In order to introduce the theme and the agenda of EastEast and its current issue, we have decided to begin with the questions. These questions do not necessarily imply a possibility to be answered—they act as navigation lights that marks the movement of meaning.
The title of our platform invites both complexity and playfulness. We acknowledge how loaded the notion of East is, how widely exploited it has been. And yet this is precisely the reason why we want to claim this extravagant round-the-world trip from East to East, eastwards from every East end to every East coast, in the direction the Earth rotates, which ultimately covers every place and renders any presumed difference between any East and any West superfluous.
It is a trip that makes one think about the volatility of the place they travel from and the numerous possible contingent homes that are created in this process. It makes one learn about care and hospitality as much as what the lack thereof stands for. It also shows one that homes can be abandoned, and homes can be discovered.
We offered some of our friends, our current and future authors, the people whose way of thinking we admire, to respond to the following questions: What do you consider to be your home? Where is “home?” and How is it possible to talk about East or the multiplicity of Easts today? Rather than seeking answers, we want to see what new questions can sprout from these, and where they can take us next.
What do you consider to be your home? Where is “home?” How is it possible to talk about East or the multiplicity of Easts today?
Writer and researcher, Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature, and Associate Director of Art at Duke Kunshan University, co-curator of the 2020 Guangzhou Image Triennial
At some point, I found myself using the word “back” to talk about “going back to China” when I was not there; and then “going back to Europe” when I was in China. And last summer I went back to Mexico for the third time after I had lived there for almost a year in 2012 and ever since, have felt strongly attached to. I went to New York to give a talk and I found myself telling people “I will go back to Mexico after this.”
Until I moved to Berlin, my home was wherever I took out the bedsheet my mom bought me, saying “this one cost more than the one I got for my marriage,” and made the bed—I would never do that for beds that I sleep only one night or two, such as in hostels or at a lover’s. In the past years, having moved five times in Berlin, I managed to lose that bedsheet my mom had given to me. But I still carry around a pillow from a very pricy Scandinavian brand recommended by a sex date after having chatted about neck pain. So I guess, the category of home expanded a little bit: wherever I can sleep on that pillow.
East is always a multiplicity. For me, when I was a boy growing up in Guizhou, south-west of China, Shanghai was the east, but strangely I never considered Japan to be in the east. I was wondering where the Middle East was, and its raison d’être—or as my friends Walid el Houri and Saima Akhtar formulated: “middle of where, east of what?” in an event they organized back in 2016 at the ICI Berlin. Oh, not to mention “far east”: my father went to a sports event called the “Far East Championship Game” in Guangzhou. I have since been wondering why it was the “far east.”
I loved a joke the Argentinian comedian Peter Capusotto made: his character advertises a “masaje oriental” (oriental/east massage) but doesn’t know any form of Chinese or Thai or Japanese or Indian massage. It turns out that he is from Uruguay: the complete name of this country, which is located on the east side of the river Uruguay, is la República oriental del Uruguay (The Oriental Republic of Uruguay).
Decolonial researcher. Professor of Postcolonial Feminism at Linköping University in Sweden
For many years, I have been tackling transcultural and diasporic thoughts and lives, the art of refugees and those who do not belong. The central category in these studies is home or its absence, homesickness, and the impossibility of going back home. I am fond of Homi Bhabha’s definition of “unhomely.” It is not the same as being homeless. The unhomely accentuates a sense of inverted home and the world, a life beyond the constant of home. This is my own condition as well. And with each move to a new city or a new country, I become increasingly “unhomed.” For me, home is about people and not about walls, cities, or mountains. It is also about books. One can carry them from one country to another in boxes or keep them in cloud storages. But people who were my home have left for the next world. Maybe that is why I am not looking for a home and have long stopped wanting to make one. My lot is to be a drifter, a bird whose home is where it sings its song. It is not an “Oriental” song in any conventional sense. Rather, it creolizes the East with the rest of the world. And yet it has a certain Eastern trace, a hint, a memory, an intonation that often occurs against my will.
The East as a holistic essentialist concept with any polarity is highly risky. Yet it definitely remains important as a ground for “strategic essentialism” (in Gayatri Spivak’s definition) in the struggle for a more symmetric representation, as a political-identitarian project. A seemingly more attractive idea of multiple Easts potentially errs in the direction of excessive ethnographic detailing, a discreteness of a forest lost for the separate trees. It seems more appropriate to speak neither of a homogenous frozen East which has never existed, nor of the multiplicity of separate Easts, but of the East as a knot of flexible intersectional relations—civilizational, economic, cultural, religious, linguistic dialogues, and also opacities and incommensurabilities. All of this makes up the East as a relational texture of interlocked meanings, as a changeable process rooted in interactions of persistent differences yet an ability to still be attuned to harmonies.
Historian, ethnologist, anthropologist. Professor at the Department of Anthropology, European University, St. Petersburg
Home is a category that has different dimensions to it. I would not want to choose one of them.
Home, for example, is one’s apartment where we spend most of our time and which is full of our personal items and everyday practices. Home is a piece of land with multiple structures if you have your own courtyard. Home is also a street, a mahalla, a city, a country, a continent and, at last, a planet. Home is a multiplicity of locations, sometimes in various regions, cities and even in different countries. We are connected with each of them, and each of them leaves an imprint on us. Home is the various social relationships which formed us, specific temporalities—the past or the future—and even the distinct materiality and corporality expressed in the sensations of touch and smell. All of these dimensions co-exist in us, and we are constantly moving between them, both physically and in our imagination, each time rebuilding our “home” anew, and in this way constructing our personal biography, identity, and subjectivity.
East also has multiple dimensions; it is diversified, scattered, and moves together with us. We can think about it geographically—sometimes narrowing it down to Central Asia, sometimes widening it to the Far East. We can perceive it as a cultural, religious, or ethnic entity—then there is the Muslim East, which includes not only the territory of the Arabian Peninsula but also North Africa, the Balkans, and even Spain or the Turkic East which stretches from Turkey to Yakutsk. The East like this can be positioned far west. The East can also be perceived through specific social practices, institutes, and images that can be found anywhere in the world. These “eastern” and “western” spaces can even be situated within the boundaries of a single city or a single room: in one room you sit at the table, use a knife and a fork, and eat a meat à la française, while in another one you sit on the floor and eat pilau with your hands. Furthermore, you can move from one to another by taking just a few steps. East, as well as home, is a category, a certain assemblage point of our imagining of ourselves and the world.
Researcher, producer, and curator based in Shanghai
Growing up in Chinese society, I used to agree with the popular idea that home is a place of unconditional love and care, but that’s a fabricated ideal, perhaps no different from other cultures. The Chinese impose on themselves a patriarchal system of family values and in particular the idea of having male heirs to spread offspring and carry on the family tradition. Born a girl, at some point during my formative years I estranged myself from that culture by deciding not to get married on such terms. Along this way, I’ve been also accompanied by a perpetual sense of insecurity, of homelessness, which, however, does not necessarily come from cultural alienation but rather is induced by the new global reality of labor precarity. In other words, traditional values of “home” have been deconstructed, for good or for bad; increased mobility which allows “home” to colonize or to insert itself into a piece of foreign land comes at a certain cost. A political economy analysis of home will render a picture of multifarious conflicts and violence. With three decades of accelerated urbanization, China has witnessed how capital-driven land development and financialization of the real estate industry have completely stripped off normal families’ communal fantasies of a home. For the majority, home in the first place is a house, a commodity, a part of the expensive infrastructure that directly participates in the operation of economic activities. Urbanization is like a war zone factory that endlessly churns out and bombs up low-quality products, all bearing a traumatic logo on them. Home in this sense has been lost to the paranoid machine of systemic violence under the name of modernization and globalization. Imagine you live in a house, an apartment, or a tiny room, every day you calculate the rent you have to pay for that space, and you look around, feeling like a piece of walking furniture that could be thrown out of the window by your landlord anytime. Then you may think, “Oh, this is unfair. I work to pay so that the space itself continues to exist and the sanity of the financial market gets sustained.” It’s utterly unromantic.
Sometimes I’m curious why the world has been culturally divided into “the East and the West” and not “the North and the South.” The north part of planet Earth, relatively, has really bad weather. Cold. Icy. Dark. Some speculation goes that Western imperialism and colonialism were driven by bad weather. I don’t presume weather determinism of course. But this is worth thinking about. Thus, I’m not even sure if it’s meaningful to talk about East or the multiplicity of Easts because the naming itself—the West or the East—is a cultural construct in the first place. Why should we care about something absurd created by some people perhaps while they were in a constant bad mood because of bad weather?
Curator and writer based in Pittsburgh
Home pays for the psychologist’s condo, for the healer’s cruise, for the psychiatrist’s pension, for the dealer’s convertible. It fills the bartender’s tip jar. It's Freud’s pandora and Lacan’s obsidian. Home is porn. Home is cirrhosis, home is overdose. Home is the heteronormative patriarchy (if you didn’t know). And now that we’re at it, home tramples difference. On a more personal note, it's where one stepdad plays videogames all day, where the other one kicks the bookshelves and their contents out on the floor. Home is the iron maiden, it’s your mother’s stork, your sister’s hall of shame. It is the landlord’s coffer, the banker’s dead pledge. It is google’s wiretap, government’s stakeout. Home is zero privacy. Home is what you escape. You leave and never go back. Home is where the heart was, and it’s rotten.
Writer, researcher at Boston University (Hispanic Studies, Afro-Latin American Studies)
Home is wherever I pay my rent. I always say I’m a very sedentary person—and then I look at my life and remind myself of all the places I’ve called home. I was born in Odessa, Ukraine (multiply the biggest Jewish shtetl by the transience of a major port city), then lived in a small town in central Ukraine, where my mother had a job, then I moved to Kiev for studies followed by a PhD ordeal. I lived in Vienna, where I was doing research, and now I’m in Boston, doing some more of that. Everyone here likes to assume what my home is—and always gets it wrong: they think I’m a Latina or a mixed-race American before they hear some flat inflections in my accent (Dutch maybe?) and my radical criticism of the Western neoliberalism. (So what are you?) I have Ashkenazi, Tikar (Cameroonian), Russian, Bulgarian, and Ukrainian ancestry. Staying in touch with all these parts of myself means being at home.
We should address East just like about any other global/constellational concept: tracking ties, gaps, and discrepancies while being careful not to fall into generalizing. Columbus sailed west to get to the east coast of India, which turned out to be the east coast of the Americas and yet was called the West Indies, for it lies to the west of Europe. On every country’s ancient map, that country would be in the center, and the rest would be east or west. We know well by now that assumptions and umbrella concepts may be tempting yet deceiving. I also like to keep myself in check to avoid blindly exploiting any kind of flat postcolonial rhetoric or pursuing the “Olympics-of-the-Oppressed” agenda: the archive needs a nuanced revision, not laundering.
Historian, independent curator, associated researcher at the University of Montreal, president of the Observatory of Central Asian Cultural Heritage Alerte Héritage
As an imaginary dwelling, home is most clearly outlined not in my thoughts but in my dreams: usually, it is my apartment in Tashkent where I lived for more than twenty years of my childhood and youth. Interestingly, today this imaginary space welcomes characters who predominantly have no relation to Uzbekistan. As an inhabited ecumene, home exists for me in the shape of cities rather than countries. In Uzbekistan, I perceived myself primarily as a citizen of Tashkent, while in Canada, where I have been living for twenty-two years, I feel like a Montrealer. Cities are friendlier than countries, with their “national history,” where I inevitably found myself ranking as a “minority.” However, a mere visit to a city does not make it “your home.” In order for that to happen, cities need to give you something significant, and that often happens in the process of work. Since childhood, the cities of my ecumene were Moscow, Saint Petersburg (Leningrad back then) and Odessa, later they were joined by Paris, Toronto, Venice, Yerevan, Vienna, Bishkek, to name just the most important ones. I shall mention the linguistic refuge as well—coming from the English-speaking ocean, with which I need to “communicate,” into the small backwaters where I can speak Russian or French, I feel quite like “home” again.
I have been aware of the artificiality of the concept “the East” long before reading Edward Said’s Orientalism. One would think that postcolonial studies have completely denounced this concept as a European fiction, embedded into imperial and colonial practices. As early as at the beginning of the twenty-first century, in European and American universities and museums, which used to be the centers for cultivating and describing “the East”, it became nearly embarrassing to seriously call upon this disavowed concept. However, in many countries, once defined as “Eastern,” people still believe in the existence of this phantom “Eastern world” and sincerely consider themselves to be representatives of “the East,” which inherently differs from the “West.” For example, the majority of Tashkent biennials appealed, one way or another, to the ontological opposition of “the East” and “the West.” “The East” carries on its life in the titles of publishing houses and magazines, from Pravda Vostoka [The Eastern Truth] and Zvezda Vostoka [The Eastern Star] to Vostok Svishe [The East from Above], Sharq [East], as well as texts, paintings, performances, and songs. I don’t know what to do with this self-orientalization, in which the racist division of the world into two imaginary halves still exists. However, I think that this fantasm, rooted in people’s heads, should be fought even more actively than the monuments to the deceased racists.
Head of Cultural Creative Agency (CCA)
For me, home is all the places connected to my childhood. I really love St. Petersburg, the neighborhood around Kirochnaya St., Tauride, and the Summer Gardens—I spent the first twenty years of my life there. I have the fondest memories of these locations as well as of walks along the Neva River, the time of growing-up, peering into the space and people around me. Now, home is the place where I felt and feel good, where my friends and family are.
It’s strange that in the 21st century we still have to remind people of Earth’s spherical shape. Concepts of East and West are geographical conventions of a specific era, which were invented for the convenience of travellers, traders, seafarers—and yet they still define our thinking. During the American protests, one particular video went viral. A school teacher compared a real-scaled map with the one that is used for educating American students. The latter depicted “Western” countries as taking up much more space than they do in reality. We surely remember Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece, and Early Modern Europe for their great achievements. But it doesn’t mean that everything that was created by people hailing from different countries and cultures belongs to the West.
The one and uniform East doesn’t exist in reality. That’s why we doubled this word in the name of our paper and online magazine. Of course, some might think that the name designates Qatar and Russia. And they are right to some extent. But by doubling the “East” we сlaim that it’s not just a geographical figment. It is only possible that East exists in the form of many different easts, and through its projects CCA aims to create an alternative map for navigating our complex world. We can only begin to understand the multifaceted existence of the East by avoiding generalizations and not trying to see it as the other.
Photography artist based in Moscow
There is no place that I can without any doubt call my “home” because ever since I was a child I have lived in different cities and countries. However, I have several places that I feel particularly attached to. For example, I still somehow feel like I’m partly from Ukraine because I lived there for several years and started speaking Russian there. When I moved to Kazakhstan, I would often say that I had lived in Ukraine before, as if I had come “from” there, as if it was my home. While I continued to move from city to city, the number of my so-called “homes” was growing, but Japan, where I was born and grew up, was becoming less and less one of them. At some point, I used to feel sad that I didn’t have a “home”. However, when I read “Taking up Residence in Homelessness”, a wonderful essay about migration written by Vilém Flusser, I realised that it was quite normal to have several “homes”. This helped me to accept my, at times obscure and precarious situation.
I have a complicated view of the term “East.” It is loaded with eurocentrism and orientalism, it is about the Others, who are often imagined in an exotic way. However, one needs to admit that it is hard to navigate this world without words like this, so for now, I can accept using it and I use it myself. The main issue with the word “East” is that it is often associated with certain stereotypes, and everything that is considered “Eastern” is often imagined in a stereotyped way, which intensifies and disseminates the simplified understanding of the Others. This is why I believe that it is important in this case to diversify as much as possible the representation of the Others and the East instead of rejecting the use of this word altogether. This is more in line with the spirit of multiculturalism that I endorse.
Artist and film director based in Paris
First circle. Fergana
For me, east is the east of the country where I was born—the Fergana Valley. This place is believed to be the very factor that defines the Uzbek language: local speech sounds really beautiful and subtle, with no Russian words or distorted pronunciation. For me, east in my culture is about cuisine: Fergana plov is fatty, sweet, and spicy at the same time, it combines such a variety of tastes. Then music—after all, the Uzbek dance tanovar is from Fergana. The Uzbeks are hospitable and warm-hearted, but at the same time they could leave some pretty sweet scars. And it is exactly the east of the country where typical Uzbek female beauty is thought to originate from. Fergana is the most densely populated part of Uzbekistan, and it is both the most fertile and most dangerous one, since it is this valley that shapes the stability of the region due to its complex geographic and ethnic melting pot.
Second circle. East Turkestan
Kashgar is my farthest eastern point, a place where my culture reaches its peak in what concerns language, cuisine, culture, and beauty. I have never been to East Turkestan, but I believe that the closer you move towards the sunrise, the more ornaments, spices, understatement, and mystery you encounter. And it appears to me that what I lost during the Soviet Union times is still partly hidden there.
Third circle. The sun
East, of course, is where the sun is born, which means the day, too—hence the life. In Zoroastrianism, a religious practice popular on the territory of today's Uzbekistan before its Islamization in the 8th century, the sun used to be associated with Ahura Mazda—the deity of good and light. The Zoroastrians prayed facing east. It seems that today we rarely look in the direction of the rising sun to discover and define ourselves.
I don’t know where my own home is now, my home is about people. In the past, it used to be where my parents were, and now it is my children who define it. And I have no idea about what will happen next.
Anthropologist. Associate Professor at the Department of History at Lomonosov Moscow State University, Research Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy, HSE
For five years now, with varying intensity, my photographer friend Anton Akimov and I have been working on a book dedicated to the private history of twenty five Moscow houses: I visited the archives, researched their history, Anton and I met their current and former residents, recorded their memories, and scanned old photographs and documents. Some of the families have been living in the same house for almost 100 years, some even longer. There were people who, unlike me, considered their home to be not only their apartment, but the entire entrance hall with old staircase railings and tiles, or sometimes even the entire block. One of the residents of the house in Solyanka street has been engaged with some proper landscape design in her courtyard, near the German Protestant church in Starosadskiy Pereulok, near Mandelstam’s house and the Palestinian Society House. For her and for many others, the district is filled with existing social connections and memories, not only their own but also those of their parents and grand-parents. Unfortunately, I cannot say that my understanding of “home” is so broadly extended in space and deeply immersed in time. I have practically no actual or historical connections to my house in Moscow. But I wish I did.
I think that the only true answer to the question about East can be the claim that one can talk about the East (or Easts, although this word, unfortunately, does not have a plural form) in totally different ways, and this narrative has no restrictions in forms and vectors. On the one hand, East is a relative concept, on the other, a self-sufficient and endlessly variable one. Is “other” a synonym for “eastern” within the Western discourse? A question emerges: what is, in fact, the Western discourse? Can one Western discourse be more Eastern than the other? If we speak about Russia and the Russian-speaking regions in general, we can, of course, talk about the multiplicity of easts in cultural, religious, geographic, and even urbanistic perspectives (the East of Moscow is not at all the West). However, we should keep in mind that the one who talks about East is always in the East too. It all depends on where you are standing.
Responses provided in Russian translated into English by Alisa Oleva and Olga Bubich