Mapping past and present memory [EN]

[Version française]

Mapping Memory is the project of a collective of Asian people in Berlin. The aim of this initiative is to bring to light the presence and memory of people of Asian origin in the city of Berlin by collecting testimonies, memories, experiences that come in the form of texts of different literary forms, various images that invite us to discover, through intimate and family histories, what Asian people who live and grew up in Berlin actually experience. These are voices of the second generation who question their place in German society and their way of integrating their family and cultural heritage into the everyday landscape.

There are several interesting things to notice, to consider the choices and what they might mean or tell.

Firstly, unlike many works of memory on the diasporas, it is not a question of recounting history as such, that of previous generations. If, of course, the aspect of legacy and transmission is there, it is approached and presented in terms of its traces and effects on the present. This is a clear indication of the change in mentality of the new generations, who are not simply nostalgic about the past, but are seeking to interpret and appropriate it.

It is therefore not a question of mapping distant history, as some necessary and still too few initiatives can do (which offer other historical narratives of places, bringing to the fore the experience of social groups minoritized by the dominant and hegemonic vision of history), it is a question of mapping the “present” memory, in the sense that we are talking about the one experienced by the new generations. And the testimonies clearly show to what extent this memory of the children of immigrants is also always charged with traditions, cultural questioning and migratory paths of the parents to be valued, as the categorization shows.

The second aspect to focus on is the categorization chosen to navigate through these experiences: Denkmal/Memorials; Empowerment; Essen/Food; Generationen/Generations.

Places of memory are important places for people because of their cultural aspect. They are cemeteries, temples, special monuments that mark the memory. They are landmarks, points of return in which one invests. “To invest” refers here to the expenditure of a certain amount of energy to create and maintain a tie between the place and the memory, between the object and the symbol. This reminds us of the extent to which memory, culture and identity need material supports. This can, at the very least, be materialized by a restaurant, a plot of land or any place that recalls the elsewhere, the other-place that is not there but is invoked and performed in the present here. Several studies show how communities in diaspora seek to recreate a world that is both similar and different from the society they left behind. The famous Chinatown or Little Saigon testify to this. What is interesting in the experiences presented here is to see the diversity and subjectivity of the places of memory, the uses and meanings that can be given to them. Each relationship to a culture, a place is different and evolves over time. One can ask oneself for example how a trip to Vietnam (or any country of origin) with all that it brings as new experiences can then modify the memory and even the consciousness that one has of a place. I know that after living in Vietnam for several years, I pay much more attention to the tiny incursions of Vietnam in the French or Western public space in general. I notice the restaurants, the ways of being, the way the space is organized or not, by contrast.

The second category puts forward the concept of empowerment. It consists in highlighting the strength, the accomplishments of individuals as well as of communities that are often invisibilized, minoritized. Especially for Asian communities, which are represented through the model minority scheme, it is a question of presenting discourses that go against the image of docile, submissive, victimized people. It is a question of revalorizing people and cultures by demonstrating that common as well as singular experiences prove as much merit and value as the dominant models of success. By highlighting the struggles, the efforts, the sacrifices or the creativity of generations that integrate as best they can, we offer a new perspective that should inspire respect, pride, courage and hope. We understand all the more the interest of sharing these memories. The goal is to nourish a strength, a solidarity that can be lacking when we are isolated or when our voices are silenced.

The third category lists memories related to food, cooking. This is not surprising and a few words can be said about it too. Along with language, culinary savoir-faire is one of the few things that our parents or ancestors can take away and share on a daily basis. It is therefore, through what researchers call ordinary inculcation, a privileged vector in cultural transmission. At the individual and family level then, food is something that is concrete, easy to transmit and above all… delicious and symbolically rewarding. For many, cooking is also one of the few skills that is easy to value in the West, and this may explain why many families turn to the restaurant business. It is also a community space, a place of reunion, of exchange, a reference point for the communities. Finally, the kitchen is the privileged gateway for cultural exchanges, with all the delicate aspects that this can entail. Westerners are interested in Asia through food, which can have the advantage of familiarizing them with the taste, certain customs, and the sound of the language by including certain terms and names of dishes, for example. For this reason, it seems obvious that these places linked to food are anchor points for memory. Because we return to them regularly, because we see in them, as we have said, a miniature space of a culture to which we have little or no access; and because food is often associated with important figures (the mother, the grandmother), our memories of them are all the stronger.

The vision we have of previous generations is a category which, like the others, is not exclusive but overlaps with others. The memory we have of a place is a memory that is partly inherited, narrated, negotiated, questioned by and with or against our parents, or grandparents. There is no need here to dwell on the meaning of this category, which is already reflected in the previous ones. We can simply say that such a project can be read as a form of tribute to those who preceded us.

Finally, a last comment can be made on the panethnic aspect of such a project. Panethnic here means that it is not limited to a single ethno-national community (Viet, Lao, Khmer, Chinese, etc.). There are several simple reasons for this, which are important to mention. The first is that some people have multiple ethno-cultural heritages themselves. The second is that people having grown up in a multicultural environment, it is easier and more natural to claim a “broad” identity than to defend stato-national identities. Secondly, the current political context invites solidarity between the different social groups, the different sub-communities. This is in addition to the fact that the identities chosen are also sometimes responses to the identities suffered. Thus the very broad Asian category, if it encloses and reduces the diversity it contains, can, when politicized and directed autonomously, also open and nourish this diversity.

Hoping that these few lines will have made you want to know more, the site is, I remind you, in German and English:

Cartographier nos mémoires passées et présentes

[English version]

Mapping Memory est le projet d’un collectif de personnes asiatiques de Berlin. Le but de cette initiative est de visibiliser la présence et la mémoire des personnes d’origne asiatique dans la ville de Berlin en collectant des témoignages, des souvenirs, des expériences qui prennent la forme de textes de différentes formes littéraires, d’images diverses qui invitent à découvrir, par l’intime et l’histoire familiale, ce que vivent les personnes asiatiques qui vivent et grandissent à Berlin. Il s’agit donc des voix des deuxièmes générations qui se questionnent sur leur place dans la société allemande, et sur la manière d’intégrer leur héritage familial et culturel au paysage du quotidien.

On peut remarquer plusieurs choses intéressantes, s’interroger sur les choix et ce qu’ils peuvent signifier ou dire.

Premièrement, contrairement à de nombreux travaux de mémoire sur les diasporas, il ne s’agit pas de raconter l’histoire en tant que telle, celle des générations précédentes. Si, bien évidemment, l’aspect d’héritage et de transmission est présent, il est abordé et présenté sous l’angle des traces et des effets qu’il laisse dans le présent. Cela est manifeste du changement de mentalité des nouvelles générations qui ne sont pas dans une simple nostalgie face au passé mais dans une quête d’interprétation, d’appropriation.

Il s’agit donc de cartographier non pas l’histoire lointaine, comme peuvent le faire certaines initiatives nécessaires et encore trop peu nombreuses (qui offrent d’autres narrations historiques de lieux, remettant en avant l’expérience des groupes sociaux minorisés par la vision dominante de l’histoire), il s’agit de cartographier la mémoire “présente” au sens où l’on parle de celle vécue par les nouvelles générations. Et les témoignages montrent bien à quel point cette mémoire d’enfants de personnes immigrées est alors aussi toujours chargée de traditions, de questionnements culturels et de parcours migratoires des parents à valoriser, comme le montre la catégorisation.

Le second aspect sur lequel on peut s’attarder est donc la catégorisation choisie pour naviguer à travers ces expériences : Denkmal/Memorials ; Empowerment ; Essen/Food ; Generationen/Generations.

Les lieux de mémoire sont des lieux importants pour les personnes en raison de leur aspect culturel. Ce sont des cimetières, des temples, des monuments particuliers qui marquent la mémoire. Ils sont des points de repère, des points de retour dans lesquels on investit. Investir veut dire ici que l’on dépense une certaine énergie pour créer et maintenir un lien entre le lieu et le souvenir, entre l’objet et le symbole. Cela nous rappelle à quel point la mémoire, la culture et l’identité qui s’y rattachent ont besoin de supports matériels. Cela peut, à minima, se matérialiser par un restaurant, un coin de jardin ou tout endroit qui rappelle l’ailleurs, le lieu-autre qui n’est pas là mais qui est invoqué et performé dans l’ici. Plusieurs travaux montrent comment des communautés en diaspora cherchent ainsi à se recréer un monde, à la fois similaire et différent de la société quittée. Les fameux Chinatown ou Little Saigon en témoignent. Ce qui est intéressant dans les expérience présentées ici est de voir la diversité et la subjectivité des lieux de mémoire, des usages et des sens qu’on peut leur donner. Chaque rapport à une culture, un lieu est différent et évolue avec le temps aussi. On peut se demander par exemple comment un voyage au Vietnam (ou tout pays d’origine) avec tout ce qu’il apporte comme expériences nouvelles peut alors modifier la mémoire et même la conscience que l’on a d’un lieu. Je sais qu’après avoir vécu plusieurs années au Vietnam, je fais beaucoup plus attention aux infimes incursions du Vietnam dans l’espace public français ou occidental en général. Je remarque les restaurants, les manières d’être, la manière dont l’espace est organisé ou pas, par contraste.

La deuxième catégorie met en avant ce qui se traduit parfois en français par “empuissantement” ou “empuissanter” pour sa forme verbiale, bien que le concept en lui-même soi aussi utilisé en anglais pour le substantif (et l’on voit que les Allemands ont gardé cette forme aussi). Cela consiste à mettre en avant la force, les accomplissements des individus comme des communautés qui sont souvent invisibilisés, minorisées. D’autant plus pour les communautés asiatiques qui sont représentées à travers le schème de la minorité modèle, il s’agit de proposer des discours qui vont contre l’image de personnes dociles, soumises, victimes. Il s’agit de revaloriser les personnes et les cultures en montrant que les expériences communes autant que singulières montrent autant de mérite, de valeur que les modèles de réussite dominants. Par la mise en avant des combats, des efforts, des sacrifices ou de la créativité des générations qui s’intègrent comme elles peuvent, on offre un nouveau regard qui doit inspirer le respect, la fierté, le courage, l’espoir. On comprend alors d’autant plus l’intérêt de partager ces souvenirs. Le but est bien de nourrir une force, une solidarité dont on peut manquer en étant isolé ou quand nos voix sont silenciées.

La troisième catégorie répertorie les souvenirs liés à la nourriture, à la cuisine. Ce n’est pas étonnant et on peut en dire aussi quelques mots. Avec la langue, le savoir-faire culinaire est une des rares choses que nos parents ou ancêtres peuvent emporter et partager au quotidien. C’est donc, par ce que des appelleent l’inculcation ordinaire, un vecteur privilégié dans la transmission culturelle. À l’échelle individuelle et familiale alors, la nourriture est quelque chose qui est concret, facile à transmettre et surtout… délicieux et symboliquement valorisant. Pour beaucoup, la cuisine est aussi ainsi une des rares compétences qu’il est facile de valoriser en occident, et cela peut expliquer que de nombreuses familles se tournent vers la restauration. C’est aussi un espace communautaire, un lieu de retrouvailles, d’échange, un point de repère pour les communautés. Enfin, la cuisine est la porte d’entrée privilégiée pour les échanges culturels, avec tous les aspects délicats que cela peut entraîner. Les occidentaux s’intéressent ainsi à l’Asie par la nourriture, ce qui peut avoir l’avantage de les familiariser au goût, à certaines coutumes, à une sonorité de la langue par l’inclusion de certains termes et noms de plats, par exemple. Pour cette raison, il paraît évident que ces lieux liés à la nourriture soient des points d’ancrage de la mémoire. Parce qu’on y revient régulièrement, parce qu’on y voit comme on l’a dit un espace miniature d’une culture à laquelle on a, par ailleurs, pas ou peu accès ; et parce que la nourriture est souvent associée à des figures importantes (la mère, la grand-mère), nos souvenirs sont d’autant plus forts les concernant.

Le regard que nous avons sur les générations précédentes est une catégorie qui, comme les autres, n’est pas exclusive mais en recoupe d’autres. La mémoire que nous avons d’un lieu est une mémoire en partie héritée, racontée, négociée, interrogée par et avec ou contre nos parents, nos grand-parents. Nul besoin ici de s’étendre sur ce que signifie cette catégorie qui transparaît déjà dans les précédentes. On pourra dire simplement qu’un tel projet peut être lu comme une forme d’hommage à celles et ceux qui nous précèdent.

Enfin, un dernier commentaire peut être fait sur l’aspect panéthnique d’un tel projet. Panéthique ici signifie qu’il n’est pas borné à une seule communauté éthno-nationale (Viet, Lao, Khmer, Chinois, etc.). Cela s’explique par plusieurs raisons assez simples mais qu’il est important de rappeler. La première est que certaines personnes ont elles-mêmes de multiples héritages ethno-culturels. La seconde est que les personnes ayant grandi dans un environnement multiculturel, c’est plus facile et plus naturel de se revendiquer d’une identité “large” que de vouloir défendre des identités stato-nationales. Ensuite, le contexte politique actuel invite à des solidarités entre les différents groupes sociaux, les différentes sous-communautés. Cela s’ajoute au fait que les identités choisies sont aussi parfois des réponses aux identités subies. Ainsi la catégorie Asiatique, très large, si elle enferme et réduit la diversité qu’elle contient, peut, quand elle est politisée et dirigée de manière autonome, aussi ouvrir et nourrir cette diversité.

En espérant que ces quelques lignes vous auront donné envie d’en savoir plus, le site est, je le rappelle, en allemand et en anglais, de quoi inspirer d’autres projets, partout ailleurs !

Pour en savoir un peu plus sur la communauté vietnamienne en Allemagne, vous pouvez lire cet article :
Dépasser les clivages historico-politiques ? [Note de lecture]

Hiếu – Richard Van [EN]

Hiếu is a short film by director Richard Van, named after the character he briefly portrays. This snapshot of life provides an opportunity to showcase several aspects, aspirations specific to people of Vietnamese origin, several characteristics that I would like to dwell on for a few moments by focusing on three images, three key moments in the film.

American Dream

Must be a millionaire right?

In this picture we see Hiếu from behind, facing a group of Vietnamese Americans who came to listen to him. He is looking to recruit “collaborators” for his business of selling any kind of products, in this case, probably food products. He questions several people from his audience and asks them three things: what job they do, since when and if they have become millionaires. In this scene, we have a condensed version of the “American dream” in both its classic and modern versions, if any difference is relevant. Like many migrants, arriving in a new country means “starting from scratch”, a loss of economic and social capital. The priority for all the first generation is therefore to find a job in order to provide for their primary needs and to be able to pass on to the next generation the financial means to “take off” socially.
We see, among the characters who come to listen to our protagonist, rather old men and women who have low-skilled jobs with low wages: worker, employee, esthetician, etc.

It is interesting to note that solidarity within the community is also staged. For practical reasons, because one speaks the same language, because one has the same background, because one has been put in touch with trusted acquaintances, etc., one can hope to rely on one’s community members to do business.You can expect to rely on the members of your community to do business. It was this sense of solidarity that drew the audience to hear a Vietnamese man talk about money-making opportunities (and also the lure of money). This feeling also has its limits, since once the presentation is over, nobody seems convinced.

There is a sense of the fallen American dream in the staging of these people. These people have come to listen to a speech to earn money because they aspire, because they have aspired to become rich by living in one of the richest countries in the world. On the other side, there is a smooth talker who tries to convince himself as much as his audience that he can still get rich thanks to a new pyramid business system. We later learn that he has no place to sleep. In short, he is a loser and this is what makes this film so interesting. It succeeds in bringing a fairly accurate vision of this situation, which is neither that of the poverty of the migrant unable to integrate nor that of the luxurious abundance of the self-made man, who stands out from the model minority, and whose success proves the efficiency of the social system. We are here exactly between the two, showing how long and difficult economic integration is, how much sacrifice is required and how even when we incorporate the discourse and practices of the most “modern” businesses, nothing is guaranteed. In short, here, it is a question of connecting the situation of this person as an immigrant, with his or her initial capital and aspirations, but also as a member of a social class that goes beyond his or her origin and maintains a mass of people in the precariousness depicted.

Being eager to “come back there”

Dung asked me if I was going back there


From the very beginning of the film, one of the most popular songs from southern Vietnam, Sài Gòn đẹp lắm, serves as a pretext to trigger a discussion about Vietnam left behind at the time of exile with, without fully stating it. It is an obvious one, the tension between nostalgia and longing for return for the man and a kind of indifference and contempt on the part of his wife. Is this the reason for their separation? In any case, the two characters will continue to embody these two ideals, these two opposing relationships to Vietnam or the United States, as can be seen in this image in the kitchen.

The film holds this tension experienced and embodied by Hiếu who does not find his place here in the United States and wonders if he would be better off returning to his native country. A few years later, when he visits his wife and son, he shares this lingering doubt. He shares with his ex-wife the example of a comrade who returned “over there”.

This “over there” which is evident for him, does not evoke anything anymore for her though, who, at least in appearance, does not understand of which place he speaks. This is very powerful and shows once again how two imaginations, two postures oppose each other. For him, Vietnam is so present in his life here, that if he speaks of a return of any kind it is necessarily there. For her, this country she left no longer exists and there is no question of considering setting foot on this now unknown territory. She embodies integration and somehow oblivion, or at least acceptance, as emphasized by her new white companion.

This tension that opposes them is not as binary and frontal as one might think. The man, who is looking for his place, is summoned by his ex-wife to recover the last things he left at her place. Between the two of them, let’s not forget to mention the son, Brian, who also embodies this tension between these two parental poles.

I’m gonna go, okay?


The last scene is very tense. Locked in the room and not responding, his ex-wife and their son imagine the worst. Once they enter the room, they find him asleep. Sorry, he resigns himself to leave. Go where? Go back to that friend he’s been squatting with? Go back to Vietnam like Dung? We don’t know exactly, this sentence means anything.

He accepts his situation, he gives up his dreams, he lets it up.

There are obviously many more filmic elements to analyze, but these are the main ones that deal with this dynamic of memory and identity in the American diasporic context.

If you haven’t seen it yet:

Memory work and Memory load (2) – [Research notes]

Having defined what the memory load was in broad terms, we can ask ourselves how it manifests itself in more detail.

There is an injunction to take care of memory work, an implicit norm that consists in valuing memory work in general and which pushes to take responsibility for the memory duty in particular for the people concerned. There is an implicit notion which states that knowing one’s origins is an important, necessary and good thing. Our societies value national, regional or local heritages and reinforce the idea that one must know their past, their history, know where they come from. On an individual level, the notion of identity pushes us to value our backgrounds and the backgrounds of our families to incorporate them into our personal identities. This is even more true for people with a so-called “immigrant background”.
My hypothesis concerning this concept of memory load consists in asserting the fact that for populations of immigrant origin, this memory load is more significant and results, perhaps particularly in France, from a double contradictory injunction: the need to know your family history as explained before, but also the difficulty and sometimes the impossibility, the refusal to value this heritage. This is specific to the second and subsequent generations who, unlike the first generations, are already more or less integrated into the host society. This raises the question of when and how the duty to remember begins, and who bears the burden? One could simplify by saying that the first generation does not bear the burden of the duty to remember but rather the duty to create the conditions for the integration of their children, and if there is a duty of transmission, one can ask to what extent it is different from the duty to remember of the younger generations.

The question of the memory load invites us to ask ourselves the question of who carries the load, and how this load is transmitted or relieved. Sometimes this burden is too heavy to carry and can be denied, rejected, abandoned, for a more or less long time. This memory load can also skip generations.

It seems obvious (but this is where we have to prove the obvious) that people of French origin born in France will not carry this memory load, since the work of remembrance is carried out by institutions, particularly schools.

We also need to distinguish the memory load from its racial components; the two overlap but are not entirely the same.

The memory load is the weight of the debt we owe to the generations before us. This debt is constituted by sacrifices, silences and taboos that were necessary for us to grow up in better conditions than them.

This debt, this memory load, we do not choose to pay it or not. We know, we have it in our blood, we want to pay it. At the same time, and this is the tension and the weight that weighs, this debt is impossible to pay.

In the same way, this memory load is infinite. Not that it can never be lightened, one can come to find peace and serenity by appropriating one’s history. But one can never entirely get rid of the weight of the voids, the lacks, the absences that are proper to all histories. One could even say that this burden becomes lighter as we become aware of its weight, as we accept that we do not have to carry it indefinitely.

It is perhaps always too late to start and always too late to finish a work of memory that has no limits other than those we give ourselves. We are always behind history which, by definition, is already past. We must accept the frustration of not knowing, of not being able to understand, of not being able to live these experiences that precede us and make us. There is something existential about wanting to witness one’s own creation, it is an indecipherable enigma. It is also always time to stop in this quest, in this investigation, when what we find does not do more than lose us.

The memory load is both a desire to know, a libido sciendi, as well as a need to find a place in a common history. The memory load manifests itself and takes on meaning only in a particular social and political context where memory is precisely lacking. It is in this way a shout that claims its right to exist and that demands the means to achieve it, to maintain itself as part of a whole. This shout is a shout of rage, of anger but also a shout of alert. It puts the others in front of the danger of forgetting, in front of the complexity of the common history. It is a cry that calls for help to carry the weight of a complex and diverse history.

The memory load is the space occupied by the questions, the issues related to one’s history. It is the energy spent to do a job that is not taken in charge by society, sometimes even against it.