It’s funny to realise that while I might be a first-generation immigrant here in the UK, growing up in the Netherlands I was in fact a second-generation immigrant. I don’t think I’ve ever been discriminated. I’ve only experienced some of your ‘normal’ degree of prejudice at the most. But there are some moments that I still remember to this day that made me realise I had a different ethnical background than most of my Dutch classmates.
There are many immigrant groups in the Netherlands. Traditionally, the majority of them are from the former Dutch colonies of Suriname (where my family’s from) and Indonesia.
But then there’s also the Turkish and Moroccan immigrants who originally arrived in the Netherlands as so-called ‘guest labourers’ from the 1960s. The media tends to focus on those latter two immigrant groups to emphasise their integration problems. It’s often said that second- or even third-generation Turkish and Moroccan immigrants have problems fitting in. On the one hand they feel they’re not fully accepted by Dutch society and on the other hand they don’t seem to fit in the traditional culture and values of their (grand)parents’ country.
Although it’s been much easier for me – I feel super Dutch – there have been some moments during my childhood that made me aware of my foreign background.
I didn’t know how to handle cutlery
Okay, just to be clear: I wasn’t some feral savage child! I was just brought up eating with a spoon. We mostly ate rice at home, so it made far more sense to eat with a spoon, rather than trying to balance those rice grains on a fidgety fork!
So when I was invited for dinner at my boyfriend’s house for the first time as a teenager, I got pretty nervous when I saw the cutlery laid out on the table. I was generously supplied with a fork AND a knife, but where was my trusty spoon?
Today it makes for a good story, but trust me, it wasn’t a laughing matter at all back then! I remember sitting there with sweaty hands and arm pits. I obviously wanted to make a good first impression with the in-laws and observed patiently how the other people at the table wielded their cutlery. I must have been so hungry by the time I finally managed to put some food in my mouth! Fast forward over 20 years later and I’m a wizard with a knife and fork now. You might be relieved to know that it is totally safe to take me to a restaurant now. Trust me!
The first time I had mushrooms I was scared I would get poisoned
Mushrooms were never part of our Surinamese diet. I don’t who (and why they) suggested my mum to try mushrooms one day, but it would’ve been helpful if they had also told her HOW she should prepare them. I don’t know exactly how old I was, but I couldn’t have been older than 10. I do remember it was a Saturday afternoon and that we were watching the film Bedknobs and Broomsticks on TV. (Great selective memory eh?)
I was quite scared having to eat mushrooms, because I knew mushrooms could be poisonous. I must have learned about certain poisonous mushrooms on TV probably, not realising that you can actually eat a wide variety of mushrooms without any health dangers.
When my mum brought the bag of mushrooms home one day, she, my brother and I just stared at it in bemusement. How were you supposed to clean them? None of us knew. So, my mum opted for the most logical option: to peel them. I followed her example for many years to come. Until I watched some cooking show that changed my whole world and made cooking mushrooms a less tedious process!
Despite being a spelling maverick, I didn’t know the simplest Dutch words
My primary school teacher was eager to send me to a national spelling competition, but I refused. The thought of having to stand in a huge room with hundreds of people looking at me, including a TV crew, sounded the total opposite of ‘fun’ to me. (Ironically I voluntarily featured in a national TV ad as an extra many years later…)
Even from a young age I was good with languages. Not only in Dutch, but also English. I learned English from the children’s programme Fun Factory which was aired on Sky Channel every weekend. While my mum and brother would still be sleeping, my 5-year old self would sneak out of bed at 6am and switch on the TV to see how my fictional friends were doing.
You get the picture. I was a little genius (and still am of course). But when I was called to the front of the class as an 8-year old to read a simple Dutch word on the black board, I failed horribly. The teacher had written down the word diner which is Dutch for ‘dinner’. We wouldn’t use that word at home though. We tended to use the more colloquial avondeten, ‘evening meal’ instead. Whilst my classmates awaited my response, I stood there slightly confused. I had no idea how to pronounce this word in Dutch. But I recognised the English word ‘dinner’ in it, so read it out like that.
Next thing I knew, my classmates all bursted out in laughter. I was so dumb, I didn’t even know the word for a meal eaten daily! Because you see, the Dutch word diner comes from French and is pronounced as ‘diné’. I’ve never pronounced it wrong afterwards. Nor have I been able to forget this story for that matter.
Without being able to utter one word in fluent Hindi I realised I understood the Indian speakers on the news without any subtitles!
Sticking with the theme of language, I grew up with hearing all sorts of languages around me. Not only English on TV, but also the so-called ‘Sarnami-Hindustani’ language, a conglomeration of the languages spoken by the several ethnicities in Suriname. The inhabitants of this South American country include people from India, the South American British colonies and even Africa.
Whenever my mum was chatting away on the phone with her sisters or parents, I would hear this curious mix of Dutch, English, Indian and even Creole words coming out of her mouth at an inhuman rapid speed.
Although my mum tried to teach me to speak Hindustani, I refused. I thought it was stupid. But I never realised I had picked on so much of the language just by overhearing the conversations my mum would have with her friends and family. About 15 years ago there was some news item about India on the Dutch breakfast news. It wasn’t until about 40 seconds in, I realised I had understood a lot of what the people on TV were saying in Hindi! There were no subtitles which made it even more incredible for me.
Now I regret I never wanted to learn my mother’s mother tongue. My brother probably understands more than I do, but he never speaks it either. And my nephew doesn’t even understand anything except for the most basic words. I realise that after my mum, there won’t be anyone in our direct family left who speaks ‘our’ language. I might need to start studying now after all then.
I’ve never had to deal with racism, just your ‘normal’ amount of prejudice
Unlike my mum, I don’t think I’ve ever been the victim of racism or discrimination. My mum does volunteer work and mostly works with elderly. When she went to a lady’s house last year to introduce herself as the lady’s new volunteer, the woman showed very unlady-like behaviour. She refused my mum as a volunteer merely on the fact that she was of colour! How is this possible in the 21st century, and in a country as the Netherlands?
Around my graduation from Uni, there was a lot of discussion in the media about discrimination in job applicants with foreign names. It’s difficult to know if I was a victim of that. Granted, I hardly got invited for any job interview, but my crappy application letters were probably more to blame for that.
Although I’ve never experienced racism, I did always sense I was ‘different’. I’ve always had the need to be wary that people might have a certain opinion about me, without even knowing me. I can’t really give you any examples of this or tell you exactly how and when this feeling arose. At 40 years old, my awareness that people might be prejudiced towards the colour of my skin, has become my little defence mechanism.
But it’s not just me who’s attuned to this. I remember very well going out with friends in my early twenties when this random guy came up to me in a club one night. Whilst he was eyeing me up and asking me silly questions about school and work, it was so evident for my friends what this smooth talker was thinking.
It was clear he assumed I had only a high school diploma and probably thought I was working as a cashier as some supermarket. (Which is nothing to be ashamed of, it just wasn’t my personal ambition.) What, you see a pretty exotic looking girl and you immediately think they aren’t capable to go to Uni? But before I could say anything, my friends came running towards him, telling him that I was way out of his league. And that I probably did a whole lot better at school than him, considering I had two Master’s degrees. That shut him right up! And whilst he walked off, tail between legs, my friends and I solved another difficult math problem. Geniuses as we were of course.
I’m curious to know if you recognise anything from my story today. Even if you’re a native, depending on your upbringing you might not always be aware of all habits and conventions. Do share your personal experiences in a comment below!
Thanks, Zarina xx