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

Communicating solidarity in trying times: La radio per l’Italia

By Arianna Rizzi

« Are you ready? We are going to live an unprecedented moment of union. For the first time in Italy’s history, all the radios unite in an extraordinary moment of sharing and participation to celebrate our great country – Italy – with music … »

On 31 December 2019, the first Chinese cases of a novel virus were notified to the World Health Organisation (WHO). At that time, what we now call “coronavirus” had a different name – “2019-nCoV” – and seemed to concern only an area remote in space and time from the Western world. But it was not long before COVID-19 had its outbreak in Europe, and Italy was among the first countries to be hit by the epidemic – now declared a pandemic – in the European region.

We all know by now how things have escalated in China – which, as of 20 March, has registered none new locally transmitted cases for a second day – as well as the dramatic pace at which they still are escalating in Italy, France, Germany – and globally. As the states implement more and more stringent measures to slow down the contagion and avoid the collapse of the different national healthcare systems, we find ourselves mostly confined in our homes: in fact, while a vaccine for COVID-19 is being developed, we have to act like a social vaccine and practice physical social distancing in order to not get infected ourselves and not infect other people.

In Italy, the government led by PM Giuseppe Conte decided for a first, selective lockdown on 22 February, when eleven municipalities in the north of the country were declared “red zones”. The measures were soon extended to entire regions (Lombardy, Veneto and Piedmont) and finally, on 9 March, to the whole country. This concretely means that in Italy, several citizens have been in quarantine for almost a month.

In these trying times, many are the initiatives through which Italians have tried and reinvented togetherness, in order to cope with the disruption of our daily routines and social life – from “balcony flash mobs” to live Instagram “concerts from home” and free access to a variety of digital services and products (streaming platforms, ebooks, etc.). It is in this spontaneous framework of grassroots and top-down solidarities that La radio per l’Italia places itself, also as an unprecedented event in the (Italian) history of communication.

Through the brainchild of Radio Italia’s vice-president Marco Pontini, La radio per l’Italia brought simultaneous radio broadcasting to life for the first time in Italian history. On 20 March, at 11 a.m., all the Italian radio stations – both public and private broadcasters, both national and local stations, all at the same time – joined forces and played the same four songs: Inno di Mameli – the Italian national anthem – Azzurro by Celentano, La Canzone del Sole by Battisti and Nel blu dipinto di blu (Volare) by Modugno.

But let’s take a step back to better grasp the sociological relevance of such an event. As humans, we are currently seeing our primary form of sociality – face-to-face interaction – cut down to the bone, because it itself represents a danger to the survival of our societies. Media, as (alternative) means of communication, become then even more prominent: provided that, already in normal circumstances, they allow us to stay informed, keep in touch with our loved ones and stay connected to our local and national community wherever we are, we see how their role becomes vital in a time when even a simple encounter with a friend represents too much of a social risk.

In this historical and historic moment in which media are almost all we have left to maintain our sociality, what does it mean to broadcast the same message, at the same time, on all the available (radio) channels? Most likely, it means trying and uniting a nation by means of what John B. Thompson called “despatialised simultaneity”: mass media – and especially radio, TV and Internet broadcasting – allow people to experience an event as simultaneous, regardless of where they are and where the event is taking place. For instance, when we switch on the television and tune in to a certain channel to follow the news, we understand that many other people might be doing the same. Some of us will in fact be seeing the same images, listening to the same updates, at the same time – but each in their own home. This mechanism becomes yet more evident in the occasion of big happenings: a presidential discourse, the Olympics, a royal wedding.

In the case of La radio per l’Italia, despatialised simultaneity was pushed to its extreme: not one, not many, but all the Italian radio stations jointly decided to offer the same 10 minutes of music, and by doing so they merged their particular audiences into one – that of the Italian people. Anyone – from Milan to Campobasso, from Udine to Messina – turning on the radio around 11 would in fact be listening to the same four songs. A powerful initiative, considering the cultural and patriotic value of the songs chosen. A brief, yet nationwide “event” – of which the effective audience still has to be determined – that proves that mass communication can also serve as a privileged bearer of solidarity messages.

Picture: Pietro Luca Cassarino, Flickr

What the hell is (still) going on in Chile?

Interview conducted by Guilherme Becker

Since October 2019 Chile is (almost literally) on fire. Just to have an idea of the situation, let’s start taking a look at some numbers regarding the protests that since then erupted against the government and the whole social and economic system in the South American country: At least 30 dead as well as thousands injured and jailed. Among the injured, many went blind because of rubber bullets shot by police – it is estimated that more than 200 people have got eye problems. The demonstrations have also affected the daily life, the public transport and the political spectrum. Monuments, buildings and historical places have been constantly damaged, as the streets are still full of people angrily protesting.

That is the summary of something that might have been postponed for decades.

During my internship at Deutsche Welle, in Bonn, I had the opportunity to meet people from different newsrooms. DW has newsrooms in more than 30 different languages, so imagine that it is a piece of the world inside its own world. One of the journalists that I met was José Urrejola, from Chile, who has been covering the whole situation and its developments. With a local perspective but also through an international coverage of the facts, in this interview he explains what is going on in his country, and explicitly argues that “the protests will continue until this president resigns or a ‘miracle’ happens, and he decides to make the changes that people are asking for.”

Euroculturer Magazine: What is actually happening in Chile? Tell us a little bit about the paths that the country took in the last decades and also why the protests erupted now, by the end of last year.

José Urrejola: Firstly we have to put it into context. From my perspective as well from the perspective of many other political experts and scientists, the current problems of Chile originated mainly in the periods of dictatorship and post-dictatorship. During this dark period in Chilean history, with Augusto Pinochet in power, the country established a constitution in which, among other things, gives the country’s economic elite the power to buy and sell whatever they want. Private property is stronger and more protected than what belongs to the state. That has led, for example, to the fact that even something as basic as drinking water supplies belongs to private companies. Even though Chile has actually grown economically speaking after the dictatorship, the wealth has been accumulated among families of the economic elite, and only a small percentage of this money goes to other social classes. The people in Chile are not protesting because of lack of food or because they cannot buy shoes for their children. Chileans are protesting because of a thousand abuses featured by the economic and political elites that have ruled the country over the last three decades, after the return to democracy, in 1990. People are demanding “dignity”, that is, systems that cover basic needs, with a decent health system, a decent pension system and qualified education, among other things. It is hoped that with the plebiscite for a new constitution new systems can be established for the society.

EM: The government has already pointed out signs for reforms, but the protests continue. Do you believe in a possible deadline for the protests?

JU: It doesn’t matter which reform this government establishes, nothing will satisfy the demands of the people. The president Sebastián Piñera, one of the richest men in Chile, represents the questionable economic elite. He is not the right man to solve this crisis. Basically, if he was up to accept the reforms claimed by the citizens and subsequently change the system, structurally speaking, he and other rich people would be affected and would have to give up the power. Therefore, the protests are going to continue until this president resigns or a “miracle” occurs and he decides to make the changes that the people are asking for.

EM: Do you believe that the riots were already predicted by all sides of it, government and students, unions and the social classes most affected by liberal policies? I mean, they all knew that one day it was going to happen?

JU: Personally I don’t believe people who say “we didn’t see it was coming” or “we didn’t know this could happen”. This social outburst was foreshadowed some years ago, but no one really took it seriously. We can agree that it took long for Chileans to show their dissatisfaction, that they were “asleep” and allowing these abuses for a long time. However, I would describe this as a ticking bomb that sooner or later was going to explode and the trigger was those 30 Pesos in the transport (the demonstrations started after the Chilean government has raised the price of public transport tickets).

EM: How do you face the fact of students now having migrated the protest to the intellectual part of the process? In this case, in Chile, you have to take a test to get into universities, and the students said that this year they will not take this test. What do you think about this and which can be the consequences of this act?

JU: Well, the first people that started doing something regarding the price of the public transport tickets were high school students. It’s the young people who started moving the country. And we could say that this social explosion was “agglutinating” because it binds up all the demands of the citizens: health, education, pensions etc. In the case of the education sector, young students are aware that the Prueba de Selección Universitaria (University Selection Test) is part of the bad Chilean education system. This test endorses social segmentation: while the richest have a better education through a private system, those with less income do not get high scores and have no options to study. In addition, they are forced to get into debt if they want to study. Therefore the problem is not the final test, but the education system that results in enormous differences through income levels. Regarding the actions taken by young people, unfortunately they could not manage to change anything by boycotting the test. Perhaps they managed to get people talking about it, but the underlying problems are rather structural in society. The fault is not the test itself, even though I don’t think it’s good either because it only measures knowledge and not skills.

EM: More liberal sectors have said that the situation in Chile could be even worse if liberal policies had not been launched in recent decades. In this case, these people want to say that Chile could be in an even worse financial situation. What do you think about that?

JU: Part of the society is asking for an overall change in the country’s economic system. I don’t think that’s possible. To me it seems that it is not arguable that Chile has grown through liberal policies in recent years. Meanwhile the wealth has mainly remained with the economic elite, as I mentioned earlier, and just a small percentage of that went to the rest of the society. Chile still has a neoliberal or capitalist system, whatever you want to call it. Nevertheless the country is not growing anymore. It is stagnated, though that meets the current financial situation in a global context. So it is not because the system in Chile is effective or not. Anyway the problems of the Chilean economy are different: it is not dynamic, it is an old-fashioned economy, in which the exploitation of raw materials such as copper, lithium, agriculture and wine are its main markets. If Chile is not capable of developing in terms of innovation, technology or industries, it does not matter what model it has: it will not grow economically. In modern times, it is also necessary to aim at a circular economy, with a focus on the environment. Chile is far away from this and it does happen precisely because of the country’s economic elite. Most of these people are concerned in accumulating more wealth for their personal well-being.

EM: In your point of view, what is the future of Chile and Latin America?

JU: It’s hard to answer this question. In Chile, I don’t see a possible short-term solution. The first thing the country should do is changing the constitution, which was idealized during the dictatorship. Otherwise the economic elite will continue to rule the country. But even if a new Magna Carta is written, there is still a long way to define which society the country wants to build, which pension system, which health system, which education system, among other important ones. In Latin America, I believe that we should focus our efforts on promoting policies that are aligned with the global context, that is, adopting a circular economy, concerned with the environment, and also fighting against the continent’s economic inequality. However, I do not imagine that this will happen soon, unfortunately.

Picture: Nelson Anguita, protestas Santiago, Flickr

1989-2019: “You will be the generation to suffer the consequences of these changes.”

By Maeva Chargros

The story is known – some would even say simple: on November 17, 1989, a large demonstration in Prague triggered the Velvet Revolution, that would peacefully end four decades of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia; Václav Havel would be the President of the new federal Republic, which would split between the Czech and Slovak Republics in 1993. Then, both countries would join NATO and the European Union, keeping close diplomatic ties. Czechia would constantly be confused with Chechnya, and Slovak diplomats in Brussels would have to organise regular mail-swapping meetings with their Slovenian counterparts. Meanwhile, everyone would keep talking about Czechoslovakia as if these two countries only made sense when together.

Nonetheless, if you sit down and listen to Czechs and Slovaks, you realise the story is not that simple: for them, the Velvet Revolution cannot be reduced to just one demonstration, one election, and one painful breakup.

Therefore, instead of a banal memo about various events organised around the Czech Republic to celebrate the 30th anniversary of this major historical milestone, here is an attempt to help international readers to see the events from a Czech, or actually Czechoslovak perspective, through the eyes of people who actually saw the events as they happened – on TV, in the newspapers, or on the main square of their city or village. I interviewed three historians, who were in very different locations in November 1989. They were between 7 and 19 years old, thus each gives a very different perspective on the events that unfolded thirty years ago. All of them are now part of the Euroculture team at the Department of History of Palacký University in Olomouc. You will find more information about them at the end of this article; their age at the time of the Velvet Revolution is given next to their names in the article. Continue reading “1989-2019: “You will be the generation to suffer the consequences of these changes.””

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. 

“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

Shu, Han. “Taiwan: GDP Breakdown by Sector 2017-Statista.” Accessed August 13, 2019. https://www.statista.com/statistics/321366/taiwan-gdp-breakdown-by-sector/

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 

Uppsala University Housing Office. “Student Corridor Living.” Uppsala University Housing Office. Accessed August 13, 2019. https://housingoffice.se/staying-at-uuho/student/student-corridor-living/

Vanessa. “被服務業寵壞的台灣人 | Vanessa潛進世界 | 遠見雜誌,” January 18, 2018. https://www.gvm.com.tw/article.html?id=55645 

Wong, Maggie Hiufu. “Taiwan’s Most Beautiful Places | CNN Travel.” CNN Travel, April 22, https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/taiwan-beautiful-places/index.html

王一芝. “「奧客」與否,就在你一念之間| 遠見雜誌.” 遠見雜誌 – 前進的動力, January 6, 2016. https://www.gvm.com.tw/article.html?id=32805 

李佩璇. “服務業人力需求現況調查-1111產經新聞(1111 Job Bank),” September 4, 2018. https://www.1111.com.tw/news/surveyns/111919/ 

蕭西君. “笑容,永遠留給顧客 – 帶人領導 – 管理 – Cheers快樂工作人,” January 11, 2000. https://www.cheers.com.tw/article/article.action?id=5026100&page=2 

陸柔羽. “台灣服務業中「以奧為傲」的奧客怪象 – The News Lens 關鍵評論網,” January 19, 2018. https://www.thenewslens.com/article/87863

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”

The ghosts are back

By Ismail El Mouttaki

Je voudrais vous demander quelque chose, est ce que vous croyez aux fantômes? (I would like to ask you something: Do you believe in ghosts?)

Back in 2010, a bunch of young freshman finally could smell a wave of change, a wave that hypnotizes mind, and its magnetic aura did raid the whole world. [1]

“The political system must change”, screams one. Proudly, another one responds with a confident tone as if he knew it all: “The dominant culture would simply reproduces the same political system and its authoritarian practices. You will change a dictator for another… Anyway”. The third boy, in an attempt to outsmart the other ones, whispers: “Forget it. Let’s start a new community, a self-sufficient community with our refined elitist pure values: a kibbutz.” [2]

These memories are already mummified in my head and I could not care less about change anymore. Running away from the spectre of this conversation led me to the far east of the globe, its centre, and then back to the west.

Nine years later, on another saturday evening, it is time for my ritual, a kind of a few pleasurable residues of a boring childhood, glancing at Strasbourg’s ruelles, Rhine, Cathedrale and the monk who inhabits the church – but stays outside it -, my favorite street saxophonist. It does not leave me any option at all. Let’s roam again.

As I am tasting the pleasures of the city, I cannot stop thinking how spoiled I am looking through these shop windows where the most recent fashion is displayed – to everyone. Everyone is looking through the windows, nobody enters. I mean, it is still beautiful to look at. Some esthetic truths or realizations do not require possession, hasn’t Osho said it? If you love a flower, you appreciate it as it is, you do not have to own it, right? Anyway, these things are overpriced and rich people pay for the flashy light bulbs, not for the quality or for the function of these brand new cool clothes. Continue reading “The ghosts are back”

Get out of this jail!

By Guilherme Becker

Berlin, August, 2006. After two weeks traveling from London – where I used to live at that time -, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam, I had arrived in one of the most fascinating cities of the world – at least in my imaginary, which could easily be confirmed later. Summer breeze was blowing through the cafes and bars of Prenzlauer Berg. Kastanienallee was the perfect picture of how Berliners could enjoy their lives on a Saturday afternoon, with groups of friends and families hanging out and experiencing all types of foods and drinks, listening to different kinds of music and appreciating the sunny weather. All way down to Alexanderplatz distinct generations were sitting together in front of yellow, blue, green and red buildings talking about life and keeping problems completely away. Alone, I observed that and could barely believe that only a little more than 15 years earlier that part of the city was not that colourful and had nothing similar to that.

On the other side, Mitte was also full of people on the pavements observing passersby. Unter den Linden was like an anthill made by tourists that after walking the whole day could finally have some rest in the “Biergarten(s)” around. The city was beautiful, alive and tender following a World Cup that Germany had hosted less than a month ago and only a few days after the Swedish trio Peter, Bjorn and Jon had launched the classic “Young Folks”. You could feel the tenderness in the air. You could feel the spirit of happiness flowing freely in such a vibrant and great atmosphere. It was simply wonderful.

I knew, though, that at least in one of the seven days that was going to stay there I needed to take some time to cross the city and leave all that happiness and good vibrations behind. It would not be easy or pleasant, but I needed to do it. The goal was tough: Sachsenhausen.

Continue reading “Get out of this jail!”