The in-betweenness of things

image: Sandra Henke

My brain works, thinks, and dreams in three languages these days: English, German, and Swedish. All three languages know the same expression. It’s about being in-between, neither fish nor fowl, weder Fisch noch Fleisch, varken fågel eller fisk. The image they use is the one of two chairs, or stools. In German, you sit between the chairs (zwischen den Stühlen sitzen), same in Swedish, you sitter mellan två stolar. In English, the expression has more urgency, in a way. You either fall between two stools, or you are caught between them. So the relatively neutral act of sitting becomes something that is beyond your control.

Apart from historic reasons and general linguistic and cultural similarities, I guess the reason why this expression exists in all three languages is that it refers to a universal human experience. People have been caught between two stools since, well, day One I guess because wherever there is humans, there is love and conflict and emotions and relations, i.e. situations where you might end up in-between - in between people, lines, cultures, languages, religions etc. Still, I think that nowadays, the experience of in-betweenness has become even more prevalent and refers to all aspects of life but often with a strong geographical and cultural component. If we look at the masses of people moving across the globe, travelling, migrating, fleeing, seeking, nearly 260 million people on the move, and if we also consider the hundreds of millions of people who have traveled, migrated, fled, sought, been displaced over the past decades, searching for a new home far away from their own, then I think it is fair to say that this sort of in-betweenness is an even more all-encompassing experience these days, a big, complex, challenging, human experience crossing boundaries of space, culture, identity and social status. I talk about it and connect over it with people who moved to Sweden for high-paid jobs, people who went to the best universities and enjoy every possible privilege. And I talk about it and connect over it with the boys downstairs, underage refugees from Afghanistan who hardly went to school and are worth nothing in the eyes of the government.

It occurred to me while I was living in Copenhagen not so long ago that life in Scandinavia gave me something that Germany could not – a sense of in-betweenness that felt right. Despite all differences and peculiarities, Danish and Swedish culture are fairly similar to Germany. So it is relatively easy for me to find my way around, I know the cultural norms and codes, the way of thinking, I know how to dress and to act and to talk in order to be accepted and integrated, and I usually know how to navigate professional and private situations and interactions. The language, too, is very similar to German, lots of words are directly translatable, if not the same, and even figures of speech, jokes, and metaphors are often congruent. And yet, I am clearly an outsider. People will ask me where I am from and that seems like a logical, justifiable question because I am obviously not from Sweden. People will treat me like a foreigner and that is OK because I am one. In Germany, on the other hand, I experience these things and they are disturbing because it is the country where they are not supposed to happen. If someone in Germany speaks to me in English or dummy-German or asks intrusive questions about my origin although it is absolutely clear that German is my mother tongue, it perpetuates the notion of me being different, an outsider, someone whose existence cannot be embraced before it hasn’t been explained.

I live my life in between, and I always have. I came whole into this world but my fate was separation and my mother had begun to let go of me long before I even saw the light (and dark) of this world. She gave birth to me by C-section, so I wonder sometimes if she ever held me, kissed me, looked into my face, or if I was being taken away straight after I’d been pulled out of her womb. I’ll probably never know, and what difference would it make? The months after I was born, all food I ate was Korean, all the sounds I heard were Korean, the smells I smelled were Korean, the faces I saw were Korean, until everything changed suddenly, inexplicably, entirely. Only a few months old, I found myself in a new home at the other end of the world, with German parents and a German brother, surrounded my German food, sounds, smells, faces. And so it began.

I tried to find belonging in social settings but it rarely went beyond a fleeting sense of community, a faint taste of what could be, if. At the root of all this, I suppose, lies the fact that I was never German enough to be a German, and never Korean enough to be Korean. I am both and neither. I grew up as part of a family, a culture, a country and still always had to explain myself, to justify myself, to defend myself. I’ve lived like a chameleon, always changing colors, depending on my environment. I fit in everywhere and nowhere. I caught glimpses of so many ways how to be in this world but I was never hippie enough to be a hippie, never radical enough to be an activist, never courageous enough to be a traveler, never artsy enough to be an artist, never spiritual enough to be a rainbow child, never musical enough to be a musician, never druggy enough to be a disco girl, never ambitious enough to be an academic, never ecological enough to be an environmentalist, although I have been a little bit of all, at some point or the other. I always longed for acceptance, for recognition, for belonging but as soon as a space opened, a chance to actually get what I wished for, I went into hiding, retreated, withdrew, excluded myself until I was (again) what I always felt I was – an outsider. You are different, you don’t belong here I would tell myself until the words transformed into emotions and the emotions turned into reality, a reality in which I did not belong. Self-fulfilling prophecy one may call it, a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true, by the very terms of the prophecy itself, due to positive feedback between belief and behavior, this is how Wikipedia puts it.

Mutter Sprache

Ich habe mich in mich verwandelt von Augenblick zu Augenblick

in Stücke zersplittert auf dem Wortweg

Mutter Sprache setzt mich zusammen


I tried to find home in languages but all I found was, once more, in-betweenness. Rose Ausländer, my favorite poet whose words are tattooed across my arm, has the duality of language and home as one of the central motifs in her work. She wrote poetry in German and English, much of it while being in exile in the United States, and she refers to language as a mother, with everything that term encompasses and invokes. Each of her beautiful poems has a whole new dimension if you notice how her choice of language is connected to both the external circumstances of her life and the fate of the world in general. Home is a word infused with so much meaning and the German language manages beautifully to embrace this whole diversity of meaning. First and foremost, it distinguishes between Heimat and Zuhause. Zuhause is the place where you live, it may occasionally have some sort of emotional aspect to it but simply translates as “home” or “being home”. Heimat on the other hand invokes this whole image of the place you come from, the place you long for when you’re lost, the place you romanticize and idealize, and that stands for safety, rootedness, care, and belonging – like a mother does (my dilemma is that I can make a home for myself pretty much anywhere but that place called Heimat doesn't exist; and Heimweh (homesickness) and Fernweh (distant sickness, if you translate it literally) are the same thing for me). There is also heim and heimisch and daheim and heimwärts and nachhause and more, and all of them translate as… home. But then again, there are English words and expressions that I adore which sound stiff or cheesy or artificial in German. And then there is Swedish, a language so dry and so tender, a language you have to sing more than speak, and now that I am able to read the Moomins and Petterson and Astrid Lindgren in their original version, I can see how much there gets lost in translation. In every language, I am a slightly different version of myself. In English I am kinder and more caring, in German more self-confident and pensive, my Swedish is not yet good enough to shape a distinct version of myself but I can sense that I might be a more straight-forward and humorous person. And thus, subtly, it is not only me but the world itself that is slightly different depending on which linguistic lens I look through.

So rather than home, I feel alienation because I live in between languages and it starts to feel like none of them can ever grasp the world and existence in all its shades and colors. But perhaps that is simply a problem of language per se that becomes very tangible as soon as you get access to more than one language, more than one world that that language is able to grasp.

I started out to write a text about in-betweenness and ended up writing a text about (be-)longing and home. In-betweenness, belonging, home. I guess home and belonging are the things in-betweenness withholds, so I wrote about something that is not rather than something that is. Like wanting to write about trees and instead writing about what happens in the spaces between the trees. But that is the magic about the no-man’s-land of in-between: being in between things means occupying a unique space. The space between words. The space between worlds. The space between heartbeats. The space between notes. The space between the blinks of an eye. The space between the trees through which the light falls. The spaces between thoughts in which eternity is humming. Fleeting endless moments of silence, of breathless suspense when nothing is certain and everything is imaginable, blank spaces full of untold stories and glimmering possibilities. And these spaces, they are also connections. The spaces between words connect them to a sentence. The spaces between trees make the trees form a forest. The spaces between notes shape a melody. The bridge over a river connects two shores. The ass between two stools closes a gap, fills the space, creates a new unit.

While I was writing this post, Rebecca Solnit’s book “A field guide to getting lost” came into my mind (it often does because it contains some of the most beautiful, thoughtful and exquisite passages I ever read). Her reflections on the blue of distance weave like a blue thread throughout the book. She writes:

The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. (…) The blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue. (…) The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains. “Longing”, says the poet Robert Haas, “because desire is full of endless distances”. Blue is the color of longing for the distance you never arrive in, for the blue world.

This description fits perfectly into the trinity in-betweenness, (be-)longing, home because I yearn to reach this distant place at the far end of the horizon, to dissolve into the blue and find home; but I know deep down that that place doesn’t exist, that it is a mirage that will always remain at the horizon no matter how far I travel. But in the end, that is the most beautiful thing about it, right? This yearning makes me go on, move on, travel, seek, explore, dream, hope, fight and instead of despairing about the fact that I will never arrive there, it assures me that the place I am is the place I am supposed to be. In-between, wandering between worlds, always heading towards the horizon.

#RoseAusländer #RebeccaSolnit #travel #languages #Sweden #beloning #home #Fernweh #Heimweh

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