By Huiyu Chuang
For many young people around the world, Europe is not too unfamiliar as a travel or study destination. In the context of globalization, regardless in geography, economy, politics, art and popular culture, our lives more or less intertwine with others’. As Euroculture students, we should have no problem adapting into this melting pot. I thought to myself, what would it be really like to live in Europe and with European students?
For many Asian families, being 25 years old when you start exploring the world is not too late of an age, especially after studying very hard to graduate from university and working in a company for some years, yet still unsure of what kind of life experience one really wants to have. Unlike me, almost all the classmates I met here have lived a cross-cultural life and possess study/volunteer experiences during their university education. Many of them have “dual identities” and regard themselves proudly as European, no less, or even more, than their nationalities. When these two kinds of people meet, culture shock is inevitable.
As a foreign student, I would like to share my observations on the culture of hanging out and making friends during my time in Strasbourg.
For an Asian student like me, joining Euroculture in the academic year 2018/2019 is a start for me personally to view cultural differences differently, and to distinguish practices individually instead of looking at it collectively. In this case, I see the culture of hanging out as a common culture shared by many European students, but at the same time not generalizing them because this concept differs in methods based on individuals in different parts of Europe.
I grew up in East Asia, specifically in Taiwan, where work is always more important than breaks. In fact, “taking a break” is a concept that many Taiwanese and Chinese people need to practice. Thirty-minute breaks are reluctantly squeezed in to busy daily schedules. Even children in their early education often use their noon break to study when they have an exam in the afternoon or they have not finished their homework from extra after-school lessons. During weekdays, young people go to school and study, only to directly go home after classes – hanging out only happens in the weekend by invitation. For many East Asians, diligence is a virtue. Immigrants who left to the West carry this value with them: only through diligence in the host countries would they get job opportunities to make ends meet, enabling them to establish a better foundation for their offspring. A simple example of this is the fact that many Chinese restaurants in Strasbourg remain open despite the holidays.
“Shall we chill?”
Everything starts with the lesson of how to chill out, which most of the time only happens after class. Student life can sometimes be tough—from sitting for three hours in a class, heavy readings, or working on a big presentation for a whole week. Don’t we deserve a break? The form of this so-called “break” varies from chatting outside the classroom, having a coffee, lying down on the meadow while waiting for the next class, a gathering at someone’s home or going to a restaurant to celebrate something, or doing nothing but just relaxing and being with each other.
In these occasions, people loosen up themselves, and it becomes interesting to witness 1) how people behave differently from who they are in class and 2) how the relationship of those who do and do not get involved in this “ritual” develop differently. Considering my Asian upbringing, I have been taught to show politeness by caring about gestures. That’s why I could burn out my brain just thinking about what to bring when visiting a friend. Contrary to what I am accustomed to, when visiting a friend’s home as a guest to hang out, one usually does not need to prepare anything specific—you can bring drinks, a bag of chips, or whatever you want to share with others.
“What is the point?”
I did not understand the premise of a regular “hang-out” at first, mostly because of the cultural context I grew up in. A typical day of many people in my country involves a rushed breakfast on the way to work. When people arrive at their offices, they greet their colleagues simply and sit down right before their computers for three to four hours until noon. A one hour lunch break is followed by either a thirty minutes noon break or another work session which lasts until around 17:00 or 18:00 in the evening. Apart from the noon break, people only work. When it is officially off-duty time, a lot of people choose to work overtime. Some of them really have heavy workload, but some stay in the offices just because no one leaves. Especially if you are a junior, you can feel the peer pressure under this circumstance. Once the supervisor sees you leave on time regularly, he does not think you work efficiently but misunderstands your job as being too easy and too few, so it is highly possible he will give you more tasks.
After work, Japanese culture has “Izakaya” (Japanese bar) where many white-collar people (especially men) go after work, eating and drinking to release their stress. Despite Japanese colonization of Taiwan in the past, the Taiwanese did not adopt this custom completely. People rarely wander around pubs or restaurants. Many of them go back home straight away, either to immerse themselves in several TV hours or to continue studying and working. Outings usually happen for special occasions, and it is carefully planned in advance.
That is why, at first I thought a formal orientation followed by several introductory meetings at the brasserie were enough. As the semester started, we would have many common classes and discussions that drew everyone together almost at a daily basis, and that gave us chance to know each other better. However, this mindset (or assumption) did not go as expected in reality. My experience in Strasbourg showed that the activities that my classmates do for “hanging out” are much more casual, compared to what I am accustomed to back home, which is more scheduled.
What I observed is that every time a class was dismissed, my classmates did not really say goodbye to each other while leaving the classrooms. Rather, they gathered outside the classroom for a chat, and the topic usually ended up with a collective plan for what to do next. Sometimes, I could hear proposals go back and forth. Someone liked this, while someone did not. In between, other side topics occasionally interrupted until the final group decision was made, and everyone followed. That reminds me very much of the European political values we learned in class, negotiation and compromise from ordinary practices.
Another story came from a casual expression. “Can we have a gathering at my place, because I am so tired today?” I was confused when I heard this expression for the first time–if a person is tired, doesn’t he need to just rest? Yes, but there are different understandings of how people rest: it could be staying home alone, eating good food, traveling, or having a drink, a smoke with friends around. Evidently, we bear our own understandings that ultimately influence how we act in the community. In a cross-cultural environment, my point is sometimes not your point. Though deciding how to act is a personal freewill, in our learning journey, seeing and trying different points (or putting yourself in someone else’s shoes) could be a good way to exercise tolerance and flexibility.
“After we chill”
Throughout the whole semester, there are plenty of chances to “hang out” in the sense that my classmates understood. I more or less decided to ignore that in the beginning, until I sensed a phenomenon: I had nothing other than class-related stuff to talk about with my classmates after an exchange of “how are you”s. Everyone was nice and polite, but it seemed as if there was a solid wall set between the public and private persona. For those who joined this “ritual” frequently, their relationship entered another level. From exchanging personal questions, going deeper into sharing more common life experiences, feelings, and exchanging jokes. The mental and physical distance shortened when more intimate interactions are involved. That was the moment I decided to attend this “ritual” and discovered what it was really like.
My first experience was a party hosted by a German classmate. In class, my impression of her was that she is very professional and logical. She always spoke calmly and reasonably. When I entered her house as her first guest, I saw a different side of her. She was singing and moving her body along with the music, her voice and facial expressions were more emotional than that in class. She posed more casual questions to me until other guests came. In our class, our French classmates did not “faire la bise” (which, for me, was a surprise because of the stereotype), but they did that in the hanging out occasion. Due to a personal health issue, I left earlier before the party ended.
The following day, when I met these classmates, we easily caught up with each other. I wondered what this magic power was, because obviously I did not do many things other than merely showing up and trying to be with everyone at the party. For those who stayed longer and spent time with each other during the party, they became closer, behaving just like old friends.
So, does hanging out constitute the secret ingredient to a better relationship with others? Well, it is a “shortcut”, but not the only way.
If someone is not used to taking the “shortcut” (like me), the good news is, we can transplant the essence of the “shortcut” in other ways and still arrive the same destination. In our program, we had a one-week field trip in Paris. During that week, everyone opened up to each other. We did not have a party every night, but we stuck to each other as a group every day. We commuted, studied, ate, slept, faced problems and sorted them out together. At that moment, I felt the essence is still shared in most intercultural relationships: genuine understanding and participation in each other’s life. It took time to know all sides of a person and in different kinds of circumstances—whether it is the relaxing, serious, difficult, or emergent kind.
Where we come from shapes our social behaviors and perspectives, but as they are socially constructed and keep changing, there is nothing fixed to follow. In any case, I am glad to hang out with people who I frequently see during parties, but also those who are less likely to attend such “hanging out” activities. Because of them, I attained a rich cultural experience and learned about my limits—something that is more challenging to do when one stays in the singular, national culture one grew up with.
Featured picture: Gabia Party, Flickr.