Utrecht is a vibrant student city, with international students from all around the world. But some students look a bit more foreign than others.
In regular day-to-day to life it doesn’t have too much of an impact. You’ll get questions like where are you from? (California) and what is your name? (Wesley) and follow-up questions like where are you really from? (California) and what is your real name? (Wesley). I’ll get asked if I’ve watched this film or that film, or if I’ll translate their name into Chinese. And then the conversation moves on. (And if it doesn’t, I can just walk away). It’s cool, whatever.
But if I’m at an FC Utrecht football match or at a Dutch student bar and caught alone (or without a white friend — which in this case, has similar consequences to being alone), I can expect to hear a few more things, regardless of whetherI choose to stand my ground or walk away.
Dutch comedian Ome Henk made a song a while back called “Sambal bij?” (“[would you like] hot sauce with that?”). I resented its existence because that’s the chant I would hear once a group of rowdy teens had their beer and wanted some entertainment from the obvious foreigner in front of them. They would scrunch their faces and start bobbing their heads.
It wasn’t even the chant itself that bothered me. It was the anticipation of it.
(the mind has a way of making things out to be worse than they actually are)
I didn’t get beat up, nor did I have to worry about getting beaten up — but I did find myself wishing that I had a magic button that would turn me white and blonde just so nobody would bother me while I was eating french fries late at night.
Someone from the skating team said I walk like a chinaman. There was no malice in his voice. “How does a chinaman walk?” I asked. He slouched and kept his nose towards the ground. I drew a reminder to stand up straight and posted it up on my doorway. It’s about time I fixed my posture anyway.
After a while it got to my head. Am I really just a walking egg roll to everyone around me?
Of course not. There are many, many kind, open-minded people in Utrecht and the rest of the Netherlands. I’ve had the privilege of meeting many of them, and am even luckier to call some of them life-long friends. I haven’t even mentioned the kind strangers I’ll never be able to return the favor to.
The annoying people I meet make up only 1% of my daily interactions. Perhaps even less than that.
But I do have to remind myself regularly of this, lest I become bitter and start making the same generalizations about myself and about other people.
One day I forgot. I went up to Khaled in the OLA Happiness Station (one of those places that sells soft-serve ice cream) in Utrecht Centraal and went on a rant about my perceived woes.
Khaled is of Moroccan descent, but he’s lived in the Netherlands his entire life. He’d repeat the names of my favorite toppings in Dutch so I would know how to pronounce them the next time I came around. Patient guy, too, because he listened to me finish complaining before saying:
“At least you’re not Moroccan. People no longer make jokes at me.”
Khaled had a point. I wasn’t targeted by influential radical politicians like he was, nor am I met with the same suspicion from the general public. Put Khaled and I in the same police line-up and the average person will be more likely to point to him than to me.
I got my ice cream with four toppings and said no more about it.
I felt disillusioned for a while. When I applied to study here, I had built the idea in my head that the Netherlands would be some sort of utopia where everybody was accepted and celebrated. It’s sad (and comforting?) to know that prejudice isn’t something you can run away from — prejudice is ingrained in human nature. And the more I accept it in myself, the more I can accept it in other people.
It took me months to realize these questions and jokes were not always intended to offend — perhaps they were a failed attempt to connect, or even an invitation to start making jabs of your own.
Depending on the culture, you can get more respect by taking it all in and absorbing it — pretending that it doesn’t even phase you. In the Netherlands (at least among the university-age students), you’d have to stand your ground publicly.
I feel embarrassed that I gave so much weight to this, especially when I know there are so many great people out there.
Why did it bother me so much, those stupid jokes? Perhaps I felt frustrated (and even a bit lonely) after being treated differently because of things that are outside of my control. I wanted so desperately to belong, and to “integrate”.
I could always retreat into the international student bubble, but what good would that be for personal growth? I chose to study abroad in a country I knew I would be an outsider in for a reason. Better to push on through and learn something from it.
- There is no perfect society where everybody is holding hands around the campfire. That’s a relief, because now you don’t have to keep on running away from your problems. You’d only be swapping it for a different set of problems anyway (and they’re often the same problem wearing a different shirt).
- I also gained massive respect for immigrants from any nation, and especially from my family. It’s not easy setting up base when you are constantly reminded that you are an outsider. They did this decades ago, before openly talking about race was even a thing.
- It also made me appreciate the genuinely good people in my life. Just to be given the chance to meet them and let them change how I see the world. I can’t be friends with everyone, and that’s okay.
(I hope that wasn’t too sappy)