Sunday, April 10, 2011

The cheater and the illiterate expatriates in the train

Yesterday I was traveling by train across two European countries, and I remember something I wanted to write about but never did in my last post. The question is why I started profiling countries while I was traveling by train. So I suddenly remember that everything began from my own experience of being categorized/reduced to my cultural origin. It was not about being me anymore; it was where I was from. That was what made me different from others, so the difference itself was taken to define, understand my motives. Sad, but we all do that. We miss the individual, we go to the clichés. The ones I was talking about in the last post, the ones that came to my mind as a reaction of what I was suffering. Anyway, unfair in both directions, and I wanted to make others think something like: “hey, c'mon, we are not like that!” Obviously you are not like that, but that is what happens when one just gets a few impressions and extends them in such a naive way so as to define individuals based on those preconceptions or prejudices. Of course, you are not like that, neither are we.

That day, I got on the train at that tiny station where no one could sell me a ticket; there was just a machine that would not accept my Visa card and only would accept coins (and I had not that many coins; just notes). So I got on the train thinking that I would explain the situation to the conductor and that I would not get a fine, just the ticket I could not get from the machine. But after my explanations, he made me the only question I would fear or hate: “Where are you from?” So after hesitating a little bit, I told him where I was from and his face and vocal expression showed his suspicion about my story, so I got that huge fine (luckily I had that money: a 50-euro note, plus I was from the EU; I can imagine that others would have suffered worst consequences). So for some seconds/minutes I hate being from where I was and I hated that he thought that I just was “an individual coming from where I came”. I hated my compatriots because I could understand where the conductor got that conclusion: so many others coming from my country had tried to cheat in the past; so generally we are seen as cheaters, and we deserve that collective reputation. But… No matter how I hate that behavior myself, and how much I hate that shared value of “almost being a hero for being a cheater and not been caught”.  I was not me anymore; I was just one of the supposedly cheaters.

Another example comes from the experience of a friend of mine. She is this brilliant, successful, and the kind of professional anyone would like to hire. But I guess in other people’s eyes, she may just be an African lady with a visa to work temporary in a European country. So probably with the suspicion of having the hidden intention of trying to marry a European man to get permanent residence in the old continent. So when she was sitting in that car of first class because she mistakenly went to the wrong side of the train, the reaction of the conductor was funny (to name it somehow). He addressed to her in this paternalistic attitude explaining how things worked in that country/continent; he indicated that there were two classes, and suggested that, if she could not read/recognize the numbers (he never asked whether she could read or not!), she could pay attention to the color of the seats to distinguish the two classes. So she was African (therefore, supposedly stupid and illiterate) and bright colors would be at least more informative for that woman. No matter how many degrees she had got, and how many awards and grants she has got due to her intellectual contributions. She was African and stupid, as I was a cheater from a less “cool”/nice part of Europe. As simple as that, although the reality is always very complex, and so many variables intertwine to explain the outcomes of human behavior.

Tajfel’s identity social theory has shown us how we form groups based on any possible characteristic that divides individuals belonging to one group or another one, and this is the underpinning of prejudice. Several experimental studies have shown how we tend to favor people from the ingroup (those sharing with us a certain characteristic) and discriminate those of the outgroup (those who do not belong to the same perceived group). From here, we also acquire a cultural (ethnic, national or supranational) identity that is reinforced by the continuous interaction with members of ingroup but maybe especially by interacting with members of outgroup. In intercultural situations this is particularly salient. A man in his fifties, working as a freelance journalist, may not see himself as belonging to the same perceived group as a non-educated woman of about 20 looking for a job as a cleaner. But then, if we take them together outside their country (for instance, Romania), and put them in the same other country, they may start being part of the same ingroup. People in the host country would treat them equally, assuming that Romanians are this and that Romanians are that. These two people may encounter similar difficulties (partly based on the command of the language of the host country), and they may find common points that make them alike. Basically, they are Romanians treated as “Romanians”. Whenever they go, they are introduced to people “like them”: meaning “Romanians”. No matter what their interests, their religion, or their expectations in life are; all of them are Romanians, so they end up extending their social network based on this new category the outgroup members have gave them, and therefore,  group identity gets reinforced. Individuals of this new grouping see their common features in opposition to the outside group of mainstreamers. And here is when the gap may become bigger. And here is when some of them (those who are not fluently enough to relate to inhabitants of the host country) may join those ghettos, where cultural common values are to be kept and two parallel cultures develop without much confluence. I do not want to blame completely mainstreamers for not having immigrants integrated because there is this another reality in which quite a number of newcomers do not want to change any of their cultural values, customs and behavior to the new society and dream of living in the same way as in the origin culture. So OK: the separation would come from both directions: let us assume shared responsibility. The point I wanted to make here is that if we reinforce the difference, we do not help in creating this actual multicultural society in which a true intercultural dialogue happens.

Yesterday I was watching My name is Khan again, and I thought that this film was a nice example to show how prejudice works. I also thought how sometimes a simple story might tell us more about multiculturalism than any forum in Azerbaijan would.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Travelling by train: An outsider (and maybe very biased) view

I like travelling by train. I would not say that I am terribly fond of this mean of transportation, but I find it more convenient than travelling by bus when you are abroad. You have clear references (the name of the station in all stops in the local language) and it is more difficult to get lost by getting off at the wrong stop, at it has happened to me quite a few times in the local buses. You can ask the driver or any other passenger in the bus, but it is also quite likely that the driver forgets about you or that they simply do not understand which stop you are referring to hearing your accent. So the train is safer, and you feel more independent when it comes to choose the right stop.

There is something common about travelling by train everywhere and something more characteristic to the place. I would say that the feeling that “the trains are not on time in our country” is more often heard than I would have thought. I am tempted here to say universal but obviously I have not been in so many places so as to give the pancultural label to this fact (and probably it is not even completely true). But where things in general tend to delay, trains are not an exception; and where things seem to work as scheduled, the slightest change (from 15:27 to 15:29) becomes annoying for the inhabitants of that country.
But yeah, still you may notice some idiosyncratic features wherever you go. Picking up some (maybe “random”) facts and accommodating them to existing clichés is incorrect because it implies some sort of reductionism of a complex reality. Categorizing makes our life easier but we know that some nuances are lost on that way. In any case, and being aware of my biased/inaccurate perception, I feel the need of making those categorizations/reductionisms as a reaction to what I have suffered myself (this sounds dramatic but it is not so…!). And this may sound politically incorrect, but I have never (and will not ever) intended to be PC, I just want to be truly respectful and honest with my thoughts.

My travelling by train in USA made me think that trains are not especially luxurious, but they have enough features (i.e. tables to work with laptops, which you could plug in) and tickets are a little bit more expensive than of buses so as to make a difference. I would not say that the difference is huge, but for someone who has a limited budget, I admit it might well be. In any case, what I have found most amazing is the terribly old look buses have, as if having more comfortable coaches for a nine-hour trip would be a sin. I wonder how expensive renovating those medium- and long-distance coaches would be, and I get the conclusion that it cannot be that much. But I also get the conclusion that maybe a little bit more fancy and comfortable bus would not serve the purpose, which I think it is not only making them a little bit more low-class mean of transportation, but also to make everyone notices that difference. It is not fun to travel in a mean of transportation that looks (actually is) as belonging to an upper social status if this is not meant to be known by everyone. So the different social classes are safely separated.

Trains in Germany are also fun. I have to confess my admiration and devotion for how organized everything seems to be there (this is again the observation of an outsider; some living there for quite a while may have another perspective). But I like travelling in German trains. What I find a little bit odd (and sometimes feel uneasy probably because of my more chaotic tendencies) is how inflexible some things seem to be. I can think of one example that illustrates it. I was queuing to get a ticket and some information; when my turn came I purchased the ticket and got my questions promptly and efficiently answered. But I forgot one last question (or just reminded it untimely), so two seconds after leaving the counter, I tried to come back to get this question answered but the next person waiting in line had already reached the counter and everyone around indicated me that I had to queue again. I found it impractical, so I left the place. I cannot remember what question was that but should not be enough reason to wait for other 10-15 people getting their tickets or queries answered before me. Then, I learned that it was expected from me that I had a clear idea of the list of questions I needed to be answered and everything that did not fit there would be considered as improvisation (hence, “not good”). Likewise, do not ask questions about possible but improbable facts: you may not get an answer. If you go to the counter of the train station, you would get accurate, quick and efficient answers, all of them according to the neat protocol. But the unexpected… Hmmm, the unexpected... “If I validate this ticket today, but then miss the train, and have to take another train that will depart on the next day, would it be still OK?” Then, you realize that the person in front of you looks puzzled. (—How come if you buy the ticket expecting to take the train today, would you miss it? — seems to be in this guy’s mind). So after three seconds, then s/he would start looking at some papers around him/her, looking for the answer somewhere. Then, you start wondering whether you are the only idiot around who has missed the train lately there. Eventually, the guy would tell: “If you miss the train, come here and we will find a solution”. This sounds promising. Until I said that was what had actually happened. A quick phone call comes, and then it seems that they guy can change the ticket (and without any charge). I am amazed: am I really the first person this guy has met with this problem? Did he start in the job the eve? Is it uncommon to validate a ticket, miss the train, and have to travel on the next day? As someone recently told me, in societies where everything is more subject to tight protocols and fewer things are left to improvisation, things seem to work very efficiently. But if there is something unexpected that someone failed to consider when planning the protocol, things get stuck. And B planning (or even C planning) is not something usual for them, so let us hope that we solve the hole in the system after a redefinition of the protocol. But really, you can see that in people’s face: whenever you confront them with improbable situations (also outside the train station) they stare at you like if you were from another planet (maybe I am for even considering those weird options…).

A last mention goes to the funny first and second cars of Dutch trains. If you talk to the Dutch, they may proudly say that they do not want to make distinctions because they are an egalitarian society. Therefore, you would not expect that in a train some cars were first class and others second class. But there are (somehow…). And I say somehow because, honestly, I still do not get it: why would a person pay more money to go in first class in the train when the car is almost the same as the second class one? Well, in peak hours, there may be free seats in first class cars, and no seats and too many travelers with heavy bags in the other cars. But when it is not the case, watch out! You can see the number when entering the train, but if you walk around cars, you may enter the “other zone” without noticing (look for the tiny numbers inside, somewhere in the car, almost hidden). It has happened to me a couple of times and to some other foreigners I know too. I guess that there is still some obsession for not making class distinctions too evident, so when there is something like that implied, they are not good at that, or they just make it not very noticeable. Whatever the reason is, it becomes really easy to go to the wrong part of the train, but this is not usually a problem (although I may talk about it in another moment).

Take-home message? Well, this post is not meant to convey any hidden meaning or bring unexpected conclusions. I said before that I was aware of being too simplistic by sticking to clichés, and I do not want to perpetuate them. But I wanted to highlight that when you are abroad, even though everything seems to be the same as at home because you also come from a "Western" country, small changes may make a difference. Because after all, there is some implicit way of thinking underlying all decisions and unwritten norms. So if I get some difficulties there, coming from a society more “alike”, I just cannot but try to think how this may be for individuals coming from more different societies. It must be incredibly hard. My admiration to those who still make the effort and survive in the "developed"(???) part of the world with this and the rest of (even harder) difficulties.