New Work in an Old City

picture of main building of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin

New Work in an Old City

For the past three years I’ve been a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, where I finished my book Sparks on dissent in today’s China, while also working on policy issues. It’s been a great experience: I got the chance to work with collegial, interesting thinkers; I moved back to the United States for the first sustained period of time in nearly 30 years; and our family had stability after I was turfed out of China in 2020 and we faced the uncertainties of the Covid era.  For these and many other reasons I’ll always be thankful to the Council for providing me with an intellectual home and a great place to work. 

We would have enjoyed staying on at the Council and in New York but a variety of reasons call us back to Europe and so–to bury the lede–we are leaving New York on July 1 for Berlin (via a summer in Southeast Asia).

Why? Emotionally, I love New York but I have felt what the Chinese call yuanfen (affinity) with Berlin ever since I went there before the Wall fell. After leaving Montreal as a teenager, I didn’t feel at home in many places but Berlin–as messed up as it was and is–immediately felt like home. I spent more than a decade there and it was my base for all the years I spent in China. 

Now we have a great chance to return to Berlin. I’ll be a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. This is modeled on (and in fact its official English name is) the Institute for Advanced Studies, the Princeton-based center for natural and social scientists. I’ll work on my next book there, on religious life in Xi’s China–hint, it has to do with folk religion, pilgrimages, and stick fighting.

Meanwhile, while my wife Sim Chi Yin can be a bit closer to her artistic practice–she’s represented by a gallery there and often works in Europe’s colonial archives. 

In fact, we aren’t flying straight to Berlin because she has a performance in Singapore at the end of August. It’s a one-woman show where she uses her photos, videos, and storytelling to look at memory and forgetting. The show premieres at the national theater, the Esplanade on Aug. 30 . (I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention TICKETS.)

So we’ll go in July, spend some time in Penang, and then she has rehearsals for most of the month. Then in early September off to Berlin for a new chapter in our lives.


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