Some days ago I was invited to the wedding reception of my friend, who is married to a local politician from the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) (a centre-right Dutch political party). After wishing the pair well, I get some drinks and stand in a table next to an old couple. They started to chat with me. After passing through the usual “are you with the bride or the groom” section of questions, they started to ask who I am, starting from the “origins” question. “Ik komt uit Indonesië”, I told them my country of origin in my best possible Dutch, followed immediately by the “jobs” question. “Ik ben promovendus in sterrenkunde” was the reply. The next question was totally unexpected, “Hebt je verblijfvergunning?” (Do you have a residence permit?) I’ve heard a lot about the so-called “Dutch blunt way of speaking” but to be honest this is the first time I’ve encountered such a thing. Although internally quite shocked with the question and while the appropriate answer should be “It’s none of your fucking business,” I did manage to reply that I do have a residence permit and explain to them that everybody who came to The Netherlands to study always have a permit because it is arranged by the University.

This “interview” session goes on to the “residence” section. I told them that I live in Amsterdam, and the reply is that time immemorial prejudice against Amsterdammers, “je woont niet in een kraakpand toch?” (You don’t live in a squathouse, aren’t you?) Still recovering from the shock of the previous question, I effortlessly replied that I am a homeowner. They are apparently quite surprised at my reply, not expecting a foreign-looking Third-worlder can not only speaks Dutch but do a PhD in astronomy and is now a homeowner. However their retaliation is no less shocking, “ik moet noemen je dan “meneer” (Then I should call you “Sir”). I guess for these kind of people, if you are a foreign-looking Third-worlder and you don’t own a house then you’re a baboe tjoetji or a djongos, not even deserving the title “meneer.”

Because this party is full with CDA people, I am assuming that this “kakek-kakek” (old dude) is also a member of the party or at least ideologically aligned. Is this the perspective of CDA-like politics? A view that prejudices against non-whites? Am I going to get the same questions if I am caucasian and don’t look like an Asian refugee who just came from a boat? I don’t know the answer but if that is true then for these people it turns out that this thing about inburgering (integration) is not about being able to accept Dutch values and way of life (whatever that means. For me Calvinism and cycling is as Dutch as anything else), but about being caucasian.

One day there was a lot of fuss among Dutch governments about double nationality. In the previous Dutch cabinet there were two ministers who have double nationality: A Moroccan and a Turkish. The extreme right-wing Geert Wilders demanded them either to renounce their other nationality or to step down as minister, due to their supposed conflict of interest. They managed to keep both their job and their nationality due to this motion found no other supporter other than Wilders. Now in the new cabinet there is another minister holding double nationality: A Swedish. Wilders again reject all kind of double nationality within the cabinet, but the new Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, said to parliament members that he has different attitude if his minister has a Swedish passport. He said there is a difference between Turkey and Sweden. Whatever his stated reason, I am quite worry that there are unsaid reasons in that you’re a better Dutch if you’re caucasian.

So how do you define being Dutch? For Mark Rutte the new Prime Minister, you’re not really Dutch if you came from Turkish backgrounds. For other people, it’s the language. If somebody say that nowadays Dutch people is in search for a national identity then that somebody might be on the money. People are now aware about Dutch identity and is in search for it. This identity politics might be represented by the demand that the Dutch language be spoken in all occasions. Two nights ago I attended the performance of Trust in the Amsterdam Schouwburg. Trust is an art project, a collaboration between dancer Anouk van Dijk and playwright Falk Richter. One hour before the showing, there was a discussion with Falk Richter, who is a German. I was expecting that we will have the discussion in English. The host introduced Falk and said that because Falk started his career in The Netherlands he also speak Dutch and thus the discussion will be held in Dutch. I came with two of my friends who don’t speak Dutch, so I raised my hand and said that some people here do not speak Dutch, so can we all speak English here? The host replied “we’ll try,” but suddenly a voice from among the audience said, “Waarom?” (Why?) in a hostile tone. The discussion then commenced in Dutch and the host started interviewing Falk in Dutch. Falk at first replied in Dutch but in a short time later, either out of sympathy for us or because he forgot his Dutch, start to reply in English. Thus we had a surreal situation of a billingual discussion. Questions in Dutch, replies in English. At one point he even reply a question in German because he said he can express it better in German.

Years ago, when I came here for the first time in 2006, there would be no question about switching to English. People will gladly do and Dutch people will be more than happy to speak other languages, but nowadays we can see “Dutch Nationalists” appearing. Is this because of the changing political landscape and growing discussion about immigration and integration among Dutch society, remains to be seen.

In the end, I’m just hoping that by interacting often with Dutch newcomers the horizons of these kind of people will widen and their mindset will change. In the words of my friend Amis Boersma, let’s hope that the “kakek-kakek” will post a facebook status saying that he “met such a nice and intelligent young man from Indonesia (the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, let’s not forget!) WITH a residence permit and an apartment in one of the most funky parts of Amsterdam…”

Let’s hope Amis, let’s hope.

Written by Tri L. Astraatmadja

After living for 10 years in Europe as a Master's student, PhD researcher, and a postdoc, in 2016 Tri L. Astraatmadja moved on to the United States for a second postdoctoral appointment at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, Carnegie Institution for Science, Washington DC. He is now in his third postdoc at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD.

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