Strangers at the door…

Hello, beautiful Roermond!

It’s interesting, being an immigrant. I am old, short, and round – not tall and lean as are so many native Dutch. But I can pass, until I speak and reveal myself as a buitenlander.

My family emigrated to the US from Ireland about 100 years before I was born. They were hungry, and there were few prospects for them in Ireland at that time. My mother told me they were scorned by some Americans when they were getting settled there, called “the dirty Irish”. By the time I was born, those days were long past, and we were as American as anyone could be.

I was given a book on the history of Dutch art for Christmas. The Art of Describing by Svetlana Alpers. (It’s a good book! I recommend it!) The author quotes an Englishman, Thomas Sprat, who was writing a history of the British Royal Society. Sprat compared the Dutch with the English like this: “The English are avers from admitting of new Inventions, and shorter ways of labor, and from naturalizing New-people: Both which are the fatal mistakes that have made the Hollanders exceed us in Riches and Traffic: They receive all Projects and all People, and have few or no Poor.”

Sprat wrote that in 1667. Almost 400 years ago.

I’ve got to know a few people who are first, second, or third generation Dutch citizens. One of them explained the term ‘allochtoon’ to me while we chatted in a coffee shop. We were speaking English – she teaches English in middelbare school, and my Dutch is (still… sigh) too clunky for lively conversation.

A woman sitting near-by interrupted us, asking me “Are you American?” and started a brief side-conversation with me. This new person did not speak at all to the woman I was with, who wears a hijab. Later, we talked about it; she told me she’s frequently snubbed in shops until she speaks and people realize she’s Dutch – then they warm up to her. That cold attitude doesn’t happen every time, of course – but often enough for her to feel it.

Another Dutch woman I talked to yesterday said the same thing. Her grandparents were Surinamese & she’s lived in Roermond her whole life. Yet she often has to explain and defend herself as true Dutch.

Welcoming immigrants is hard. It’s human nature to cling to what’s familiar and reject strangers. It’s hard for individuals when new neighbors have different customs; hard for the gemeenta’s trying to integrate new people, hard for the government to allocate resources. I don’t think there’s any human history that doesn’t discuss friction about assimilation of new-comers, the suspicion that “They’re only here for the hand-out”, that they should go back where they came from. It’s a very common attitude in the US, sadly – a whole nation of immigrants! I don’t understand it.

People move around. It’s what we do. Famines, wars, oppression, plague, drought, poverty – so many reasons to try to get our families to better places, better lives. Humans gather, bicker, separate, re-gather, merge.

The Netherlands has dealt with these challenges for hundreds of years. It’s survived, triumphed, and thrived. It’s one of the things I so admire about this country.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s