Books and Cultural Relativism

July 8, 2012 § 2 Comments


Yesterday, I scoured for information about how to prepare for the first year. He provides lists of the required books for all 6 years of school and updates it with each school year (he graduated in 2009 and there have been changes in the courses, as can only be expected). I posted a blog listing the books I would need for the first year. On his website he provides several recommendations within each subject. This got me thinking: does it not matter which book we use?

At Santa Monica College we had specific texts and volumes assigned to our classes. My teachers would often refer to certain studies, diagrams, and pictures to supplement their lectures. I expected that this was the case at all universities, but I could very well be mistaken.

I went through budapeststudent’s recommendations and used’s amazing “look inside” feature to browse through the different text books and decide which ones I preferred. Many of the books are available for very low prices; I came across a used, but in acceptable condition, embryology book for $0.02 (about 10 øre). Granted, the shipping is about $19.00 (117 kroner), but that is still half the price of the book brand new – (and probably 1/4 of the price if purchased in Norway).

I sent an email to budapeststudent asking him if you could essentially purchase any book within the subject. Once I hear back, I can look a little bit more into the cost of ordering the books online vs. purchasing them in Hungary.

The reason I am so concerned with purchasing my books now, several months before the semester even starts, is because of something I read on budapeststudent’s page:

Medical books are often very expensive and since specialty stores in Budapest usually don’t have enough money to stock a large amount of books, students are often told to order their books. This may take as much as 1-2 months. However, there are a few stores (actually only two I recommend) that have a good selection and good prices. They are usually better than in Norway!

If you are a first year student, then the chance of getting all the books you need here in Budapest are fairly slim. Most of the books you need, such as anatomy, chemistry and biology, are all available. But, unless the bookstores know that they will be able to sell the books right away, they are reluctant to stock books for immunology and other subjects where students don’t all “buy the same book”.

So, my opinion is:
If you are in the first or second year, you should be able to find most of the important books here. If you are in the third, fourth or fifth year, you might be able to find what you are looking for, but you need to be there early in the semester.

This was one of those “thank god I found this out now!” tidbits of information. I can’t even begin to imagine how stressful that would have been to find out the hard way. Spend 30 min finding the store: they don’t have it. Spend 45 minutes finding the next store: they don’t have it. Spend an hour finding the third store: they don’t have it. Would have been a wonderful 2-3 day “adventure”…

So my plan is to get as many of the books as I need before we move down there. I’m sure we will have enough stimulation with the move, finding an apartment, being in a new country, grocery shopping (!). Worrying about finding books doesn’t need to be mixed up in there.

Cultural Relativism

In addition to looking up information about books for the first year, I spent some time reading blogs written by Norwegian students studying medicine in Budapest. There is definitely a cultural difference in regards to teaching styles. While reading some accounts of these students and their interactions with their teachers, I reflected on a term I learned in sociology class: cultural relativism. For those that aren’t familiar with this term, it is the  principle of regarding the beliefs, values, and practices of a culture in the context of that specific culture. It’s one of those things that everyone is aware of or knows about and that clicks in your mind once you learn the term for it. Cultural relativism covers everything from moral code to food (fried butter in US or lutefisk in Norway, for example).

When traveling, one is fully prepared for the impending cultural challenges. If not prepared, one is at least aware of them. There is a slight comfort in experiencing a new culture, appreciating it for its differences, and then returning to your own culture. When moving to a new country, one is met with a greater challenge. I remember how, when I first moved to Norway, I noted this unconscious, internal resistance to cultural differences here. I found myself shaking my head at a lot of things, getting angry that this or that wasn’t the same as it was back home, that it just wasn’t “right”. But you can’t jump in a cold pool and get mad at the water for being cold. You made the decision to do so and should be aware of and accept the consequences.

After reading some of these blogs, I find myself considering that being a student in a foreign country might present an even greater challenge than simply moving there. I’ve spent 16 years as a student in the US. Yes, there are different teaching styles, but I don’t feel that there were stark contrasts between those that I experienced. Being a student puts you in a quite a vulnerable position. You are publicly acknowledging that you are there to learn from this unknown person of higher knowledge and you want to do nothing to offend them. All I can really do ahead of time is research customs in Hungary, learn from other students experiences, and hope that I come across as respectful and polite. That said, I have to prepare myself for any prejudices regarding being a foreign student in the english program.

There are two examples concerning this theme. The first is from a girl studying veterinary medicine at Szent Istvan (which is located right in the heart of Budapest, nearby Semmelweis). She writes in Norwegian, so I will translate it here.

Yes, well, our fantastic school. Here the professors are so full of themselves that they look at themselves as gods – and this is not an over exaggeration! The exam protocol here is quite different. Now, I have never attended a university in Norway, but I would assume that one cannot send an email to the teacher in order to sign up for an exam… The different departments have different requirements for signing up – some send out lists, others want a personal meeting and others want you to send an email. Considering that the majority of exams are verbal, there are many possible exam dates. I was going to send an email to sign up for my genetics exam (after I found out that I had passed my other exams and therefore don’t need to retake them – this is a little like solitaire! :)) Anyways, here is my mail:

Dear **** ****,

Is there still an available place for the animal genetics exam on the 19th of June? If so, i would like to sign up for that day.

Kind regards,

Ingelin S.

2nd year student

And this was the response from the teacher:

Dear Ms Ingelin S.,

Would you be so kind to address me as it is proper at our University. On the 19th of June there are some open places, and I have signed you up for our vet-genetics exam.

Kind regards,

Prof. **** ****

For those of you that don’t understand what he means, he is insulted that I didn’t write “Dear Professor **** ****”. He also attached a copy of his business card where it clearly stated that he was a Professor. So then I just had to politely reply and apologize….Geeez

I discussed this a little bit with Skjalg, in order to get a Norwegian culture perspective. I remember having an issue with learning how to say Mr. and Mrs. or Ms. in Norwegian when I moved here. The Norwegian equivalents, Herr and Fru or Frøken, respectively, are reserved for more formal situations and not as common in daily use as they are in the states. Christian and I were raised to use formal titles as much as possible. This frustrated me when speaking Norwegian, because I felt like I was being forced to be less polite. In learning from this veterinary student’s blog, I will make sure to use formal titles, especially in dealings with professors and doctors.

The second is from budapeststudent. Øystein studied at Brigham Young University in Utah, where he experienced first-hand what it is like to be a student in the US.

As I mentioned, I came to Budapest in the August of 2003.
The first two years here were tough. I had a hard time adapting and the transition from my life in the US was very big.
I left a very promising career behind to pursue a dream of becoming a physician, but I really felt unwanted in Budapest. People were very unfriendly and the teaching style was the complete opposite of what I was used to. There was no guidance and I felt more like a liability and a burden than an asset. At Brigham Young University I was somebody and I was greatly appreciated by the professors, but here I felt like I was intruding because I had money and was on the English Program, not the Hungarian Program.

This changed, though. After the second year it was like a vail was lifted and suddenly the professors started pointing out the things we knew and encouraging us, instead of insulting us for the things we didn’t know. Almost all of my practice teachers in the clinical years were great – almost. There will always be one or two that are not great, but for the most part I really enjoyed the practical years. For example, I  had a very inspiring pediatrics teacher and Professor Kamondi in Neurology is amazing.

In browsing blog posts and forums online, Skjalg and I have learned that the first year of medical school in Hungary is going to be much more challenging than one could ever anticipate. There seemed to be a common theme of students being “tested”. It’s almost like starting at a new job where they send you on fool errands and make you do the grunt tasks in order to initiate you into your position. We are not going to get any extra help, no favors, no special guidance. This will be the year where we have to prove that we want this, both to our professors and to ourselves.

Knowing this ahead of time really prepares one for the challenge. You put yourself in more of a “bring it on” position than a victim position. I find that I grow more and more excited with each passing day. I’m sure that there will be many instances that drag me down, test my spirit, and frustrate me to no end, but that’s all part of the adventure. One of the things I’m most thankful for is that I won’t be going at it alone. Skjalg will be down there in the trenches with me and Christian in the trenches only two hours away.


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§ 2 Responses to Books and Cultural Relativism

  • Antonio says:

    Bianca: as a foreign student coming into the US I thought most young people impolite and disrespectful because they treated older folks and teachers as just another person like themselves, with no value for age, position etc. That is our American way. It does not sell well abroad to people that have not been here.Social orders in Europe are conservative and hierarchical – go with their flow. Do not act familiar until others and your teachers allow it. Learn Hungarian politeness: such as not eating and chewing while addressing a teacher –even outside of class. In Hungary do as Hungarians do. Always use people titles or appellations until they give you permission to call them by first name. They will appreciate it and will respect you for it.

  • […] one of my earlier posts I wrote about the book situation in Hungary. Many bookstores don’t have enough money to stock […]

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