By Zou Sicong

In October 2021, I arrived in Göttingen with a six-month visa. After arriving, I realized I still needed a residence permit to extend my stay in Germany. So, outside of academia, my life was overwhelmed by endless paperwork for the application. Then it was a lengthy wait. Finally, a few days before I was to leave Göttingen for Krakow, I thought I was close to success. 

That day was very sunny. After half a month, I went to the foreigner’s office again. The last time I went, I had an interview with the officer after I had submitted all the required documents. I thought I would get my residence permit on this day.

The joke in the Foreigner Office

Probably this “legalization of the presence of outsiders” is all the same all over the world, that only immigrants need to visit this bureaucratic institution frequently.

I have had this kind of experience before, in Hong Kong for seven years. That was when I went from China to Hong Kong for my first graduate degree and became a journalist and an immigrant for the first time.

Every year or two, I took the overcrowded MTR to the Wan Chai immigration department of Hong Kong. I always lost myself in the converging river-like Wanchai station, not remembering which exit led to the immigration department. I squeezed myself onto the narrow escalator, trying to remember which floor belonged to Chinese and which to South Asian workers, warning myself not to get it wrong next time. Then I tried to distinguish the stratified differences between the Chinese graduate’s visa, professional visa, Quality Migrant Admission Scheme, and labor visa. But I never really remembered. It was like some traumatic memories that your brain deliberately blocked out. Every time I tried to legalize my immigrant status again, I experienced memory loss. 

After fumbling, I just sat there, quiet and slightly nervous, waiting for my number to be called. During the peak season, there was always a wait of half a day. From morning to afternoon, without a word from anyone, you wait for the “voice of destiny” from the visa officer.

In Göttingen, I was experiencing more or less the same scenario, with Asian, Middle Eastern, and African faces sitting quietly and solemnly in the waiting area. They did not even look at me, their new “fellow.”

When I confidently reported that I came to get my residence permit, a burly security guard indifferently looked through the documents and said that my name was not on the list for today’s resident permit appointment. I took out the visa officer’s note and insisted that my “legalization” date was today.

He still shook his head, but due to my strong insistence, he had to mutter, “Okay, I will go in and ask.”

Then, he stretched out his right hand. The hand was just normally stretching at first. Then, he bent his arm into a half-moon shape. He didn’t say a word. It was just like a rapper who wanted to greet me in a hip-hop way. I dimwittedly extended my right hand, bent it into the same shape, and reached for his raised hand. I felt that all the post-colonialism I have studied so hard was about making a world-renowned breakthrough in this hip-hop handshake, an unprecedented reconciliation between immigrants and bureaucracy. Germany deserves a reputation as an immigrant-friendly country.

However, the man froze. Our two hands just hung in mid-air motionlessly. Then, suddenly, a burst of loud laughter erupted behind us. I turned my head in confusion, and my right hand remained in the air. My fellows behind me looked up, staring at us both, embarrassed and irrepressible, laughing wildly. I suddenly realized that my action was a foolish provocation to the authority. I was so ashamed that I saw the security guard maintain his majestic composure, and without looking up, he said word by word, “I, do not, want to shake your hands,” and then turned around to enter the “legalization” office. 

Now I realized that he wanted me to sit where I belonged.

I laughed ridiculously and sat back down among my fellows. Their laughter also quickly stopped, and everything then went on as usual. After all, we all had to continue to wait for the serious voice of destiny. 

The security guard came out shortly and pointed at my note. He still didn’t want any dialogue and just wanted me to stare at the dated note, expecting me to perceive through this “special meditation.” I froze again, unable to respond. Finally, he raised his voice to reveal the truth, “You came a month early!”

Arming yourself

I thought I had “armed myself” before I came to Europe. I reminded myself that I had to eliminate my “obsession with China.” Since I had chosen to leave, I did not have to return to my former profession, which is the dangerous and hopeless journalistic job of reporting on China. I didn’t want to be intimidated again for writing freely. I didn’t want to have my parents subjected to government pressure because of my profession. And I didn’t want to be locked up in a tiny, darkened room by Chinese state security once more. I had to leave to continue writing.

I had to have the tools to understand this new world – and as an outsider, I decided that “post-colonialism” was my intellectual weapon. It certainly didn’t make my life in Europe any smoother, but first of all, it allowed me to adjust my mind; after all, leaving your homeland is not a simple phrase of “starting over.”

I was worried that my English was poor, so I applied to study English literature at Hong Kong University while working. I intermittently finished my thesis and stumbled to a degree. I researched the Chinese-American writer Guo Xiaolu’s A Concise English-Chinese Dictionary for Lovers and Bangladesh-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. Time flies by during the pandemic, and my plan of departure was nowhere, leaving me to rehearse in my mind the lives of all the immigrant writers, with the destinies of their protagonists.

During this time, I repeated by heart what I had learned in the English department: can the subaltern speak? Immigrants inevitably mimic all the cultural lives of the host country. However, as a first-generation immigrant, you will have an indissoluble Double Consciousness. The object of your imitation will keep suppressing your once-familiar sense of subjectivity. If you start a family in a foreign country, your next generation will become the” Hybridity “generation; they will encounter totally new cultural situations that you may never really understand. And you will always be in an experience between exile, interruption, and refugee-like life ……Chakravorty Spivak, Du Bois, and Edward Said, these daunting names, are no longer complex academic tomes for me to digest. I don’t have to understand them entirely in obscure scholarly works. Their discourses will automatically jump into my life one day, and that will be when I defend my existence’s value.

However, It is hilarious to “arm myself” in reality. “Post-colonialism” wouldn’t make the security guard willing to talk with me and other daily embarrassments. Of course, I could problematize my usual shame with an unfamiliar gaze, which showed that I was mentally prepared.

But what does that have to do with “arming yourself”? I think I should change that personal “moral order.” Console yourself!

Lost in the translation

I never sleep well and often wake up because of my dreams. When I was a journalist, my dreams were always full of crises. Some national security guys broke into my bedroom. I somehow appeared in my hometown, thinking I had been targeted and could no longer leave customs or national borders. Then, I was inexplicably taken to a car at the train station. I always woke up fighting. That was the manifestation of real trauma entering my subconscious world.

Since leaving, I no longer had such traumatic dreams but unintentionally discovered another uncanny scenario. One midnight in Krakow, I woke up and suddenly realized that my dream world had no voice. Instead, my European friends, my childhood playmates, and my families appeared at the same time and the same place, never conversing with each other or even talking with me, and I did not speak with them, either. Yet, we took each other for granted, somehow communicating with each other. We all became people without language.

I was not frightened by this, but I felt that the human brain was too magical. It refuses to let my parents, who only speak “sank you” (Thank you), speak fluent English in my dream or let my European friends speak Mandarin or Sichuanese (a dialect of my hometown). As a result, everyone stopped talking. This made the dream slightly more plausible, but it still didn’t stop me from realizing that it was an overly unrealistic scenario and that I had to wake up, refusing the deception. But upon waking up, I realized it was an excessively obvious metaphor. 

My brain is getting lost in translation.

The past few years of struggling to “arm myself” have finally made me used to reading English literature and books, writing papers, and feeling confident enough to conduct in-depth interviews and debates. In addition, post-colonialism “reassures” me that I don’t need to care too much about my accent, which is part of my growing-up history.

What really bothers me is that I am in Europe, pursuing European studies. English is just my stepmother. I need to be raised by more “stepmothers” before really studying Europe. Being the “stepchild” of a different linguistic mother, I am both too old and too stupid to learn a new language.

Last October, shortly after I arrived in Göttingen, I wrote to one of my professors, ambitiously saying that I was doing “personal research” on Göttingen’s World War II history and asked if he could recommend books and materials on this topic. Professor wrote back promptly, expressing his joy and appreciation, but only one sentence put me off: “Dear Sicong, can you read German?”

When I arrived in Krakow this March 2022, I realized that Polish is something else. German and English have many similarities, and I was not completely ignorant when I saw German signs on the streets of Göttingen. But Polish makes me dizzy, and I cannot understand any etymology to guess the meaning. Even seeing a word and even trying to pronounce it incorrectly becomes impossible.

These daily dilemmas were another example of my personal jokes. As someone who always makes jokes, I can get used to awkwardness. What still really bothers me is how to enter the Polish context. How do I sign up to volunteer with a local NGO for Ukrainian refugees? How do I study the populist discourse of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) over the past few years? How do I know what Poles are talking about these days?

Soon, this language disorientation invaded the program I am pursuing. I began preparing my IP paper for the annual student conference in late April.

This programme, in the summer of each year, holds a student academic conference with a different European-related theme each year. At that time, you will meet the entire cohort from this cosmopolitan bubble in this program. Everyone is required to present a conference paper, give a keynote speech, and do a peer review. This year, the program was held in Krakow, and the theme was “Illiberal Democracy.”

Hungary, once seen as one of the most successful post-communist countries in terms of political transition, is now one of the most significant unsettling factors in the EU. Its terrible news “excited” me. Out of all my professional experiences in both Hong Kong and China, I quickly decided that “how the Hungarian authorities address their repression of press freedom” was the topic I would research.

But soon, the reality of the language doused my passion. How can I analyze the discourses of the Hungarian authorities when I knew nothing about the Hungarian language? With the help of Google Translate? I didn’t even know how to search for keywords. Furthermore, how could I guarantee the accuracy of the translation? How can I face a document translated by AI and do content or discourse analysis?

I spent the whole month of May, floating around in limbo. Not wanting to give up on the topic, I had to exploit my “stepmother” again to find out if there was any suitable official English-language material from Hungary. Fortunately, after a long and hopeless search, I found suitable material in English from the “enemies” of the Hungarian authorities-Reporters Without Borders, the International Press Institute, and the Freedom House. I found the official Hungarian website and the rebuttals and statements made by various Hungarian authorities over the past seven consecutive years in response to criticism from the EU and international NGOs about the regression of press freedom in Hungary. 

The fierce official rhetoric, written entirely in English, was a treasure for me, saving me from a translation loss and saving my IP paper.

At the end of the June conference, I “confidently” explained my data collection process and how I had chosen to choose English with certainty instead of hopelessly translating Hungarian. I explained my methodology and why I decided to do only content analysis rather than critical discourse analysis. Because I only understood the Hungarian situation through my “stepmother.” I “lived” in a Hungarian context in second-hand time, just as I lived in Germany and Poland context in “second-hand time.”

In her book Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language, Eva Hoffman, a Polish-Jewish-American writer, chronicles her first encounter with English as a teenager when her family fled from Krakow to Canada in the 1950s because of the advent of communism. Before that, most of their family members had died in Nazi concentration camps.

For a birthday after immigration, Hoffman received a diary book with a lock as a gift. She suddenly wondered which language she should use to record her life as a teenager. Should she write in Polish? That had become a dead language for her. And to keep a diary in English that no one reads? It was like a slightly perverted self-training. But she chose to start writing her diary in English anyway. Eventually, “English is the language in which I’ve become an adult, in which I’ve seen my favorite movies and read my favorite novels, and sung along with Janis Joplin records. In Polish, whole provinces of adult experience are missing.”

English was also apparently Eva Hoffman’s “stepmother” but eventually became closer to her than Polish, her “blood mother.” I am different. Chinese constitutes most of my adult experience, and I am still accustomed to writing in Chinese, with the expectation of a small Chinese readership. English was my language as a sojourner, and I exploited this “stepmother” to bring me closer to other potential “stepmothers,” German or Polish mothers, trying to understand the new world without realizing that my dream was thus deprived of language. 

This often reminds me of Hoffman’s warning words. She wrote:

“As long as the world around me has been new each time, it has not become my world; I lived with my teeth clenched against the next assault of the unfamiliar. It is only within such frames and patterns that any one moment is intelligible, that stimulus transforms itself into experience and movement into purpose. And it is only within an intelligible human context that a face can become dear, a person known. Pattern is the soil of significance; it is surely one of the hazards of emigration, and exile, and extreme mobility, that one is uprooted from that soil.”

Picture Credit: Zou Sicong “In the old town hall of Göttingen, I witnessed a mourning for the murder of immigrants in Hanau, where on February 19, 2020, after killing several immigrants, the murderer killed himself and his mother at the same time. The Federal Criminal Police Office concluded that it was an extreme right-wing and fascist crime.”

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