Inter[ma]tional Blog

The Square Exchange

So, a few weeks have passed since my first entry. Two horror shows have passed: Halloween and the U.S election. One horror show remains: Finals, then I am done here in Mannheim.
This got me thinking, why did I choose Mannheim to begin with? What was my motvation and drive to get here? So now, whether you want to or not I will share it with you. Enjoy.

When interacting with other students here, the question often comes up: Why did I choose Mannheim as the location for my Erasmus-studies?
When contemplating my choice it might seem odd at first glance. Considering that Germany is not too far from Sweden so the cultural differences are not too big. The climate is not that different (even though we have heaps of snow in November) and even the language is somewhat similar. But I did have other reasons that played a part.

For me it was always about the studies. I wanted to study at a university quite different from my own. Not that the university I come from is not good. But in comparison it is quite young and does not have the same kind of history and structure. Also it is definitely not as prestigious, there is no denying that. While for others the whole traveling aspect is much more interesting.
Personally, I have already travelled quite a bit throughout my years; half a year in Australia, interrailing through eastern europe and road tripping through western europe by car for a few weeks. I have travelled in northern america and southern asia. I am not really interested in what some of my swedish friends are doing. Going to some exotic country and mostly travel around. I take a pass on that. I am much more interested in studying useful courses under influential professors and learning a future useful language. Call me a nerd, please.

But one thing I did not expect was that my cultural knowledge and awareness would be challenged in the way they have. Since I spend am a product of the internet area and is therefore well connected with Facebook, Youtube and such. I figured myself being rather self-aware of what I can and cannot do in a cultural context. To try not to perpetuate negative stereotypes unnecessarily. And despite my countless hours on Youtube, listening to people explaining why blackface and other perceived negative actions during Halloween can been seen as offensive and hurtful I still fell into it myself.

Me and my fellow friends here in Mannheim, a mixture of people from the U.S, Great Britain, Italy, Columbia etc. All spent the night dressed up in different costumes and spent the night on the town going from bar, to party, to corridor and to another party. It was a spectacular night for ghosts, ghostbusters, Peter Pans and myself; A badly recreated Pablo Escobar…
Now, that might not strike some of you as a rather stupid choice for a halloween costume. But I will get there eventually.

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You see, I threw my costume together a few minutes before I had to head out to the pre-drinks and I had not exactly done the best of planning. I had also recently gone through the two seasons of Narcos, so Pablo Escobar was heavily on my mind. So with not a lot of time, limited imagination and poor judgement at the time I put on a flowery shirt, painted a mustache, slicked my curly hair back and put a small pillow under my shirt. I was done.

Well out and about I got mixed reactions. While none were directly negative most people did not understand what I was going for. However the people who did notice me could tell from a few apartment stories away, and they would let me know through yelling my name as I passed by. While I would give them a nonchalant wave of recognition.

A few days pass.
I end up at another party with roughly the same group of friends and people. However, my Colombian friend has a hard time recognizing me. We have not met too many times before and when we have it have been under inebriated circumstances, you understand surely.
He says I look quite different without the mustache and the pillow (thank goodness).
We start talking about the usual that us Erasmus-students talk about when we do not know each other too well: Where we come from and if we have anything to relate.
He tells me that he actually is from Medillín, and if you have seen Narcos then you know that that is where Pablo Escobar originated from. The area he terrorized through killings, drug trafficking and terror.

So now my bad conscience and culturally aware self kicks in. I ask him what his view is on me dressing up as Pablo Escobar, did he find it offensive, is it a sensitive subject and so on. He explains that he understands why I did dress up as him. He was able to see it through the same lense as I did: Through a pop cultural lense like…. Narcos.
However, he also explained in a pedagogical way that he does know a lot of people that would find it highly offensive. That it could be seen as dressing up as Hitler in a way.

The problem for me in this situation is that there is not too much that I can do. Of course, I made a simple and honest apology for just being insensitive and an idiot. But at the same time I do not believe that overly punishing myself is a productive option. The best I could do was to really learn from this cultural lesson, this exchange. So in the future I probably will not be as arrogant and think that just because I have travelled a lot that there is not anything new to learn from simply travelling around. Becoming stale in your social interactions can be as detrimental as becoming stale in your intellectual interactions. And the last thing I want to be is stale, ignorant and unaware towards other people.

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So I thank my Colombian friend for explaining it in such a great and friendly way but also for teaching me something about myself. That even though I spend a lot of time listening to the subject I must not become complacent and arrogant. Otherwise, the exchange would have been for naught, I would have spent my time at a great university without really learning anything.

Thank you.
Text und Bilder: Lukas Norlund Sivermark

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