Smells Like Old Spirit

China! Have no idea how to write it down without rambling … but something deeply troubles me and there is no easy way around or out of it. It troubles me a lot, it creates a huge challenge and also brings a certain sense of helplessness.

In the West, we are very worried about the rise of authoritarianism in many places around the world, including in our midst. But there is another large elephant in the room – what about about the dilemma and conundrum of our dealings with the Communist government in China? The system and power which reminds the Chinese people who is in charge and plans to stay in charge and tells the rest of the world “Stay out of it if you want our business”. And, oh, we want and need that business.

If you are an American reading my blog, this has nothing to do with the current trade wars between the US and China because you may have noticed that the human rights, liberty and democracy question is not even on the table. All we hear is talk of money and superpower competition. If you are an Asian, you have your own strong opinions which I am familiar with after having lived in Southeast Asia for many years. It is always difficult to be the smaller and weaker neighbor next to a regional hegemony and world superpower. Just ask the people in Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, etc…

Remember Francis Fukuyama and his famous (or by now infamous?) 1989 thesis of The End of History? Well, this “end” is turning into the “same old, same old”. My personal strong emotions and reflections come from the fact that I still remember my childhood and the life in the USSR – a totally oppressive and repressive system – and for those  who know what it smells, tastes and feels like, there is a strong aversion to these kinds of manifestations of power, manipulation, abuse and denial of freedom.

I also remember the propaganda and how hard the Soviet regime tried to manufacture a pretty image of a happy society. especially to the outside world. And I sense such a familiar spirit when I think of China  and when I watch how carefully and masterfully it manufactures and lobbies its image around the world  as the most “peace loving, truthful, pragmatic, benevolent, long-term thinking, secure, wealth producing and well-wishing” government. There are too many cracks in this facade.

And through those cracks, if we care to know and look carefully, we know that all is not what it seems. But these days we have to look hard because we don’t hear these stories in our media. Every once in a while there may be an article about the oppression of ethnic Uighur, a primarily Muslim group in Xinjiang province. We can read the reports about “re-education” camps and massive abuses of human rights. Or we can read the stories about the escalating crackdown on personal religious freedom and religious groups . In case it has completely escaped your attention, read this article by the Washington Post.

It has nothing to do with my personal Chinese friends whom I love and cherish. It has nothing to do with the amazing culture, history, cuisine, hard work, entrepreneurship and simply amazing people and the beautiful country of China. I have been privileged to visit it and have my claim of having walked on the Great Wall. And I certainly hope to return because there is so much more to see and to learn.

But what about those things that the Chinese government does not want the rest of the world to see? Working very hard to keep this poster image and somehow succeeding. What about the proponents of the ‘liberalism’ theory of international relations which proposes that the Western liberal values will get planted and automatically bring fruit in places like China through closer ties, trade and co-operation? Is it really working out??? I wish it was. I am no expert on Chinese politics but from what I can hear, read and sense, instead of the liberal values gaining momentum, the system is cracking down and making another hard effort to convince the Chinese people and the rest of the world that exchanging your freedom, including your faith convictions, for some kind of national security, financial gain and state control is a perfectly good way for the future.

Last night I went to hear a lecture by an American historian Stephen Kotkin and few things he said triggered this post because it reminded why many things in our Western approach to Chinese “capitalist” communism does not sit well with me. The most important question is always the personal one – even if my government will not criticize and speak out against these massive human rights abuses, I do have a voice. Small and insignificant but a voice.

After the lecture I had two short conversations and one person used the example of a woodpecker – how it keeps pecking and pecking and pecking until the branch or even the whole tree is hollow enough to come down. I would like to borrow this metaphor. So, while churches are getting closed down, people jailed for all kinds of political, ideological and religious reasons and minority ethnic groups being “Sinicized” in China, we need to keep pecking and pecking… that it is not OK and that we refuse to accept it as the new ‘normal’.

 

Wrestling with the antisemitism of the past and of the present

I have wanted to write this for a while but kept postponing… and tried to understand why?! One of the simple explanations is that it is extremely difficult to write about national shame, inhumane ideologies, ordinary people with extraordinary hatred or indifference. It is difficult to say something about all of this without too many cliches, too much moralizing and too little personal reflection. But I will try to put my finger on a few very important and timely things…

November 30 is coming up and in Latvia it marks another remembrance day – the mass killings of Jewish people on November 30, 1941 in Rumbula forest near Riga. I don’t want to give the facts and statistics of how it happened or how many thousands got killed. There is plenty of information available online, plus I have written before how we as a society in Latvia are still in the process of talking about, reflecting upon and learning from these very painful and shameful events of our past.

In many ways here in Latvia we are on a very steep curve of learning and remembering while it seems that many people in Europe and around the world are on the downhill slope of unlearning and forgetting. Of course, not everyone in Latvia wants to know, to understand and to change their views or assumptions, but it is getting harder and harder to ignore it. There are more museums, more books, more media attention, more and more people who care to know.

This year we even have the first Latvian feature film about the Holocaust in Latvia which tells the true story of one amazing family, Lipke, in Riga who risked their lives to save more than 50 Latvian Jews during WWII. There were many others who were rescuers but Lipke family has their own unique story. (The English title of this new movie is “The Mover“.)

So, the movie is in the theaters, the remembrance day and lighting the candles at Freedom Monument takes place on November 30… meanwhile I turn on the news and watch programs about the rise of new kind of antisemitism in Europe and elsewhere. It is on the far-right and the far-left and many shades of it in-between. And I ask myself what is going on?!

The experts – sociologists, psychologists, political analysts, historians, journalists, etc. – have their own wise explanations and we can easily find the research and survey data. But what does it tell me personally? For one, it tells that we live in a very fragile time filled with so much anxiety where many of the old mechanisms of dealing with insecurity, instability, rapid global technological and cultural change are being used. One of the classical methods is finding the scapegoat whom to blame for everything. “The Jew” is just so familiar and easy to revert to, but it can be “the Muslim”, “the Russian”, ” the immigrant”, “the black”, “the Mexican”, “the Christian”…

That is why I think antisemitism is also on the rise in those countries where the governing parties are very pro-Israel but very prejudiced against many different groups of people. In this sense any rise of nationalism is a rise of antisemitism. When we talk about ‘making our countries great again’ by which people often mean going back to some kind of ‘ideal’ past and ‘romanticized’ cultural identity we used to have, we are already on this downward slope. It is a whole package where it is very hard to pick and choose our prejudices for this kind of pride comes with strings attached.

The experts mention that many people would be classified as ‘antisemitic’ because they hate the policies of the current state of Israel, especially toward the Palestinian people. I do not support this hatred in any way. Still,  I understand a little bit about not liking a certain countries policies and the struggle to separate the issue. For example, I have many negative feelings and strong opinions about the current politics, ideologies and state of affairs in Russia and it is not easy for me to look at the Russian flag as something neutral or accept people who are very proudly Russian and nationalistic. I immediately start wondering if they support Putin or “Make Russia great again” which would put them in the ” other” camp. Some years ago I would have never imagined that my generation will have to have these inner struggles again of how to love the Russian people from our neighboring country while strongly opposing that country’s political direction.

I am very concerned that we forget so quickly… we forget the Holocaust, we forget Rwanda, we forget Cambodia, we forget the Apartheid.. We forget that every generation has their own ‘demons’ to face which often try to appear as the ‘angels’ or ‘idols’ of ethnic, religious, racial or national identity, infallibility, stability and self-protection…

As we continue to pray in our own brokenness: “lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil…”

(The heading photo was taken at Riga Ghetto Museum and this exhibit tells the story of European Jews who were transported from various countries to  be shot and killed in Latvia)

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Photo from “The Mover” (2018), a movie about the Holocaust in Latvia

 

Beating the swords into plowshares? One day…

Today is centennial Armistice Day in western Europe and around the world to mark the end of World War I (1914-1918). 100 years is quite the landmark! In Latvia November 11 is named after Lācplēsis who is a national, but fictional hero from an epic poem. He fought for freedom from the evil forces, in his case, the German knights.

100 years is long enough and personally I never met anyone who fought in this “war to end all wars”. But the scars are still visible. Cemeteries, monuments, battle fields… an unbelievable bloodshed and suffering. Around the area where I grew up and went to school, we would go on adventures to find the trenches from WWI. And there were many because there were many heavy battles fought along the front line which went through our area of Kekava and Daugmale.

Also, nearby on the river Daugava was a place called “the Island of Death” and just hearing its name gave me the shivers. We were taught the history of Latvian riflemen who fought on this small strip of land to stop German imperial army from crossing the river. This was also a place where chemical weapons had been used in a form of poisonous gas. The loss of life was heavy. What else can you call it but a place of death!

Today I think of the biblical vision of the day when God “shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4) I have friends and family members who serve in the military, I know people who train for war, I know people who are war veterans and I think of them when I read a Scripture likes this. Obviously we are not there yet and sometimes we feel further from this prophetic vision then ever. I imagine that masses of people during WWI felt like the very end of times was upon them.

Little boys and girls like to play with swords. I liked to use sticks as swords and cut the heads of flowers in one swift move. It was a romantic notion of knights and honour and bravery. But now I am afraid to hold a real sword when I see it in someone’s collection. It is so sharp, so heavy and so real. It is certainly not to be toyed with.

When I think about WWI, it seems such an absurdity, evil and stupidity which led to so much suffering. Yes, it led also to Latvia gaining a nationhood and statehood which I can be grateful for, but the cost was so high. The Latvian riflemen who fought for freedom and independence for our nation are certainly our brave heroes. But how I wish it had not been necessary and how I wish they themselves could have enjoyed living in this free and beautiful Latvia.

So, this is a day of remembrance, day of heroes and day of somber gratitude!

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Brother’s Cemetery in Rīga: a military cemetery and national monument

Ask Latvians about the Corner House and take time to listen

This museum  – the former KGB headquarters in Rīga – is not for the disinterested or the deeply traumatized by Latvia’s totalitarian past. In the first group, you quickly realize that this is a very somber space. Every room has soaked up fears, tears and witnessed intimidation, humiliation, broken lives and tortured consciences… For the second group, it is still too difficult and painful to be inside these walls.

The building is a nice example of Art Nouveau architecture, built in 1911 and has served many purposes, but for most of the people in Latvia, it is simply The Corner House. If there was any address that people feared being taken to during the Soviet regime, it was this street corner! The Corner!

Now the otherwise beautiful building has been repainted but the face-lift is on the outside. For many years it stood empty and ignored (and it is still an open question what to do with it). I first visited the Corner House and the KGB prison cells in 2014 when it opened its heavy and intimidating doors to the visitors – local and foreign. First I joined a tour guide speaking in English and got to hear the story as if I was an ‘outsider’. It is a very interesting and revealing experience to try to see your own story with ‘outsider’s’ eyes. At times I wanted to correct the guide if I felt she was not telling the story “correctly” but I resisted this temptation. There is no “correct” way of telling the story but it is important to get the facts as straight as possible and let the people draw conclusions by themselves.

Second time I went to the Corner House together with my grandmother. She was never arrested or imprisoned but she knew people who had been held and tortured by the KGB in these prison cells. This time it was a Latvian speaking group and completely different experience. I could see lots of emotions in my grandmother’s face and those from the older generations. They politely listened to the guide’s stories even though it was difficult to avoid some interruptions and comments. The older generation has lots and lots of stories for anyone who is willing to listen.

The younger visitors were at times visibly shocked. They walked through the cellar as this was a movie. When we went to the upper floors where the KGB operatives and interrogators had their nice and sunny offices, our attention was drawn to the window bars. Installed to make sure that nobody jumps out the window from the 4th or 5th floor! It speaks for itself what kind of place this was where people would try to jump and rather kill themselves.

The English and Latvian speaking tours were very different but both had to do with memories and remembering. How to remember rightly? What do we tell the foreigners and what do we want them to know and to reflect upon? What do we tell Latvians and how do we want to remember this period? How to address and heal the pain of those who suffered from the KGB? How to bring peace to those who ‘broke’ and became KGB informants?  What brings redemption to those who worked for the KGB?

The Corner House does not intimidate anymore but somehow it still casts a dark shadow. And it stands there as a big question mark, “what are we going to do with this KGB past?” My answer? It is more than time for Latvia to turn this particular corner!

The truth shall set us free and it will help us to heal. And I am happy that the process has begun…

Why the right to vote is my privilege

Election day in Latvia is coming to an end… the important part is behind us but the interesting part is still ahead. The polling booths have closed. Now all is left is to wait for the results.

I have bittersweet feelings. While voting today at the nearby polling station, I was thinking about my 95 year old grandmother who stayed at home and was not able to cast her vote. Not able because of the advanced dementia. I knew that I probably could find her passport, dress her, walk down the stairs, stand in line and help her to do the talking, registering and voting. Yet somehow it did not feel right (and probably not even legal) since the person is so confused that they cannot make their own decisions anymore. I did not want to “use” my grandmother to get her to vote for the party I chose to support.

So, I voted for both of us. I mean, I felt double responsibility. My grandmother has lived a long life and she has given a lot for me and others to have the best life we can. She has risked her life in the years when it was not allowed to have your own political views not matching the Communist party. She aided the Latvian underground resistance groups after WWII which meant to live in hiding for few years when she was found out. Later she became a devout Christian and joined a Baptist church at a time when religious people were persecuted. My grandmother was not perfect and we have disagreed on many issues but I  always knew that she is courageous and passionate. She was not one to just stand by.

And I don’t want to stand by either. Latvia is a free and democratic country with its own challenges and faults and there is plenty to improve. Nevertheless, the life here has never been so peaceful, stable and secure. And the right and the responsibility to vote and participate in the present and future of this nation is not something to take lightly. I know that it sounds very cliche but there are many countries around the world where ordinary citizens don’t get to decide. For them my life and freedom is a dream.

For many years I lived in Thailand where for the first time in my life I experienced a military coup in 2014. And the country still has not had free elections and there is no sign of a change. People with military background now have 143 seats of 250 member parliament in Thailand. So, it is very easy for me to compare and to know what kind of “democracy” I don’t want. It is “peace and order” by might.

Yes, we have the ugly side of our democracy and every election year highlights the usual problems – the examples of corruption, the lack of transparency, mutual respect, wise compromise, norms of civility, problems with lobbies and shady money, etc. And we get the expected response from voters  – from protest votes for populists to apathy and those who don’t even bother. But I believe that many of our negative responses and attitudes come from not counting our blessings.

Today I voted. My grandmother will be proud of me. Just as I am proud of her. The Latvia she dreamed off is mine to nurture, to protect and to cherish.

A big ‘thank you’ to all volunteers around the world!

There is a commercial on CNN which shows all their international reporters documenting important events around the world and the slogan says “Go There”. So simple and cliché but profound. Sometimes you simply have to get out of your chair/sofa and “go” because you are needed. Sometimes “there” is around the corner and other times it is on a different continent.

It gets me every time because there is this powerful invisible string that ties my heart to many places. This week as I watch the super Typhoon Mangkhut roaring across Philippines, Hurricane Florence on the coast of the United States and the scenes of flooding and destruction, I think of all the volunteers who will be needed to clean up and rebuild the communities. I know what it’s like to pick up the remains after such devastating natural catastrophes when the local resources – human and material – are completely overwhelmed. My husband and I have volunteered at many such sites.

Khao Lak, Southern Thailand in 2004 after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami; Bay St.Luis, Mississippi in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand after terrible monsoon floods… and also refugee camps and poor communities living in the slums. Yes, many times I have been one of those strangely dressed foreigners who stand out as a sore thumb while trying their best to blend in, manage without a translator by using creative sign language, politely refuse a meal if it is too ‘challenging’ to stomach (like soup with blood curds) and often behave in culturally insensitive ways despite my best intentions. Welcome to the life of a volunteer!

Another cliché is that everyone takes photos with adorable local kids but it’s true. And I am not ashamed of it! Because the children are always the ones who quickly break the ice and at difficult moments remind you why you are there and teach you many important things about resilience and hope. In the small Thai fishing village of Baan Nak Khem which was completely destroyed by the tsunami, the children worked almost as hard as the adults to rebuild their homes. Even the little ones were carrying sand and water to the builders.

I count it such a privilege to meet so many ordinary but incredible people who will never write a book or make a documentary about their selfless acts or get an award for their sacrifice of time, money, skills, careers, fame and comfort. But these thousands and millions of volunteers – locally and globally – know what their true award is.

As my husband likes to challenge me or anyone else who will listen, it is easy and natural to ask, “What will THEY do about it? What will the government do about it? What will my  work/school/church do about it?” But the question that actually matters is “What am I going to do about it?”

And one heartfelt handshake by someone who does not speak your language, one lavish meal cooked by someone who does not have much, one hug by someone who usually does not show emotion or one happy face of a child who thinks that you came half-way across the city, state, country or across the world just for him or her is like the whole world saying “Thank you! Thank you so much!”

Funeral like no other making love great again

One Lord. One Faith. One Baptism.

I could not get my eyes off this pulpit. And could not turn off my TV for hours even though it was getting late (or early morning) here in Latvia. I had just been changing  the channels to watch some news and found that CNN was showing Aretha Franklin’s memorial service in Detroit at Greater Grace Temple.

The event lasted seven hours!!! I wonder how many of us have been to a funeral this long. And one that did not feel like grieving but like Easter morning church service. In the beginning the TV anchors followed the script and inserted some breaking news (like Trump’s trade wards with Canada) but soon they realized this event is not going along any script. This was a celebration of life which ignored all the ” protocol” of time and schedule. The CNN reporter laughed and said, “We are already 3 hours behind schedule” and then they just let the cameras roll without any further interruptions.

I have never visited an African American church but this was a beautiful glimpse into what it means to be a community that celebrates life (birth, death, joys and sorrows) and faith in the fullest. With passion, emotion, laughter, tears and ever present hope.

Oh my, can they sing!!! The preachers go up to talk and suddenly bust into a song. (I have never seen my pastor do that 🙂 )The singers don’t just sing a song but tell a story with their whole body and the audience responds. The choir is ready at any moment and don’t need a conductor; the band can improvise for hours; the audience can jump up on their feet at random and start moving, shouting, dancing. There were people falling asleep after sitting through so many speeches and eulogies but suddenly they would be wide awake when there was a soulful song or some rousing statement.

And there were many rousing statements. It revealed again and again that the legacy of someone like Aretha Franklin was not just her amazing powerful voice and memorable music but it was a legacy of human dignity, strength, love, civility, solidarity and, of course, respect for each other. R-E-S-P-EC-T

Many civil rights activists were speaking as were famous artists, actors and former presidents. Barack Obama sent a letter in which he wrote, “Whether bringing people together through thrilling intersections of genres or advancing important causes through the power of song, Aretha’s work reflected the very best of the American story, in all of its hope and heart, its boldness and its unmistakable beauty… In the example she set both as an artist and a citizen, Aretha embodied those most revered virtues of forgiveness and reconciliation.”

Last one to perform was Stevie Wonder and he played a beautiful rendition of “Lord’s Prayer” on his harmonica. “Were it not for God’s goodness, God’s greatness, we would’ve never known the queen of soul,” he said. And he talked about “making love great again”.

He finished with his song “As” written in 1976 and the whole place exploded with celebration…

“We all know sometimes life’s hates and troubles
Can make you wish you were born in another time and space
But you can bet you life times that and twice its double
That God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed
So make sure when you say you’re in it but not of it
You’re not helping to make this earth a place sometimes called Hell
Change your words into truths and then change that truth into love
And maybe our children’s grandchildren
And their great-great grandchildren will tell
I’ll be loving you ”

(P.S. I highly recommend watching the recording of the service on You Tube! It will inspire you!)