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From East Berlin to the Far East, and vice versa

by Alena Eckelmann

On Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. The East German nation, for 28 years hidden from the world’s eyes behind almost impassable walls, suddenly opened up.

Tens of thousands of Germans rushed to the borders to see the unbelievable for themselves, and I was among them. Born and raised in communist East Germany, I now live and work in Tokyo, physically and culturally far away from my native land. In 1989, however, I was a fresher in law studies at Humboldt University in East Berlin, and Japan was not part of my vocabulary.

On the other side of the globe, Akira Ichikawa, then — as now — a professor at Osaka University, watched the events unfold on TV. He had a keen interest in East Germany, having lived in East Berlin for 18 months from 1979 to 1981 while studying theater at Humboldt and researching the life and works of Bertolt Brecht.

Twenty years down the line, these two “DDR veterans” met in Tokyo and compared their experiences of life in East Germany, a country that is no more than history and memories now.

The year of 1989 saw peaceful rallies take place all over the country that became known as the Monday Demonstrations. Thousands of people gathered in public places to protest the authoritarian government. However, for me, 1989 was the year of “Dirty Dancing.”

For some reason, the government had chosen to purchase this movie, and it was screened in cinemas up and down the country. Foreign movies were a rarity in East Germany’s cinemas, and I watched it several times. The soundtrack, “The Time of my Life,” could be heard everywhere you went, and it resonated with my new life as student in the capital of East Germany. I too felt that I had the time of my life ahead of me. However, I did not expect at all the radical changes that were soon to come.

The opposition, disillusioned with what the government called “real socialism,” had been gathering behind closed doors for years, as Ichikawa remembers. There was no freedom of speech, but they would find ways to push the boundaries.

“Prenzlauer Berg was the ‘in’ place of East Berlin’s cultural Bohemia. Many opposition writers and theater folk lived there, and the circle of my friends who lived in this area kept growing,” Ichikawa recalls. “They invited me sometimes to illegal poetry readings and rehearsals of plays that were banned in East Germany.

“Some 30 people would sit crammed into a small room, but everyone was excited. The texts of the pieces performed were distributed. They had been hand-written and copied on tracing paper, as there were no photocopy machines. So many copies always needed to be made that the text became almost unreadable.”

There was, however, an unexpected form of freedom in East Germany that was then unimaginable in Japan. On a trip to Stralsund on the coast, Ichikawa recalls the unexpected culture shock he felt when he first encountered the FKK (Freie Koerper Kultur), East Germany’s nudist movement.

“We went to the beach, and I was really looking forward to a swim in the sea. When we got there, however, my heart skipped a beat. People were completely naked!

“In Japan, the police would come straight away and arrest people, but there everyone was completely naked. People went for a swim naked and even played beach ball — naked! I am fairly liberated, I think, but I was just not brave enough to take off my trunks.

“When I told the caretaker at the student dormitory in Berlin, he said: ‘What? Akira, if you want to meet naked women, then you have to go naked.’ “

My life path, meanwhile, seemed set: A cog in the wheel of “the system,” so to speak. I would study law and, upon graduating, be assigned a job according to the whims of the bureaucrats. Everything that happened in the country was “planned.” One had to go with the flow of the system and not think too much.

I was among the first batch of students to be allowed to study law, a “system-related” subject, without having to join the Communist Party. However, I had to endure a lengthy screening process, during which I had to renounce great-aunts and -uncles living in West Germany. Girls also had to commit to working in “material production” — effectively in a factory — for two years, while the boys had to sign up for three years in the army. The reasoning was that the country’s intelligentsia should know about the workers who, after all, were supposed to be the ruling class. Working night shifts on a production line, however, I did not feel like the future elite of the country.

My only joy was talking to the migrant workers, people from other socialist countries, during break time. They were the first foreigners I had ever met. These people seemed to represent a microcosm of the wider world: people from Cuba, Vietnam, Mozambique and Poland. I became friends with the Vietnamese, and this is what first sparked my interest in Asia.

I savored their stories, but there was no hope of ever leaving East Germany. There was no freedom of travel. Asia, like the rest of the world, seemed so far out of reach that it might as well have been on another planet.

Like most people in the DDR, I longed to travel. If the government could just allow us to travel a bit, everything would be fine, I thought. Most East Germans just wanted to “go West” once to catch a glimpse of the world and then, content for life, come back to their friends and families in the DDR.

Communication with the outside world was also extremely difficult. Coming from a big city in Japan with public phones on every street, Ichikawa found this particularly frustrating.

“This was the time before e-mail. As letters would take two weeks to arrive, I wanted to make a phone call to my wife in Japan, but there were no public phones. One had to go to the post office, apply for a phone call abroad and then wait for some hours to get connected. However, I was told that a one-minute call would cost me 100 marks. To speak a couple of minutes would have cost me what I spent to live a whole month as a student in East Germany. I decided not to call.”

(The average salary was 500 marks at the time.)

At first glance, the pace of East Berlin felt slow to Ichikawa, reminding him of life in a provincial Japanese town. However, there was one major difference — East Berlin had a lot more culture, and it was much more accessible.

“I could go to the theater very often, as it was so unbelievably cheap. With my student pass, entrance cost only 55 pfennig. Going to the opera was just as cheap, only 1.05 pfennig. Considering that a roll of bread cost 20 pfennig and a liter of milk 50 pfennig, this was so cheap. I was surprised that there were so many theaters — and even two operas —that staged many excellent performances.”

These prices, a result of heavy government subsidies, were in stark contrast to the prices of certain products, Ichikawa recalls.

“Once I noticed a very long queue. I was curious and started lining up. It turned out that this queue was for some bananas, a very rare product in East Germany. Everyone received only five, and they cost 4.75 marks. This was so much more than a theater ticket cost. I took them home and then went to university, but I was very worried that my housekeeper would eat them. When I came home that night I found all five bananas nicely arranged in a crystal bowl, no less.”

These days, Berlin is as cosmopolitan as London, Paris, New York or Tokyo, but under communism there were hardly any foreigners in the city, and most of these were migrant workers. Of course there were no foreign restaurants, something that we are now so used to in all big cities around the world.

“There were no Japanese restaurants,” laments Ichikawa. “In fact, in the whole of East Berlin there was only one Asian restaurant at that time. It was too expensive though, and I did not want to eat there. Of course, one could not buy any Asian products in the supermarket.

“Usually I ate German food, which was not a problem for me, but once I had a strong craving for udon noodles. I had brought soy sauce from home, and with the sauce I made some soup. Then I cooked spaghetti. I closed my eyes and said to myself five times ‘udon, udon, udon, udon, udon,’ and then ate the spaghetti with the soy sauce. I imagined it was udon, but it tasted quite different.”

There were shortages of all sorts, and products were rationed. Shops usually looked quite empty, with nothing much on the shelves. All you needed, we used to say, was “vitamin B.” The “B” stood for “Beziehungen,” meaning connections or access. Even if you had money, you could not buy what you wanted; you had to find the person who had access to what you needed and then trade. Everyone had access to something, and people would just take their fair share from the “people’s property” and redistribute it by swapping this for that. East Germans were experts at playing the system.

Despite these small, sneaky victories over “the system,” Ichikawa observed that East Germans in general were reserved, and went about their lives quietly. They were kind and modest about their abilities, which he found to be similar to the Japanese character.

“My German was not so good at first, and Brecht had terrible handwriting,” he explains. “Even Germans could not read it. Luckily, there was a ‘walking dictionary,’ an old woman who worked at the Bertolt Brecht Archive. She seemed to like me and always helped me without expecting anything in return.

“She kindly read out the Brecht manuscripts to me. Amazingly, she could read everything, and not only that, as it turned out. She seemed like just an average old woman, but in fact she knew all about Brecht. She often took me for lunch at the archive’s refectory, which was usually off-limits to visitors. Over lunch, she would freely share all her knowledge about Brecht’s life.”

After the Berlin Wall had come down, I quit studying law and followed my newly found interest in Asia. The now wide-open door to the world led me first to Vietnam, where I met some old friends from my factory days again. Then I went to London, where I learned English from scratch, and eventually I came to Tokyo on an executive training program. During the 20 years that have passed since the year of “Dirty Dancing,” I have caught up with the world, so to speak.

I cannot no longer imagine living without the freedom to travel and freedom of speech, two essential elements in my career as a freelance writer now.

However, I agree with Ichikawa that life in East Germany was not all bad. Despite all the shortcomings, people lived comfortable lives. Or could this just be DDR nostalgia talking?

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