On the Lower Reaches of the Long River
She hadn’t had much space to herself, at least physically speaking, on her travels in Asia, wrote a friend from Germany. “Psychologically speaking,” she added, she could always detach herself quite well because everything is so different. But people are always touching your body, jostling you. “Is it like that where you are, too?”
Sometimes it was awful not to be able to say a single word. Sometimes remaining silent helped in assuming the role of an observer. Strangers would occasionally take me by the arm and wrench me out of that state of being an onlooker when they wanted to take my picture, my indignation was a source of amusement. Talking with hands and feet – which is nonsense: no-one who has hands at their disposal is going to try to communicate with their feet. We use hands and face, which is difficult and potentially misleading enough as is. One of the first things you learn if you work with their voice is to breathe in and out from the stomach, to regard the whole body as a resonance chamber. Our feet are there to maintain contact with the ground. As for the mind, naturally it’s impossible to detach it completely and permanently from the body.
If you don’t know the characters, I’d been told, you won’t be able to get around by yourself, you’ll have to be chaperoned the whole time. I’d be assigned a permanent escort. I’d be waited on hand and foot, but I would have to express my wishes. That’ll be interesting, I thought (forgetting that I’d been through that elsewhere, too, even in countries with the Latin alphabet, in woods with no signposts.) The city had since become bilingual, at least in the areas I hung out in when my guide was unavailable. It was quite possible to get around on my own, it was easier to get my bearings there than in an unmarked forest.
A city with traffic lights, coffee shop chains and teahouses, public and closed-off buildings, public and private transport, parks. Fields in which elderly people flew kites and played badminton. Amusement parks with rides, carousels, dragon swings, waiting for next summer. Limestone formations hauled in from Lake Tai, weather-worn, riddled with holes, jutting up vertically. Young couples would pose for wedding pictures in the December sunshine. A fitness centre was housed in a limestone cave, towels were laid out to dry on the railing of a bridge over a little stream. Only for the time being I looked for the big river in vain, finding only arms, legs, islands. I made it to the other side on a ferry, the sun was low in the sky, the signs in English were suddenly gone, I took a picture of a white dog running straight across the street and managed to made it back to the familiar riverbank.
It’s not true that you can’t get around as an illiterate foreigner. Where I was, people weren’t always jostling. City parks broadened out into woods, all you could hear in overgrown hollows was squawking birds, you can walk on little artificial islands connected by bridges till you can hardly find your way back. It said PAUSE on the sign of a student café, with handwritten menus offering book swaps, feminist discussion groups, rose milk and beer. I missed the discussion group. Generally speaking, I wrote home, I have the impression I’m missing out on a lot here, on most of what’s going on. Foreign bodies are treated differently from natives here, as in most places in the world. The housing unit for foreign faculty is fitted out with several rooms, kitchen, bathroom, district heating and a roughly two-by-three-metre bed. I’ll never know what it’s like to share an only slightly larger space with five other people, I could only see that from outside, two triple bunk beds, laundry and boots hung out to dry on the windowsill, collective showers. “It only gets bad when we argue,” said one student when asked if she never wished for a room to herself, apparently the question is pretty much lost on her: “when we have to study, we study, when I want to be alone, I listen to music.”
For people who don’t have enough space for a pet cat, there are cat cafés where you can watch the animals climbing and frolicking, film them and pet them and be soothed by the sight of their fur. There are public squares where people gather to exercise together, fly kites, dance with partners. So there’s plenty of room for the body if you want it.
Some professors explained to me that for a long time taking care of yourself was not deemed all that important. Students born in the ’90s told me that they’re influenced by the West. The generation of those in their twenties are influenced by South Korean TV series, an intercultural mediator who’s my age tells me, “and you can see it by the way they dress.” They wear fur-trimmed parkas, sneakers or fur boots, glasses with distinctive frames and tight stretch-denim jeans. “This generation is totally different from ours,” said Y. from the Goethe-Institut. “I’m influenced by the West,” explained one woman student, especially by the concepts of togetherness and intimacy in a romantic couple. Whether I believe in love? In the seminar we talked about reality and fiction, at least that was my take on it, Ich will ja nicht lügen (“I don’t want to lie”) was the title of the seminar, we discussed what dramatist Wolfram Lotz might have meant by this proclamation, whether it’s possible to invent something improbable and yet remain truthful, what is a lie after all anyway? (Which briefly calls to mind my visits to the Chinese Visa Center in Berlin and the momentary confusion that arose there on account of my profession. It dissolved, giving way to cordial relief, when I explained that the stories in my books are all made up.) “The truth,” said one student in Suzhou, a city of gardens, “is written in blood.” But most of the time we talked about the existence of made-up characters, about their delusions and future plans, their love lives and working conditions. There was no time left to take into consideration that it was all made up. But there was really no need to.
Nina Bußmann, born in Frankfurt am Main in 1980, studied General and Comparative Literature and Philosophy in Berlin and Warsaw and now lives in Berlin. She writes prose, essays and radio plays and works together with the artist Gabriela Oberkofler. She has received various awards and scholarships, among others The Alfred Döblin Fellowship, the Heinrich Heine Fellowship as well as the working scholarships from the German Literary Fund and the State of Berlin. In 2013 she was Artist in Residence in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Her first novel Great Holidays (“Große Ferien”) was published 2012, the second novel The Coat of the Earth is hot and partially melted (“Der Mantel der Erde ist heiß und teilweise geschmolzen”) will be published in spring 2017.