I recently spent a week in a German town, going to work every day to the university. Despite my huge experience of travel, I had difficulty dealing with particular unfamiliar cultural practices.
There were cycle lanes on the pavements and at pedestrian crossings; whereas in Britain they’re in the road. It took me time to work out the rules for which part of the marked pavement and the road crossings they were – sometimes wider, sometimes narrower, on the right or on the left. There was the added strangeness that pedestrians and the cyclists only crossed the road when the light was green, whereas ‘we take the initiative’ to cross the road when it’s red if there’s no traffic coming.
So, for the first part of the week I frequently got in the way of the cyclists, who were numerous and vigorous in getting quickly on their way. And I was angrily crossing the road when I shouldn’t and perhaps risking fines. This was indeed culture shock. But shock about what?
The biggest block was not the practice of cycling in the street but the prejudices I brought with me which I fell into as a resource. These were the common stereotypes about ‘Germans’ which, when I analysed them, went right back to my childhood. It would be sensationalist and embarrassing to repeat them here because they are in every respect racist and recall misplaced historic discourses that are best put aside.
I laughingly shared them with my co-researcher on WhatsApp and she jolted me into taking this more seriously and find a way to deCentre my thinking.
I therefore, first, needed to recognise and then put aside these awful stereotypes. I could then look for threads with my brought experience of, throughout my life, adjusting to the varicultural world around me by learning how to negotiate and behave with new rules, albeit with varying degrees of success.
Threads are drawn through the multiple events of our personal cultural trajectories, where we all possess an ability to read, respond to and work out culture wherever we find it. Our underlying, shared varicultural knowledge allows us to do this.
This searching for threads, consciously separated from the prejudices that surround us – from the ‘us’-‘them’ grand narratives often derived from national or civilisational opposition – is a refreshing and deCentring experience.
I felt a sense of pride when I found myself adapting to the rules of walking in the street, but with the full agency implicit in strategic intercultural action. If I stayed longer, this would contribute to normal cultural change that takes place everywhere.
I was then able to put this experience into a wider perspective when travelling by train in Britain a week later. The train was hugely crowded. Passengers getting on were avidly looking for vacant seats. A woman and child across from me had left their seats to go to the toilet. Two young women approached the seats. Because of the particular questioning and puzzled looks on their faces, and other things in their appearance, I imagined they were ‘foreign’, as I was in Germany.
They seemed to be wondering if the seats were vacant even though there was a bag there, but just on one of the seats. Another passenger sitting next to me, perhaps because she also thought they were ‘foreign’, told them that ‘the seats are taken’ and that it was ‘a mother and child’ – as though the ‘child’ strengthened the claim on the seats. Perhaps everyone thought that if the young women weren’t ‘foreign’ they would ‘know’ the unwritten significance of bags left on seats.
I then wondered if these young travellers knew they had the life experience to draw threads like I eventually did in Germany. Indeed, is sorting out threads from blocks dependent on recognising this experience and knowing what to do with it – on being able to recognise racist ‘us’-‘them’ blocks for what they are?
On the train there was a powerful ‘us’-‘them’ blocking narrative lurking in the air – that ‘we respect personal space’ as if ‘other cultures don’t’. Or was the encounter innocent, drawing on the thread that everywhere, everyone, when on best behaviour, respects personal space, but that the rules for doing it might look very different?