Wroclaw, Lądek-Zdrój, Musings on Identity
A Jewish graveyard in Wroclaw, Poland seems an odd place for a Chinese-American to feel a sense of kinship. I was not raised Jewish, I barely remember my limited interactions with my German grandmother in my childhood, and I had never been to Poland before last week — yet, a strange feeling of belonging overcame me as I stood in front of my great-grandfather’s grave. Richard Sandberg, 1861–1912.
A big part of why I decided to study in Berlin was to get in touch with my German roots. While I grew up with a dual identity — part Chinese, part American, totally both but not quite either at the same time — I was never a “third culture kid” (though that always sounded cool to me). When people asked me why I chose Germany, I proudly declared that I was part German, as if that settled the matter. The reality, as always, is a bit more complex.
Though Richard Sandberg existed in a vastly different time period and region, I felt inexplicably close to him standing in front of his tombstone. I’m not a huge fan of graveyards — death, in general, makes me uncomfortable — but I dutifully placed a rock on the grave (a tradition symbolizing remembrance of the dead), and my father and I bowed three times before him (a Chinese practice honoring our ancestors).
你怎么就跟这个地方有关系了呢？ (How do you happen to have something to do with this place?) My mother asked me as we were walking out. It was a great question that I did not — do not — have an answer to. I wonder how many others have walked in the same graveyard and felt similar senses of kinship, maybe pondering about their identities as well. I wonder where they’re from, where they are now, and what their stories are.
My grandmother Eva, Richard’s daughter, was born in Wroclaw back when it was Breslau, Germany, but grew up in a nearby town called Lądek-Zdrój, formerly Bad Landeck. Lądek-Zdrój is a charming small town of less than 6,000 people in Southwestern Poland that was famous for its treatment spas and health facilities (in fact, many European kings received treatment there, and even our very own John Adams). Though my parents and I had read and seen much of my grandmother’s life after she moved to China, we decided to take this Poland trip to understand more where she came from before that. We were joined by their lovely German friend Astrid (who was also close with Eva), her 15-year-old son Nathan, and my good friend Josh who I met in Rio two summers ago (but that’s another story).
While in Lądek-Zdrój, we toured my great-grandfather’s old practice (where he, apparently, treated Nietzsche), the home of my grandmother’s childhood best friend, and local churches and parks I’m sure she used to hang out in. The most special place we visited was perhaps my grandmother’s childhood home (the back of a hotel), where we saw a thank-you note she wrote when she came back in 1998. I felt deeply connected to her looking at this, and wondered how on earth she could possibly have moved from this place to wartime Yan’an.
When my grandmother came back to her childhood home for the first time in decades, she spoke not German but Russian, since the Germans were forced out when the area became Poland. Towns like this are living and breathing history, reminders of what happens with our endless cycles of war and conquest.
It was not the easiest of trips, language-wise. We listened to our tour guide speak in Polish, a translator repeat in German, then our poor German friends take turns explaining to us in English. We played charades with our waitress when trying to order sparkling water. On our third try to find a common language with taxi drivers — after English and German — my father finally found some luck with Russian (his first language), since the older Poles had learned it in school growing up. It was fascinating to watch these interactions, and wonder again why I feel a sense of entitlement to a German identity, or a feeling of belonging in this strange place.
While in Lądek-Zdrój we also had coffee with the mayor, a charismatic and energetic man who clearly loves the town and is very ambitious about its development. He works 16-hour days, was starting his reelection campaign on the day that we met, and won an award for being the best mayor of Poland or something like that. He spoke of his goals to restore the town’s status as the best health facility in Europe, and eventually the world. The mayor also personally knew our tour guide and translator, and remarked on how it was his job to know everyone in a small town like this. Our conversation got me thinking about the merits of local government as an effective means of change and influence, something I hadn’t truly considered before (probably having to do with the whole “thinking globally” framework I’ve been taught my entire life).
The mayor also pointed out Poland’s unemployment problem — young Poles emigrate to the UK, France, Germany, and other Western European nations in search of better jobs with higher pay, leading to a shortage at home. Our hotel manager mentioned this as well when explaining why there was no receptionist or dinner offered. Despite this shortage, the mayor still remarked that he did not like Ukrainian immigrants, who themselves experienced a westward migration trend in search of jobs (for them to Poland). Funny how everything’s so relative.
Yet another great part of this trip was that I got to catch up with Josh, one of my closest friends and favorite people — basically family at this point — though admittedly I was mildly annoyed that he acted as a better “son” to my parents than I’ve ever been a daughter. Nonetheless, it was fun to remember how much I learn each time we talk. I am endlessly grateful for both our similarities in character and differences in perspective.
With all this reflection about what constitutes identity, we discussed our own identities and how they’ve shaped us. In particular, I reflected a lot on American identity: What makes someone American vs. feel American? Are the two the same? If citizenship is part of it, what about undocumented individuals who have spent their whole lives in the US? Do I feel any connection to or kinship with a white farmer in Kentucky who voted for Trump, and live in an entirely different world than I do? What are “American values” exactly? I’m not sure I’ll ever have the answers to any of these questions, but it’s definitely worth a thought.
On the other hand, both Chinese and German national identities — as far as I’ve been exposed — seem more pronounced. There is a sense of collectivism that I haven’t felt in the US in a long while, perhaps in large part due to more pronounced racial homogeneity. In particular, according to Josh, senses of guilt and responsibility for the war are central aspects of German national identity. This is reflected in the half-destroyed buildings and churches in Berlin, intentionally left in that state to serve as a reminder of what must never happen again; as well as in Germany’s open-door refugee policy, which many say has been heavily influenced by World War II shame.
I also learned that prejudice from West Germany to the East still persist, as do noteworthy infrastructural differences like the relative smoothness of German vs. Polish roads (very noticeable during our bus ride across the border). I don’t know why I was so surprised by this. Perhaps I, like many in the US and China, had come to think of “Europe” as a bit of a homogenous utopia. In reality, however, “Europe” is as riddled with complexities and nuances as the problems we are used to facing.
This discrepancy in my thinking may lend itself to a piece of wisdom from a good friend of mine back in Berkeley: The farther away people are from us, the less complex they seem. I’m often upset over how popular Western news sources simplify China, and how lacking of nuance these perceptions are of the country I half grew up in. However, my opinion on countries I know nothing about is by and large formed by the same sources. Why should the places I’m familiar with have entitlement to complex arguments and analyses, while others can do with hyper-generalizing blanket statements?
I was initially baffled that Josh thought of Switzerland as a diverse country, but then we discussed how race and “whiteness” mean different things in Western Europe than in the US. While legacies of slavery are the most crucial factor in modern day inequalities in American society, European struggles have instead been dominated by religious conflict and persecution. Though race is, of course, still an issue in Europe, it is not as central as in the US. While historical persecution in Germany has centered around the Jewish community, religious discrimination is now largely targeted towards Muslims. Regardless of what “type” of identity — be it racial or religious — similar prejudicial sentiments and actions play out everywhere.
Ultimately, these conversations got me thinking more seriously about identity as a political tool. If I can feel a sense of belonging in a small town in Poland, why can’t a Syrian refugee find his or her place in bustling Berlin? Why can’t a Mexican immigrant crossing the border be offered an accessible pathway to American citizenship? These individuals certainly need a new place to call home more than I do. The barriers stopping them have to do with ingrained identities as well. Though these identities — familial, ethnic, national, religious, and the like — can make us feel more comfortable and help us make sense of the world, they can also be rather limiting, and, in some cases, dangerous.
It may be difficult to step out of our seemingly predestined boundaries, but if we stop to look and listen we may realize that we have more in common than we think. Whether in Beijing or Wroclaw, Damascus or Mexico City, we all live, love, and learn. We all have good days and bad days, experience irrational feelings, and muse over things like identity if we have that luxury. We seek happiness and better lives for ourselves and our loved ones — and there’s no reason that love can’t extend to the other side of the world. Perhaps instead of centering on what divides us, we should focus on that instead.
(Other highlights of the trip include hiking around dusk—golden hour!—to the Czech-Polish border, eating so much pierogi that I elapsed into 3-hour food coma afterwards, and watching an old couple happily dance through the window of a nearly empty club. Though we weren’t able to get spots in the infamous spas, I did get a fantastic massage. And for the first time ever on a family vacation, we didn’t see a single Chinese tourist.)