Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Interculturalism, Israel and I

This is a personal record of Interculturalism going badly wrong, where misunderstandings, cultural (in-)difference and prejudice finally made interaction impossible. In other words a very sad story:

I still remember the day when I said to my husband: "I had some great news today: My Israeli friend is coming to Munich!" I started planning immediately - what did I want to show her (or them, she might be bringing a friend). The market, the English Garden, a famous church (no, of course not, I chided myself, they are Jewish!), an outing to the lakes? They love hiking...Depends how much time they had, I mused. I knew my friend was coming  to attemd a conference. I had to find out! We exchanged emails, where I answered many questions, sent links, hotels near the conference centre, hotels further afield, metro plans, train times...as you would, when friends visit for the first time. But all I ever got back was "Thanks. I'll be in touch."

Hmm, I thought baffled. They probably do things differently in Israel. What do I know about it? They probably simply find all this politeness stuff  "So looking forward to seeing you! Where shall we meet, can't wait  etc etc," tedious in the extreme. After all, my knowledge of polite exchanges is severely limited to Western European/North American exchanges. Also, in a country where you're constantly in danger of being attacked, who cares about social niceties?? I looked at videos of determined looking Israeli politicians in short-sleeved shirts talking about necessary strategies in a brusque but impressive manner.

Two days before the arrival date, another "Thanks I'll be in touch" email arrived. I still didn't know how much time we would be spending together, if any. This was getting bad, I also had a week to plan, set time aside (or not). Should I ask, I thought. It would look pushy I decided. Maybe she HAD to be so cryptic for security reasons...I decided not to make any kind of fuss and throw any toys out of the pram, A guest is a guest,after all.

Then, one day before my friend's arrival, disaster struck. Totally out of the blue, on behalf of nothing, her husband posted on twitter: "If you use [Nazi expression], it means you're a German!" *)

The intercultural car crash had happened. He (they?) obviously held  very stong and prejudicial beliefs. And  didn't even think that it might be better to keep such insulting, totally false prejudices to themselves rather than bandy them around on the web shortly before meeting up with a friend in the country in question. (I challenged him, obviously, but he just called me naive for not "knowing" this "fact". But I live here, I thought...

I'm afraid that was it, as far as that visit was concerned.

I think of her, though. Is she walking around here, filled with ire, thinking "All Nazis"? I look around me, in this friendly and serene town, so open and tolerant, so welcoming to visitors and tourists, with its eagerness to please, its intensely blue sky and absurd romantic beauty. Will it change her mind? This town in the Federal Republic of Germany, a European and open country that cares about its citizens, cares about its standing in the world, works so hard towards progress, reconciliation, understanding, and peace - and I think  - no we don't deserve that.

Always happy to hear your comments on twitter - @Margit11

*) An equivalent would be to say "If you use the N-word, it means you're an American".

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Only Here For the Beer - Intercultural Stereotypes

Recently somebody said to me: "What? You're from Munich, and you don't like beer??!!" Eyebrows raised skywards.  Faced with such a verbal full-frontal, it's quite a challenge to come up with a polite and patient reply. You could say "Well, I'm not actually from Munich, I 'm just living here for the time being" - But that would imply that everybody who is actually from Munich, does like beer. In the end I opted for : "Well two years ago I was living in Edinburgh, and I don't actually like whisky." I thought that made my point quite clear (in an ironic and educational way).

There is something more than just a little backward in remarks like that, even though they obviously try to come over as worldy-wise and informed. But this sort of cultural cliché just takes an intellectual  short-cut by classifying people into geographic cut-out figures. "From the North of England? - So, you probably like warm beer in the pub, whilst disucussing the miners strike with your mates, huh?" "From Paris? Oh là là, Mademoiselle!"

And whilst these examples are harmless, and just show the simple-mindedness of this approach, it's easy to extrapolate how it can quickly degenerate into xenophobic and racial compartmentilisation. "Brazilians - ah they got music in their blood!", "Africans are more in touch with their feelings", "Arabs? Bit fanatical, aren't they?" "Yes, Jews are very good with money" And so on, and so on...

Let's just  remind yourselves that not every Finn is taciturn and likes the dark, not every American is monolingual, or all Spaniards like bullfights and paella. Let's celebrate individuality and diversity. That people are not the embodiment of a cliché associated with a country or place. That people move about and have to come to grips with different cultural surroundings. That everybody is their own person, made up of a myriad of cultural fragments and influences. And that there are people from Munich who prefer wine to beer ...

Any comments? Share them on twitter, @Margit11

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Intercultural Ailments

When I first arrived at Oxford, I was plagued by pretty annoying recurring headaches. The weather had been bad, and I conveyed my theory that the headaches were due to "Kreislaufprobleme" because of  low pressure. My newly found English friend just burst into laughter. "Sorry, she said after a long while during which my head hurt even more, "but this is just soo funny - circulation problems, I love it! When I lived in Germany, everybody was always suffering from circulation problems, and now you come up with it too!" It turned out that English people do not suffer from circulation problems, and don't really understand the term. "Does it mean your arms and legs don't have enough blood flow?" "Well no, it means you feel faint and dizzy, and have headaches, like I do now". That was my first encounterwith the fact that ailments do not really translate very well.

Not much later, it was my turn to be slightly puzzled by an indigenous illness. (It seemed too serious to actually laugh.) Lots of students seemed to be falling ill with something called "Glandular Fever". Hmph, "Drüsenfieber", I thought. Apparently this was caused by late nights, essay crises, and general overwork. It resulted in a very lengthy (often several months) absence from college, and was apparently cured by calm, regular meals, and lying in bed. I'd never heard of it, or anybody who had succumbed to this illness before England, but quickly learned to look utterly shocked and slightly panicked whenever "Glandular Fever" was mentioned. I kept it to myself that the illness in question was probably best thought of as "flu".

In France, people suffer from something called "Jambes lourdes" a lot - heavy legs. Of course everybody has probably encountered the sensation, e.g.after a lengthy hike. But can it be a proper illness which makes you stay away from work for several days, for which there is a plethora of medication available in pharmacies? Apparently yes, in France at least.

So I suppose the learning is, everybody shares the same symptoms but whether you call it an illness is up to you - or rather the cultural context you live in, and how seriously it is taken there.

Happy to hear about your country's special illnesses and ailments, I'm on twitter: @Margit11