Anne Frank and the Chinese Nightingale- The corona crisis: reflections from East and West

Let me be myself , NDSM shipyard in Amsterdam, NL

Abstract: Anne, you are in our mind, but our body seem to have forgotten. The trauma of the Second World War, but the memories of disasters like the Spanish Flu and plague, faded and now linger somewhere far in the back of our collective Dutch memory. Anne, I shout loud, but no one hears me. The nightingale from the Chinese folk story, her voice weakens and starts to sound dull, as her freedom is robbed. She lowers her head and realizes she forgot her favorite song, her authentic sound. Now, she only sings the melody requested, or worse, she does not sing at all.

'Let me be myself,'- is the title of the Anne Frank graffiti at the NDSM shipyard, right behind my home, in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Anne Frank, a Dutch icon, a young Jewish girl hiding from the Germans during the Second World War. Her diary written during 761 days of quarantine, full of philosophy about life outside of ‘her temporary prison’, the Secret Annex. Could it be that restrictions to freedom, offer opportunities to become aware of inner walls we have built, for example, the family systems we are part of.

To see clearly how the history of our countries continue in the cultural norms and institutions. The external oppressor and occupation might be removed from the scene, but what about internal occupation and oppression within a country? Could it be that ‘forced solitude and confinement’ offers chances to grow in our collective consciousness about how ‘to be human together’? How to break the inner bars and barriers preventing our essence to come out, so that the nightingale will find her voice again.

This short article reflects on the corona crisis, with a focus on ‘zingeving’, a Dutch word that refers to ‘making meaning’ and ‘spirituality’. Anne Frank and the folk story ‘The Chinese Nightingale’ are engaged within the ‘zingeving – journey’.

''I raise my eyes to the hills where does my help come from''. ''I wander from room to room, down the stairs and up again, feeling like a songbird, its wings plucked out violently, flying into the bars of its narrow cage in utter darkness. 'Get out there, breathe and laugh!' it screams in me''.

Two excerpts from Anne’s diary. Her diary written during 761 days of quarantine, full of philosophy about life outside of ‘her temporary prison’, the Secret Annex. Anne, what can we learn from you? We all know you. Right now, you seem far away. You wrote “we also realized too late what was happening. We thought it is going to be ok. It will pass”. If only we had known and been more careful.

Today’s wars do not have a clear front line; civil-, cyber-, ideological wars and perhaps the most invisible, a virus war. Anne, I lay awake. My body utmost alert. From the end of January, I stood on the barricades and shouted: hey Dutch citizens, hello government, hi there health care professionals, wake up NOW! Risk analysis, scaling up the intensive care beds and protective materials, testing preventively and on a large scale, instructing the population, rather too strict than too weak. Prepare for the worse, and reduce the measurements later when possible. You must stay ahead of a virus, these are the rules of a virus war. Ebola, SARS, swine flu taught us that. I know, white superiority, in Northern Europe we expect others to look at us how to think and act, but now the roles have shifted. The non-western world has something to teach us.

The Ruined City, by Ossip Zadkine

Female voice in the desert

Most of my life I lived in that non-western world, mainly in countries that are struggling with poverty, political conflict or natural disasters. The last five years I lived in East Asia, in countries with a collective SARS trauma. The history, successes and popular trauma of these countries are inscribed on my body. And so I let my female voice be heard. Netherlands wake up! A voice in the Dutch urban desert, amid collective oblivion. A few years after World War II, the statue The Ruined City was disclosed by Rotterdam’s city mayor Van Walsum. He said; ‘This statue intends to preserve, the memory of one of the lowest points in the history of our city and of our people. Anne, you are in our mind, but our bodies seem to have forgotten’.

Danger at a crossroads

A collective trauma, such as the SARS virus in Asia in 2002/2003 and its consequences, take at best, a generation to process. It was to be expected that the former SARS countries of East Asia would immediately be in extreme alert. This differs a lot, compared to how the Netherlands initially reacted. Together with Eefje Rammeloo, China correspondent for Dutch Newspaper Trouw, I wondered if no one had read what was already written at the start of the corona crisis by Dutch China correspondents and also within the East Asian media.

The two Chinese characters denoting crisis, 危机 wēijī, in combination mean ‘danger at a crossroads’. And not ‘danger’ plus ‘chance’, as is often suggested in inspirational speeches in Europe and the United States. If we related this to the corona crisis and the lessons from East Asia that we could have learnt; my conclusion is that we turned a deaf ear. We acted as if being ‘Oost-Indisch doof’, a Dutch expression referring to colonial times where the Netherlands occupied the East India and blamed the locals of not understand the orders given.

With Anne in quarantine

If we dig a little deeper into our collective Dutch consciousness, what are the insights present, for us to use as a nation and as individuals when dealing with the corona crisis and our enforced quarantine?

You or I
may and must
become “us”

I know
Compromise and sacrifice
Are not favorite

You in control of your life,
And I, in control of my surroundings

Kicked off, of our seat, ‘almighty’

To bend and bow
We forgot how to

Somewhere deep deep down
in our collective Dutch memory
we secretly still remember

So there you are. Home Alone. Where all days are alike. You may be scared at night while your body is fighting the virus. ‘Will my breath suddenly stop while I sleep’? ‘Do they actually come when things really go wrong?’ Even an atheist starts to cry out to God, as Anne wrote “I lift my eyes to the hills. Where will my help come from? ”.
I repeat the sentences in my head, during my every day walk or jog where I pass a giant Anne Frank graffiti on the NDSM shipyard in Amsterdam North. What was the next line? I dig, but cannot retrieve the words. And suddenly, now a corona patient myself, I remember.

It is Tuesday March 24, 4 a.m., when I gasp and worry about the fierce sting in my heart area, the pressure on my chest and my inability to grasp air. For two hours, the ambulance personnel does ‘things’ to my body, what exactly goes past me. I am there, but I am not there.
My mind travels. Then I see images from the Anne Frank movie that I watched in my youth ‘My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will guard and guide, never letting you stumble or fall. God is your keeper; Your Guardian never sleeps.Then and there, I feel a deep sense of peace’.
Questions seep into my heart “What is of real value in this life?”. “How will you use your talents, in the coming years?”. And “don’t overestimate yourself. A man without God. Is like a body without breath of life ”.
Wow, that is quite a penetrating message. It sounds, however, loving and inviting rather than reproachful. I feel grateful for these ‘Anne Frank’ and ‘Jewish-Christian’ pieces of Dutch collective memory that found me at the right time, to pull me through an awful night.

A Chinese Nightingale without wings

From ‘at home, alone’ to ‘at home: if only I could have one moment to be by myself’. Small obstructions are suddenly placed under a magnifying glass. Every sigh and annoying trait, all too clearly observed. ‘How long are we going to keep this up with this, on just a few square meters?’ When reflecting in her diary on the little space shared with too many people for too long, Anne spoke of a passerine bird, its wings plucked violently, flying in utter darkness into the bars of its narrow cage. She wanted to fly, breath and laugh during her 761 days of quarantine. From the folk tale ‘The Chinese Nightingale’, published by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen in 1843, we know that a songbird without freedom slowly loses its authentic voice. Freedom, individuality and autonomy seem to go together. I do not think Anne Frank learned of this folk tale played out in China, yet one would almost think so following the image she uses to express her feelings. At the beginning of the Çhinese nightingale folk story, an Chinese emperor hears of nightingale who sings magically, yet he does not know where to find the bird. He asks all the highly respected people under his reign. Finally, he finds a poor kitchen maid that knows where to go search for the bird.

One of the Dutch children in my art class, whom I shared the folktale with just before we were home quarantined in the Netherlands, mentioned “we should not be snobbish and underestimate certain people, they might have the answer we are looking for”.

This 8 year old understood a lesson some of the Dutch political leaders yet had to learn; their Eurocentric mindset prevented them from asking East Asian countries with SARS experience how to deal with a virus war.

A Chinese friend and former colleague, Rosalyn, was quarantined in a guest house in Taiwan from the beginning of February 2020. Restricted to reside in one room only, she used her chair multifunctionally as a desk with a cushion in front to sit on, but also as a workout bench, and as a dinner table. After a few days she felt so confined that she got dark thoughts, about what it would be like to jump out of the window. She imaged how it would be like to spread her ‘wings’ again. A friend brought some post-its, with which she started a window art project. She noted longings and dreams of what she wanted to do when she regained her freedom. She shared some recommendations on how to deal with home insulation.

Rosalyn wrote in a personal conversation: develop a day routine where you divide your day in blocks in which you work, relax, eat, etcetera. Decide in advance of the times when you follow the news, and for the rest of the time, turn off your social media so you do not have a constant flow of worrying news coming in. Use your creativity! Write, sing, draw, create with whatever you have at your disposal. This supports you to let your mind wander into freedom, and gain new creative ideas on how to deal with your confinement. Meditate, pray and move around the house.
The relationship guru Esther Perel goes deeper into the brief advices Rosalyn gave, in her weekly online sessions. “How to adjust your entire relational world to one confined place”. She mentions the importance of boundaries in the form of time and space. Boundaries in time: divide working time from relaxation time, time for intimacy from productivity, time for physical from mental exertion. Boundaries in the form of space, mean that you create a different setting for each activity, even if you are in the same space. She also emphasizes the power of imagination, playfulness and creativity. Your mind is not ‘bound’ by the four walls you are in.

Terpsichore door Dance Pocket Art

‘Let me be myself

If we follow a day in the life of Anne Frank or read her diary, there are similarities with Rosalyn’s recommendations and solutions I sought for while being a corona patient. The multifunctional use of space; Otto, Edith and Margo Frank’s bedroom was transformed into the common living room during the day. There is a clear rhythm and routine in the household of the people in hiding. Anne, clears her mind by writing about her souls stirrings. She cries out to God. In the Secret Annex where Anne and her family is hiding; creativity and innovative solutions predominate. Crossword puzzle booklets are reused, by erasing the answers. I look at the series of ‘get well soon cards’ I received during my ‘corona time’. Some of the ‘cards’ I got from elderly friends and family are simple magazine pictures, cut-out with a note. I smile. This crisis brings us closer together, to the very essence of life, and who knows… it might teach us a lesson in humility.

‘Let me be myself’ is the text accompanying the giant ‘Anne Frank’ graffiti in Amsterdam. Could it be that temporary restrictions in freedom, offer opportunities to become aware of inner walls we have build due to, for example, the family systems we grew up in? On the nights when I lay awake, anxious, and not being able to breath well, my life with all its ups and downs passes by like a movie. I become aware of convictions I have carried with me for a long time, without realizing. A thought pattern, an attitude, a way of positioning myself that was once helpful. Yet, when it starts to become a long term habit it limits me to life my true essence. I talk to a friend, who is part of my dance / art collective Forge about how ‘involuntary solitude’ and limitations in what we can and cannot do, confronts us with ‘self. It gives us the opportunity to become aware of the bars and barriers created on the inside. He pulls a little box from his bag, and shows one of his newly made tiny sculptures. He holds it up against the sun. It is Terpsichore, one of the nine Greek muses who symbolize inner strength and inspiration. In ancient times, ‘spirit power’ referred to ‘breath’ and ‘air’, or ‘inhaling’.

My goodness, I never thought that couple of awful, stuffy nights would teach me something about bars I build on the inside. About beliefs, convictions and relationships I better let go of to ensure my spirit can inhale fully, and exhale while having an impact on its surroundings. In the breath, the divine connects with humanity. I do not believe in a God on a cloud who tells us what to do, who punishes when we do not listen, and cut off our wings in an indignant mood. I do believe in a God who speaks softly into our soul about the freedom we can have. Who reminds us of the power of our true essence.

The Greek muse Terpsichore, with her harp, is the embodiment of dance and poetry. The image of Terpsichore set aflame by sunlight, touches me. On a deep level, the image tells me what complete inner freedom and ‘let me be myself ‘ looks and feels like. What image of freedom speak to you? How does your Chinese nightingale, your songbird, sound when it lustily sings its own melody?

And on a collective level….. could it be that the corona crisis, helps us see more clearly how the history of our countries continues to exist in the cultural norms and institutions? The external oppressor and occupation might be removed from the scene, but what about internal occupation and oppression within a country? The gap between rich and poor becomes visible in the corona death rate; no money, no entrance to the health care system.
Children from marginalized families, disappear from the schools radar, after schools closed and classes are taught online. They work in the local supermarket to support their families in the crisis, or their parents do not speak the language and do not know how to home school their children. Women in unhealthy and violent relationships, can no longer flee to cope but are confined to the ‘home quarantine pressure cooker’, where violence erupts all to often.

Could it be that this corona crisis offers chances to grow in our collective consciousness about how ‘to be do humane together’?

  • Dr. Marloes van Houten was trained as a professional dancer, and later in social geography, Asian studies and traumatology. She worked for many years in countries prone or affected by conflict- and disaster, using the arts, research and dialogue for conflict transformation. From 2012 to 2017 she worked in Asia, in countries with a collective SARS (2002/2003) trauma. Currently, she works as a senior researchers at the Political Sociology department of the University of Amsterdam. Beside her university job, Marloes works one day a week with (ex-) cancer patients (trauma treatment and physical training), and dedicates the rest of her time to running artistic projects with her ‘AsiaEur’ dance-theatre collective ‘Forge’: www.forgecollective.net  


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