Covid-19: how will Europe get back up?

By Hannah Bieber

Disclaimer: this article was written on March 18th, 2020. Due to the instability of the situation, some of the information it contains might be subject to changes.

A lot of people were expecting it, and it finally happened: the world we live in has been challenged. Not the way we imagined it, not in the circumstances we expected, but it did. Europe is now facing one of its major crises since the day the European Union was created. And all the flaws that we knew that existed blew up in our faces. The demography of an old continent getting older and older, the weariness of our welfare states system, the instability of our financial organizations, the limits of a space without borders and the emergence of nationalism have now all been crystalized by a microscopic organism.

The recent Covid-19 outbreak and confinement measures will give us plenty of time to reflect on the consequences it will have on our societies, especially in Europe. Indeed, this virus is almost harmless for the majority of the population, but can be very harmful for the elderly, for instance. In 2016, one EU citizen out of five was over the age of 65. This is why the virus poses Europe an immense challenge today. But what about tomorrow? What will be the consequences of this crisis for the EU?

First of all, in my point of view, the way the virus spread will inevitably lead to the questioning of border control and the Schengen Area. While the free circulation of people is protected by the Treaty of Maastricht (1992), this crisis has led some member states to close their borders unilaterally. Moreover, on March 16th, the EU decided to close its external borders in order to prevent infected third country nationals from entering the old continent. When the crisis is over, populist parties will probably push even harder to reestablish border control or exit the Schengen Area. One can easily imagine far-right parties using this new fear of epidemics in order to convince people that this is now a necessity.

Besides, the financial system of the EU will have to be rethought. The instability of our capitalist economy has been brought to light in the harshest of ways. When the crisis hit China, the stock markets started panicking, but when it reached Europe, they went down. The financial crisis intertwined with a very complicated economic situation. In many European countries like Italy, Spain, France or Poland, stores and shops that are not considered necessary were closed in order to keep people home. Thus, the State has been responsible for helping the firms and workers who were asked to cease their activities. To cover the losses and ensure the safety of their people, the states will have to implement new economic strategies during and after this period. For instance, Peter Altmaier, the German Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, mentioned the possibility of temporarily nationalizing some firms. After the outbreak, the EU will have to rethink its financial and economic rules and objectives because we will probably face a period of recession.

This goes hand in hand with the reorganization of our health systems. What this crisis revealed, above all else, is the fact that we cannot keep cutting corners into our health budgets. Scientists and activists had been warning that such outbreaks would happen in the coming years due to climate change. This crisis interrogates the model of welfare states that still want to remain competitive in a globalized economy – because they do not really have a choice. Ensuring people’s health and making sure that there are enough doctors, nurses and that the facilities are well equipped is a vital element that many states seem to have been forgetting.

In France, for example, although no one could have predicted the outbreak, hospitals had been on strike and protesting for months, asking for more beds to be available, for more staff, and for the improvement of their facilities and working conditions, but had barely been heard by the government. And France will probably take a heavy toll because this call for help was taken too lightly. This crisis has shown that our states must not treat the health sector like any other economic activity and ask hospitals to be more efficient with less tools and staff.

The Covid-19 will also raise questions about the future of our democracies. After the start of the outbreak, some have applauded the way China handled the crisis. Indeed, it succeeded in controlling the problem, and the country slowly comes back to life, after two months of quarantine. But this situation was also handled thanks to Xi Jinping’s iron fist and the surveillance means available in Beijing. In a democracy, it is harder to control people. As a proof: EU citizens did not stop living because of the virus. They kept on going out and acted carelessly – sometimes recklessly. By making the choice of democracy, Europe also gave its citizens the right to do what they wanted. And in this case, in some countries, a lot of people decided to care more about themselves than their community.

This pushed some EU governments to close most venues where people gather and interact, because EU citizens failed to implement the social distancing preconized by scientists. In Italy, Spain and France, the State had to impose harsh confinement measures, which violate fundamental individual liberties, such as the right to gather or the right to move freely. But these measures were taken after people did not change their behavior to contain the virus. This raises an interesting philosophical debate over people’s liberty. Where does our liberty start and where does it have to stop? Did we reach a point where people have too much liberty? This is something that we will need to reflect about.

This also boils down to the question of social media, and media in general. The fact that we are constantly exposed to a somewhat overwhelming flow of information has worsened our feeling of being powerless and anxiety. It has also contributed to the misinformation of people, and ultimately could explain why they behaved in a careless way, sometimes. When the outbreak started in China, the Covid-19 was a ‘mystery pneumonia’. Then, the media depicted it as a bad flu, which could cause complications for most vulnerable people. The French government’s spokeswoman herself assured on live public radio that it was not a lot more dangerous than the flu itself. In this context, one may understand why Europeans did not take the illness seriously. How could they?

This situation even led the European Commission chief to acknowledge that EU leaders ‘underestimated’ the virus. On top of all the contradictory information came the infamous fake news that helped to create an atmosphere of defiance towards authorities at some occasions, with conspiracy theories, or fear at others. Despite their pledge to tackle misinformation, the social media – or people in general – have utterly failed to do so. Could the EU do more to help to control this kind of content in the future? On the other hand, more control over social media content could also lead to abuses from some governments. How will the EU tackle the issue of fake news all the while preserving people’s freedom of speech in the future?

Last but not least, this crisis will try the EU’s unity. All the elements cited above could compromise the future of the Union. Besides, this crisis revealed that, while nations came together – as we saw with the balcony gatherings to applaud hospital staff in Spain, for instance – to face the crisis, they acted as individual states. Few decisions have been taken at the EU level to handle the outbreak and some people have wondered ‘where is the EU, now?’ The crisis is not over yet, and the union will maybe react, but this critical moment has shown that nationalism prevailed over it in such a situation. Even if people have shown their support to their EU citizens counterparts – and this has been all the more true in the context of the Euroculture Master – they seem to care about themselves first, their country second and sometimes their fellow EU citizens third. However, now that ‘Europe has become the new epicenter of the pandemic’, it will maybe come together to face this new challenge. Only the future will tell if it will emerge stronger or more divided than ever from this crisis.

All in one, the Covid-19 outbreak will leave the EU with a lot of challenges, on top of the ones that it was facing before the illness reached our shores. But Europe will get back up. It has been through worse and has still managed to rise from its ashes. Some argue that this crisis will start the beginning of its end. But what if it marks a new beginning? This is the opportunity for the EU to show that solidarity and mutual care are at the core of its existence, rather than financial or economic concerns. Let’s hope that it will learn from its mistakes and grow stronger, so that history doesn’t repeat itself.

Picture: Sean MacEntee, Flickr

All That Glitters Is Not Gold

By Vhiktoria Siva

Europe will always be defined by its colonial past in the same way that its former colonies will never be able to deny theirs. Even now, hundreds of years after Europe’s “golden period”, its effects still echo loud and clear in all aspects of life all over the globe, and any discourse with a colonial tenor remains a delicate topic for both sides. One would think that after all these years, we as a society would be so much better at addressing this matter, that we could finally talk about these things with sensitivity, but this is not the case at all. Colonialism is still the elephant in the room that everyone tries to skirt around whenever history is being discussed in a multicultural room.

It is a topic that requires a certain tenderness that only comes from the understanding that colonialism touched different countries in different ways, some more positively than others. The insensitivity swirling around colonial rhetoric only proves the majority’s extremely shallow understanding of it and that we should have stopped this ignorant cycle a long time ago.

The Amsterdam Museum’s decision to stop using the term “golden age” pertaining to the 17th century, undoubtedly caught the attention of the public. The confused discourse surrounding this renaming shows the unaddressed tension that manifests itself when it comes to the topic of colonialism and post-colonialism. The world is divided between those who commend the museum for the renaming, and those whose reaction ranges from disapproving to being outright upset. The Amsterdam Museum took to its website to address its audience with an official statement, calling its re-evaluation of the term an important step in the name of inclusivity that gave room to different perspectives and narratives of that time.

The recognition of untold colonial stories is indeed a good step towards the evolution of colonial discourses. However, a lot remains to be done. Empathy and sensitivity are values that should stand as the foundation of respectful interactions in society, but are lacking in present-day colonial discourse. Admittedly, perspectives that have persisted for generations are not easy to change. How can we even begin to alter the enduring negative attitude towards colonialism when it is so deeply rooted in culture, history, even xenophobia? This is a question which is hard to think about and even harder to answer, but we cannot simply ignore it, as we have done for years.

The fact that this question remains unanswered in the 21st century shows how terrifyingly good we are in repressing issues that do not touch us directly. The first step towards remedying the xenophobia and sense of entitlement, which define colonial discourse, must come from addressing the fact that they do exist and still have concrete and real life consequences for millions of people around the world. We as a global society must be conscious and active in identifying as well as correcting the mistakes of our past. To continue ignoring the insensitivity in the colonial discourse means continuing to see the world through a narrow lens. Silence, in this case, is nothing short of being compliant to the repression of colonial voices and the burying of hundreds of untold colonial stories.

It is time for all of us as a united society to see our own countries’ histories in their entirety. We must recognize the good that our past has brought us, but at the same time be aware of the bloodshed and oppression that must have taken place in order to get what we have now. Realizing that we are a part of a bigger world that is hurting is the first step towards addressing the imbalance in colonial rhetoric. To be humbled by the truth is not admitting to weakness, it is surrendering to reality with the hope and potential of becoming better in the future.

The wounds of colonialism still run deep. This is evident in the quality of colonial discourse that we have today. The insensitivity that defines the colonial rhetoric proves how the majority still has an extremely shallow understanding of colonialism in general. It remains to be a topic that requires a certain delicacy that only comes from the understanding that colonialism touched different countries in different ways, some more positively than others.

The uproar that surrounded the Amsterdam Museum’s renaming of the “golden period” proves how divided we still are as a society when it comes to this. Acknowledging the unspoken colonial narratives is indeed a good step forward, however, there is still a lot that remains to be done. We as a society must stop denying pressing issues that do not touch us tangibly. We must be conscious and active in correcting the mistakes of the past. It is way past the time we realised that we are part of a world that is hurting and in need of empathy and sensitivity.

Picture: Aidan Whiteley, Flickr

The avalanche of Erfurt

By Guilherme Becker

In the mountains of Thüringen, the lack of snow points to a mild winter. On the ground floor of its capital Erfurt, however, an avalanche has been spread and felt all over Germany. For the first time a far-right populist party has helped electing a governor. At first, it may not look so serious, but in Germany it has been considered a completely unexpected, surprising, and worrisome taboo breaking. A blast that is hurting the political spectrum nation-wide.

What a time to be in Erfurt, from a journalistic point of view. When I started my internship at Thüringen Allgemeine, I could not imagine that I would live in such a vivid and turbulent period. Not at all. As I am currently working for the biggest newspaper of the state, in its capital city, I would like to explain what went on and what might go on regarding the state parliament leader election, its effects and the great repercussion that led even chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) to respond directly from South Africa on February 6th.

Some weeks ago I spent the whole Friday (31.01) hanging out, watching sessions, interviews and keeping my eyes close to the work of the reporters at Thüringen Parliament. It is a kind of experience that fits really well into a journalist and Euroculture student’s life. I even got time for a joke when walking through the corridor reserved for politicians from far-right populist party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland/Alternative for Germany), well known for its xenophobic, racist and anti-immigration policies. “Am I allowed to be here? You know, I am a foreigner…”, I asked a journalist. He laughed and promptly joked back: “Yes, true, but you have German blood… So don’t worry…” We all laughed.

The time for jokes ended soon after, precisely on Wednesday (05.02), when the election of the new Thüringen governor was about to happen. The predictions and expectations were all set for the reelection of leftist Bodo Ramelow (Die Linke). But then the most unlikely scenario led to the election of centrist-liberal candidate Thomas Kemmerich (FDP), at the last minute. Unexpectedly, instead of voting for their own candidate, AfD politicians decided to support Kemmerich to defeat the left. That is not the only problem: CDU (conservative right-wing) also supported Kemmerich, which means that two traditionally moderate parties made an unpredictable – if not unbelievable – “connection” with far-right extremists. A complete shock for Germany.

The impact was so huge that protests erupted – and keep happening – not only in Erfurt, but in many other cities of Germany. In the capital of Thüringen public transport was highly affected with delays not only on that Wednesday, but also on the following days given the demonstrations that followed the election.

Then on Thursday (06.02), only one day and 34 minutes after the election, the then newly-elected governor Kemmerich announced his resignation. On Monday (10.02) Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer resigned the CDU leadership. Therefore, she will not run next year in the national election as a possible substitute for Merkel. Some days earlier, Merkel had fired Christian Hirte, then minister for former East German states and secretary of state for the economy and energy. The reason? He greeted Kemmerich’s election on Twitter. One avalanche after another.

But why? Why so much anger and outrage over a vote? Well, let’s start from the beginning.

Thüringen state parliament is made up of six different parties: Die Linke (29 seats), followed by AfD (22), CDU (Christian Democratic Union, Angela Merkel’s party, conservative right, 21 seats), SPD (Social Democratic Party, socialist left-wing, 8), Grüne (environmentalist left-wing, 5) and FDP (Liberal Democratic Party, liberal centre-right, also 5).

The governor election is indirect. Therefore it is necessary to have a majority through the seats to elect the governor – and then have a future majority on approval or rejection of projects and laws. National conservative and liberal centre-right headquarters parties, such as CDU and FDP, have always claimed and made clear that any “connection” – even informal alliances – with AfD was not allowed and should not happen at all. But it did happen. Usually AfD does not give and does not get any support to or from any party. This time, though, they decided to vote for FDP instead of voting for their own candidate. A completely unexpected political trick.

I see this scenario as a sign that two traditional parties, by accepting AfD support – even not being allowed to do that -, may be ignoring national premises and acting independently to come to power. The point is that the parties’ headquarters strongly condemned the election primarily arguing that Kemmerich should not have accepted the outcome of it. But he accepted, and only later on decided to resign after seeing the pressure and the protests coming from all sides. CDU’s more conservative wings have already flirted with the possibility of approaching AfD. For the most part, however, it has been avoided at all. Moreover, the result of this election might be a message that AfD is gradually getting closer to the “political game” and attempting to gain power under any circumstances.

The reason for the shock in Germany is obvious: parties, politicians and civil society from all political backgrounds abominate the possibility of the far-right approaching power. They voted for and elected politicians precisely to not do what they just have done. In their minds, it is something completely unacceptable which I definitely agree with. When traditional right-wing and centre-right parties (such as the CDU and the FDP) accept AfD’s support, the ideology fades away, and the subsequent message is that what really matters is to come to power. A great offense, so to say.

Another great concern is that this “connection” among these parties leads people to question and consequently disregard even more the traditional parties, which in the last elections have significantly lost votes to extremists. As Kemmerich resigns and a new election is blinking, maybe CDU, for example, will connect to Die Linke, which, in my point of view, can make the electorate migrate even more to the extremists, namely AfD. In other words, it all means that there might be a huge loss of confidence in traditional parties and a vote of confidence for extremists.

The rise of AfD in Thüringen might have come along through many reasons, such as a strong conservatism, but also from some trauma left by DDR, and some subsequent economic reasons. Estearn German states have never got as industrialized as their Western neighbours, for instance. A study launched two weeks ago, for example, pointed out that only 22% of Eastern Germans are completely satisfied with democracy. The number is almost half of the 40% that said being satisfied with it in former Western German states.

At the same time, I see Die Linke as the current majority more as a result of the so-called utilitarian vote, in order to avoid a majority for AfD, although the region remains a traditionally working-class region, what might have led part of the electorate to migrate to the extremes, be right or left.

I do not think that I need to explain the concepts and the political agenda preached by AfD. It is actually more than only conservative. It is racist and xenophobic. One need only to google Björn Höcke and will certainly soon realise what I am talking about.

In the end, what happened some days ago in Erfurt was actually a strong and unprecedented taboo breaking. Germans are aware of the weight of their own history. They know that it was in Thüringen that the country had the first state government with the involvement of the Nazis. Incidentally, it was also in February, 90 years ago, that Hitler’s party gained substantial power. In Erfurt. In Thüringen. That was the first taboo breaking that later led Europe to the ruins, and Germany to collapse. Hopefully a majority of people are not in the mood to repeat some obvious and terrible mistakes.

Picture: Links Unten Göttingen / Flickr

Leave no man behind: let’s talk about the fourth industrial revolution

By Jelmer Herms

It is probably a truism at this point, but we are not living the same way we did 20 years ago. Technology and innovation are changing our lives at a pace they have never really done before. CNBC News aptly put it in perspective like this: It took 75 years for 100 million people to adopt the telephone. The video game Pokémon GO reached that number of users in about one month.[1] The impact of technology is felt quicker and to a greater extent than ever before as a result of our globalized and interconnected world. But of course, more than just video games and telecommunications are developing at a rapid pace. Family Guy, at the end of its episode “The Peter Principal”, manages to point out in just a very short dialogue exchange how technology revolutionized the way we think about delivery services like Amazon, but also how hard it is to truly experience such change as remarkable or otherwise noteworthy:

Stewie: Oh, I bet he’s delivering those marmalade jars we ordered.

Brian: Doesn’t that feel like a million years ago? Yeah, we don’t need those anymore.

Stewie [To Delivery Guy]: Sorry, just send them back.

Brian: You can just do that?

Stewie: Oh, yeah, you can just refuse delivery.

Stewie: You’ve never done that?

Brian: I-I genuinely did not know you could do that.

Stewie: Well, you can. Anything you order. If you don’t sign for it, it has to go back. Everyone does it.

Stewie: Most of what America is now is just boxes going back and forth.[2]

As rapid innovation is becoming a new normal, it is also becoming a new kind of mundanity, and I think we should be wary of accepting the rapid pace of technological change as normal, even though you could make a strong case that almost nothing has changed in the ways that matter most. In fact, considering the quantity of global crises over the last years, I would expect nothing less than a sceptical view on our development, or the idea of a teleology of human progress. I agree that in most of the ways that matter, humans have not changed at all. Looking at the last 20 years or so, issues of social justice and socio-economic inequality remain, global terrorism has become more prevalent, man-made climate change is an unrelenting cause for distress, and civil war in the Middle East, famine in Africa, or the recent fires in the Amazon have traumatized, displaced or in the worst cases ravaged entire cultures. So of course, humans haven’t really changed as a species, but the technology we wield has. And this has had (and still can have into the future) undoubtedly positive effects as well.

Because over the last twenty years we have also, for better or for worse, connected billions of people to each other through the power of the internet, forging new transnational networks and alliances that have greatly contributed to the wellbeing of many across the planet. We now have entirely automated vehicles driving around, and they drive better than any human ever could. We have developed self-learning AI that can not only beat us at turn-based games like chess or checkers, but also at much more complex real time games, such as the classic RTS Starcraft II. [3] Computers can help us save lives and identify dangerous criminals, but they can also help us make entirely new forms of art, like this programme that writes (admittedly pretty bad) music by itself [4]. That is, in my view, nothing less than extraordinary: all of us here are alive in the period being called the Fourth Industrial Revolution.[5]

But can we say that as active citizens, we are asking ourselves the right questions on how to deal with the fact that we are in the middle of an Industrial Revolution? Are we directing our attention to making sure we are investing time and effort into the technologies that could help us the most? Are we structurally modernizing our democracies, our cultures, and our discourse to adapt to this revolutionary time? I’m not always so sure. It seems to me that the public sphere is not particularly on board with this idea of an Industrial Revolution, except for when Apple comes out with the ‘revolutionary’ new iPhone, which features a marginally improved camera and some new software updates.

To me, it seems that the actual revolution of innovation is being led by an exploding technocratic billionaire class. And many within this small group of people are mostly concerned with keeping their customers satisfied. But I think there is a massive difference between designing a product for a consumer, and designing a tool for a democratic citizen. I think it is fair to say that, as one example, social media has not been designed with the idea of existing within the framework of an inclusive liberal democracy: Facebook has caused extreme views getting disproportionate attention, and led to rampant misinformation that swayed election results because of its click-based monetization model, which rewards the loudest and most controversial voices.

In those cases where we design technology for the broader public, we should think more carefully about who benefits from innovation and technological advances, and to make sure that we don’t create systems that favour groups of people by design. And let me just add that my problem is not that people are getting rich by developing new technologies. I am not trying be some kind of neo-Marxist, urging you to eliminate class struggle by killing the wealthy, or to destroy any of the processes driving our technological innovation.

What I see is a technical operational challenge to the capitalist economy. Both innovators and citizens could play a much more active role in driving solutions to what I see is the major issue of this moment: the challenge of economic inclusivity. The problem as I see it, is that less and less people can participate on equal terms in this labour market. Of course, some skills or educations will always be more desirable than other kinds depending on the market and the environment, and I see no real issue with that dynamic continuing into the future. But we are reaching a point where technology is so efficient and innovation has accelerated so much, that it is very likely there will eventually not be enough labour to perform for entire segments of populations. Think of not only “low-skilled” labour, even though they will be hit the hardest, but also middle management positions, doctors, or all kinds of support staff eventually being overtaken by automation and artificial intelligence. The issue of keeping people included in the labour market cuts across class lines, and I think it is not central enough to our understanding of national politics.

While some answers to this issue have been presented in politics, they have come only from across the Atlantic, in the US. The American Democrat Andrew Yang is running for President of the United States on a platform attempting to tackle exactly the issue of automation and the increasingly exclusive labour market, and he has gathered a surprising amount of bipartisan support. [6] But his chances of winning are still minimal compared to mainstream top dogs like Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, or the guaranteed Republican nominee, Donald Trump. Here in Europe, I have not heard of any running national public official looking to address the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or even mentioning the issues I have talked about here (and I hope, of course, that anyone can prove me wrong on this: I don’t speak every European language). This, I think, speaks for the need for a change in perspective more than anything else.

If we want to manifest political change that strives for a more inclusive society not only in terms of social justice, but also in terms of economic stability and employment, then framing that discussion in an accessible and appropriate manner should be considered essential. By popularizing the idea of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, by making people think about our current moment not as mundane, but as extraordinary, we can help make people aware that the neoliberal logic of radical personal responsibility with regards to your employment can be successfully contested or suspended. It could help us reframe how we view unemployment and eliminate the stigma on it, which in turn could help us think in more positive terms about how to find people new jobs, if we even want to continue with striving towards full employment at all. Talking about a new Industrial Revolution can also help us kickstart a broader conversation about new and exciting technologies that we could feasibly incorporate into our societal structures. Finally, talking about the Fourth Industrial Revolution as an explicit operational issue can help us become more willing to let go of the economic and political models of the past, and to instead embrace new and innovative technologies and models for organizing our society.

We need to do more than just reform: it’s about time we revolutionize.

Picture: joshsdh, Flickr

Sources:
[1] ‘’What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?’’ CNBC News. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9rZOa3CUC8

[2] Family Guy S15E18, The Peter Principal.
https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=family-guy&episode=s15e18

[3] RTS, Meaning Real-Time Strategy. For more on Starcraft II AI, see: https://deepmind.com/blog/article/alphastar-mastering-real-time-strategy-game-starcraft-ii

[4] http://computoser.com/

[5] https://www.weforum.org/about/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-by-klaus-schwab

[6] https://www.yang2020.com/

I got racially harassed, and I am okay with it. Please don’t be like me.

By Alit Wedhantara

It was a sunny midday afternoon. I had just arrived home from the Intensive Programme in Olomouc, in Czech Republic, which happened on the last week of June 2019 and where I met new people from almost all over the world, other students of the Euroculture programme like myself. 

Having just come back, I was still in the process of settling down again in Groningen. I was casually riding my bike home from the nearest Albert Heijn, where I grabbed my favourite lunch combo menu: a pack of blue-packaged paprika Ribbel chips and a warm Frikandelbroodje.

Back then, I did not know that there was a backdoor to the housing complex I lived in and I could just ride straight through, so I went the long way around, turning right. I exited the supermarket complex to the roundabout, turning left to my ex-mental-hospital-turned-student-accommodation. As I was about to make a turn left on the roundabout, I did what any cultured cyclist would do: I signalled with my left hand.

However, after realizing I actually still needed to go straight, I made another hand signal with my right hand to signify I would be staying on the road instead. It was in this moment of confusion that I became aware of the existence of a small city car, an orange Peugeot 104. As I finished the roundabout and moved on, the driver of the orange Peugeot edged a bit to my left, shouted at me, laughed and drove off. I was still in awe, a bit in shock, as my mind processed what the driver had just said to me in Dutch. There were two blonde guys in that car, which I assume were both Dutch. Thinking back on it now, I believe they shouted something like: “Dikke piet!”

At that moment, I thought: “Ah… maybe some mad incels” or “some very angry far-right people”. I’m not even sure if they knew I could understand them. I arrived home and went straight to my room. I put my groceries on the table and sat down, but then I began to think about the situation that I had just been through. In that very moment in time, I realized: “Oh… they yelled racial slurs at me. Did I just get racially harassed?” I personally never would have thought or imagined, in a million years, that in the year 2019 in Western Europe someone would still yell out-of-date racial slur at me. I don’t really care about the body shaming part, calling me fat (dikke), or anything regarding my plus-size, but it is a bit problematic when you categorize me as a “piet”. Not cool. 

That’s when this issue became one of racial discrimination, crossing the racial border/boundaries. If you don’t know about the context of this slur, consider googling “Piet Netherlands” the next time you are connected to the world wide web. Did this specific incident change my mind for the worse about the Netherlands? Not even slightly. I still love Europe, and I still want to be here. But the incident really made me think about all kinds of possibilities. Possibilities about how to react when you are racially discriminated. In this article, I think I just want to try to match and link my experience of what happened to me with my general experience of colonialism.

Historically and ethnically, growing up as an Indonesian, I, myself, always studied the colonial period religiously, especially during my formative years in elementary until senior high school. We as Indonesians are consistently being brainwashed into thinking that we were colonized by the Netherlands for over 200 years. We know who the first Dutch person to arrive in the mainland East Indies was. We know who the governor-general was that build, quite possibly, the most important road in the island of Java. But if one looks deeply enough,then you would notice that around half of those two hundred years, we were actually colonized by a multi-industrial company, not a ‘single’ nation the size of our current capital, Jakarta. This is a narrative that no one dared to until recently, but it does force us to think about the cultural influence our colonizers had on us.

My opinion on this is that the Indonesians never bore the burden of that history as much as many people like to say. As we grew up, we tended to think that white Westerners were rich and educated people, and we valued their human being above that of ‘our own people.’: We thought they were higher in social caste or in the hierarchy than most of us. They are the expats. They could enjoy our full hospitality, politeness, and courteousness. After all, their ‘superior’ currency and better rates only made them seem even higher above us than they already were. A lot of Indonesians tended to think of the Westerners as some kind of economic benefit to them. We sometimes think they are better because they utilized us to enrich themselves (even though they say in their ethische politiek manifesto that it was also about enriching us). It’s a bit of a colonialist cliché, but that feeling of dependency was probably invented by the Dutch.

All of this might seem like it was totally beside the point of my original story, but I don’t think it is. Because this history is why I like to think that what happened to me was somehow  my fault: that maybe as a fat, dark-skinned Asian, I should not get a proper education in Europe. Heck! Maybe my appearance in public is a pollution of the pure-skin white European ‘them’.

But most importantly, it is not Western Europeans that have to feel bad or bear the guilt of our shared, bloody past. They seem to think that clearly it is not an important matter. Because, after all, I am just some worthless, third world scum that threatens the existence of their hegemonic white world, the one they want to live in. Stealing their jobs. Turning their country into a ‘shithole’ like mine. Should I stand up? Should I shout back at them ? Should I take my revenge and hunt them, shoot them in the face, or stab them in public? I think that the best possible answer for me is no.

Maybe it is a deficiency in their healthy body that made them think differently. I should let them live. I’m not going to rationalize their act, because it is not rational. I can only rationalize their inability to think. After all, even though it might seem like another cliché, love is the answer. Spread love, not hate. Important lesson learned: I should be more careful on roundabouts. Long live free speech!

Disclaimers:

P.S.: Please take this article with a hint of salt (~and pepper). After all, that’s why Europeans colonized the Eastern world, right? Finally, you can put those ingredients to use!

P.P.S.: When I say Europeans, them, their, Western Europeans, or you, I am specifically directing myself towards the (possibly) male-like figures riding the orange Peugeot 104 that racially discriminated me several months ago. I am not talking about the entire community.

P.P.P.S.: Oh, and more recently on October 25th, 2019, when I was walking past Albert Heijn Gedempte Zuiderdiep with friends of mine, we were getting shouted at again. It was a drunk figure with a masculine voice yelling “brownie!”. We personally took it as a compliment! Obviously not racist at all.

Picture: Garry Knight, Flickr

Crossing the street in the Netherlands or “how transportation changes the manner we live the city”

By Richard Blais

Crossing the street in the Netherlands for the first time is a sort of adventure. You get closer to the road in a shy manner, you prepare to step and cross it, and a bicycle passes. Then a second one and a third and you lose track. You get patient, and when finally the right moment arrives another bicycle passes again, and a second and then a third. It is an endless cycle. Dutch people have the reputation of being born on wheels, and after a semester in Groningen I can testify that this assumption is below reality.

After a year in Bordeaux, a city where cycling became a very common practice, I assumed the situation in Groningen would be extremely similar. A terribly wrong and underestimating assumption, resulting probably of the famous French arrogance. It was when I first arrived in front of the Rijksuniversiteit, the University of Groningen, that I realised my mistake. If we talk of a park for bicycles, the Dutch style consists in long thickets made of bicycle, where gears, chains and handlebars replace the branches. A park found in all circumstances in front of the main building of the university, despite the (usual) rain and wind. A true anecdote: some days, I have spent more time looking for my bike than riding it to university.

Moving around in a Dutch city is to experience a specific setting seemingly designed for bicycles. With the omnipresence of cycling tracks and a – almost – disappearance of any ground elevation, it seems that the Netherlands has been constructed specifically for the two-wheelers. After I rented my bike in this city I noticed how much my daily life has changed for the better and I became an immediate lobbyist for this means of transportation around me arguing against the few unfortunate friends who had not been touched by the holy (dynamo) light. Indeed, there is always a cycling track for the cyclist, either on the side of the road, or on a separated portion. They have their own circulation-lights, and the notions of one-way streets do not apply to the person riding a bike. Reflecting on this, I asked myself the following question: are the cities built around a means of transportation? 

Thinking of it, means of transportation are part of the experience of a city. Modern (Northern) American cities have been conceived in a manner which makes the car essential to daily life. The capital city of Bolivia, La Paz has set a system of urban cable-cars, particularly relevant for a city standing 3,000 meters above sea-level [1]. Moving in a city is part of its experience. The German historian Hartmut Kaelbe, reflecting on common elements which were constituting this elusive European identity we try to grasp in this master have noticed that the scale of the European cities could be a possible element of it, as it is possible to just “walk” in them.

To study the favoured mode of transportation in a city is to study society itself. Looking at the 20th century, and consequently the boom of the urban growth in Western society helps at understanding the societal changes and how they are reflected in the conception of cities. At the beginning of the century, the most adapted manner to have public transportation in the mind of urban-planners is to have a tramway, or even better, an underground metro system for the largest cities in order to save some precious space. This is why by travelling to Portugal or Czech Republic, the tourist may find a tramway network of a certain age, with a charming feeling of authenticity.

And then, the Second World War occurred, and following this tragic event, the rise of car production in the 1950s and 1960s made the tramway an obsolete thing. The average person preferred to public transportation their own automobile which was, as Barthes commented, associated with positive values such as self-liberty. When the individual transportation was triumphing, the collective ones are transforming differently depending on the region of Europe. Mass transit is not in the mind of city-planners in the Mediterranean countries and remained focused on the automobile. On the other hand, countries of the Soviet Bloc kept pushing for this egalitarian common system of urban transport. That is why every student who had the chance to discover the wonderful city of Olomouc (my vision might be biased after a semester there), surely noticed the vintage tramways circulating around the city.

The ambition to keep urban policies primarily focused on the car-usage slowed down at the end of the century for a few reasons. The first one is a saturation of the road network and the disagreements it causes. The car, symbol of freedom, is soon perceived as a constraint, the one of pollution, traffic, and expensive road maintenance. And the oil crisis of the 1970s and the sharp increase of the price of fuel pushes for a new reflection on urban policies.

It is in this specific context that older means of transportation resurfaced in the mind of city-planners. The tramway shifts from its outdated image to a symbol of a modern urban asset. Modern tramways are tied to the goal of having a sustainable society and increase the value of the urban spaces located around their rails. In the Netherlands, the holy-land of the two-wheelers, bicycles only became a norm after the oil shock of 1973. Following the sharp increase of the price of black gold, cities are re-thought to adapt the bicycle to the daily experience of the city, by developing infrastructures to fit the usage of the cyclists through construction of bike parking, cycling tracks etc.

However, sustainable development and the price of fuel are not the only arguments which push for greener means of transportation. A broader range of reasons pushes the inhabitants of city to prefer a certain means of transportation than another. It depends as well on local culture, the attitude of consumers (their own experience, lifestyles), physical constraints, or the manner in which the city is constructed. 

Each city or country has a dedicated manner to move around which is the most adapted to its own context. Movement is part of its local culture and is a reflection of its society. In a similar fashion with museums, landscapes, streets, houses, means of transportation are part of the local city culture. To experience bike-riding in the Netherlands is to take an interest in Dutch culture. The experience of a similar manner to move around locally creates a group of individuals sharing an experience. Codes, habits, conditions – either terrible or excellent – are all elements shared by those who experience daily the city. It is extremely easy to know if someone is a tourist or not in public transportation. Online, Facebook groups and Twitter accounts exist to jokingly criticise means of transportation in some cities. These groups rely on a shared experience of users who posses keys to understand  humour creating an informal community of users. Moving in a city seems to be one of the elements of local urban culture.

However, considering all these information will not prevent you to curse at this continuous flow of Dutch people people on bikes, until you master the delicate art of crossing a street in Netherlands.

Featured picture: David King, Flickr

References

Bolivia: El Teleférico Que Unió Dos Mundos – BBC Mundo. Accessed September 15, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnc6W_6xGT0.

Carré, Jean-René. “Le vélo dans la ville : un révélateur social.” Les cahiers de médiologie 5, no. 1 (1998): 151. https://doi.org/10.3917/cdm.005.0151.

“« Il nous faut nous désintoxiquer de la voiture ».” Le Monde.fr, August 5, 2019. https://www.lemonde.fr/festival/article/2019/08/05/il-nous-faut-bon-gre-mal-gre-nous-desintoxiquer-de-la-voiture_5496579_4415198.html.

“La Nouvelle Citroën, Extrait de ‘Mythologies’ de Roland Barthes.” Accessed September 15, 2019. https://www.desordre.net/textes/bibliotheque/barthes_citroen.htm.

Lois González, Rubén C., Miguel Pazos Otón, and Jean-Pierre Wolff. “Le tramway entre politique de transport et outil de réhabilitation urbanistique dans quelques pays européens : Allemagne, Espagne, France et Suisse.” Annales de géographie 694, no. 6 (2013): 619. https://doi.org/10.3917/ag.694.0619.

VERS UN SOCIETE EUROPEENNE. Une histoire sociale de l’europe 1880-1980 – Hartmut Kaelble. 

Ahead of the Primary Elections in the US: The Status Quo and Revolution

By Nemanja Milosevic

The Democratic primary season in the US has started, and different candidates have lined up with a message “I can beat Donald Trump”. Getting Trump out of office has become a goal not only of the democrats, who are opposing this president more than any other “ideological rival” in recent history but also of many centrist, independents and some republicans. The fear and frustration are expressed by many of my friends from the US, who in a recent conversation confessed that they have not been so scared, they are tired of hearing about physical attacks at people of different identities, racist politics, divisiveness, and many other things that characterize the Trump presidency. This frustration is expressed by one of my friends who is in his twenties, who is tired of the tensions in the current political climate and who would rather go and spend time abroad.

Another friend, who in the previous elections supported Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, because she can get things done (an argument used by many Democratic voters in the 2016 Democratic Primaries), now supports candidates who are proposing more leftist policies, like Elizabeth Warren. He is frustrated that he cannot have things in his country, probably the richest country in the history of the world, that are common and exist in other developed countries for decades.

Redefining what it means to be a Democrat

Economic liberties, small government and promotion of private ownership have for a long time been a symbol of US politics and ideology, which was part of the so-called American dream, where your entrepreneurial skills and hard work can get you up the ladder and improve your lifestyle significantly.

That has become difficult with the acceleration of globalization processes, Amazon getting benefits such as a total tax exemption made impossible for any other business to compete on the market. Job automatization, trade agreements and outsourcing of jobs left many people unemployed and wealth inequality has surged. Unemployment among young people is increasing and it is now expected that for the first time in modern history, a generation of children will be worse off socially and economically that their parents [1].

All that leads to a change in mainstream politics, where calling someone a socialist is not an insult in the US any longer. The last time a centrist democrat was elected a president was in 2012, and since there have been seven generations of young Americans who have entered the political process by turning 18 and getting the right to vote. That changed the political landscape so much that someone like Bernie Sanders, a socialist democratic candidate in 2016 got so close to beating Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. The ideas that he then presented, that many called radical socialist ones, such as a universal healthcare plan, commonly known as Medicare for All, are now widely accepted, not only by young liberal democrats but by Americans in general [2]. Other policies that Bernie introduced three years ago also got mainstream appeal – student debt cancelation, publicly funded higher education and a 15$-per-hour minimum wage.

Identifying candidates: From Left to Center

The ideas that Sanders presented during the last primaries and the defeat of Hillary Clinton in the general election have changed the approach of the Democratic Party establishment and had a large influence on the candidates that entered the race this time. It was obvious from the early stage that Sanders has moved the bar to the left, when normally known centrist democrats presented some policies mimicking those of Sanders, but with enough back-tracking to satisfy both the donors (necessary for financing campaigns in the States, and who are usually against policies such as those of Sanders) and the changing democratic base that overwhelmingly supports the turn to the left.

Confronted with these new progressive candidates made Sanders move further to the left, thus changing his rhetoric and policies to the extremes (such as the plan to combat global warming worth 16 trillion dollars, in comparison to the one of Elizabeth Warren worth 2 trillion $). He has now come out as an anti-establishment candidate [3], recognizing the damage he suffered the last time by the DNC (Democratic National Committee) that ran the primary season heavily favoring Clinton, and he is calling out the establishment media [4] that has a clear bias against him [5], such as The Washington Post, owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, the company that is often under fire by the Sanders campaign. Another thing that changed since the last time he ran is the campaign and the outreach to different demographics, which was something he was heavily criticized for. Having people of different backgrounds on key positions in his campaign brought him popularity among young voters of color [6].

Candidate next in line on the progressive side after Bernie would be Elizabeth Warren, drawing a lot of inspiration from the Sanders’ campaign in 2016, just without renouncing corporatism, the Democratic establishment, and the media. She appeals largely to the white, college-educated voters [7], which may have something to do with the fact that she was a university professor and has detailed and precise plans and policies to introduce proposals such as Medicare for All or free college (opposite from Sanders, who uses more populist language to explain and propose similar things).

On the more centrist side, we have Kamala Harris, Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg (more candidates would fall into this category, but their polling numbers are too low). Harris is a Democratic establishment and media darling, former prosecutor and a talented debater. Other than that, her campaign is failing to maintain cohesion throughout the process, as she flip-flops on many issues, most probably based on what is popular in the polls or with donors. Most notably, she changed her opinion on Medicare for All, and although she co-sponsored the Sanders’ bill, she now backtracks as it becomes obvious that she cannot compete with Warren and Sanders in that arena and has no chance of attracting the progressive base. One of the things that negatively affect her popularity is her record as a prosecutor, as pointed out in the second debate by another candidate – her work as a prosecutor affected negatively and to a large extent the black community in California, where she worked.

Biden and Buttigieg are other centrist candidates that run on moderate policies and realistic solutions, which goes along with the idea of bringing the divided country back together, which for more progressive thinkers and politicians means that they are ready to succumb to Republicans and not fight for things that the Democratic base wants and needs.

Electability

One thing that is on everyone’s mind is electability. It does not matter who has better policies, but who can beat Trump. This is also the argument that even the Biden’s wife used to promote him on one occasion, she claims that although he might not be the best on policies such as Medicare for All, he is the one that can beat Trump in general elections (I assume it is due to name recognition, as he was a vice of a very popular president) and thus deserves everyone’s support [8]. I would argue that this claim is debatable, as Biden exposed several weaknesses that someone as unscrupulous and vicious as Trump can use easily in the debates. Those being claims of several women that Biden touched them inappropriately and countless verbal gaffes that Biden had (the most notable one being the gaffe in one speech where he said that poor kids are just as bright as white kids, when wanting to say wealthy kids [9]).

The danger that lays there is that Trump can easily downplay his sexual misconducts and racism by claiming that the Democratic candidate expresses the same behavior (Biden also bragged about working with segregationists in the past, which drew critiques from other candidates of color and civil rights movements). Other than that, it would be a great risk having a centrist candidate that does not excite the base – his rallies attract smaller and more inert crowds when compared to some candidates who poll way lower than him at the moment. If we consider 2016 as an experiment of how would a centrist candidate measure against Trump, we can conclude that Biden might not be the best choice.

Both Sanders and Warren show great potential to beat Trump by a large margin, as some current polls may suggest. I think that is crucial to go with a more progressive candidate in general elections, especially the one that dedicates his/her political activity to issues that concern the part of the population that is hurt by the globalized economy, neo-conservative measures and the strong relationship between political establishment and corporations. Recent poll showed that 90% of voters identifying themselves as Republicans think that Trump is still doing a great job [10], so going with a centrist because he/she can gather support from democrats and republicans who do not like Trump would not work, since that would alienate a large portion of progressive voters and not attract enough republican voters.

Between the two progressive candidates, they both have good things to offer. Warren would be the first female president, a progressive one and with detailed plans and policies proving that everything she proposes is meticulously planned. On the other hand, she suffered an incident when she claimed that she has Native-American origin, followed by a DNA test that showed that she is only an insignificant fraction a Native-American. This backfired when Trump called her out on it and gave her the nickname “Pocahontas” [11]. She has apologized since, but still shows the inability to confront that incident when asked.

Unlike Harris or Sanders, she has not shown yet skills that she could use in a confrontation with Trump. She did well and could be named a winner of both democratic debates, but lacks the audacity that Sanders expresses, for example. In a recent tweet, Sanders called Trump “an idiot”, and has shown in many cases that he can be loud and eloquent at the same time, which are the skills that could benefit someone going against Trump. Recent research showed that Republican candidates tend to use nouns phrases that work efficiently in a political debate, as they “essentializing”, they appear to express an indisputable feature,

and that is how nicknames that Trump assigns to his opponents work [12]. “Sleepy Joe”, “Crazy Bernie” and “Pocahontas” are nicknames that Trump has for top Democratic candidates, and it is very important to have an opponent who can go against a bully, as campaign for this general election would not be a typical, solely policy-based one (which is a style of debate where Warren excels).

It is still early on in the primary season to make any firm claim, but it is important to recognize mistakes from 2016 and do everything possible to avoid them this time, especially the ones that DNC has power over. It is important to present a candidate that can excite the base – the Democratic, not the moderate Republican one – challenges the dominant narrative (and avoid going back to status quo), has oratory skills to go against a bully and has a clean record (avoiding affairs such as Hilary’s emails or Benghazi). In any event, a recent poll shows that support for Biden decreases, while for Sanders and Warren surges [13]. We could say that so far things are going well.

Featured picture: President of the United States Donald J. Trump at CPAC 2017 February 24th 2017 by Michael Vadon

References

[1] Charles Hymas, More than two thirds of millennials believe their generation will be “worse off “ than their parents’. Guardian. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/07/07/two-thirds-millennials-believe-generation-will-worse-parents/

[2] Megan Keller, Seventy percent of Americans support “Medicare for all”; in new poll. The Hill. https://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/403248-poll-seventy-percent-of-americans-support-medicare-for-all

[3] The Beat With Ari Melber, Sanders Campaign Unloads On Dem “Establishment”: Be “Terrified”. MSNBC. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CN_1skpp8cA

[4] John Nichols, Bernie Sanders Is As Frustrated as Ever With Corporate Media, The Nation. https://www.thenation.com/article/bernie-sanders-corporate-media/

[5] Adam Johnson, Washington Post Ran 16 Negative Stories on Bernie Sanders in 16 Hours, Fair.org. https://fair.org/home/washington-post-ran-16-negative-stories-on-bernie-sanders-in-16-hours/

[6] Hunter Walker, Bernie Sanders campaign touts its diversity and fights “the narrative of 2016”;. Yahoo! News. https://news.yahoo.com/bernie-sanders-campaign-touts-diversity-fights-narrative-2016-194035907.html?

[7] Ed Kilgore, Elizabeth Warren’s Struggle to Draw Black Voters Is a Big Problem. New York Intelligencer. http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/08/elizabeth-warren-is-struggling-to-draw-black-voters.html

[8] John Wagner, Jill Biden urges support for husband even if voters consider their candidates ‘better’ on the issues. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/jill-biden-urges-support-for-husband-even-if-other-democrats-are-better-on-the-issues/2019/08/20/e9fb1738-c33a-11e9-b72f-b31dfaa77212_story.html

[9] Matt Viser and John Wagner, Biden tells minority voters in Iowa that ‘poor kids’ are just as bright as ‘white kids’. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/biden-tells-minority-voters-in-iowa-that-poor-kids-are-just-as-bright-as-white-kids/2019/08/09/4926be02-ba8e-11e9-a091-6a96e67d9cce_story.html

[10] Stephanie Mencimer, 90 Percent of Republicans Still Think Trump Is Doing a Great Job. Mother Jones. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2019/05/90-percent-of-republicans-still-think-trump-is-doing-a-great-job/

[11] Ed O’keefe, Elizabeth Warren publicly apologizes for first time over controversial DNA test, CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/elizabeth-warren-apology-controversial-dna-test-native-american-heritage-2019-08-19/

[12] Colby Itkowitz, ‘Little Marco,’ ‘Lyin’ Ted,’ ‘Crooked Hillary:’ How Donald Trump makes name calling stick, The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2016/04/20/little-marco-lying-ted-crooked-hillary-donald-trumps-winning-strategy-nouns/

[13] Grace Sparks, Monmouth poll: Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren in three-way lead for Democratic bid, CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2019/08/26/politics/monmouth-august-democrats-biden-warren-sanders/index.html

“May I help you?”

Reverse culture shock: A comparison of the expression of hospitality in Sweden and Taiwan

By Huiyu Chuang

As mobility makes up one of the core values of the Euroculture program, every Euroculturer more or less has cultivated a certain level of “Cultural Intelligence” (CQ) in order to handle all sorts of situations related to intercultural adaptation. Before moving to a new destination, we consciously or unconsciously take different approaches (that are influenced by our personal motivations, and personality) to better prepare ourselves for new cultural encounters. However, when we have to temporarily break away from the culture we have become so comfortable with — or even to go home, back where we come from — we are at the frontline in experiencing possible reverse culture shock.

Reverse culture shock is the process of readjusting, re-acculturating, and re-assimilating into one’s own culture back home after having lived in a different cultural environment for a long period of time. I wonder how my fellow European classmates (who share a common sense of European identity yet are still differentiated due to their unique national cultures) go through the emotions and experiences of reverse culture shock as I do. Crossing over more than five thousand miles from one culture to another, I found that the moment I landed on my homeland (Taiwan), within a week, I felt a weird feeling that strikes me as strong as a typical subtropical typhoon rain. The best way to get out of the storm without getting soaking wet is not to compare cultural aspects of another country with what cultural aspects in our country lack. Aspects that we see as positive in one culture could not be “transplanted” from one place to another without taking fundamental differences and local conditions into consideration. Thus, in this article, I aim to share my experience by showing you the different ways to express hospitality in Taipei (Taiwan) and Uppsala (Sweden) and how this reflection once again reminds me of my responsibility of studying cross cultures.

May I Help you_Article_ByHuiyu Chuang

The most beautiful scenery is…

“The most beautiful scenery in Taiwan is its people.” This is a famous slogan that the Taiwanese tourism sector proudly uses to highlight how hospitable Taiwanese people are. Its credibility is endorsed by international media and many foreign travelers’ testimonies. I have never doubted it, but honestly, I do so based on national pride. For local Taiwanese people, Taiwanese hospitality has never been consciously appreciated because we are so used to it, that to some extent, we take it for granted. This is especially true in the service sector. In the context of Taiwan, it is important to keep in mind that the majority of customers wish to be served hospitably as VIPs, so bosses expect their employees know this “common rule” as well as to provide their hospitable service to the maximum level. The career training often encourages employee to accept this rule by heart and show their hospitality sincerely and naturally as a habit. For those who are naturally critical of this, they might find similar awkwardness as I did in the following stories.

It was about seven o’clock in the evening. I accompanied my parents to a mobile telecom company service center. I did not realize this visit would become a one-on-three private lesson, which causes the staff to work overtime in order to maintain their highly valued “customer satisfaction”. The staff not only completed the basic demonstration and system setting for the new phones, she even accepted my dad’s request to set up everything on the new phones exactly the same as the old phones. Two hours later when everything finished, she came out from her counter and said goodbye to us. I asked my parents: how much do we pay her for her help? Of course, I knew the answer by heart. The service charge covers only the phones — so why is she willing to provide her service to such a degree, and how can customers like my parents be that happy while being served “extra” as the staff did, knowing it is not fairly remunerated? I carried these complicated feelings on my next purchase at a Taiwanese pharmacy chain store. 

It was the final day before my coupon expired. When it was my turn to pay, the staff smiled and said, “I am sorry, the gift mentioned on the coupon is out of stock. However, you can wait until our next program starts which is next week, and use the coupon then.” Sounds pretty reasonable, so I brought those products back to the shelf, but she stopped me and explained which of the products I chose were going to have its prices raised next week (so I should buy them today) and which ones will retain its current price. I was embarrassed because she thought I cared about the price difference, when actually what I really cared about was the coupon. It seems that she knew the customer’s concern, so she actively responded by that suggestion even though I did not mean it and ask for it. But, I still appreciate her unexpected hospitable customer service for a poor student. During the following days, similar patterns keep happening in different cases, in noodle restaurants, in the household registration center, and so on.

In Taiwan, 60% of the population contributes their labor in the service sector, which accounts for 63-65% (2010-2017) of the GDP. The notion of supplying a person’s service as his act of labor implies that whoever can provide better service, decides who can win over customers’ hearts and their money. Drawing on my own observations so far as well as information from local Taiwanese magazines, “good service” is defined by maximum customer satisfaction. In many cases, Taiwanese people care more about affection than rationality. Staff is always expected to figure out what customers’ request is and try to satisfy it. If they can’t satisfy the level of “rationality”, they have to take care of the customer’s affection, usually by giving them alternatives, further suggestions, compensations such as discounts or gifts, or any possible way to make them feel better for the inability to attain the customer’s request. Gradually, some customers are spoiled by the so called “customer first” or “customer is always right” philosophy. Then a term, “奧客” (ào kè direct translation — difficult customer or problematic customer) is created, referring to a customer who places unattainable requests. They follow the original price set, but try to ask for more benefits, and make the supply-and-demand relationship out of balance. To handle this type of difficult customer, the Taiwanese service sector is trained to be super caring to the extent that it becomes my reverse culture shock.

Ask, and it shall be given you

Reverse culture shock is usually derived from a comparison a person makes with a different cultural environment in which he/she has grown accustomed to. In my case, the expression of hospitality I have received in Sweden is different. There is a balance between showing an amount of hospitality (which is considered as “appropriate”) and how much the recipients express his/her need of it. If a person does not express his/her need for help, then another person would usually not interrupt his/her silence (a laissez faire approach, so to speak).  I learned this lesson by going through several interesting stories. Many times, I have difficulties making my mind to buy either item A or B. While I was struggling, I noticed I have a lot of personal space in the stores in Sweden. Even so, once I asked for some opinions from the staff, they were sincere in offering their knowledge, but just the information they think they know. This perfectly corresponds to a saying, “To know what you know and what you do not know, that is true knowledge.”

Besides the retailor sector, I also found similar proof in other aspects of my daily life. While staying in “corridor style” dorm, I enjoyed the balance between having my own space in my private room and social life in the common areas. My “corridor life” was composed of four people in a house. One is Swedish, one has lived in Sweden for more than ten years, the third one is an Italian learning Swedish language and culture, and me. Coming from a culture that cherishes collectivity, I got used to it quickly. However, when hard times came and I needed help, I found that my roommates have been holed up inside their respective rooms for many days, or often rushes into their own rooms right after coming back home. I thought I had better forget my need, but later I realized it does not necessarily mean they are shy or cold like the stereotypes about Swedish people. Once I took my first step to ask, I got tons of helpful responses. Sometimes, if concrete help is not available at that moment, it is very possible that it comes a while later. Several times, I found a sticky note written with the answers to my question on my room door next day. Or similar to another surprise I received from the language center, they informed me of a chance suddenly emerged after my request was declined due to high demand for their language consultancy.

After comparing the different expressions of hospitality in Taiwan and Sweden, I notice the position of “the giver” is stronger in the former case, where one is more active in exerting his/her hospitality as a natural gesture of friendliness, or a trained reflective habit to cater to his target. As for the later case, it takes a step back perspective to embody the concept of egalitarianism in interpersonal relationship without leaving trace of intrusion and pre-assumption.

Do similarities or differences attract each other? 

The theories of similarity attraction and complementary principle are not that unfamiliar to most people. Though in interpersonal relationship perceived similarity is more proven as a factor to result in human liking by scientific researches, complementary principle still explains those exceptions. For example those people who are into intercultural exchange. When we are exposed to various cross cultural input during our study, one of the relevant topics constantly being discussed is the attitude to immigration and the tolerance to cross culture underlined by it. Generally, older people are more concerned about immigration than younger people. One of the reasons is the difference of birth cohorts that decides what life experiences they could have.

Young generation has many chances to receive diversity training (e.g. Erasmus program, international voluntary projects, overseas working experience). These opportunities empower us to shape our future society as open and friendly to cultural differences, which can better collaborate with cross cultural organizations beyond the governmental level. However, this vision would happen only when we are fully aware of the responsibility we are taking to reflect on our attitudes across cultural differences. It is important for people who learn culture to be able to sensitively observe and possess sympathy to differences by using our creativity, passion, and bravery to question why things are the way they are.

Featured picture: Chris-Håvard Berge/Flickr

References

Anne-Marie Jeannet. “The Greying of Europe and Public Opinion about Immigration.” MPC Blog, May 20, 2019. https://blogs.eui.eu/migrationpolicycentre/greying-europe-public-opinion-immigration/ 

Chaban, Natalia, Allan Williams, Martin Holland, Valerie Boyce, and Frendehl Warner. “Crossing Cultures: Analysing the Experiences of NZ Returnees from the EU (UK vs. Non-UK).” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 35, no. 6 (November 2011): 776–90. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijintrel.2011.03.004 

“Cultural Intelligence (CQ).” Redhead Communications (blog). Accessed August 12, 2019. https://www.redheadcommunications.com/cultural-intelligence-cq/ 

Gaw, Kevin F. “Reverse Culture Shock in Students Returning from Overseas.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 24, no. 1 (January 2000): 83–104. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0147-1767(99)00024-3 

Klohnen, Eva C., and Luo, Shanhong. “Interpersonal Attraction and Personality: What Is Attractive–Self Similarity, Ideal Similarity, Complementarity or Attachment Security?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 85, no. 4 (October 2003): 709–22. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.85.4.709

La, Suna, and Choi, Beomjoon. “The Role of Customer Affection and Trust in Loyalty Rebuilding after Service Failure and Recovery.” The Service Industries Journal 32 (January 1, 2012): 105–25. https://doi.org/10.1080/02642069.2011.529438 

Meredith, Willaim H., Abbott, Douglas A., Tsai, Rita, and Zheng, Fu Ming. “Healthy Family Functioning in Chinese Cultures: An Exploratory Study Using the Circumplex Model.” International Journal of Sociology of the Family 24, no. 1 (1994): 147–57. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23029805 

 “Most of Us Tend to Be Attracted to People Who Are Similar to Ourselves.” PsyPost (blog), March 28, 2017. https://www.psypost.org/2017/03/us-tend-attracted-people-similar-48596 

National Statistics Republic of China(Taiwan). “Employed Persons by Industry.” Accessed August 12, 2019. https://eng.stat.gov.tw/ct.asp?xItem=12683&ctNode=1609 

Office of President Republic of China (Taiwan). “2018臺灣服務業大評鑑 副總統:推展臺灣精神 打造臺灣特色優質品牌,” March 7, 2018. https://www.president.gov.tw/NEWS/23470 

RedHead Communications. “Cultural Intelligence (CQ).” Redhead Communications (blog). Accessed August 12, 2019. https://www.redheadcommunications.com/cultural-intelligence-cq/ 

“Reverse Culture Shock – The Challenges of Returning Home: Reverse Culture Shock.” Accessed August 12, 2019. https://2009-2017.state.gov/m/fsi/tc/c56075.htm 

Seyfried, B. A., and Hendrick, Clyde. “Need Similarity and Complementarity in Interpersonal Attraction.” Sociometry 36, no. 2 (June 1973): 207. https://doi.org/10.2307/2786567

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Simon Fraser University. “Stages and Symptoms of Culture Shock – International Student Advising and Programs.” Accessed August 12, 2019. https://www.sfu.ca/students/isap/explore/culture/stages-symptoms-culture-shock.html 

The Storm media. “服務業要滿足消費者到何種程度?-風傳媒,” September 26, 2016. https://www.storm.mg/lifestyle/170551srcid=73746f726d2e6d675f62383332326534656434326364353031_1565270776 

Treger, Stanislav, and Masciale, James N.. “Domains of Similarity and Attraction in Three Types of Relationships.” Interpersona: An International Journal on Personal Relationships 12, no. 2 (December 21, 2018): 254–66. https://doi.org/10.5964/ijpr.v12i2.321 

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HK Protest – Not Only about An Extradition Bill

Bruce Lee once shared his philosophy with others: “Be formless, be shapeless, like water. Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water my friend.”  This Hong Kong-American actor would not expect that 47 years after his death his philosophy of life would be adopted by protesters in Hong Kong against their own government.

After a tear gas grenade been hurled towards the protesting crowds, two masked protesters quickly covered the smoking grenade with a traffic corn and poured the bottled water through the hole on top of it to put out the smoke, as if they had been trained to deal with tear shell for a long time. In the meantime, other gathered protesters started drawing back with opening umbrellas in their hands pointing at the police force in case of more tear bombs. They moved together towards the next neighbouring street. This scene has been happening everywhere in Hong Kong for more than five months already. 

The protest that involved more than millions of people in Hong Kong has become the largest uprising so far against local government and Beijing authorities in the back. Unlike the last big scale protest broke out in 2014, so called the Umbrella Revolution, where people occupied all central areas of the city and refused to leave, this time Hongkongers learned their lessons and became more flexible. They haunted in every corner of the city and once they met the police they strategically pulled out and moved to another “battleground”, formless and shapeless, “like water”, as Bruce Lee said.

The starting point of this protest on an unprecedented scale is an Amendment. Three months ago the HK government tried to push ahead with an Amendment of the existing extradition law titled Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019, in which it was regulated that in the future the fugitives arrested in Hong Kong can be extradited to Macau, Taiwan, and most controversially, Mainland China.

On June 9th, around one million people occupied the street with signs written NO CHINA EXTRADITION in their hands. However, in the following days as the police started shooting tear gas bombs and rubber bullets towards gathered crowds, the peaceful protests escalated to a series of riots quickly. Soon, the situation further deteriorated while the protesters blocked the HK airport and a mainland China journalist was beaten up by angry protesters. The relative video went viral on Chinese social media Weibo and stirred up the anger from Chinese side and resulted in a huge and still on-going online flame war between HK and mainland China people.

However, although the protestors’ emotional and violent actions at the airport and their decision to block the whole airport, which led to thousands of passengers stranded at the airport, are debatable, it is inappropriate simply defining this pro-democracy protest as a sinister interference by Western Powers that tried to “subvert China’s political system” nor defining the protesters as “rioters” or even “terrorists”, as stated by Chinese official media report.

HK problem is a long-rooted problem. The Amendment for extradition bill just lit the fuse. Since Hong Kong was handed over from Britain in 1997, the dissatisfaction of HK citizens toward HK government has raised a lot. 

According to a public opinion poll conducted by Hong Kong University, in 2019 only 10.8% of Hong Kong citizens identified themselves as “Chinese” and more than 50% chose “Hongkonger”. One of the reasons behind is the decreasing credibility of the government. Taking the Amendment as example, the protesters’ biggest concern is that after the Amendment get approved, Hong Kong citizens and foreigners passing through the city can be arrested and sent to mainland China for trials due to political reasons. But actually, HK government specifically underlined that human rights will still be guaranteed that no suspect of political offences will be covered under the bill. 

However, it is clear that citizens do not trust their government anymore, which is reasonable considering Wing-Kee Lam’s experience. In 2005, Wing-Kee Lam, a Hong Kong bookseller who sold books critical for China, was arrested in Hong Kong and detained in China later for “operating a bookstore illegally”. Currently Lam has fled to Taiwan in fear of the approval of the Amendment.

Also, during the past two months, HK government’s double standard and inaction only raised more substantial doubts on itself. On 21st July, more than 20 men in white shirts showed up in Yuen Long area and attacked all black-dressed (the protesters’ united dressing color) passersby indiscriminately, including old people and pregnant women. According to witnesses, the emergency call that could not get connected for a long time and the local police station was closed. Some even stated that they saw the police, who witnessed the bloody and violent attacks of white-shirt men, just turned around and left. Until today, 28 arrested white men have all been bailed and only two of them were prosecuted. Compared to the police’s quick reaction to the protesters, their actions that night made the citizens start questioning whether the police received orders from the government and whether the government is taking double standard against pro-China and pro-Hong Kong demonstrators.

On the other hand, the protests have been lasting for more than five months but HK government neither took any concrete actions nor answered any demands of citizens. It keeps condemning protesters’ violence but ignored the truth that HK police took unnecessary and inhumane actions against the demonstrators such as shooting with bean bag round at a very close distance, which violated the term of use and had led to a girl’s blindness. For now, HK government’s strategy is obviously taking no actions and this was what they have done five years ago during the Umbrella Revolution, which ended under the pressure of growing discontent citizens who had been tired of month-long protest. However, this time, there’s no tendency yet that the on-going protest will be ceasing in the near future.

When Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997, it was promised that for the next 50 years Hong Kong’s civic freedom and “a high degree of autonomy” would be guaranteed. These 50 years are supposed to be a transition time for Hong Kong to entirely return to China. However, there seems to have been signs that China’s “one country, two systems” policy is failing and the gap between mainland China and Hong Kong is actually expanding. The protest started from an extradition bill but is not only about it. It is a concentrated outbreak of long-rooted and deep-rooted problems. What will happen next? What will happen after the 50 years limit finish? There’s still no answer for it.

 

References: 

“Hong Kong-China Extradition Plans Explained.” BBC News. BBC, August 22, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-47810723

Kirby, Jen. “As Hong Kong Protests Continue, Mob Violence against Demonstrators Casts a Shadow.” Vox. Vox, July 22, 2019. https://www.vox.com/2019/7/22/20704239/hong-kong-protests-mov-yuen-long-beijing

Liu, Nicolle. “What Is Hong Kong’s Extradition Bill?” Financial Times. Financial Times, June 11, 2019. https://www.ft.com/content/2063019c-7619-11e9-be7d-6d846537acab

McBride, Terry Lee. “Bruce Lee Be As Water My Friend.” YouTube. YouTube, August 14, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJMwBwFj5nQ

O’Connor, Tom. “China State Media Says the West Will Never Get Hong Kong Back as Protesters Attack Journalist.” Newsweek, August 13, 2019. https://www.newsweek.com/china-media-hong-kong-attack-1454130

University (the) of Hong Kong, “Table.” Table – HKUPOP. Accessed August 13, 2019. https://www.hkupop.hku.hk/english/popexpress/ethnic/eidentity/halfyr/datatables.html

The C-Word: Rethinking Feminism

By Maeva Chargros

“Should we sign a contract before each sexual intercourse, now?! This is insane!”

Yes, indeed. It is definitely insane to think that a law recently passed in Sweden, placing consent at the core of any rape or sexual assault accusation, automatically forces all parties involved in a sexual act to draft and sign a legally binding contract prior to any intercourse involving penetration. The problem is that our society is unable to grasp a concept that should be the main driving force in any human interaction – professional, personal, intimate, or public. Before our birth, our life is shaped on the basis of this concept’s fragile survival.

This notion is the infamous C-word, consent, and it is crucial not only in our sexual life, but in more or less every single aspect of our lives. It shows up when you switch on your phone, when you commute to work, when you need medical care, when you walk in a park etc. It shows up when you have tea with friends, when you listen to music, when you visit an exhibition, when you purchased the phone or computer you are using to read this article. This is a factual statement. Here comes the opinion-motivated one: this concept, omnipresent and yet, paradoxically almost absent from our lives, is highly feminist and has a significant feminine character. Yet, men benefit from its existence more than women – this, again, is a factual statement based on statistics readily available by anyone interested in the topic.

Before going any further, I need to add an essential sentence, unfortunately. I hope one day, the sooner the better, this sentence will become obsolete. Please take into account while reading it that this article may contain sensitive information that could act as triggers for victims and survivors of sexual assaults. Continue reading “The C-Word: Rethinking Feminism”