Koffje House

Observations: aspects of cross-border theater work

translated from German by Henning Bochert and Goesta Struve-Dencher

Together with a group of stage design students from the USA, I visited a show of the Teatr Pokoleniy, an independent theater ensemble in St. Petersburg. The Americans are visiting here for three months and work with the ensemble. After the show, I wanted to have a drink, and if it’s not going to be vodka, the franchise group „Koffje House“ is one of the rare places to get good espresso drinks in St. Petersburg. It is almost eleven at night, it is fall, and the cold October wind in the streets drives the last reminiscences of the damp summer out of people’s bones. To our surprise, the Russian actors said good-bye outside the café, and now there are only the nine students from the US sitting together over cappuccino and hot chocolate. Across the table from me, two young ladies from Taiwan, Harriet and Corinne, warm themselves on their beverages. Harriet has been living in Los Angeles for 20 years. Corinne has just moved to California from Taiwan and shares an apartment with Harriet.

Harriet: In Los Angeles, I almost exclusively know people from Taiwan or from mainland China. I can tell after a few words whether someone came from Taiwan in 1992, 1999, 2005, or just now. People talk differently, use other words, refer to other instances. In the nineties, mostly people from Taiwan emigrated, now more people from the Chinese mainland are arriving.

Taiwan has been striving for political independence from the People’s Republic of China for a long time. China stifles these tendencies with military threat gestures, at least. Outside the windowpanes, masses of people are still pushing along the Petersburg sidewalk. Twenty years ago, Gorbachov’s politics have led to the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. Especially the middle and east-European block states have seceded from the Soviet alliance within a few months. Before that, Gorbachov had supported the political opposition in Poland, and when he at last did not step in the way of the two Germanies uniting as a new NATO member, there could be no more doubts that Russia had given up its position as a control power and would not refuse any secession tendencies. Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia and the other Caucasian states followed. Even the Baltic States, at that time Russian territory, followed suit. Then Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan, and many other states that were looking for a position of their own on the political map first, and later for a meaningful position, too. Some are still trying to find it.
China alone defended the power of the Communist Party, and with blood. Any mentioning of the massacre of 1989 is now prohibited. China retains its territories and leaves no doubt for Taiwan about the clear interests in their hegemonies.

Infranational conflicts are often conserved and magnified in emigrant groups, power struggles continued in the countries of exile. Those conflicts often only surface there because that wouldn’t be possible in the countries of origin. Is that a problem between mainland Chinese and Taiwanese people abroad?
Harriet and Corinne shake their heads: We don’t discuss political issues among ourselves nor with other Chinese in California. We know about our different views; we remain at a distance about that. We meet primarily in cultural differences.

With their stay at the metropolis on the Baltic Sea coast, these young women and men commence their studies of stage design at the California State University Long Beach, the sea port town of the Los Angeles area. The professor there is the artistic director of the St. Petersburg Teatr Pokoleniy, the ‘Theater of Generations’. Merely two of the students are originally from the USA: one from California, the other from Buffalo, New York, near the Great Lakes. Which we share, says Adelina – because she is from Canada, whose blue border to the US runs through the Lakes.

Adelina was raised in Quebec, in the French speaking part of Canada. It has only been lately that she turned more of here attention to Iran, the country her parents emigrated from after the Cultural Revolution. Oh, you read Persepolis? The student group is too fresh yet for Adelina to share the experience of exile in her family background. The topic is mentioned first in this café – in Russia, which is a foreign country for all of them alike. The political events in Iran interest her. Parties there involve a lot of alcohol now, she says, that hasn’t been possible for a long time, but the young generation there is desperate for gestures of freedom.

Their study of stage design brings them all together in the USA – a country whose expansion to the West was concomitant with a sweeping genocide. The term ‘cultural minorities’ or their participation in society would have been, well, a dystopy in a society of colonizing slaveholders. In the USA, Harriet and Corinne belong to a minority that forged the railway through mountains and deserts from coast to coast a hundred and fifty years ago, and whose historical ghettos now belong to the favourite tourist attractions of the US in the form of the various metropolitan Chinatowns. Ironically, the same political power – now a rising economic behemoth – that rules through suppression in China, forcing people into exile, might help exiled emigrants to another form of ethnic pride in the USA, a country struggling under a historical depression.

Here in Russia, the young stage designers are scheduled for a theatrical project with the partner theatre. We are told later that the Russian actors couldn’t join us for financial reasons. They simply can’t afford the “Koffje House”. Their being ashamed about that made it impossible for us to maybe buy them a coffee and learn more about their personal situation.

Harriet’s attention in that project is drawn to the ethnic diversity of St. Petersburg. Vast parts of Russia belong to Asia, and Harriet and Corinne see faces in the streets that remind them more of Taipei than of Paris. In Russia, racism against people from Azerbaidshan, Chechnya, and other Caucasian countries is fostered; the police are observed questioning Caucasian-looking pedestrians (that is, those from the Caucasian states), while they simply drive by a brutal beating on the Panteleymonovskiy Bridge, which we better avoid that night. In the USA, the government deals with cultural minorities and its own history increasingly more openly. Corinne sips at her cappuccino. The time of ethnically coherent nation states might be over, she says. All that bureaucracy at the borders, what a horror. As an emigrant, she has surely seen enough red tape.

While the Soviet political body has disintegrated and the new states are bopping about in the world; while China is fighting gold-tooth and diamond-studded claw to hold itself together, the people in Europe choose an alternate strategy. All the more, this historically new way appears in a special light. Populations of the small nation states here are still relatively coherent, culturally speaking. The percentage of the population with a migration background might actually be quite high; this term, however, is very open in all historical and interpretational contexts, and the immigrant groups are relatively felicitously integrated, compared to the three giants, the USA, Russia and China. Furthermore, the numbers of immigrants have been decreasing for years. In Europe, the small states realized that they only get so far with separation and national policies, and that a majority of the problems can only be solved together with the immediate or extended neighbors. The European idea is a revolution in political history: a continental union of states with a common interest – without forceful annexation, without conquering wars, without subjected people. Maybe Europe has seen this way too often, with the Romans, the Huns, the Ostrogoths, the political quarrels and wars within the Holy Roman Empire, with Napoleon and Hitler. Were these experiences fit to break a pattern? Let’s try something new! So here Europe chooses the tiresome, cumbersome, enlightened path of talking to each other.

Suddenly, though, all have one common border with countries beyond the European Union. Unusual: there is a land border with Turkey, one with Belarus, with Marocco and Russia. These borders are clearly more impenetrable, however, than the old ones. The German Consulate in St. Petersburg, for example, is not only responsible for immigration to Germany, since a Schengen visa is valid for the entire EU. And on the subject of borders: political conflicts occasionally focus almost symbolically on geographically very small border areas. The pressure rises, and walls must be built, such as between Israel and Palestine, between the USA and Mexico, and now the EU has such an area, too, that is a display of the deep chasm which the inner stability of the EU engenders between itself and the outside.

The outpost Ceuta in Marocco is one of the shamefully neglected blemishes on the other face of the EU. You can only be ashamed of things you know about. Ceuta was and is in the news, just like the graveyard that the Mediterranean more and more turns into. But what about the more silent procedures related to the newly won freedom of movement of EU citizens? One of the young actresses of Pokoleniy was refused a visa by the German authorities in summer 2009, although she visited the consulate in charge in St. Petersburg four times. She was never given a reason. Based on her previous experience with Russian authorities, the young woman interpreted this incident as a risk to her personal freedom and mobility, as an attack on her person. The news will not reflect experiences like these.

Work in theater can overcome borders, or undermine them. Against all odds, many nations are gathered around this table, sharing their views and experiences. But even the good old cup of coffee points to financial and cultural differences. There is still a lot of work here waiting to be done.

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