Culture Shock: How I Broke It Down in My First Month (Part 2)

Find the first part of the mini-series Culture Shock: How I Broke It Down in My First Month here.

The Market

Wednesday and Sunday mornings belong to the market. The place full of stalls with fruits, vegetables, clothes, jewellery and many more products appear on these days as if from nowhere in the parking lot near the university campus.

During my first visit, I was amazed by types of food I’ve never seen before and the way how all the vegetables and fruits were mostly bigger and looked less standard-shaped than those I normally see at the grocer’s. Though the hustle of the event made me uncomfortable. I was shy to go to a stall and buy something. Various sellers were intimidating me by shouting very loudly, especially the man selling the Réunion Journal.

With every visit I became more relaxed also because I realised that I’m not the only ‘tourist’ in La Réunion shopping there. I love going to the market because it has a magnificent atmosphere and is full of colours and scents.

Bureaucracy

The administrative part never fails to remind me that however far I find myself from Europe, I’m still in France and therefore, in the EU. I had spent a lot of time working on the Erasmus and university paperwork before coming to the island, and am spending a lot of time filling in or obtaining forms here, too. Accommodation forms, curriculum forms (three of them), pre-inscription forms…

My first month has been a month of bureaucracy. I felt annoyed at first, then I simply resigned. To make myself less anxious, I thought about Kafka. My situation is much better. He was trapped in a bureaucratic system with no bright prospects whereas I’m stuck in a bureaucractic system in a tropical paradise.

French “Bise”

The French preserve a  custom: when you meet someone, you give each other a kiss on cheeks. It doesn’t express anything romantic, it’s a demonstration of friendship.

The kissing process is different in every part of the country. Some French start kissing from the left or from the right, some give three kisses, some just two or one. In La Réunion, they begin in the left and kiss twice.

The practice of this custom often surprises me. It does seem quite natural when you meet a bunch of your friends and the kissing starts.

However, I saw people getting off the bus and seeing their friends getting on the bus through the same door. So, while the door’s open, they do their bisou ritual, and after that go on with getting on or off the bus. Of course the bus driver waits. It’s a custom!

The University System

The French university system consists in a considerable amount of time spent in lectures and tutorials. Even though I take here the equivalent number of credits as I’d have taken at Aberdeen University, the course matter is divided into smaller segments and thus, instead of two courses which I’d have taken in Aberdeen, I’m taking eight courses at Université de La Réunion. Also, the breadth of things taught is much bigger, we read more books, more articles, learn more contextual information.

I like the breadth of things that we learn about and the books we read are very interesting. Though, I got used to the Scottish educational system which relies on preparation at home and independent research. I felt that sitting for some 25 hours at classes each week wouldn’t suit my way of learning.

But I’ve partially solved my problem: I’m taking two postgraduate courses instead of three undergraduate courses. They seem to be very interesting, have less hours of teaching, and offer more space for independent work.

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Erasmus+ : Why Université de La Réunion?

Erasmus+ is a great option for enriching the university experience. The first advantage is the finance: the grant offered is a solid contribution to the student budget. Also, there is usually a number of universities in various countries to choose from when thinking about going on the programme. (Though, this depends on the course studied and academic links of each university.)

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Logo of Université de La Réunion.

My home university in Aberdeen let me select universities in French-speaking countries as well as in Ireland or Norway. I study literature in a world context; thus, I can enlarge my literary perspective in any country. Considering all the universities I could choose from, what made me want to go to Université de La Réunion located in one of the overseas departments of France?

I’d like to say very honestly: the beach, nice weather, cocktails, etc. I’m not going to pretend these things didn’t appeal to me. Though, there were other important reasons behind my decision.

I wanted to improve my French. I’ve been learning French for years, got good knowledge of the language, and it’s so great to improve it to the point where one fluently interacts with another culture in a new environment and – speaking as a book lover – widens the scope of books they’re able to read. As a student of literature, this seemed to me challenging and enriching enough to go for it. That’s how I decided to apply to universities in French-speaking countries.

The academic links of University of Aberdeen with universities in Francophone countries are numerous. I put Brussels and Bordeaux as my options for the progamme. The Erasmus+ candidates can apply to up to three universities, list them according to their preference, and the study abroad team eventually let them know which university has been chosen for them.

I longed to visit La Réunion and put Université de La Réunion as my top choice and was so happy to be accepted. I thought: what’s the probability of getting a chance to study in a place which is politically European, but African in its geography and incredibly ethnically heterogeneous? I live in Central Europe and the European continent is easily accessible to me. Also, studying in a country in the EU may not be more extraordinary than studying in the UK, at Aberdeen University, which already is not my country of origin. Not so in La Réunion. The flight from Paris took me twelve hours, and living in the island feels European and non-European at the same time.

I might soon learn that I don’t like the French educational system or that some aspect of living in La Réunion doesn’t suit my life expectations. Nonetheless, whatever my experience, one day, I’ll be glad I took the opportunity to go as far as I could, profit from improving my French, and learn about a unique cultural context which can be found nowhere in metropolitan France and Europe as a whole. In addition, the time spent on the beach, swimming in the sea, hiking in the mountains, or any adventure will stay in my memory forever.

Review: YELLOWING Revives the Sparks and Hardships of 2014 Umbrella Revolution

Two years after the Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong took place, one of the world’s largest financial centres, the director Chan Tze Woon presents Yellowing. His documentary follows the course of the 2014 act of civil disobedience aiming at enforcing universal suffrage and democracy in HKSAR. The work is Woon’s third documentary, following “The Aqueous Truth” (2013) and “Being Rain: Representation and Will” (2014).

Yellowing

It’s September 2014 and protesters gather in the heart of Hong Kong to stand up for democracy and against the ever-growing influence of the central Chinese government. They persevere in their action for seventy-nine days, sleep in tents or on mats in roads, and need to take care of obtaining resources for the survival of the movement. The initiative faces physical as well as psychological pressure from the critics and police. Despite their determination and negotiations with Hong Kong officials, the protest comes to an end in December 2014. The film is divided into twenty parts of which each focuses on a different aspect of the movement.

Woon’s work could have attacked the spectator with sentimentality concerning the emotions of the participants and himself, but the director avoids this attitude. He does include photos from his childhood, interviews the members of the movement about their dreams and wishes, and makes the spectator feel for them. However, the depiction of the individuals’ fates and the everyday reality of participating in the movement don’t feel emotionally pervasive. Their role seems to be the shifting of attention from the immediate reality of the event to the reasons behind the event: a mere demand of freedom and justice.

I felt that the way Woon focuses on the daily life of the movement positions anyone who hadn’t participated in the protests as close as possible to the feeling of determination and courage that must have spurred so many days of voluntary hardship. The documentary boosts admiration for all those determined to persevere. Although this chapter in Hong Kong’s history didn’t lead to the outcome the Umbrella Movement had hoped for, Yellowing rightfully shows it as an accomplishment of human will.

The division into separate parts focusing on different aspects of the movement gives the work a character of a project attempting to coherently present the event. However, more reminders of the time passing in each chapter would be appreciated. There are some mentions of temporality in the beginning of the protest, but as the film goes on, the chapters eventually stop informing of time, only to remind the spectator in the end that seventy-nine days had passed.

Most of the time, the camera shows the conversations between the leaders of the protest or the daily life of the people. Yet, the director gives a suggestive perspective of the occupied areas using a crane shot – he depicts the protesters in colour in order to highlight their geographical scope of activity and how it “drowns” in the big city.

Music appears to push forward a sentiment, but without ever crossing the threshold of cheapness. There’s a great contrast in passages accompanied by the loudness of the crowd and those where the sound goes off and voiceover of the director describes his feelings, for example, as the director is being assaulted by one of the policemen. Also, Woon’s voiceover anchors his point of view so that the spectator never entirely forgets through whose eyes they are looking.

Equally effective is his way of not focusing on a single individual too much. The film is partly centred around a few figures of the movement, but the testimonies very well reflect the spirit of the protest and therefore, the spirit of democracy.

Yellowing is a must-see for anyone interested in Umbrella Movement, but also in witnessing what the human will is capable of to fight for freedom. This act of civil disobedience is portrayed through the eyes of one of the protesters, which helps to make the spectator nearly feel what it could have been like to participate. I believe the film succeeds in making the spectator interested in the movement, its present and future, beyond the subjective point of view of the filmmaker. What is more, Yellowing makes one reflect upon the question of the political situation in Hong Kong and the essence of freedom. The documentary is a well-made tribute paid to the dreams and hopes that fuelled the events of 2014 in Hong Kong.

Yellowing: Trailer

About the Director: Tze Woon Chan

Screenings: Ying E Chi Cinema

Culture Shock: How I Broke It Down in My First Month (Part 1)

It’s been nearly four weeks since my arrival to La Réunion. Now comes the time to look at the experience so far. The first month is the time of settling down, getting used to a new environment and possibly facing a culture shock.

The online dictionary describes it as “a feeling of uncertainty, confusion or anxiety that people experience when visiting, doing business in or living in a society that is different from their own. Culture shock can arise from a person’s unfamiliarity with local customs, language and acceptable behaviour, since norms can vary significantly across cultures.”

The island of La Réunion is diverse enough to make one face uncomfortable or unusual situations. Also,  coming to the island is my very first visit under the Equator which makes it all more challenging.

The French Language

The official language of La Réunion is French. I don’t study the language as a part of my degree but I’ve been learning it for a long time. Therefore, I arrived to the French overseas department with significant linguistic  self-confidence.

My first success was grammatically correct ordering of food on the plane. After the arrival, I was suprised to understand a lot more than I’d thought I would. Though, I have moments when I can’t think of the most basic phrases. Or, I talk to someone who has a difficult accent and I have to ask them to repeat what they’re saying. The lectures and academic texts are surprisingly okay, though parts of the lecturers’ speech sound to me like some very random words without a sense.

But despite my struggle, I keep improving thanks to interacting in the language every day and taking language classes.

The Réunionese

The ethnicity of the island’s population is extremely diverse. The reason is that at the time of the colonisation of the island – uninhabited until its discovery in the seventeenth century -, people from Africa as well as Asia were brought or travelled to the island to live or be forced to do slave labour there.

I was familiar with the history of the island before coming to La Réunion. Nonetheless, it took me time to get used to the ethnic diversity since my ordinary background either in the Czech Republic or the United Kingdom is not so heterogeneous. However, it’s wonderful to see how people of different ethnicities as well as religions live side by side harmoniously.

Whistling and Talking

What I definitely haven’t expected was to be whistled at by guys driving their cars while I walk on the pavement. I’m also often spoken to by men in the streets who usually say “hi” or have some comments on my appearance.

I haven’t experienced anything offensive so far, but it’s quite unpleasant, and I may not get used to it (and don’t want to get used to it!). However, now when I walk the street, I’m more prepared to ignore any kind of effort to start a conversation or aiming to catch my attention. Also, I’ve never felt threatened by these strangers.

Part 2 of Culture Shock: How I Broke It Down in My First Month is coming soon. 🙂