The Power of Symbols

I found this sculpture of Maria & Jesus in the old town of Artà. The red colour on it made me hesitate and take this picture. Technically, it is nothing more than a sculpture of a woman with some red splashes on it. But cultural imprint left its marks on me, so I was wondering whether the red splashes were an act of vandalism or even religious heresy. Did somebody try to make a statement against the church? Was it a member of a different church who acted out of anger? It seemed brutal to me to splash colour on such a meaningful persona as Maria.

 

But isn't that exactly where so much trouble in our world comes from? We turn random items into "symbols" and give them heavy meanings. Splashing colour on a Maria becomes an act of religious hostility - no matter if the person who did it had this meaning in mind or not. 

 

It reminded me of a situation in which I was the organiser of an event called "Students for Europe". The attendees were - as the name suggests - students from different European countries. We had used flags to decorate some of the tables in the lounge area, which didn't land well on some of the participants. They said we're degrading their countries by misusing the flag as a tablecloth. Again, in the bottom line we were using an actual piece of cloth as a a tablecloth. In our own eyes, there was no deeper meaning or act of hostility involved. The meaning and all those heavy associations are just a societal construct. 

 

I wish more people were aware that all of these heavy meanings are totally made up in the end of the day and that churches, flags, crosses are not inherently what we associate with them. Maybe, if less people were so obsessed with religious and national symbols, we would all live a more relaxed life in this world.

 

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Reason, Season, Lifetime

"Friend" is a term that we use for vastly different people in our lives. Some friendships last a lifetime, other just for the time of a holiday. Some friends know all our secrets and others are fun to party with, but we would never open up about intimate topics to them.

 

Sometimes, I got the impression that only a long-term and intimate friendship is a “real” friendship. This led to me feeling obliged to stay in touch with everyone I had a close connection with for some time. It also made judge those friendships, which are heaps of fun, but rather superficial. I felt that these friendships don’t live up to my standards of deep discussions and soul bonding.

 

But then I read a quote, which changed everything:

 

There are friends for a reason, friends for a season and friends for a lifetime.

(author unknown to me)

 

Basically, the quote takes a lot of pressure from those friendships, which are not “friends for a lifetime”. Let me explain this in more detail.

 

Friends for a reason are those friends that change your life in one way or the other. A friend for a reason might be a person who you meet at your first Salsa class and who teaches you the first moves of the dance. You click, you have fun together, you learn from your friend. But other than Salsa, you don’t share much. Once you are a good dancer yourself, your reason to meet up with your Salsa friend is gone and you move on.

 

Friends for a season are those friends, who are part of our daily lives. A friend for a season might be a classmate at high school. You sit next to each other in the classroom and you hang out in the breaks. You have fun discussing the latest gossips with the friend and you help each other with home works. Despite the comforting feeling the friendship gives you, the friendship is not based on common interests, but shared environment. Once the season (high school, your undergrad, the internship,…) is over, the friendship slowly fades away.

 

Friends for a lifetime, in the other hand, are not necessarily present in our daily lives. These are friends we have an intimate connection with. They know our secrets and no matter for how long we have not seen them, once we start talking to them, we feel like coming home and open up about secrets, plans and dreams.

 

For me, these categories helped me understand why certain friendships are fine and totally fulfil their purpose, even if they are not friendships for life.

 

 

(painting: Auguste Renoir)

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New to the System

 

It’s so easy to judge people, when you’re in your own environment and in your own comfort zone.

 

A short while ago, my friend Govoi moved from Kenya to Germany and I was his go-to person during the days when he was settling in. It was his first trip to a Western country. One day, he wanted to come back home by train from his university. I sent him the train connections including directions on how to change from train 7 to train 18 at a station called Neumarkt. At some point, Govi called me and said that there is no train with the number 18. I checked Google maps and another transport app and told him that it MUST be somewhere at Neumarkt and that he should just look on the other side of the road. 20 minutes later, he called me back and said that he tried everything, but he still can’t find his train. I asked him to approach other people around the station and ask where the train leaves. “I don’t even speak German and people stare at me, cause I’m a foreigner”, he replied. “Ok, let me come there to pick you up then”, I replied slightly annoyed. It turned out that train number 18 is a subway train and not an over ground train like the other ones that leave at the station – and Govoi simply didn’t know about subway trains.

 

Now, to be honest, my first thought was that it can’t be that hard to change trains and that Govoi is clearly a very confused and naive person.

 

But then I remembered our trips to rural areas of Kenya. I didn’t understand a word of the local languages and it was impossible for me to remember the difficult names of the different villages we were traveling to. What is more, I had no idea how to figure out where the Matatus (minibuses) are going or where to get off. It was a mystery to me how people find their way without bus schedules and roadmaps. I was lost – at least as much as Govoi was lost in Germany.

 

So, I thought to myself that we easily take the systems that we are used to for granted and we forget that in other parts of the world, things work in entirely different ways. We judge people, because they fail to understand our systems and we act arrogantly when they need our help.

 

Let’s keep in mind that all foreigners – immigrants, refugees, exchange students – might be helpless in some situations, but at the same time they are more knowledgeable than us in the systems where they originally come from.

 

 

(The photo shows Govoi sorting out our transport in Kitale, Kenya)

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Corporate Social Irresponsibility

In a previous life, when I was still doing my undergrad in International Management, I took a course in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). CSR is in the first place the compliance with any law and policy a company is operating in. But it has become fashionable for companies to claim that their CSR engagement goes beyond compliance and that they actually foster some social good such as improving workers’ rights or environmental concerns. But how much CSR is possible, if the companies goals are inherently bad for people? What if the product is harmful to consumers? Some experiences during my travels made me ask these questions.

 

When I traveled to places like India, Rwanda and Kenya, I understood what a global corporation is. I want to use Coke as an example, but there are a bunch of other companies that are comparable. Coke is ubiquitous. I mean, I have seen Coke simply in EVERY SINGLE PLACE that I have ever traveled to.

 

Even at the tiny island called Wasini in the Indian Ocean - where there’s no electricity and no running water – you will find Coke. Sure, you could say that the market regulates itself. There’s demand for the product and Coke has such a good supply chain that they can cater the demand for Coke better than electricity companies can cater the need for electricity. It’s an absurd setup, but fair enough. But there are three points that really bother me about the fact that people at Wasini island (and similar places) get to drink Coke.

 

Firstly, it’s the brainwash which is created through Coke advertising. Yes, also in Germany you can find Coke advertising and people here are also exposed to marketing brainwash. But whereas in Western countries the question is whether to buy Coke, Pepsi or maybe some local brand, people in places like Wasini face a different choice. In these communities, people have hardly enough money to survive and cover the basic needs such as doctors’ bills and school books. A Coke at Wasini island costs around 100 Kenyan shillings. If you earn 3,000 shillings a month, buying a Coke is an investment. You can either buy a Coke OR a school book for that money. Due to Coke’s crazy marketing activities in these regions, for many people the wish to consume Coke might be in fact as urgent as the need to cover other basic needs.

 

Secondly, we are talking about regions of the world where malnutrition is a real problem. In the West, we see Coke as an unhealthy sweet treat, which is an add-on to our (in most cases) sufficient diet. In many of the remote places where Coke is being sold, it is an unhealthy add-on to a totally insufficient diet. There are numerous studies on the negative effects of sugar on your body, so I don’t want to go into detail about this topic. What is more, caffeine is addictive, leading to symptoms such as headaches when you stop your usual caffeine intake.

 

But these financial and health concerns are not the only thing that puts me off about seeing Coke in rural areas of developing countries. The third and last point that I want to mention is garbage. Products such as Coke (and to be fair even more so products that are being sold in plastic packaging) create garbage. Again, the problem exists also in Western countries, but in most Western countries we have well established waste collection systems. These do not exist in places like Wasini island. Obviously, the lack of waste collection is not the fault of Coke and other corporations that operate in these countries. But at the same time, it is a known fact that waste collection and recycling is a serious topic there.

 

Going back to my initial point about corporate social responsibility, I just want to drop a few questions. Just ask yourself: is it ethical to sell an addictive, costly and unhealthy product to people who are poor and suffer from malnutrition? Should companies be allowed to sell their products in places where collection and recycling of the packaging is impossible? Personally, I don’t think so.

 

What can be done? According to my own observations and reports of local friends, governments in these places are often highly corrupt and change (such as the implementation of waste collection) is too slow to keep up with changes of purchasing behaviors. In addition, it’s pretty likely that governments have crude incentives to tolerate the market entry of Coke. CSR departments exist, but do they have the power to do anything? Or do they only exist to maintain the neat façade of corporations? The fact that garbage problems like the one I have described exist in most developing countries makes me doubt the effectiveness of CSR departments.

 

 

(Photo: Tanja Schomann, taken at Lamu Island, Kenya)

 

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Jen's Coincidental Prostitution

 

5.30am, I am drunk, the sun is shining purple and I’m preparing tea for this random stranger in my kitchen. „Did you paint this picture?“, he asks, pointing at the framed Picasso print in my kitchen. Obviously I haven’t, it’s a Picasso. Such a strange coincidence. He’s the third guy who asks me the same question. Do they know it’s a Picasso, but they try to be flattering? It’s a little ironic, because the other paintings in the kitchen and hallway are actually my own paintings. But if a person can’t even recognise a Picasso, there is no point in starting a discussion about art. Generally speaking, far too few of the guys who enter my kitchen are able to have a worthwhile discussion about art with me.

 

Like this dude. God knows why I even let him pay for my drink at the club in the first place. Well, actually I do know. It was because the cocktails at this place were totally overpriced. Still. Letting a guy pay for your drink means you’re trapped. You can’t just wander off and say “bye”. You need to stick around for some time, listen to their palaver and smile nicely. Guys talk an awful lot when they are nervous. Most guys who try to hit on a girl in a club are somewhat nervous. And if not, it can be a fun game to make them get nervous. But yeah, then you got to listen to them.

 

Nervous guys also tend to ask very few questions. Sometimes I wonder if that’s because they assume the woman doesn’t have anything interesting to tell or if it is because they are so scared to be intimidated by the woman and her achievements. These are the only two explanations I can come up with and both kind of suck. I want to be a feminist, so a couple of times I (without being asked) dropped that “I am a PhD student at UCL. In Art History, you know”. Awkward silence. No question back. And then they would keep on rambling about their own career and their political views and all that. Really, there is no point in emphasising that you’re an actual (and maybe even smart) person when a guy has already decided to see you as a sex object.

 

Back to this guy and how he ended up at my house. After he paid for my drink, I was stuck for so long with him that all my friends went home in the meantime. A few more drinks appeared out of nowhere, we danced (the only way to stop him talking) and don’t ask me how, suddenly I felt his tongue in between my lips. Slightly dizzy from the drinks (not from his kiss, it wasn’t that mind blowing) I checked my watch. Damn, 5am. No chance to get home by public transport and the taxi fare is easily 30 pounds. As if he read my mind, he asks whether he should drop me home on the way to his place. I say “yes, sure” hoping that he won’t make attempts to stay over at my house, but suspecting that he will.

 

I fell asleep in the cab and when I woke up, his arm was tightly laid around me and he was paying the driver. The car was in front of my house. “Get out”, he said in a somewhat featureless voice. In the crack of dawn, I looked at his face and found it even less attractive than earlier in the club. Maybe the alcohol was also losing its effects already, I don’t know. Such an embarrassing situation. Now he had paid already and I didn't feel like telling him that he can’t come up into my flat with me. I wanted to be alone, just go to bed. But how to get rid of a guy who just paid all the bills for my drinks and then even the cab back home? Such an annoyance of nights out. So I said nicely, “can I offer you a cup of tea upstairs?”. “Sure”, he replied with a smirk, touching my ass as I got off the cab. “Just a cup of tea and then I’ll firmly send him back home” I swore to myself.

 

So now you know how he ended up in my flat, commenting on my Picasso. I take a closer look at him. He has money, that I can tell. No idea about art and no sense of style though. What a pity. He doesn’t have a genuine interest in me as a person, all he wants is to end his night inside a warm and wet pussy. He looks at me questioningly. “Did you paint this picture?” he repeats and knocks me out of my train of thoughts. “Yes”, I say and give him a fake smile. He takes the tea cups which I had just taken from the shelf out of my hands, kisses me and presses me against the wall. “Well, now it’s too late to say no”, I think to myself. Next time, I’ll pay for my drinks myself.

 

(Photos: Unsplash.com, David Drebin)

 

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Racism, Görlitzer Park and I

Racism is bad. Nobody can possibly deny this statement. But living right next to Berlin’s renowned Görlitzer Park has taught me a few lessons about people’s - and my own -  susceptibility to racism.

 

Let me first tell you a little about myself. I have lived for a while in Kenya and I have many Black friends. In fact, my only long-term boyfriend was a Black Kenyan. I’m not a person who would claim that “we’re all the same”. I do believe that cultural norms leave a stamp on us and make us perceive and act in the world in different ways. At the same time, my experiences abroad and friendships to people with different cultural backgrounds have taught me that there is no “right way” of living and that everybody lives in a way that makes sense to them personally.

 

I liked to believe that I am free from any racist sentiments.

 

Now I live in Berlin, right next to Görlitzer Park. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the park’s legacy: According to Yelp, the park is the top rated place to buy weed in Berlin or, as Deutsche Welle puts it, “Görlitzer Park is an open-air marijuana emporium”. But you won’t find a mixed crowd of dealers. Both news articles about the park and my own experience confirm that the vast majority are African immigrants. I can say that I have been approached easily 60-70 times within the one year that I have lived next to the park – and every single time it was a Black dealer.

 

And this is exactly what I want to speak about. About the experience of being approached countless times by African dealers and what it did to my emotions towards Black people around Görlitzer Park.

 

When I walk down Görlitzer Park, I feel uncomfortable. I would estimate that 80% of the times I enter the park, I will be approached by one of the Black guys. Sometimes they would openly ask me whether I want drugs. Most other times, they would just ask me how I am doing. Generally, there is nothing wrong with approaching another person in a park. But coming from Germany, the cultural norms that I have been conditioned with tell me to act with suspicion. German strangers just don’t randomly chat to each other whilst crossing a park. Do African strangers do so? Well, even my experiences in Kenya have shown me that they don’t. When strangers approach you, it is because they DO have some intention. Maybe not always selling drugs, maybe they are interested to hook up with me. Or they want to sell something else. God knows. But in the bottom line, my emotional reflex is to feel very uncomfortable, to look away and to keep on walking. Repeated experiences of that kind have led me to the point where I don’t even look towards Black guys when I am in reach of the park, but I stubbornly keep on walking with a fixed gaze.

 

And this is actually the crucial point. You can’t control your emotional reflexes. The human brain is conditioned to develop stereotypes and form groups (if you doubt it, read some scientific evidence). And my experiences have made me develop feelings that even I would describe as racist feelings: I feel uncomfortable about any Black guy who I meet around Görlitzer Park. But despite being unable to control these emotional reactions, people ARE able to rationally control their actions and further generalisations.

 

In my example, I reflect on my experiences and say: “Black guys who hang out in Görlitzer Park are NOT representative of Black people in general.” I have too many Black friends who prove the exact opposite. And I can make myself aware that not even all Black guys around Görlitzer Park fall into the category of annoying drug dealers. I just remind myself that my Kenyan boyfriend would have been judged the same way if he hung out in the park – and obviously I would find the judgment totally absurd and unfair.

 

Lastly, I remind myself of the viewpoint of the guys at Görlitzer Park. Selling drugs is a shitty job. It is dangerous. Chances are high that they would have chosen a different job if only they could. And the random approaches in the park are mainly a product of their pressure to make money.

 

So what is my main point? It’s basically, that on the emotional level, we can all become susceptible to racism. Experiences like mine in Görlitzer Park make it all to easy to develop negative sentiments towards ethnic groups or people of a certain nationality. But then, between the spontaneous emotion and our response, our intellect must serve as our emergency break. In my case, I easily get back to my senses when I recall all the positive experiences with Black people. But what about those people, who are only exposed to raging news articles about Black drug dealers? Or even those of my neighbours who never actually talked to a Black person apart from those drug dealers in their life? At least in Berlin, there are many initiatives that try to build bridges between immigrants and Berliners, such as welcome dinners and the huge Welcome Party at Tempelhofer Feld. It’s that kind of events that in my opinion have the potential to lead the change.

 

So instead of arrogantly judging those who hold racist ideas, we should understand that it stems from one-sided exposure and strong emotional reactions. In my opinion, we need even more positive exposure to break the vicious cycle of racism. Help those who experience negative emotions towards  foreigners by providing as many opportunities to interact with immigrants with all kinds of backgrounds and stories. 

 

 

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Precious

To my young friends out there: Life can be great, but not when you can't see it. So open your eyes to life: see it in the vivid colours that God gave us as a precious gift to His children, to enjoy life to the fullest, and to make it count. Say yes to life. 

 

(Quote: Nancy Reagan, Photos: Tanja Schomann)

 

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Decay

Life is one long decay, no? There's a lot of beauty in it. Like the patina in an old city.

 

(Quote: Urs Fischer, Photos: Tanja Schomann)

 

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One Love

 

Once upon a time,

I fell in love with a man

 

He was like the moon

His silver light calming my thoughts

Silent attraction, like a tidal force

Moving inner oceans

 

He was like my father

Considered and knowledgeable

He could explain the world to me

The history of foreign lands

And the origin of species

 

Both feet firmly on the ground

Worldly,

yet inspired by utopia

A rational poet,

a romantic scientist

Cultured and sophisticated

 

Once upon a time,

I fell I fell in love with a man

 

He was like the sun

His burning heat kissed my cheeks

Bright joy

Made me dizzy, gave me calenture

 

He was like my mother

Sensuous and intuitive

A creative soul,

seeing beyond the visible

Breaking down the walls of my preconceptions

 

His head in the clouds

Quixotic,

yet making a change in people’s lives

A poetic fighter,

a rebellious artist,

Indomitable by societal norms

 

Once upon a time,

I asked “who am I?”

If I can find love

In two men with qualities so far apart,

Identify with all my heart

With such disparate worlds?

 

I’m a nighthawk in the moonlight

A seagull in the sunshine,

I’m my father’s daughter,

My mother’s child

Many different worlds unite in my chest

 

Identity is complex,

It changes, confuses

Why even try to define its boundaries,

if love can show me oneness of contraries?

 

(Painting by Rene Magritte)

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Truth

Truth can be stated in a thousand different ways, yet each one can be true. 

(Sculpture: Tanja Schomann, quote: Swami Vivekananda)

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