I like to wander. To travel without any clear sense of a destination. I call myself a wanderer in my new Instagram account. The photos there all come from a recent trip to Germany. Hence the title of this blog post. Originally coined in German during the 19th century, wanderlust means an urge, an impulse, a longing to travel.

Maybe this craze for the new is a Shanghainese trait. As Lynn Pan documents in Shanghai Style, early 20th century Shanghai was crazy about anything new, be it film or fashion, chandeliers or flush toilets.

When I wander, I try to go back in time or place, go deep, understand. Feed my imagination. So here’s an account of our travel through Germany and how it’s about to affect my writing.

moving pictures

We went to Germany because of two major art events: documenta 14 in Kassel and the Skulptur Projekt in Münster. The former takes place every 5 years; the latter only once in a decade. So I mapped out a route that would take us to both. And added a little Bauhaus architecture in Dessau and a little nature in the Thuringer Wald for good measure.

Wander in Munster
Garden of Eden. Photo credit: Karen Kao

For me, the wonder of travel lies in the surprise. To wander into the botanical gardens tucked behind the University of Münster and find a Garden of Eden. Or discover the spectacular art on display at the LWL Museum für Kunst under Kultur. But of all the wonderful stuff we saw,  film is the work that still stands out in my mind.

For example, The Dust Channel by filmmaker Roee Rosen, which we saw at documenta 14 in Kassel. The film stars a Dyson vacuum cleaner in an operatic commentary on refugee camps in Israel. Hilarious and moving.

back in the gdr

Wander in East Germany
Former border crossing. Photo credit: Karen Kao

From Kassel we headed into the former GDR. Crossing the borders these days, of course, is a non-event. Even compared to our last visit to former East Germany just after the wall came down, when our car suddenly vaulted from the smoothly asphalted autobahn onto gravel roads. Then, we found dilapidated villages populated by old women and young children.

Now, there are still signs of a struggling economy. The drunks in the street. The caravans parked along country roads for the ladies of the night. The past intrudes uncomfortably into the present. For example, the Bauhaus Museum in Dessau notes that the city’s two claims to fame are the designs created by the Bauhaus School and an innovation of an entirely different nature: Zyklon-B. Many of the cities we visited in the former GDR seem to strain under the weight of so much history.

reflecting memory

Wander in Magdeburg
Artwork by Nathan Coley. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Yet you can also find jewels in East Germany. Magdeburg was once the seat of the Ottonian dynasty (900-1000). It has the city walls, medieval cathedral and cobble-stoned streets to prove it. The former convent of Unser Lieben Frauen is now a world-class art museum and the current home to a video installation by Kader Attia called Reflecting Memory.

The film centers on the phenomenon of a phantom limb. That’s what you call pain you feel in a body part you no longer have. Doctors have struggled for years to identify its cause. It could be the nerve endings still reaching out for a missing connection. Or maybe the pain stems from a mental disorder. No one knows.

Attia uses that ambiguity. He launches into a discussion of grief and grievance, de-nazification, totalitarianism and the impact of today’s terrorist attacks on those already traumatized. He interviews surgeons, pyschoanalysts, historians and philosophers. Each of them says, in one way or another, that pain is only amplified when denied. There must be some form of reckoning.


There are memorials throughout Germany to remember and reckon with everything. I hadn’t planned on visiting the memorial at Bergen-Belsen but it was on the way and so we went in.

Three groups passed through this camp. Soviet POWs. The many and varied enemies of the Third Reich. And, finally, the displaced persons left to wander in the aftermath of WWII.

The exhibit at Bergen-Belsen captures extraordinary eyewitness accounts. Video interviews extend from how life was before the camp to how one goes on. The implicit question in each of these epilogue interviews is how to reckon with pain.

One woman can talk to an interviewer but not her children. Another calls it her duty to speak. Then there is the woman who periodically returns to Bergen-Belsen. She says being there lightens her soul and gives her the strength to live a little longer.

Attia says: pain is individual. My pain is not your pain. Not even if we’ve lost the same limb or suffered the same trauma. None of the survivors of Bergen-Belsen has come out unscathed yet their scars are all unique.

the missing limb

This is all food for my soul. Dark and bitter, to be sure, yet nourishing all the same for my imagination. It’s why I wander. Now that I’m home, I’m raring to go.

My novel-in-progress, Peace Court, is set in Shanghai 1954. The long years of war are finally over. Mao promises to bring peace to China and the Chinese want to believe him.

Then violence returns to the community of Peace Court. Kang tries to kill his wife but succeeds only in cutting her arm off. The authorities cart Kang to a labor camp. Jin remains in Shanghai to care for their daughter Li. The novel is about what happens then.

Reflecting Memory was a wander into epiphany. Suddenly, I could see how this act of violence would affect not only Jin but everyone at Peace Court. Because of course, they would all feel the need to choose a side, especially the child Song Li.


As odd as this may sound, I don’t think about Jin as a victim nor Peace Court as a tragedy. It’s a novel of hope. And here’s where Attia comes in, one last time.

Dub is a genre of electronic music. You create it by remixing and manipulating an existing recording to extract the vocals. What remains is a track heavy on bass and drums. Attia interviews an expert in phantom limbs who finds this kind of music wildly interesting, eerie and powerful.

Think about that: a loss that can make you stronger than ever.

This blog post was republished by Authors Electric on 31.08.2017.