Column by John Muenzberg, lecturer of philosophy
Students in study abroad programs often experience the new and unusual.
We delight in taking pictures of strange looking breakfasts and unidentifiable bathroom fixtures. Those obvious differences are fun and entertaining, but over time we begin to question the assumptions of our own way of living.
One minor way to recognize these assumptions is to encounter familiar things in an unfamiliar environment. If you truly want to experience European sports culture, I recommend you attend a soccer game while in Europe. It is fun, new and unusual. But a few weeks ago, while I was in Regensburg, Germany as part of our Semester in Regensburg program, I saw the Regensburg Legionnaires Baseball game.
There is something disconcerting in experiencing a quintessential American pastime in a foreign country. The pace, style and look of the game are all filtered through the cultural lens of the host country. One can recognize that activities we think are part of baseball culture are really part of American culture, and actually secondary to the game. It makes you wonder why we celebrate the way we do.
A pastime may directly reflect one’s culture, but it is just a pastime. The more dramatic differences reflect basic decisions made by a society about how people will live. It is well known that Europeans generally walk and bike more than Americans. Attributing this to American laziness is easy, but it overlooks the systematic reasons for the difference.
One major reason that Europeans tend to drive less is that driving is more expensive in Europe. Cars, insurance, parking and gasoline are more expensive. Europeans certainly own cars, but a family may have one car when an American family will have two.
One reaction is to be thankful we live in the USA and then drive to school. But after experiencing Regensburg for an extended period of time, one begins to notice the many ways in which that city is designed around pedestrians and bicyclists. The sidewalks in Regensburg, and many German cities, have two lanes: one for pedestrians and one for bicyclists. The intersections even have bike signals in addition to pedestrian signals. Stores are built closer to the sidewalks to provide easy access.
On the other hand, Walmart is fairly close to the residential colleges at Murray State, yet walking there is not pleasant. Walmart was built away from the center of population and is orientated to face a parking lot along a highway. It is cheaper to build this way, and makes it easier to drive there. That it is harder to walk or bike there never enters into the calculation.
Consider 16th Street north of campus. Like many roads in Murray, it is a narrow strip of asphalt that drops off into a drainage ditch. Given the situation, it is understandable that some people might break the law and ride their bikes on the sidewalk – except there is no sidewalk all the way to campus. So you live less than two miles from campus but the safest way to get there is by car. Of course, you have to park a half-mile from the classroom, but at least that walk is not dangerous.
The main point is not to complain about sidewalks in Murray, Kentucky. The point is that after living abroad for several weeks you stop pointing out how the other country is new and unusual and start to ask if what we do is the unusual choice. This questioning helps you to understand the choices we really have and to evaluate them on their own merits, rather than simply because we have always done things this way. It can take an extended period of time somewhere else to truly learn about who you are.