jc travels

A year in Berlin, looking back

Today is a special day for me. Today marks my 1 year anniversary since moving to Berlin. It may not sound like much at all, but to me – it’s a pretty big deal. In the past year, I have experienced and grown so much – far more than I could have ever fathomed I would one year ago. I’m still having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that this time last year, I was unpacking into my first apartment, living the Auslanderbehörde nightmare, typing piles of government paperwork into Google Translate, and stuffing my face with döner kebaps after a year of miserable separation. Oh, how time flies.

The first thing people always ask me is, “Why Berlin?” Simple question, difficult answer. I would often find myself answering with something specific enough to be relevant, but still sort of vague – left open-ended and up for interpretation. Because to be honest, I didn’t really have an answer.

“The people are cool.”

“Work is fun.”

“Lots of creativity here.”

“It’s pretty centrally located.”

I tried to write about it 6 months ago when I reached my half-year point, but found myself struggling for words. I had something written, but I never shared it because it didn’t feel right. What I’ve learned is that sometimes, it’s just better not to put abstract, evolving feelings into the confines of words. I wouldn’t want to compromise the integrity of something that I believe to be more profound than what I am able to communicate. So at the time, it just made more sense to leave everything unspoken.

And because today we’ve come full circle back to August 26th, I find myself wanting to revisit this topic. To seek solidarity with a question that I was never able to answer. I’d like to think that I’ve found the answer and that I’m much wiser now. But the truth of the matter is that while I do think I have a better grasp of what this place means to me and why it means so much – it’s still not clear, it’s still not definitive. Because probably another 6 months down the line, I’ll reread this and have a completely different stance then. But that’s okay – that’s part of the beauty of this city. Allow me to explain.

Berlin is a transient city. People come and go, shops open then disappear, the season changes are drastic yet pass before you can fully indulge in it. Which is why this city is so captivating. The fleeting, ever-changing character of it is what makes Berlin forever fluid, alive, and relevant.

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Berlin is a diverse city. People from all corners of the world gather here. For many, it’s something like a short-lived fling. A stop in the road. Then you’ll find the ones who were born and raised here – “real Berliners” as some would call them – the ones who’ve been around long enough to witness the city’s metamorphosis over the decades. But what everyone here has is a story. And each person I’ve come across has a different one. And it’s so refreshing. Every encounter has been nothing short of an enlightening experience – meeting people from all over the world and hearing their narrative of what brought them here. Whether it be struggles they were running away from or opportunities they were running towards. Or maybe they don’t know what they want, and Berlin seemed to be the only place they believed they would find it. Whatever it is, it’s always something new. And it’s always humbling. As I learn to expand my scope of understanding and level of empathy for other people, I learn to appreciate how small I really am in the grand scheme of things. That there is so much more out there beyond myself, what I know, and what I want to believe. To appreciate the things I had overlooked, to openly embrace the concept that things will inevitably change without my control, that this earth and all it offers is meant to be shared, and to see life beyond what the material world pressures me to see.

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But Berlin is also a unified city. Because it’s an artistic city. Art manifests itself in so many different forms here – pop up galleries, underground art exhibitions, impromptu jam sessions on the streets, culinary gatherings, international street food markets, open spaces for meditation and discussion, the bold yet monochromatic wardrobe. Trash turned into interior design, handmade goods sold at local flea markets, abandoned warehouses reclaimed as event spaces. I could go on. But what makes Berlin really unique is the pervasiveness of art in the lifestyle of those who live here. People’s lives are centered around it, because one of the most telling parts of Berlin’s culture is the events that make art so accessible. To not treat it as a removed, external accessory of life – but as a source of enlightenment, an outlet for expression, a foundation for community.

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For music and food lovers – things like “Burgers and Hip Hop” or “Thai and Techno” exist, combining the best of both worlds. Or open-house dinners, where people passionate about cooking open up their kitchen and home, welcoming anyone and everyone to come and share that with them. For active souls – free community yoga sessions, general training meet-up groups at the local park, people eager to meet you for a short weekend excursion. And at almost any public space, you’re bound to find people playing music, singing (and often times, dancing) together, strangers or not. Whatever you find, it’s like a reviving breath of fresh air. Berlin does an effortless job of bringing life’s simple beauties together. And by doing so, the people surrounding it – different as they may come – are brought together, as well. Strangers here, well, they don’t really feel like strangers.

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Berlin is a healthy city. Where family still remains as a core value. A society that doesn’t think twice about helping a neighbor who is just down on their luck. Where fundamental human rights are actually seen as rights, not a conditional privilege or a tangible commodity that can be purchased. Where attention is not sought out for, but given. A general mentality that doesn’t revolve around money, status, or power. A demographic without the stark contrast between the rich and the poor. A place where people hold modest, uncomplicated lifestyles in such high regard. That as long as the intrinsic values of life are there, things are good. And that’s enough. Where the ultimate goal is to find peace of mind, whatever that may mean, and a space that will let you nurture and grow it. It’s a beautiful thing.

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fleamarket

bartender

But my love for Berlin goes beyond the city itself. This is the place where it all started. Berlin embodies a hopeful leap of faith, a risk of leaving everything behind, a new life. It was here that I learned the difference between being alone vs. being lonely, about how small I am in relation to our world, about what it takes for me to be happy, about the intimidating amount of things I need to learn to become the person I want to be.

This year has been an ultimate test to my capacity for being self-reliant, flexible, and prepared for failure and moments of doubt. What I’ve learned is, it’s not so much about picking up and moving to the other side of the world. It’s about having the courage to push the boundaries, challenge yourself to make a change in your life, and then commit to it. To really see what you’re capable of and your capacity to grow – not necessarily even to be the “best” you can be, but to be the most “you” you can be. Which I guess, now that I think about it – is actually the same thing.

I made this choice not only because I love to travel and am curious about the world – but also because I needed to find out who I am, independent of the many superfluous conveniences of living in California, independent of relying on others for happiness, independent of the fear to ask questions that are too difficult to answer.

I like the idea that nobody really knows me here. There aren’t any predefined “cookie cutter” forms that people can just drop me into. Growing up in the Bay Area, I feel like it’s very easy to generalize – especially with Asian Americans. And to a certain extent, a lot of it is true. But here, I like being the minority. Inevitably, coming with that does mean that I face more prejudice and tactless comments from time to time. But, I prefer that over someone assuming they know me or that I’m “just like everyone else”. Here, I define myself. The world doesn’t define me. I am 100% my own person. And it’s an immensely liberating feeling.

So. Here we are, 1 year later, and you know? I really like where I am.

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This is a line from a post I wrote this exact day last year, when I was on the plane, en route to Berlin.

“Prost, to new beginnings! To the first day, of many, spent learning how to make Berlin home.”

The question is, have I learned to make Berlin “home”?

Where does one call home?

For the past 3 years, I’ve been living a rather nomadic lifestyle – settling down somewhere, packing everything up, going somewhere new. Rinse and repeat. There were definitely periods where I would literally live out of my suitcase for weeks at a time. Will I just spend the rest of my life floating from place to place until I reach some sort of conclusive epiphany?

Here’s a snippet of something that I was writing to myself not too long ago (I do that from time to time, haha):

There’s this word in German, “fernweh”, which essentially means having a sense of homesickness for somewhere you’ve never been – a feeling I had been feeling for a quite a while. So I’d pack my bags and go somewhere. And I’d do it, over and over again. But where does this feeling stem from?

I’ve come to believe that the root of it is from the innate human desire to search for a genuine connection – whether it be with a person, a place, or a thing. Something in you that wants to feel something far and beyond just ‘belonging’, but a more profound, intangible concept. An underlying curiosity about the world around you and how things could be, a pursuit for answers in which you may not even know the question, to chase an instinct you don’t know if you should trust.

For this romantic idea that while seemingly ephemeral and inconclusive, doesn’t really feel so distant.

As I’m writing this, I’m on the bus back to Berlin from Prague – a bumpy, 5 hour ride with stiff seats, no leg room, and terrible German pop tracks playing in the background. But it’s comfortable – it’s something that I’ve grown used to and find solace in. The feeling of going somewhere. And it is only now that I realize that home is not just one stationary place for me. I find home in the journey of going places. I find home in my parents’ love. In the company of like-minded individuals, when I’m alone with my guitar, in a certain song, in the smell of freshly tumble-dried laundry, and probably many more things. Although some are seemingly unimportant and mundane in their own individual regard, these are the kinds of things that make me feel safe and I guess, ‘at home’. Home is whatever you want it to be; you just have to keep your eyes open and be willing to notice it.

It took me 1 year, 5600 miles, and a lot of unexplained nostalgia to come to terms with this.

So, back to the question – “Why Berlin?”

I guess it was always so difficult to answer because it was really never just about ‘a place’. Berlin is the one place I feel can never be defined. The heart of this city is one that is endlessly beating with curiosity, always striving to be more, constantly changing and growing with the inhales and exhales of all the souls that pass through it. A heart that parallels mine.

4 comments
  1. x says: August 26, 201511:30 pm

    i’ve pored over every word of this, reading and rereading every single sentence. every single word and picture are absolutely beautifully eloquent, meaningful, and gave me the sense of ‘fernweh’ at every step of the way. i’m trying my best to convey exactly how profound and beautiful this read is and im struggling. but perhaps ill leave it as this: the beauty of your words are an accurate reflection of your soul, and anyone who reads this is absolutely lucky to have had a glimpse. thank you, and i hope you find what you’re looking for. i can sense that it is not so distant at all.

    • Jacqueline says: August 27, 201512:47 pm

      :’) Thank you.

  2. Jen says: August 28, 201510:26 pm

    beautiful and inspiring. so proud of you. :*)

  3. Jacqueline says: September 5, 20151:35 am

    :) I hope you can visit me here sometime soon, Jen! I miss you.

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