Different cultures are different. That much we knew already. But when you put 60 students from all sorts of different backgrounds together in the same house, that fact becomes blatantly obvious. You would think that cultural differences no longer surprise us in a world that sometimes seems so small, with people from different backgrounds living side by side and the internet turning the entire world into a “global village”, but integration appears to have a strong effect after all. The difference between international students at a Dutch university and those still living in their home country is very big, and that can lead to funny and interesting as well as awkward and confusing experiences.
The best example of this is probably the group of students from China and Hongkong. Sharing is clearly a vital part of their culture, as not a single piece of food goes by without it being offered to other people. My instinct is to refuse this unless I would actually like to try it, but whether this is the accepted way to handle it… I don’t know. This isn’t just limited to food, though: chairs are offered, priority is given everywhere, whether this is to use the sink or to pass through a door, and refusing it often seems rude. At multiple occasions one of these students got up from a chair or gave up their spot in a game, almost as if my enjoyment is somehow more important than their own, something that contrasts quite a bit with my focus on equality and efficiency, complicated even further by the fact that I lack the instinct to return the favours.
Just as interesting is eating behaviour. As a Dutch person, I am used to trying to avoid any munching sounds as much as possible, so much so that it is very common to have music on during the meal just to block out the sound. Moments of silence in the conversation can quickly make the chewing become awkward, because God forbid someone would hear that saliva going round in your mouth! With the Asians, though, it works quite differently… They smack their lips, eat with their mouths slightly open and don’t shy away from letting a lot of sound escape their mouth while they’re chewing. Basically, they’re enjoying their food while us Westerners try our best to get those calories in with the least amount of annoyance. As if eating is a burden that we just have to get over with every day. Equally surprising is the way men in certain cultures touch each other, which would, in the West, only be acceptable when there is at least one girl involved, something that in retrospect is actually another very weird standard in Western culture.
There’s more, though. As you might have noticed by reading this blog, I love politics, and in a setting like this, you can be certain to find extremely varying opinions leading to awfully interesting conversations. There are Muslims here who support gay rights and some who at the very least feel very awkward about it, there are people who are obliviously sexist and there are feminist activists, all of whom come from all sorts of cultures, some Islamic, others Western, East-Asian or from former Soviet countries. One thing we do all have in common, however, is a respect for other people’s views, and that, to me, is just beautiful.
These strong cultural differences are not only interesting, but they are also eye-opening. A Singaporean girl found my account of eating behaviour in the Netherlands just as weird as I might have found hers, and while I find the Chinese way of sharing difficult to adjust to, they just as much find my ways confusing and odd. It is an important thing to be aware of if you aim for true open-mindedness, because it shows how strong the effect of our culture and our biases truly are. What I’ve learned, then, is that the next time you think that someone else has weird habits, opinions or behaviours, just remember that they will find yours just as weird as you find theirs.
This is the last “Insights from Bahrain”. Unfortunately, I had to return home prematurely, so I am now back in the Netherlands 4 weeks early and that means that there won’t be as much to write about. I will be returning to the schedule of once-weekly posts on Monday, with diverse topics as usual!
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