Stopping the Train: Lessons in Cultural Relativism…..

In my Introduction to Sociology classes, one of the concepts that I teach during the first three weeks of class is Cultural Relativism. This is the principle that an individual human’s beliefs and activities should be understood in terms of his or her own culture. In other words, when we interact with individuals from different backgrounds, visit another country, view another religion that we should do so without judgment and assumption that one culture is superior to the other.

I am two days into my trip to Portugal and I’ve quickly come to the realization that communication is going to be much more difficult here than it was in Italy. English holds little to no currency here, and the limited Spanish I know from immigration activists and hanging out with my bilingual college and grad school friends isn’t going to cut it. Portuguese is a whole other ballgame. I’ve taken to writing down the exact location that I need to get to, in hopes that I won’t get lost or end up somewhere I’m not supposed to be. I’m sure that this is exactly why my mom was nervous about me traveling by myself on portions of this trip.

After spending a day and a half in the beautiful city of Oporto, Portugal (home of Port wine), I get on an express train to Coimbra (pronounced Queen-Bruh), Portugal. The trip is approximately an hour long. The day starts with me almost missing the train –I should have taken this as an omen to just wait and take the next one. After a mad-dash through the Oporto train station I manage to board my train 3 minutes before it pulls out. Relieved, I stashed my bags and sat down. I ask the conductor who punched the ticket what time we’d arrive He tells me, as I look at my watch (which was 7 minutes behind but I didn’t realize it) and I settle in for the ride. The train makes a few stops at other small towns and then keeps going. I’m sitting reading my Kindle, listening to my IPOD, and just relaxing. The train stops, and I look at my watch –and say –oh there’s still another 10 minutes before my stop. I then look out the window and see “Coimbra” –I turn and ask somebody next to me what stop this is and they tell me “Coimbra” At this point, I’m FREAKING OUT! (Let me note, that had I set my watch right, or simply been watching the sign that said, “next stop is…” this would not have been an issue) I jump up and grab my multiple bags (yes, like so many of you, I totally over-packed) and ran to the nearest door, WHICH DIDN’T OPEN! I then turned around and tried to run back to the other door, only to run into all the people who had just boarded the train. Of course, I’m helplessly trying to explain in English that I’m trying to get off the train and I needed them to move. They, on the other hand, are glaring at me wondering what the hell I was doing. Needless to say, I ended up having to hurdle two different sets of luggage, with my luggage, I get to the door, just as they close the doors and start pulling out of the station.

For a second, I sat there in disbelief, not sure what to do. I then thought –ok –no worries, this will be just like when I’m taking the train up to LA –I just missed a stop and backtrack –instead of stopping in Santa Ana, I’ll get off in Irvine, just a ten minute detour. I find the conductor and ask, where’s the next stop –I just missed the stop for Coimbra. He stares at me incredulously and asks why I missed it. I explained –and then he says, well the next stop is Lisboa (Lisbon) –in an hour and 45 minutes! My first reaction was to say to him, “Are you kidding me??” He then said wait, and walked over to pick up the on-train phone. 5 minutes later he comes back, and I ask, “Can you stop the train for me?”

Let’s pause here for a moment, –Did I really think they’d stop an express train, in Portugal, for me? Talk about embodying a ridiculous sense of entitlement. I can tell you that in that moment, I really did expect them to stop the damn train so I could get off. Never-mind the fact that I would have been out in the MIDDLE OF NO-WHERE with nothing but grapevines surrounding me.

So clearly –they didn’t stop the train. I ended up going all the way to Lisbon. Had lunch, and then hopped a train right back to Coimbra, where poor Kiva Herman had been waiting for me. The only small consolation was that her game had been moved to Sunday, so I didn’t miss my chance to watch her play pro-basketball.

The lesson in cultural relativity –as I will tell my Intro students in years to come, is in examining this moment on the train. It’s in wondering how my American cultural roots brought on such a clear moment of entitlement and privilege. Clearly, I’ve been lucky enough to think that with English, I can get by, wherever I travel. The other part however is in examining my uncensored reactions in the moment. While we all experience these moments, I think the real question is, can we be reflexive enough to understand our own culpability, and acknowledge our investment into a sense of cultural superiority. It seems that the train we need to stop –starts inside each of us.

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