]B: sometimes, when people make a joke that you don’t understand, you can only pretend…

[07:17]Q: I also have the same experience! When I was in Paris, my french level was not so good at the beginning. When my colleagues make some jokes at lunchtime, everyone starts laughing, but I didn’t understand the joke! It was quite embarrassing…

[07:35]B: now I will force myself to ask when I didn’t understand, also to let the others know that I didn’t understand. When I was younger, I was shyer and I thought it was my fault not to understand. 

[08:00]Q: I understand. I was reading this book <Black Skin, White Mask> from Fanon these days, and in the first chapter, he was talking about language. He said: “the more the black Antillean assimilates the French language, the whiter he gets – i.e., the closer he comes to becoming a true human being… A man who possesses a language possesses as an indirect consequence the world expressed and implied by this language… there is an extraordinary power in the possession of a language.”(Fanon, p.2)

I found this paragraph quite interesting, that the only way a black person could be closer to a “real human being” is through learning the french language. This also makes me reflect a lot and decided to speak Chinese in this episode. It is of course a great thing to learn new languages, but sometimes we also need to realize the power relation behind it. 

[09:41]B: Each language is equal, and we should have the rights to use different languages in different contexts without feeling strange.

[09:54]Q: When I first started my studies here in Zurich, my English was also not so good compared to students that were having their Bachelor’s studies in English, and I still thought about architecture in a Chinese language context. It was very difficult for me to transform it into an English mode. Now my thoughts are already transformed into English mode; I could think and present the projects fully in English, but then I gradually lose my ability to think in Chinese. It’s getting worse. 

[10:40]B: I also found it. Many things I cannot express in Chinese anymore.

[10:49]Q: No matter whether I want to make an argument or express my emotion, it’s getting more difficult in Chinese. Even if it’s your mother language, if you don’t practice it enough, you can also lose it. 

[11:08]B: Sometimes, when I talk with native Chinese speakers, I feel I cannot 100% express my thoughts. When I talk with native English or German speakers, I also cannot 100% express myself. 

Q: in the end, it becomes a mix…

B: yes, and the best is that everyone understands a bit of every language (laugh)

[11:42] Music: hey, Mr. Nazi

[12:20]Q: we can talk about the song you picked at the Parity Talk: hey Mr.Nazi. When was the first time to listen to it?  And why do you have a special attachment for this song?

[12:26]B: It was in 2010 that I first heard this song. I just arrived in Germany for 1 year. One day a classmate asked me if I ever heard of this song, that an Asian guy was singing about Nazis. Actually, the singer Blumio is originally from Japan, but I guess for my classmates, Chinese and Japanese people don’t have so much difference, since we all have black hair and similar looks. We all look Asian. So he thought Blumio could be me. At that time, I also made their understanding mine, so I also thought I was him. They thought it was cool, so I also thought it was cool. They said, oh, an Asian guy is singing rap in german! So cool! So I also thought so. 

[13:56]B:I didn’t really know the meaning of “racism” at that time. I just know it’s a word. What Blumio said in the song, “my hometown is Japan, we have origami and sushi.” I cannot really resonate with these. But I found it cool when he said, “you should not think that we all have small eyes, that we only eat rice, because I also like sausages.” 

[14:47]Q: I think he is criticizing stereotypes, for example, Asians eat rice.

[15:02]B: 10 years ago, they really thought like this. Eating rice with chopsticks was very strange for them. They have never seen people with single eyelids. It’s not racism, but they just think you are strange, not like a normal person. It’s just different.

On foreign gaze

[16:10] Q: This reminds me of another topic, “foreign gaze”. It’s very similar to what you said, that just because you are different, you are gazed upon. I don’t know if you have similar experiences that; when I went to little villages in the bus station or train station, I often found people gazing at me, following me. I found it super uncomfortable. I guess it’s also surprising for them to see a foreigner; that’s why they keep staring at me. It won’t happen in big cities like Paris, because people are used to foreigners.

[17:29]B: When you are gazed upon in western Europe, you feel uncomfortable, you feel you are different from the others, and you also feel you are gazed downwards. When I went to South Africa in an informal settlement, everyone was watching me, even more directly than europeans, but I didn’t feel that I was gazed downwards. Then I start to reflect what is the difference? Why do I feel different? Then I realize it’s actually because of my self-awareness that is different.

[18:42]Q: also there is a social class difference.

[18:45]B: Yes. But then I think it’s actually a limitation that I gave myself. After I came back, I put the gaze from South Africa to the Europeans, and I felt better. Also I guess it’s different for women and men since women receive another layer of the male gaze.

[19:38]Q: But then I also ask myself, is this really something I need to work on myself in order to feel better?

[19:45]B: Of course not, when you feel uncomfortable, it is uncomfortable, and it needs everyone’s effort to change that. For me it’s just easier if I can change myself, since changing others is always more difficult. 

[20:11]Q: I guess it’s because the difference is so rare, that people put more focus on it. 

[20:34]B: I guess another reason could be the media’s portrayal of China. When they see you as Chinese, they relate what they know about China from the media to you. 

[21:06]Q: We can talk about this political aspect later (lol). I feel when it’s a city with a lot of differences like Paris, on the metro, I feel very safe, because I am not the only different one anymore. I’m not strange; I’m just normal, like everyone. I guess we just want to be a “normal” person in the end, like what Fanon said in his book. He described what people said when they saw him on the street: “Look! A Negro!” “Maman, look, a Negro; I’m scared!” He described that he had no chance to hide himself. “I’m not given a second chance. I am overdetermined from the outside. I am a slave not to the “idea” others have of me, but to my appearance.” (Fanon, p.95) It has nothing to do with one’s secondary quality like moral standards or education. It’s just because you look different. What he wanted was just to be normal, not strange, not different. “All I want is to be anonymous, to be forgotten. Look, I’ll agree to everything, on condition I go unnoticed!” (Fanon, p.96) He also mentioned that because of his skin color, there is no room for any mistakes. “When they like me, they tell me my color has nothing to do with it…but if the physician made one false move, it was over for him and for all those who came after him.” (Fanon, p.97) 

[23:48]Q:I had similar feelings during the covid pandemic. People looked at me differently, as if I was a virus. Once I went to a supermarket and there were kids coming and asking me if I had covid. And I’m like: ??? 

[24:20]B: Once when I was riding my bike in Chur, there were kids shouting at me that I was Coronavirus. I was quite angry at that moment, and I realized this situation was not so simple as it seemed. 

[24:41]Q: Yes, and most of the time were kids. On the one hand, I thought that they were just kids. They were still young. But on the other hand, the kids could have these thoughts because of the education they got from the adults! If kids had these ideas in their heads, maybe the whole society would have some problem with their education.

[25:09]B: During Covid times, I also felt very stressed on the bus or in public spaces. I felt I’m guilty for the situation. Also people kept distance from you. I felt my difference was not out of my choice, but I was forced to be different.

[25:55]Q: It is as if you are not only yourself, but you represent the whole country and nation! 

[26:03]B: At that time, when there were people coughing on the bus, everyone would be nervous. But if you have an Asian face, the nervousness would be another level! Now I think about it, I will not try to explain to them that I am not a virus, because it’s also absurd. I think it’s just important to let them know that all these actions are unnecessary. 

On Stereotype

[27:05]Q: We can maybe come back to the topic of stereotypes. Sometimes when I was in a cafe or bar, there were people small talk with me and they asked me where I came from, I said China, and then they had this “Ohhh~~~” reaction, as if it was exactly the answer they expected. I felt very uncomfortable with this “ohhhhh” in general, because I think, that they already had a certain stereotype, or image, whatever, of Chinese people, and at that moment, when I was “baptized” by this “ohhh”, they justified their expectation and project those stereotypes on me. I was no longer “me” myself,  but became one of “a group of people” tagged Chinese, that fit their imagination. 

[28:32]B: For me, I think when they respond like that, they were respecting me out of politeness rather than from the heart.

[28:50] Q: Actually, I would like to know if someone asks you where you come from, will you say Germany or Chinese?

[28:54]B: Good question! If I’m in Europe and I don’t know the people asking the question, I will say that I’m from Germany. If it’s a person with whom I feel we could build up a closer friendship, then I would say Chinese. It’s really strange actually!

[29:19]Q: Would you clarify that although your nationality is German, you are originally from Chinese or something like that?

[29:34]B: Sometimes I also say that I’m from Shanghai and Hamburg. I will say both. Then if they are interested, they will ask me for more details. If I only say I’m from Germany, 80% of the time, they will still ask me, “originally?” 

[30:00]Q: Ah, they will not believe that you are originally from Germany! 

[30:04]B: Yes, so later, I have a version saying that my parents are from China, but I was born in Hamburg. The answer to this question has changed many times and this is the most efficient version I have found so far, to avoid further confusion. 

[30:22]Q: I see! So this is the most efficient version to say that your parents are from China, and you were born in Hamburg.

[30:26]B: Yes, this is the most efficient version after the long-term experiment of the answers haha, so there will be no second question.

[30:39]Q: true it’s very clear haha. But why would you say you are from Germany to the people that you are not so familiar with? Does the german identity mean something special to you? How do you choose?

[30:56]B: I think in the end it’s because this answer makes me feel that I am part of them. It makes me feel that I am not so different from the others. 

[31:12]Q: so you feel more relaxed.

[31:14]B: yes and more peaceful, since they will not have the “OH~~~” reaction! Haha!

[31:24]Q: the fatal “OH~~~” haha

[31:29]B: When I was living in Germany, it was from 13 years old to 19, which was the time that I developed my values and way of thinking. When I was in Germany, I would tell everyone that I was from Germany. It was only until I moved here in Zurich that I changed it.

Q: to that efficient version. 

[32:00]B: yes. On the other hand, if I am talking to a Chinese person, I will never tell him/her that I’m from Hamburg. I will always say Shanghai. 

[32:12] Q: This is quite interesting, since you actually always choose the identity that is closer to the person that asks the question.

[32:20]B: True. But afterward, I also feel it’s not necessary to pick the identity that is closer to the Europeans. I should choose an answer that is most honest to myself. 

Q: that’s why comes the efficient version.

B: yes, true. It’s very objective.

[32:49]Q: Maybe when you were young, you were still in the state that you wanted to be the same as others. But now you don’t need it anymore. You are ready to be yourself!

[33:06]B: Yes, I choose to be different. From passive to proactive.

[33:16]Q: You don’t feel necessary to be the same as the others anymore.

[33:24]B: Yes, I have tried (to be the same), sometimes succeed, other times failed. It’s quite tiring.

[33:30]Q: Another interesting point is that, you choose the answer not because you are more identified with a certain identity, but according to the person that asks the question. 

B: True. It seems like that.

[33:54]Q: But then if you leave alone the person that asks the question, which side you are more identified with? Or does this sense of identity change from time to time? Maybe like politically?

[34:12]B: Good question. I think actually identity does not exist without the context of society. Maybe you identity is no longer meaningful if it does not have a subject of conversation. 

[34:29]Q: But then what about yourself? What do you identify or not identify with in those two contexts?

[34:45]B: I think I’m Chinese. This is my identity for me. At the same time, I have some missing knowledge on Chinses culture. Sometimes I cannot understand some behaviors in certain cultural contexts. This is what I found later that I need to learn. I also find myself not the same as the Chinese identity that I have in mind. 

[35:29]Q: But fundamentally, you are more identified with your Chinese identity. That’s quite interesting.

[35:38]B: Actually, when I was in Shanghai, I did not realize this identity question, since everyone seemed the same. But after I lived abroad, people would constantly, repeatedly remind me that I am different. 

[35:59]Q: this “reminding” is so interesting…

[36:01]B: after they “remind” again and again, it comes to my mind, that I am still Chinese. Everyone reminds you of that.

[36:11]Q: But then maybe someday you move back and live in China, you will also be “reminded” that you are a foreigner. 

[36:18]B: True. I’m now in a situation in between, that no matter where I go, I will be reminded!

[36:30]Q: Yes, because of your german passport, when you live in China, you will also be reminded constantly that you are not the same as other Chinese people. 

[36:38]B: Yes, this already happens sometimes that people relate my certain habit to my “german” identity, such as drinking beer (lol. They will find reasons for my daily life habits.

[37:00]Q: And saying that these are because of your german identity?

[37:04]B: Yes. They will not say that it is because of “my” personality, but will say it is because of my “german” identity.

[37:11]Q: This is quite interesting. It’s like stereotypes in another direction, haha.

[37:16]B: yes, in the end, all stereotypes fall on me!

[37:21]Q: Bing, who tried to be himself in between two stereotypes (laugh)

[37:26]B: Actually, I’m already used to it. I don’t take them seriously anymore. I will not argue anymore that your interpretation actually is not fitting my behavior. 

[37:46] Music: People life, ocean wild – Mayday

On Ideology

[39:16]Q: So here arrives the most difficult topic, which is the Ideology topic (laugh). I don’t know if you often talk about politics with European friends. Me, in the past 6 years when I lived in Europe, I was training my ability to talk about politics with European friends. I realized that it is actually quite difficult to make conversations under completely different ideologies or epistemologies, since we have very different frameworks of knowledge/vocabularies about politics. It’s a completely different epistemic framework and it’s very difficult to break it through. I also realize that since I have education experience in both frameworks, I could understand both political systems. They have their own advantages and problems. I don’t think one political system is naturally better or more legitimized than the other. This is usually what I try to show in this kind of conversation. On the other hand, since I could understand both sides, I find it difficult to “pick a side”. No matter which side I am talking with, it seems like I have to “pick their side”. It seems like there is no position in the gap between the two sides since everyone thinks that if you don’t pick our side, you are on the other side. It seems like you “have to” pick a side. But then I just want to be in the middle!

[41:28]B: I understand what you mean. I have similar experiences and I have a summary about it (laugh). Now that in Western media, or swiss media, the news about China is 99% negative news. So people tend to only know the bad things about China in the media and hardly any good things. That’s why sometimes we tend to be defensive in a discussion and say you see, there are also good things in China. But then, the action of a Chinese person saying something good about China is very much not justified. However, when others are saying good things about China, I tend to say bad things instead. So I’m kind of always on the opposite side, but the second situation is maybe a healthier environment for discussions. 

[42:43]Q: But hardly have I ever heard anyone here say something good about China, haha.

[42:56]B: True, very rare. When I have discussions within the Chinese group, we tend to be critical and talk a lot about the problems and the reasons behind them. But when I have discussions with foreigners, I sometimes feel attacked and try to explain that maybe things are not always exactly as they imagined, although sometimes our opinions are not really different. Then it comes to this unsolvable situation. I don’t have a solution for it yet. But I think one of the reasons is that people don’t have sufficient knowledge of China, and so when we try to explain more information, it has this tendency toward nationalism and defensive feelings.

[44:02]Q: and people will think you are “brain-washed,” lol

B: Yes. They will think that you are weird.

[44:08]Q: On the one hand, I wish people to understand that this difference in the political system does not mean that it is not justified; on the other hand, I also don’t want people to think that I’m saying that in order to “defend” our country. I guess you summary is very on point, that the main reason is that people don’t know very well the situation in China, also because of the information and internet blockage. Some information such as the “social credit system” before, was taken and understood out of the context. It is actually not a big deal in the Chinese context because of many reasons, but when you take it out and read it separately from anything, it seems unimaginable. If you cannot understand the social context as the background, all the policies under this context will seem absurd. It’s like when you cannot understand the value system, you cannot understand the behavior. 

[45:29]Q: I have a summary of the two different value systems recently. I think in the western context, individualism is the most important value; however, in China, it is collectivism. If you shift and reflect some opinions under the collectivism value, then many things are understandable. But it’s very difficult for the Europeans to understand collectivism over individualism since it is so absurd for them to put collective interests above individual interests. Also because historically, collectivism never exists in Europe. But it has always been a center value in the Chinese context. The spirit of sacrificing the individual for the sake of the larger collective has always been promoted. But it will be read as an invasion of individual rights in the western context because individual rights should always be the priority.

[46:43]B: Yes. Another example is family. In Germany for example, the concept of family is not so important, because individuals are the most important. Raising children is just an obligation, which will no longer exist when the children become 18 years old. The parents will lend money to their kids to study at university, but they have to pay it back when they start to work. At the same time, they also don’t expect their children to take care of them after their retirement. It’s a very different family culture compared to the Chinese. It’s very absurd for german parents to put all their savings just to buy an apartment for their children (which Chinese parents often do). Also, they will not use all their saving to pay the expensive tuition fee for their children’s studies. They will simply say we cannot afford it and go to another university. 

[48:05]Q: Yes. I feel that for most Chinese people, individual rights are not so much their concern. People are used to sacrificing themselves, or contributing, to their family, to society, etc.  

[48:26]B: also, they are willing to contribute to others and they enjoy it. Perhaps we are glorifying the act a bit too much, but it is true that there is a certain joy in sacrificing oneself to care or help others. 

[48:40]Q: I think it’s not always enjoyable to do this because it could also be a burden. Not everyone can enjoy themselves in the process of caring others. But at the same time, also not everyone enjoys individualism. When you have absolute freedom and rights for yourself, it is also a lot of responsibility and it is not so relaxing. It’s like when you suddenly can do everything, you don’t know what to do.

[49:15]B: But theoretically, in China, parents still have the freedom to decide if they want to sacrifice themselves for their children or not.

[49:38]Q: Yes. But still, this collectivism value is not so understandable here. If you cannot understand the big picture, you cannot understand the policies or behaviors in this context.

[50:01]B: I found it very difficult to communicate these differences, so most of the time I don’t take this topic too seriously in conversations. I also find myself always in an opposite position than the other. If they are saying the advantages of system A, then I will start to bring the disadvantages and problems of system A. 

[50:37]Q: I find this very interesting. Maybe it shows that we become true “debaters”, that you can take either side for your arguments. This is because we know both sides very well, and we also have doubts about both sides. This middle position is actually not so comfortable for me, because when you have something that you believe, it actually makes things easier. So you don’t constantly fight against yourself and float around without an anchor point. You have a standard to judge things and you will not be bothered every time. But the middle position is abandoned from both sides. That you don’t belong anywhere. It is a very lonely feeling. Also, I don’t believe the media from either side. 

[52:08]B: Personally, I enjoy this feeling of lost. (Q: tell me why you enjoy it lol) When you have a belief, life becomes beautiful. But I have the need to question myself constantly. When I am in a difficult situation, I have the hope that things will get better soon. When everything is very perfect, I am afraid that it will get worse soon. So the difficulty actually means change for me. (Q: so positive!) Yes, very optimistic.

[53:10]Q: I think it’s great. It’s like the book Steppenwolf from Hesse that I’m reading recently. It says that you can only find the moment “close to god” in difficulties. 

[53:24]B: For example, I like solving things, and I have the most motivation when I cannot find a solution. But after I solved it, it’s just like that, not so exciting anymore. The most exciting moments are those when I almost find a solution but not yet, and I don’t know what to expect. 

[53:45]Q: like you are expecting something.

[53:49]B: Yes. I enjoy this feeling very much. And I will even push myself into these moments. When I do projects, I will push myself into a kind of “desperate” moment, like to make a very high standard goal in a very limited time. Then usually, some exciting inspirations will be pushed out of me. 

[54:22]Q: True. When you are in a peaceful state, you somehow lose the passion, the excitement, or the inspiration. They will be replaced by a peaceful, comfortable, safe feeling. We turned it into a podcast of philosophy of life now! (laugh)

[54:43] Music: Que Sera Sera

On freedom and identity

[56:34]Q: We have a last question about freedom. It is actually more of a question for me. (B: Now I can ask you, haha) The question comes from the fact that, because of my identity, or my passport, it is so difficult for me to get a working visa in Switzerland after I graduate. That’s why I cannot have the same calm and peace as other students. For example, one of my friends said that he wanted first to graduate soon and then thought about what he really wanted to do after his study. But this option does not work for me, since after I graduate, I will not have any visa to stay here anymore. So graduation means a very important moment of my life, when I need to make life-changing decisions, such as whether I should stay or go somewhere else. I won’t have the time to reflect after my studies, since after graduation, I only have 6 months to get a working visa here, or I have to leave. When I expressed my concerns to my swiss/European friends, they were very surprised and felt sad for me; they had no idea of this situation for foreigners. It made me reflect on one’s identity and freedom. Saša Stanišić wrote in his book <where you come from>, that your identity and origin relate closely to things that you cannot have anymore. Your origin is like a piece of clothes, that you have to wear for your whole life. These experiences make me realize that people with certain identities, from the moment of their birth, have more freedom than others. No matter it is the freedom to move around the world, to work, or to settle, they have more freedom, and it is just because of their origins, their passport, or their identities. This difference in freedom just because of your passport makes me feel very absurd, sometimes angry, because there is no way out. Why it’s like this?

[59:35]Q: In <Returning to Reims>, Didier wrote the same freedom question but in the context of class differences. He was born in the working class, and most of the people like his father and his brothers, will only get education until 14, then they stop their studies and go to work. They think that “study is useless”, and they would rather earn some money. They also think that they made this decision out of their own will, that they decided their own life. However, Didier argued that it’s not true. He called this a process of “self-elimination” in the selection within the educational system, and this “self-elimination” is treated as if it were freely chosen. “The field of possibilities – and even the field of possibilities that it is possible to imagine – is tightly circumscribed by one’s class position.” “The boundaries that divide these worlds help define within each of them radically different ways of perceiving what it is possible to be or to become, of perceiving what it is possible to aspire to or not.” (Eribon, p.52) This is the same with origins and identities; since we are entitled to different freedom from our birth, we have different imagination of our future. For example, if we cannot move to other countries freely, you can imagine a life that is settled within certain limits. Even within China, free move is not so easy because of the registration system. I don’t know if you are aware of these topics?

[1:01:57]B: Many people told me that they envy me for my identity because it’s easier to find a job. I don’t need to worry about visas. My first reaction is that I am very lucky, that I don’t need to experience all these. On the other hand, I also feel pity for them. 

[1:02:56]Q: I think it is a struggle that you cannot imagine from a privileged state since your rights and your freedom are “naturally given” by your identity. So it’s difficult to imagine that they are actually not so “natural”. Not everyone is “naturally given” the same rights and freedom. 

[1:03:34]B: Actually I want to ask you this question. When you have this angry feeling and nobody can understand you, how do you try to express this?

[1:03:52]Q: I think it is very difficult to express, and even when you express it and they understand it, it’s useless. The discussion cannot change any reality. What I try to do now is to find my own position. It means not to try to be like others. I have my limitations and I am different. I cannot be the same as the others. You feel pain when you only see those that the others have and you don’t. You become angry. That’s not what I want. I want to focus more on myself. Although the others have something I cannot have, I also have my own unique position. I want to think about what I can do with my special position “in the middle”. Something that can only be done in this special position. This episode also comes from this attitude and reflection. I start to read also others’ experiences and I find I’m not alone. It’s not a struggle that only exists in me but in many others. How to transform this struggle into motivation and something productive, or to build up a community, are something I think I could try to do in my position. 

[1:05:41]B: I think it’s great.

[1:05:43]Q: I think fundamentally, we need to shift the perspective. To realize that we cannot have the same privilege as others. We are different, and so are what we could do.

[1:05:59]B: And this difference is not necessarily a bad thing. (Q: Yes, it depends on how you see it). As we discussed before, sometimes inspiration comes from crisis or uncertainty. Although I might not be in the position to say this, maybe it’s not always a good thing to have this convenience from the identity. Although for most people, it’s still a good thing. But I think the change should come from ourselves first. It is important to talk about the foreign gaze, the stereotypes, etc, to raise awareness of these issues, but on the other hand, it’s also important for us to first accept our difference. We have first to accept it ourselves, then the others can accept it. 

[1:07:06]Q: It is so positive (laugh). We should not keep catering to the center’s identity. We should recognize our differences.

[1:07:20]B: If we don’t raise awareness on these issues, probably the society will still run as usual, under the logic of the privileged. But this is something we need to change, and the change will take a long time. It will need our efforts from generation to generation. So we need to accept ourselves first, and then also raise awareness.

Ending: Music of Chopin

[1:07:54]Q: Yes. You give me a lot of confidence! With such a positive ending! (laugh) maybe at the end, we can talk about music, because it is also a musical podcast (laugh). Are there some moments when some music means a lot to you? Or is there any song that heals you?

[1:08:21]B: I play the piano, so when I feel difficult, I will play the piano and it makes me feel better. (Q: so come back to classic music.) Yes. 

[1:08:44]Q: I am the same. I also love classic music very much. Who is your favorite? 

[1:08:52]B: Chopin. (laugh) I guess people who play the piano usually like Chopin. I like him because his works are not very rigorous, not like Bach. 

[1:09:09]Q: But actually, I like Bach very much. Although he is very rigorous, I often have a feeling of eternity in his piece. I guess when we are very lost, we tend to grab something eternal, some eternal beauty, or values. That’s why I find peace in Bach when I am lost, because those eternal beauties give me strength. But I also like Chopin!

[1:09:57]B: In Chopin, there are not so many rules or restrictions. Everyone can have his/her interpretation. When I play it, I also have my own different understandings. Although the sheet is the same, there are many ways to read it. (Q: different performing techniques) Yes, and you don’t need to be so precise; you can play it freely. It is very relaxing to play.

[1:11:00]Q: Ok! That’s the end of our interview. Thank you so much! (B: Thank you!)


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