Welcome to a special joint episode between Beyond Asian and The Life Itself HubCast - my newest podcast project on co-living in an intentional community in Berlin.
This episode features Sylvie Shiwei Barbier, the co-founder of Life Itself - an organization striving for a radically wiser world. Our interview takes us on a journey from Sylvie’s Taiwanese-French origins to the role of suffering in growth, to home and belonging, to founding Life Itself and the Hubs.
We finish with a lightning round on The Hub Knock Life - an up close and personal sharing of day to day life in the Bergerac.
Chapter 1: Culture, Family, and Narratives
Sen: So Sylvie, welcome to the beyond Asian podcast and the first episode of the HubCast. I'm speaking to you today over zoom, of course, as all interviews, these days tend to be conducted and you are sitting in bedrock in the South of France, in a beautiful countryside farmhouse.
And I'm sitting in my apartment here in the Berlin hub in Berlin.
Sylvie: Thank you. It's a real pleasure to be here and take a moment to connect with one another.
Sen: Sylvie, your origins are mixed. You're a French Taiwanese artist and you've lived all over the world and have experienced all sorts of different cultures. And so that's one of the reasons. That I wanted to invite you first on the beyond Asian podcast. But one of the other reasons is because you are the co-founder of life itself, which is the organization that is connected to our hub here in Berlin.
And the desire that I had is to really understand what your journey has been in founding this organization? What have been the major turning points in your life that have guided how you've come to this and what the future visions for this project look like?
So I know that that's a lot of big stuff, but we're going to get there little
Sylvie: by little, little by
Sylvie: So, Yeah, I was born in Taiwan and. My memories of Taiwan was like paradise on earth. And I moved to France when I was about three and a half, four years old. And it was like going from like tropical paradise to like cold European winter I would say that in Taiwan, there was a great sense of community of trust. And in France, I really felt this kind of discovering my French family that had less connection with one another, maybe more family trauma also. This disconnection between my father and my half brother and my half sister who were born before me, it was just very strange navigating that having come from Asia with a great sense of togetherness and also school, where there was a lot less sense of connection and community and relatedness
what were the most striking things that you remember from that time?
Sylvie: There's actually an odd year recording of myself, arriving in France being that age and it was fascinating to hear myself being that age. Cause I didn't speak very much French at all. I only spoke Chinese to my mom and. I could already sense in there.
What were the dynamic between my father and my mom? What type of child I was? And I was, I would say very confident and I want to do it just like quite with my mom. I was very confident and having a very good relationship would actually gradually my experience of France. After that age, even primary school, my confidence gradually strength partially because I'm dyslexic and I was dyslexic as a child.
but If you're raised like the Asian wait, be good at school, getting the good grades, being a good daughter, getting the little stars. And I really, I was a typical Asian kid collecting all the stars from King and being very proud.
And then the riving to primary school dyslexic. So in capable of writing French or reading French very well and having bad grades and therefore like my sense of self, totally crushing and and performance no longer being the favorite to the teachers. And my parents are, so we're going through w gradually going for a separation.
So home was also quite like not a peaceful place either. And I think my parents were dealing with a lot among themselves and my mom, just being in the foreign country, I think for her, it was a great sense of adding a nation and Just the cultural environment is different. You can't get a job as easily.
And I think for my father, he was definitely, probably depressed And he was bipolar. So Also he was an engineer and a very successful one. And coming back to France, he was like, he lost. The sense of pride in his work. He was no longer used to be like a top engineering to world in creating programs for control towers in airplane.
And then suddenly he's looking for a job. And so he's whole sense of identity, I think. And self-worth, or so. Was struggling. So yeah, it's not very surprising, if your parents struggle, you struggle at school and et cetera, like the typical, the practicable stuff,
Sen: it sounds like your entire family went through quite a difficult transition.
Sylvie: Yeah. I think my father, I think for ex-pats returning to your home country, it is really tough because you're just not used to how the administration works and all of that. And I think my father being bipolar and he's also Aspergers.
That does, this is just not, doesn't really help.
Sen: Usually some of the things that make it more socially difficult in your country of origin. When you go to another country, some of those things are overlooked by.
The local population, because they're like he's an ex-pat anyway, of course he's going to be different. And Asian culture is judgmental in some ways and very accepting in other ways. Yes. Like people will typically judge you for things like appearance
but they surprisingly don't tend to judge things like. Mental disorders or, behavioral things, somehow those things are understood as part of the social fabric.
Sylvie: Yes. I think you're quite spot on. I think there's a higher tolerance for a Noosa.
I think just the kind of sense of general loyalty to the family. We'd take you with your quirks. And even if you're really different and we actually don't understand you, you're still family. And I think for me, that's a a very nourishing value cause it's really experiencing a true sense of being accepted for who we are and even beyond the differences.
Sen: Tell me about when you arrived in France and you had to go into kindergarten at three and a half years old had to learn French. What was that like for you
Sylvie: I always had a little sense of as a child that I was like, I'm a princess and there were wild, the princess
Sometime they found me a bit. Too much. I would tend to bite people and scratch them, but I F I found it. It was just fun. It was my way of expressing fun. And then I'd like to, yeah. Let me bite you to show with you. I liked it's also the way that cats work, right? Yes. I have been told that I'm a kind of version of a big cats.
My mom calls me Moolah, who, which is female tiger.
Yeah, so yeah, I think it was tough. I think overall, I understand a lot of things that I made it mean that carried beyond, which is I made it mean I'm never accepted in France. So I look kind of, as soon as I could leave the country, I had a whole thing of I'll show you where, if I was bullied, so I wanted to show them like, I will rule you one day kind of attitude.
And then also believing that I was fundamentally stupid from my under-performance in primary school, in French. I would have the equivalent of an S every time in French. And it's been a long journey of recognizing. Those narrative that I build about myself and untangling them. And Oser girl with who I felt believed for a long time as a child, reconciling with her and calling her.
And just really seeing how I wanted to blame things that were very much due to circumstance that were difficult for my family on to that other child. If my life is fucked up, it's because of you, because I was like actually it's a little bit more complicated than that. And that gave me a lot of peace because that freed me from a victim narrative and a victim narrative.
Was one that bought me a lot in the sense that it took me away from being responsible for my own life and always everything that didn't work. I could blame it on them or on something else or on France or my parents, and gradually gave me the sense of like, Oh I can do something about this. Whereas my responsibility lying on that and responsibility now in terms of fault.
But. word is my power lies. I can be powerful in my life and then making a difference to other people.
Sen: I think this victim mentality is something that a lot of us who have immigrated have. Struggled with, and some of us are more deeply in it and some of us are working our way out of it.
My favorite narrative is everything is my parents' fault. And if they had only treated me better, if they hadn't forced me to take piano lessons with this crazy piano teacher, if they hadn't forced me to take badminton lessons or forced me to go to Chinese school on Saturday mornings, my life would've been so much easier and it wouldn't be as traumatized as I am today.
children the world is oversimplified, you know, it's very cause and effect, so you see an effect, you see an actor and you immediately say because I have this effect, it must be this one actor that I can see.
And as we grew up, we understand that many actors are invisible and things are circumstantial and environmental and historical. And only then do you see that all of these things are happening in the background and they manifest themselves through the action of a physical person. For example, your parents, or maybe a nasty girl in the playground.
And then we attribute all of the cause to that one thing that we can see, because it helped us to make sense of the world. And it helps us to develop, a story that we can easily contain within ourselves. Yeah,
Sylvie: I think we're very we're story makers. I think one thing of the human condition is that we can't help it to make stories to make sense of the world.
There are stories that are really disempowering and not serving of ourselves and of others. And yeah, we very quickly mixed between the what happened and then we make it mean stuff, but it's just what happened. And it's really doing the practice of untangling, the, what happened with, and then I made it mean that.
And then we try to do everything to fulfill on what did we make it mean to be correct, I think , that is a lot of the suffering is laid into, the meaning we put into things. Yeah.
Sen: when you think back to, starting to understand your own responsibility and your own power in the story that you're living, can you trace back some moments where you had a realization, maybe a tiny moment where you're like, you know what, maybe this isn't the way that things are in my head.
Sylvie: I would say there's one moment. I was 14. I just found in love with a childhood friend and it didn't work out long story short. And before that, I even took my saving to go to London by Eurostar to tell him how much I love him. Basically came back with I don't love you back and I'm looking back he's you were pretty, pretty courageous.
Did you actually,
Sen: you actually went to London on your own. Oh my goodness.
Sylvie: Yes. To tell him to see him at his and with his parents. I knew his parents since I was a kid, but coming back, it was really heartbroken. And my mom told me something. She said to me, you can be responsible for your own happiness.
You can choose to be happy and not have your happiness depends on your circumstance. And I remember walking and I felt miserable for days and I remembered that day when she said that to me, I walked in and I was like, okay, I can choose right now to be happy and horses. Don't like every, but it's really a choice of trying to like, of generating.
Your state of being and really discovering that you can generate it. You're not always a victim of your own emotion and your own faults and your own mental state, then you can gradually walk separate paths. Yeah, I think that was the first kind of like a little window opening up.
Sen: Yeah. Yeah. And to have had it at a, such an early age.
Many of us don't get that until quite later in life, that understanding that we're responsible for our own wellbeing and happiness.
Sylvie: Yeah. I think also one thing I saw and learned from my mother is that my mother, regardless of my divorce with my father always made an effort to have a good relationship with my father and that I have a good relationship with him.
And growing up, I realize how uncommon that is that most divorces lead to unspoken resentment, just coldness and, we would sometimes still spend Christmas together. And I was like, wow. I think that me seeing my parents working together to still be a family. With raising a child together and be decent to one another gave me a lot of strength and hope to be like, I can always work my relationship out in the sense that it might not turn out the way I wish, but I can still heal you can heal everything if things can be broken things can be healed too.
And I think that was a great gift from my parents.