Before my plane landed at Berlin Tegel Airport, my body started to react to the prospect of living in Berlin again, the other half of my dual existence. As the plane cutting through clouds and invisible air molecules that separated the two cities, I started to feel sharp pain in my stomach. It was as if one of the twins had summoned her presence in me, to assert that a part of her lived on in my body even when I trod the streets of her twin in search of stories, or actually a right way to tell a tale of two cities, my tale of two cities.
Being so high up in the sky easily triggered the thought of death, at least that was true in my case. “What if I die from cramps up in the air? If that unfortunately came true, have I lived my life on Earth fully?” Those were the irrepressible thoughts that intruded my mind, weakened by the stuffy recycled air in the aircraft cabin. Looking back now, that was a completely irrational train of thought, and yet it seemed to be such a reasonable prediction of the end of my existence: dissolving into parts and molecules that filled the gap between the two cities. 8,717 kilometers apart they are, says Google Map.
At one point, my cramps ceased, so did the thought of how easily die-able one was high up in the air. What remained though was a much more melancholy thought, that life written into a tale of two cities would be difficult to escape its tattered, fragmentary form. I was taught growing up in Shenzhen, the forever-growing city, that rootlessness is good, because it means there would be no holding back, and that fragmentation is only normal, because it is just another word for change. And of course, change is good. I caught myself thinking, a fragmented life I can endure, so long as it is a fulfilled one. As a child growing up in the midst of Shenzhen’s economic wonders in the 90s (Shenzhen was the first Special Economic Zone established in China in 1980, hence was also known as the city through which China opened up toward the world), I notice that I am mostly immune to the modernistic anxiety around the futility of life, with the exception of some rare precarious moments, such as life-threatening stomach pain on a plane. Although the truth was my period came.
In exchange, children of my generation grew up with a deep sense of melancholy—the melancholy of a homeless traveler. Our sense of belonging is too intricately linked to change, that the only way to belong is not to. In fact, a large number of my cohorts are living similarly fragmented lives caught between two or more cities like I do. I noticed it from our conversations which usually revolve around job search, moving to a new city, or career aspirations, that they too like me are deprived of nihilistic thinking. As children of the economic wonder makers, we have no time for that. Before nihilism catches us, we would have already changed the circumstances under which we strive and pursue life. Much like the street artists, before the boredom of their audience catches up with them, they would have already packed their instruments, collected the coins, and jumped onto the subway platform to catch another train, to mesmerize another audience.
Perhaps this is why I find myself often unconsciously staring at street artists in Berlin. They are the only few people that I can comfortably identify with in this carefree laid-back European city. They are the nomads of a city where life is good and stable. Like me they experience constant change in life, but at the scale of trains, platforms, stations, and depending on where they are originally from, sometimes countries and continents as well. You’d rarely see signs of fatigue in their eyes, because there is always another train to catch.
Sometimes I wonder when the gaze at life is so fleeting, what would come out of it. Will the works of art coming out of a fragmented life also become fragmented? Without the diligence and ennui with which a nihilist artist gazes at life, will art lose its intensity?
In one of his rare interviews, Kubrick explained to his interviewer the ending of his 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“He is taken in by some God-like entities, creatures of pure energy and intelligence with no shape or form. They put him in a—I guess you can describe it as a human zoo, and study him. His whole life passes from that point on in that room, and he has no sense of time.”
The film is basically Kubrick’s commentary on the virtues of a life fully lived via time spent in a spaceship. Full of nihilism.
Having freshly returned to Berlin from China, I had an epiphany that a film like 2001 would never have been made in China, not in today’s China anyway. Such a deliberated contemplation on the origin of humanity would not have been able to come from China where the basic necessities of life had not been fulfilled for a very long period of time. Here nihilism and existential crises have had only about 30 years to grow, and in some places, they have not had a chance to sprout yet.
When I was reading Sartre in college in America, I recalled I felt a strange sense of resistance to existentialism. Now reclaiming my root in Shenzhen again and looking back, I realize that the resistance originated from the inexperience in existential angst. Growing up in Shenzhen in the 90s, existence as I witnessed it had too hectic a time building skyscrapers than reflecting upon itself. Things might have changed now. Nihilism might have already crept in, like Berlin’s bitter winter nights sneaking into apartments shortly after the sun comes out.
Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that my dual existence is no different from the existence of a street artist—somewhat aimless, full of weltschmerz (literally, “world pain,” a German term that denotes a feeling of melancholy and world-weariness), confusion, and desires, but never lacking the impulse to jump onto another train. Unsettled. Un-stationed. By always being also from another world, I find myself in a position where I have no rights to make judgments about lives in either city. But nor do people in either city have any rights over how I choose to live, just like a local would never have the right to chase away a street artist, a licensed vagabond.
Biography of the photographer, Mona Singh: “I grew up in Delhi, India. I come from a pretty conventional family. I am a gypsy photographer who loves to travel with a camera in my backpack. Be it exploring the myriad streets of India, the bohemian lives of Berliners, the Gaudi architecture of Barcelona, or the wildlife of Sariska, i use my LENS to pen down my travel stories.”