Children of Imperialism

Kazakhstan, the vastness of your miraculous steppe does something with me; responds to the calling of my soul, lingering ‘home’. Vastness, freedom, where borders neither exist nor claim their control.

Kazakhstan, place I was born into. Where my mother and my father have grown up, were educated and socialized. It did not take me long to understand that I am a child of imperialism. I hear the colonial legacy in comments such as “Kazakh people are not able to work properly” or “You cannot trust them, they have these (makes a face to mimic ‘Asian’ facial features) eyes”. Something within me calls for dropping this legacy, while I know that I can’t ever rid myself of the entanglements of my ancestors’ histories and the paths that my being-in-this-world paves for my descendants and their generations. Between moral and energetic (holistic) reasonings, I swirl back and forth between differentiating myself from the imperialist mindset of Russian (Soviet) settlers and integrating myself into the wholeness of what happened here.

Kazakhstan, land of the wanderers. Coinciding with the brutal scars that have been left upon you by forced deportation, starvation and cultural epistemicides. While walking through the national military museum, I can’t help myself but assuming that all these paintings decorating the giant walls (which have no creation dates) depict processes of mimicry of the Western ideology that sets what counts as ‘culture’ – a certain type of fine arts, a certain way of exposing objects, a certain… kind of ‘civilization’.

I do not know whether and how the global colonial matrix includes the imperial relation between the former Soviet Union and the regions and peoples it swallowed. Yet, I did read that the governmentally-induced famines of the 1920 and 1930s decimated the native Kazakh population to become a national minority, constituting a dramatic, yet forgotten genocide.

No, I cannot shake this legacy off, when I am amidst the German-Russian part of my family who push the memories of Kazakhstan and Soviet times to the edges of their being-in-this-world. When I touch a sense of transgenerational traumatization that is being relativized by reminders of rational reasoning, economic welfare in the present and a desire for development in the future. No, I can neither shake this legacy off when I visit the Russian-Ukrainian part of my family in Kazakhstan, where latent downgrading of Kazakh natives accompany everyday life. Where holding on to an idea of Soviet-Russian civilization, culture and groupness constitutes a sense of belonging, which constantly represses its own shadows.

But this legacy has called me, whispering songs of its longing for truth, integration, acknowledgement. And has sparked in my heart a fire of a decolonial attitude, which silently screams for reconstitution of love and shared humanity as foundation of being-in-this world.

As a child of imperialism, my soul longs to unite with a harmony that has never fully gone lost. I am also a child of the world.

Turning Peaces Inside Out

I remember well when I received my first tattoo at the age of 16.  It was the symbol of the world ethos, which represented (and still does) to me an ongoing search of universal values that connects humans across cultures and geographies. The process of choosing the particular design, arranging an appointment and then receiving the tattoo underneath my skin had a deeply spiritual meaning to me.

It then happened that I fell in love with a [tattoo] artist in Kigali, who is now working in Munich and practicing this intimate art on a daily basis. He has come a long way from a selt-taught mobile tattoo artist who started off using conventional needles and threads to standardized German tattoo machines and regulations. At the intersection of tattoo profession, peace work and transcultural language, this contribution reflects some of my thoughts about tattooing as a spiritual practice of peace.

In Germany (and i dare to assume this applies to the majority of Western countries), tattooes have gained popularity over the past decades. Now, almost 30 % of the population are tattooed and it is largely accepted as individual freedom to mark one’s body.

Certainly, the nature of ‘Western’ tattoo popularity might need a critical reflection of commercialization and – most importantly – of cultural appropriation that inhabits tattoo trends, particularly those tribal designs that have culturally significant meaning, yet are often taken from their context onto a person’s skin “just for the looks”.

Tattooing is a practice that appeared across different cultures, times and places simultaneously.  Associations and interpretations of tattooes, however, differred across time and cultures. While now, in ‘Western’ countries, tattooes are predominantly seen as forms of storytelling, often through bricolage-style arrangements of tattooes, but also as forms of agency over one’s own body and acts of creating oneself, they were rather associated with criminality and violence some 50 years ago.

The individualized form of tattooing fits neatly into our culture of individualism (with all of its downsides) in which many are marking, even modifying their bodies to stand out and differentiate from others. Nevertheless, in other cultures and other times, tattooes carried deep meanings as they conveyed a sense of belonging and membership to a group, having also been used as markers for social achievements and even spiritual power. Handed down by cultural and ancestral heroes, tattooing rituals would invoke a reconnection to the ancestors.

Such indigenous understanding of tattooing seems far removed for a ‘Western’ individualist mind, but given the entanglement of stories that connect through time and space, it is not. Sadly, the connection between European colonizers and indigenous tattooists is rather one of epistemic and direct physical violence.

Under the dominance of moral interpretations of peace, such as Christianity and Judaism, tattooes were rather marginalized among the imperialist Europe. When James Cook intruded the Pacific island of Tahiti, and witnessed tattooed people and the power that lied in their practice of tattooing, it is not unlikely that this was an intimidating experience for him.

The ideologies that underlie the colonial condition, including racism and cultural superiority, probably made it easy to attempt to erase the practice of tattooing among the colonized peoples, in order to dominate and strategically subjugate them under their own cosmovision, which includes the Cartesian seperation of mind from body and its hierachization over the body.

Bringing the body back into our understanding of the meaning of tattooing leads us from what Ng called the “outside-in” view of the body (i.e. the social constitution of the body through discourse) through an “inside-out” experience of tattooing as a process (i.e. somatic knowing as valid way of knowing).

This insight has the potential to profoundly irritate our understanding of peace as non-violence. Because, in a way, the very act of tattooing is a painful and violent process, with the needle protruding into the skin and creating an image through physical damage of skin tissue. Viewed through the notion of “thinking through the body” (Blackman 2008, 8), then, tattooing presents a wholly different way of understanding practices that have a peace-invoking function, because that is what I read and experience in getting tattoed.

Still, the need to reflect cultural appropriation and the act of resistance that maybe read into indigenous forms of tattooing, become louder to myself. For now, I remain with the irritation voiced above.

Blackman, Lisa. 2008. The Body: The Key Concepts. New York: Berg.

Ng, Roxana 1998. “Is Embodied Teaching and Learning Critical Pedagogy? Some Remarks on Teaching Health and the Body from an Eastern Perspective.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, 13–17 April, San Diego, California.

Content of the post is adapted from a short documentary with interviews with indigenous tattoo artist Elle Festin and tattoo anthropologist Lars Krutak.

A Loving Meditation

12 April 2017

Dear Baby Liam,

I could sit for hours and watch you sleep, smile, cry, struggle with your digestion and curiously watch your surrounding. Sometimes time stands still, when you laugh, when your gaze meets my eyes, I could get lost in yours. Your little mouth makes bubbly sounds, as if you were telling me about things that occupy your mind.

I am sitting, responding, asking you questions. Yet, as time seems to stand still when you smile, I have the feeling that this precious episode is running through my hands like sand. That the people who advised me to enjoy every moment of this time, because it runs and children grow up so fast, are right. I don’t realize how fast you grow when I look at you, but sometimes it hits me when I dress you and the clothes that fit you yesterday are tight and almost a number too small today. And I wish I could stop the time for a moment just to become aware of your beauty, your grace, your curiosity and your pure love. You certainly turned my world upside down, and made me realize that there is no need to rush through life – to rush through Bachelors and Masters degrees, jobs and holidays, from one project to another. You remind me that life is the biggest of all gifts and that it needs to be lived with awareness and mindfulness, each day anew.

Loving you is meditation, every day.

Your Mum.

The Tao of Parenting – or of Being in the World

02 March 2017

Dear Baby Liam,

as the first weeks with you are passing by, well-meant advice, nursing and parenting tools have already been shared with me by a wide variety of people:

•“You should control him, make him tired so that he can sleep well”

•“You should let him scream when he is hungry so that he eats only every 3 hours”,

•“It’s wrong to carry him so often”…

•“let him learn how to be alone”….

•“You should clean him with milk”…

•“Give him yoghurt for digestive problems”,

are just some of the examples I get to hear from experienced mothers, and some who wish to be one. It seems like everyone knows best what is good for you, and would like to see their methods applied, believing that what worked for them will work for you too. While these are just seemingly irrelevant little aspects of parenting, I started to reflect upon why I am so strongly resisting the idea that anyone knows better what is good for you than you and me.

Continue reading “The Tao of Parenting – or of Being in the World”

Ort und Ziel

Wenn wir bewusst Yoga in unser Leben integrieren, dann ändert sich unsere Einstellung zum Leben langsam, aber – wenn wir es zulassen – beständig. Als ich meinen ersten Yogakurs besuchte, war ich sechszehn Jahre alt, und wollte diesen neuen Trend als eine Art Lifestyle-Sport ausprobieren. Doch als ich mich auf die Asanas einließ und meinem Atem folgte, gab mir diese neue Kunst mehr als nur ein Lifestyle-Emblem. Sie brachte mich zur Ruhe mit mir selbst und meinem Körper, zur Abkehr von der Hektik und dem Wettbewerb des Alltags, zu einer ganz sonderbaren Form von Einheit und Frieden. Irgendwo zwischen neuen Formen von Pilates, Power-Yoga und Fitness verlor ich jedoch diese Ruhe und fand mich selbst wieder in einem Streben nach Perfektion, das für unsere westliche Kultur so bezeichnend ist. Donna Farhi erklärt dieses Missverständnis, das wir von den Asanas (den Yogastellungen) haben und zeigt auf, dass sie nur ein kleiner Teil von Yoga per se sind, insbesondere nur Techniken, um der Essenz von uns selbst näher zu kommen:

“In the West we are taught from an early age that what we do and what we own are the sole components for measuring whether we are “successful”. (…) What Yoga teaches us is that who  we are and how we are constitute the ultimate proof of a life lived in freedom. If you do not truly believe this, it is likely that you will measure success in your yoga practice through the achievement of external forms. This tendency has produced a whole subculture of Yoga in the West that is nothing more than sophisticated calisthenics, with those who can bend the farthest or do the most extraordinary yoga postures being deemed masters.Because it’s easy to measure physical prowess, we may compare ourselves to others who are more flexible, or more “advanced” in their Yoga postures, getting trapped in the belief that the forms of the practice are the goal. These outward feats do not necessarily constitute any evidence of a balanced practice or a balanced life. What these first central precepts the yamas  and the niyamas ask us to remember is that the techniques and the forms are not goals in themselves but vehicles for getting to the essence of who we are.” (Farhi, Donna: Yoga, Mind, Body & Spirit: A return to wholeness, S. 7 f.)

Ich muss mit Ehrlichkeit zugeben, dass mein Lernprozess noch anhält, dass ich bestimmt noch Zeit brauche, um mich von der Idee zu lösen, Erfolg messen uns sehen zu können. Oft ertappe ich mich dabei, in etwas Perfektion zu suchen, das ich tue – sei es eine bestimmte Asana, die ich unbedingt beherrschen möchte, bis die Lehrerausbildung anfängt, um mich nicht vor den anderen zu blamieren, oder nur die Gestaltung eines Tagesablaufes hier in meinem Kigalischen Heim. Doch was ich gelernt habe, ist, dass ich einige Denk – und Verhaltensmuster, die sich über lange Zeit in mir festgesetzt haben, nicht über Nacht abstreifen kann. Was ich jedoch tun kann, ist eine demütige und geduldige Form von Selbstbeobachtung zu praktizieren, die es mir erlaubt, meine Muster zu erkennen und langsam zu transformieren. Wir dürfen nicht zu streng mit uns sein, welchen Weg auch immer wir gehen wollen – ob wir Yoga üben, Joggen gehen, oder uns um unser Studium kümmern.  Ich denke, ein Weg, um dorthin zu gelangen, wo wir wollen, ist Selbstbeobachtung und stetiger Wandel. Vor diesem Hintergrund habe ich auch das Beitragsbild ausgewählt – da ich mich scheinbar notorisch nach anderen Orten sehne, doch was eigentlich zählt, ist die Reise unseres Bewusstseins. Yoga kann ein Fahrzeug sein, das uns dorthin bringt, wenn wir wissen, in welche Richtung wir fahren wollen.

Credit: Township Yogi
Credit: Township Yogi

Abschließen möchte ich meinen Beitrag mit einem wundervollen Gedicht von Katy Stevenson Wirth, das ihren Weg der Abkehr von Wettbewerb und Konkurrenz hin zu Liebe und Einheit beschreibt:

In my heart of hearts,

I no longer want to be

Better than anyone

Smarter than anyone

Thinner than anyone

Prettier than anyone

Faster than anyone

Stronger than anyone

More accomplished than anyone

More creative than anyone

A better mother than anyone

A better friend than anyone

Better educated than anyone

ANYTHING more than anyone.

I want to walk this path

Side by side

In awe of who you are

In awe of what your gifts are

To see you only in love and light

With your beauty shining through

Just as you are.

And I want you to see me the same way.

For I really do love you

Just as you are.

I only thought I had to be better

In order for you to love me.

I drop this cloak of outshining at the gate.

It has been such a heavy burden,

An unnecessary burden

A self imposed burden.

Will you still love me

Being just as I am.

In my heart of hearts,

I know you will.