Opinion / 25 January 2022


On being the Other

Relativity is one of my favorite lithographs by the artist M. C. Escher. If you haven’t come across it yet, I strongly recommend you look it up now. To me, this work shows beautifully what literature can do and be. Literature can be more than just an illusion, or a deception. It is a way to turn the world upside down – or to identify a world that has been put on its head.

Lately, the world seems more chaotic than before. Maybe chaotic is the wrong expression, as it is not so much chaos that is at the heart of all things, but a change of direction: The world seems to be heading towards the past. So many issues that I thought we had overcome are popping up again, and they are popping up at such a speed that it makes me wonder whether we ever overcame them. Just to name one: Equality. In Austria, the new government, under the youngest European Chancellor ever, Sebastian Kurz, has just presented measures to enforce inequality among the population. Someone called it “retro.” Their rebuttal was: “Retro is chic.”

When I attend cultural events, I often wonder whether inequality ever was “retro.” As I am of Asian origin and a woman, I am especially aware of these issues. In the last few years, I found myself counting the number of non-white people sitting on the podium next to me, as well as sitting in the audience. Most of the time, I don’t even have to count to two. Just a few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at a Fine Arts conference in Warsaw. I was excited to discover another Asian-looking woman. She was sitting in the half-dark hall, listening to us on stage. After an hour, she was joined by another Asian looking-woman. Three. That was a record number! The next day, neither of them came back, and I was alone again.

One expression that came up repeatedly in Warsaw was “the other.” As there were quite a few philosophers amongst the participants, I was not too surprised. “The other” is a phrase that has been used extensively in the past two decades in philosophical, but also, as it turned out, in artistic debates. The funny thing was: As I was sitting there, in close proximity to the stage, I was very aware of the fact that I was the other. I looked around to see if other people besides myself were conscious of this fact. No one even looked in my direction. The discussants continued to talk very passionately about “the other” and their isolated position in society. They elaborated on injustice, inequality, they wondered, what they (artists and intellectuals) can do to fight for “the other,” and all the time I thought, they are talking about ME, they are TALKING about me, they ARE talking about me… ARE they talking about me?

Suddenly my skin turned pale; the same skin that prompted a Jewish-American writer to warn me of the developments in Europe and the US. She said: “We have to be ready to pack our things and leave!” I was not “something between light brown and yellowish brown” anymore (as a sales assistant in the make-up department once described me so precisely), but light rose, like everyone in this room. Even after the debate was finished, my somehow-brownness was not addressed. The color blindness that had taken over the hall was so strong that it only created a tiny blue dwarf elephant in the room that got kicked away quickly during the meet-and-greet after. But the transformation that I underwent that day, I undergo almost every day, and certainly during every cultural event. And frankly, it adds to my identity complex that puts me and all “hybrids” – according to psychologists – into the group of people that are “most likely” to commit suicide; my identity, so they say, is sickly and brittle, therefore I am sick and brittle.

I guess, I would never qualify as a single origin bean.

To get back to Escher and his picture, Relativity: For some time now, I’ve been more than aware that my world exists upright and upside-down at the same time. Yet, it is not just me who has an augmented identity, the world is also doubled, tripled, quadrupled. If my race turns well-meaning people blind, how can we ever address the issue of race in a proper way? The little utopian leftist world they create at cultural events, where race is not an issue anymore, is not here yet. Won’t their inability make it easier for people who refuse to accept color into their world – unless it is a Chinese take-out place, or an Indian restaurant – to reject it once and for all? To go “retro?”