imomus (imomus) wrote,

Being Japanese in Blankenfeld

On Wednesday Yoshito, Naoko, Hisae and I took the train to Blankenfeld, a satellite suburb about 25 kilometers from central Berlin. Japanese friends had invited us to Workshop Japan, an afternoon presentation of the part-time work they'd been doing over the last three months, teaching German children about Japanese crafts, lifestyle, language and philosophy.

Coming from dense, Turkish Neukolln to Blankenfeld was like entering another world. After riding two trains and a bus we found ourselves skirting a poppy-dotted wheatfield in a thunderstorm. Boat-shaped suburban houses were surrounded by gnome-haunted gardens, many boasting ornamental fountains, statues of goats, and clumps of bamboo. Even in the heavy rain, we paused to marvel at flowers and plants we never see in the inner city.

At the school -- a clean, modern brick box -- ten-year-olds scurried about in Japanese headbands, guided by the friends who had invited us. Look, there's Ido-San, the performance artist! But today she's Ido-San, the judo instructor! Look, there's Saiko, the art student who works in the kitchen at Smart Deli! But today she's the kimono lady!

Like Superman, these friends of ours have secret powers. We thought they were artists, but after a quick change of clothes in a phone booth they become... ambassadors for Japan! Speculating idly as the slick Workshop Japan DVD played to the teeming assembly hall, I wondered if I too could earn money from the German government teaching "the Scottish Way" to kids? Is there even a Scottish Way worth learning? How do we arrange our gardens? How do we fight? How do we dress? Is it sufficiently different from the German way to warrant a three month course? Is it charismatic enough? Could this be what my Book of Scotlands leads to?

I suppose I was perceived as a parent at the Workshop Japan afternoon -- a parent nobody had ever seen before, not attached to any particular child. Like all the other "parents" I raised my Japanese digital camera and snapped dutifully during the kimono fashion show, as young German girls paraded past in unlikely kimonos featuring what looked like the double-headed eagle of the Hapsburg Empire.

In fact, if I was the "father" of anyone, it was the Japanese instructors themselves. It was with some kind of paternal pride that I told Saiko-San that the arrangement of hair at the back of her neck had achieved the pinnacle of iki beauty.

What I noticed, out at Blankenfeld, was that we all became different people there. In central Berlin the culture allows us to be somewhat ageless and cultureless. Out at Blankenfeld, we suddenly had ages and cultures. I was "old", the girls (in their mid to late 20s) were "responsible adults", and the kids were "kids". Your perceived age slotted you into this syntagmatic hierarchy, did away with equality, made you act a certain way. We also had more noticeable ethnicities. All the kids were white, and German. All the instructors were Japanese, and did stereotypically Japanese things, like paper-folding and flower-arranging. I passed, I guess, for a German.

Despite the emphasis on culture, there was less cultural mixing going on out at Blankenfeld than happens in central Berlin. Last week Ido-San did one of her multimedia performances in Neukolln -- an act that mixed Japanese and Western idioms. But out at Blankenfeld she was being 100% Japanese.

It was a relief to get back to dense, dirty Neukolln, where people are as various as flowers are in Blankenfeld. It seems to me that central Berlin is the exception and Blankenfeld the norm, in the sense that rather few places allow you to escape your age, your class, your race and your culture -- should you wish to! -- in the way that urban Berlin does. Here nobody ever says "Act your age!" or "Scots don't do that!" or "Be a man!"

But if it's a sort of freedom to escape your age, your gender, and your culture, it's also a sort of freedom to embody them gorgeously, generously, even stereotypically. Perhaps, out in blank Blankenfeld, my Japanese friends were suddenly free to express a repressed part of "themselves" -- the part, paradoxically, that we're not at liberty to change.
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