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Monthly Archives: May 2013

ImageThe last few weeks I’ve been forced to really stop and ponder what I’m doing with my life. Why I’m living where I’m living, why I’m studying what I’m studying, how I’m taking care of my finances, what kind of job I’d like to have later and how I’m ever going to make ends meet when graduate school is over… It has been a crappy, crappy time in that sense. This unwelcome self-assessment and feelings of inadequacy and fear which I would usually simply drink away (sorry mom and dad) was brought on by outside forces questioning my decisions over most of my adult life and some of my future ones too.

At first, I saw myself sinking into an existential depression. Then I thought about how in spite of all these doubts which of course I fucking have – so fuck you assholes who have been forcing me to answer questions I don’t really have answers to yet – I didn’t exactly arrive at this moment by mistake. I chose my choices. Sure, some of the life choices I made were stupid and accidental. But others were quite meticulously calculated. I worked hard to be where I am today. All of this is part of my own unique little story and I like it. Regardless of my not being able to fill out an Excel spreadsheet with my five-and-ten-year -fucking-life -plan, I am pretty happy with every little accomplishment I’ve had so far and so very enthusiastic about the near future! I’m still young and I like to think I can still make lots of exciting choices. Anyone who thinks bringing me down is giving me a “reality check” obviously has very different priorities than I do. And that’s totally fine. But please keep your own frustrations with your miserable life choices brought on by self-doubt the fuck away from my dreams, thank you very much.

I recently saw this quote somewhere: “The last thing that the world needs is more successful people.” To be honest, I’m not sure where. I definitely know it was online. Maybe Facebook or Buzzfeed or something. I’m not even entirely sure whoever said it meant it the way I understand it, but it sure rings true to me.

I was thinking about how I started higher education by studying international business of all things! I remember being very young, maybe fourteen even, and dying for a little independence. I looked at the state of my life, living from pocket money to pocket money, and I thought: I definitely want to be “successful” later. In the most shallow possible sense of the word. I wanted money and money was going to mean freedom. Studying something like “business administration” seemed like a fast track to the life I wanted. I wanted to make lots of money and travel and buy a car and an incredible apartment in a cool city. I wanted to buy expensive designer clothes and gadgets and sip Mimosa’s in Vegas – I’m seriously rolling my own eyes as I write this!

It’s quite absurd really, how much I absolutely do not want to be the person I wanted to be at fourteen.

It’s not like I long to live in this student life of semi-poverty forever or anything, but my priorities have shifted a lot. For instance, while I still very much would like to live in “cool” cities until the day I die, I see no purpose whatsoever in buying real estate. Unless I can really, really afford it. Like, if I could for whatever reason buy an apartment in cash because I’d won the lottery, I probably would do that. It would be kind of cool to shape a place to suit what I want and that’s pretty much the one thing you can’t do when you’re renting someone else’s property. I also really have no interest in ever owning a car unless I live somewhere very remote with abysmal public transportation. In which case I would probably move, to be honest.

Extravagant clothes and gadgets are out of the wish list altogether. Not because I’m claiming to not be materialistic at all, I think most of us are to a certain extent. But even on my meager existence as a graduate student, I have way more stuff than I could ever need. If I ever really want something expensive I just have to wait a little longer to buy it, boo fucking hoo. The way I see it, if I ever do have that much money lying around that I can buy whatever I want, I’m sure I can do something more interesting with it than buying more stuff! Probably, I would spoil the shit out of my parents. Not that I could ever repay all of the investment they made in my future and my overall happiness, but I would love to buy them experiences they would never buy for themselves –like language courses, exotic trips, and adventures or whatever. Which leads me to traveling. That is the one thing still very much on the agenda for me, always. Besides the leisure of it all, right now the dream is to have a job that requires me to travel. I would be so, so grateful.

Look, I would be lying if I said I didn’t look forward to one day earning a decent middle-class income and having a slightly more freed-up life in that sense. But I can honestly say that I have absolutely no fucking interest in ever becoming rich. My professional ambitions sort of clash with that outcome anyway. What drives me into wanting a career in academia is knowledge production, the exchange of ideas and collaborations with brilliant and inspiring minds. And if I’m very, very lucky hopefully enlightening students, colleagues and a few decision-makers with my findings as I go along. While some academics can and do have very nice jobs, comfortable incomes and published books which happen to sell very well, I don’t see myself ever choosing to do something for the sake of making lots of money and nothing else. What I consider to be a successful career is a fulfilling one that you can live from. And perhaps most of all, a career you can live with.

The strive for financial success as a goal in itself is just not something that I see as the best use of my time and I certainly can’t see how more self-indulgence would do the world any favors either. Abundance of stuff, of assets, of greed, we have plenty of that already. Too much. And sure, we also have enough academic papers being published seeing as productivity rates are ridiculous nowadays – the free market logic is alive and kicking at the university too, undeniably and increasingly so!

But of all the career choices I could make with my specific set of abilities and interests, independent research is the one that I currently see myself enjoying the most. I have no real fear of being unemployed because I know that, if this doesn’t work out, my little Swiss army knife of skills is suitable for other purposes too. And you know what? This unplanned self-assessment exercise only made me realize that I don’t really have a reason to freak myself out over the future.

I decided long ago that so long as I have a choice, I’ll take a fulfilling professional life doing something not all people understand the value of over one whose “success” can be only measured in [insert your currency of choice] any day. 

immigrationOh the “i-word”… To be perfectly honest, I avoid it. Not because there’s anything wrong with the fact that I was born somewhere else and then ended up living in this country, but because its connotation is so fucking charged there’s just no way of using it that feels truly neutral. My “migration history”, as they call it, is a fairly uninteresting one. I immigrated to the Netherlands for the first time when I was eleven years old, with my mother. We lived in a village where she had found an international school she didn’t hate when she visited the country before I ever set foot in Europe. It was a quaint little place with a middle-sized school where hopefully I wouldn’t feel completely out of place. And I didn’t. Except that I seemed to be a far less cosmopolitan than the kids in my class.

The kids who hadn’t already lived in four different countries had at least travelled to a whole bunch of them. These kids took French or German as a second language since they were little. I was proud of being able to communicate in English at all – thank you, Spice Girls, for making me give a shit about the extra-curricular English classes my mom put me on. At eleven years of age, I had been to a few other South American countries and taken a trip to Disney World in Florida once. In Brazil, I felt quite worldly. In the 90s, middle class families like mine didn’t travel abroad like they do today but my parents were always attending conferences all over the place, and my mom had done her senior year of high school in the United States – in 1975, mind you. But at the international school these factoids about my life, once so impressive back home, were totally mundane and often not nearly as exotic as other people’s lives.

The first month I was there, the school celebrated some kind of milestone of existence. Maybe 35 years, but I can’t remember for sure. I remember we had to learn a song in Dutch. My very first contact with the language besides ordering fries. Also, the very first time I took notice of the fact that our little international bubble was embedded in another society. I remember looking around this gym hall with world flags hanging everywhere and looking at the faces around me – like a United Colors of Benetton kids advert – and thinking: fuck countries, this is where I want to belong (or something along the lines of that minus the profanity). Having had my first existential crisis at the precocious age of 10, I finally felt comfortable and content. I still somehow very much gravitate towards the international bubble. But things have definitely changed.

Things changed for me for real when I came back to Holland after having spent almost two years in Brazil as a teenager – I think teenage rebellion to me meant going back to my roots, how radical… I came back and went to a Dutch school. I took some absurd little exam that is supposed to judge what level of schooling you can go to – i.e. how limited your life choices will be – and got into the highest level of schooling in the Netherlands. A classical Gymnasium. It was actually not that different from the international school in some ways, but the ethnic make-up was pretty imbalanced. Yet I was embraced in a way. Unfortunately not a single soul would speak Dutch to me in that school and my grades reflected my lacking knowledge of the language. I decided to step down from the prestigious school and go somewhere I might be able to learn the language at my own pace. I learned there was a slightly longer path I could take to university if I decided to do so later on and off I went – to my mother’s dismay, but unfortunately for her at the age of 16 kids are far more autonomous in Dutch society than in Brazil and once I made my decision she had no choice but to facilitate the transition.

In that same quaint little village, I started my second Dutch school. Only now I was no longer in the bubble. The international/transnational/cosmopolitan bubble actually felt pretty far away. For those of you who know anything about Dutch politics, this was 2003. Shortly after anti-immigration right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn’s assassination. Things were tense. When people would hear me speak English to my international friends in the village – yes, the village was that small – they would harass me in class later. I can’t even begin to count how often a misinformed child would walk up to me and inquire as to why I was speaking English to people seeing as I spoke Dutch, and this was “Holland, for fuck’s sake”. It was quite a huge shock to the system.

Some teachers would kindly explain things to me in English, but this only led to me being singled out and the repression I felt in the class slowly turned me into a mute. They made fun of the way I said things. Were it not for my first properly serious boyfriend who attended the school and happened to be über-Dutch, I probably would have never learned Dutch out of embarrassment to speak in public. In our social studies class, the only topic ever discussed was immigration. And how ‘they’ needed to adapt to ‘our’ society. Or how ‘they’ needed to participate in society. As if society is a perfect and autonomous ‘thing’ not actually made up of all of its fucking parts. Ugh, years later and this shit still makes my blood boil. I couldn’t believe my ears half the time. But eventually I started speaking up. And people would tell me to calm down, saying they didn’t mean me. Like I was fucking special because my family didn’t require social assistance and because we weren’t the ‘bad kind’ of immigrants. Not that they made any efforts to include me or to make me feel like any less of an alien. Yet, I quickly understood that as a middle-class light-skinned girl living in an affluent village, I was not the kind of ‘other’ that offended my classmates.

The slightly longer way I took to university included quickly passing through a polytechnic school where I could take the 60 credits I needed in English. Oh the fucking glory. I was so happy to be back in my little niche. I almost considered not going to university because I knew it meant going back to the Dutch universe where people forgave me for being an immigrant because I seemed white. Hooray. But then I thought to myself that maybe the middle-level of high school I attended for that long year came with a mentality that was inevitably nationalistic and somewhat closed-minded. And I was going to university, to study sociology! I assumed that meant the fight was over. I had won and my new enlightened intellectual environment would be Dutch, but different. Dutch, but inclusive. And that suited me just fine. I figured, after all I’d been through, I was prepared for a little prejudice.

The introduction day at university was an interesting experience. I arrived a little late and sat in the back of the amphitheater. I remember counting two non-blondes, three with myself included. I even had a little chuckle thinking “shit, we can’t even form a 90s band”. But I thought at this point even thinking that was kind of prejudiced of me. I had become so defensive that I was preparing myself for discrimination on the basis of hair color. Not cool. So I decided to open my mind and give it a proper shot. I didn’t really understand much of what was going on. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so lost as I did that day. I spoke Dutch relatively fluently by then but didn’t really know how to strike up conversation and I was too afraid to join any sort of student union. That was a total mistake. I think if I’d tangled myself in something like that I would have been far more comfortable in the new environment. But not a single soul was there to promote this kind of diversity, and so I found myself floating in the first few years I was there.

My Dutch improved over the years, but without ever having made all that many Dutch friends – my friends still look like a United Colors of Benetton ad, now for adults – I still float through Dutch society in a way. You could argue that having this parallel world as an option has done me more harm than good. But it has been a true haven in other ways. By late 2008, my mom had unofficially left Holland. Unofficially because she stayed registered here and paid all of her taxes here so that I could remain in the country legally. In 2009, I had the option of requesting an autonomous residency permit or going down the naturalization road. It was a weird thing for me to decide because the Dutch government required me to give up my Brazilian citizenship. The little 11 year old girl who looked around the gym hall of the international school, saw all of those different people together and thought ‘this is where I belong’ won the argument. Fuck this piece of paper that says I’m Brazilian or the one that will say I’m Dutch.

I carry all sorts of cultures from different societies, starting with my family’s unique little ethos all the way up to Dutch, Brazilian, Italian, South African, American, all that shit blended into one beautiful mosaic of belongings and exclusions. I don’t need a passport to tell me that. And what’s more: the Dutch nationality was a very practical choice. Not just for living in Europe. My mother moved to America and under the visa waiver system I can visit her completely hassle-free. Without wanting to offend anyone I have to admit that naturalizing was an entirely un-romanticized and pragmatic choice. Perhaps even naively so. And here’s where things get complicated. The exclusion I have always felt when navigating Dutch waters, is ever more present ever since. Because here’s the game-changer: I don’t really have another nationality. I don’t have a back-up home. And when Dutch people treat me like I’ve just left the mother ship and entered their world, I am now a naturalized immigrant who is being straight up fucking discriminated against in what is supposedly just as much my country as it is theirs.

Throughout my academic life, immigration has been super central. Even now I’m getting my Master’s degree in Urban Studies I still managed to stick to that which fascinates me the most about cities: diversity. I am currently looking for funding for the part of my research that will take place abroad. And most of the funding that I can apply for is for Dutch nationals. It’s funny how every little thing that I do that is meant for Dutch nationals feels like a big deal to me. Like someone is going to turn around and finally say that I’m not Dutch enough to deserve the title. This kind of irrational fear is rarely materialized. Rarely.

On Thursday this week, however, I had to speak to the University of Amsterdam’s guidance counselor. I needed a letter from her endorsing my funding request for one of the grants. As I walked into her office, she asked me if I had a Dutch passport. When I confirmed, she went on to ask me all of the standard questions. But with a flair reserved only for me. For instance, when she asked: “So, Laura, how come you took longer to finish your Bachelor’s degree?” she quickly added, “due to the language barriers, surely? Do you want me to speak English?” What followed was a series of incredibly judgmental and prejudiced insinuations, one of which was whether I had not struggled to adapt to university level-schooling due to my background. At times like this, I almost feel like saying: “oh you mean, because my parents worked on their PhDs when I was too little to understand what they were doing?” or something else just as cynical. But I refrained. To add insult to injury, at the end of the interview, when we were already standing up, she shook my hand and said: “And one more thing, Laura. What is your bond with the Netherlands?” I was completely caught by surprise. Didn’t she just hear me say I have Dutch citizenship? I answered something along the lines of “I moved here with my mom and stayed” and she left. But how dare her ask me this?

Discrimination always hurts. Every single time I’ve been through anything like this, I lost my faith in humanity a little. But there’s something about the institutional kind of discrimination that just eats at me differently. I read something in the university’s magazine later the same day about how the University of Amsterdam has one of the lowest retention rates of immigrant students past first year. They are also one of the few important universities in the country that doesn’t already have a diversity program to diversify the student body and staff, as well as educate its staff to specific needs of non-cookie cutter immigrant students.

The shitty thing is, after the day I’d had, I don’t think I’ve ever been less surprised by shocking news in my entire life. 

ImageWe all know them. Sometimes they’re people who quote Thatcher on Facebook and love the glorious ‘free market’ with all the successes they’ve booked because of it (and fuck the rest of society). Other times they’re the sexist and/or racist joke types. They’re the people who think it’s about time ‘poor’ people started having fewer children – but God forbid these people get the right to safe abortion!  They’re often the people who incisively regurgitate information obtained from right-wing media all over your Facebook feed until you decide to silence them from your newsfeed altogether. They seem to have never quite understood to the concept of solidarity. They’re the ones who think of world-traveling and having multicultural contacts as an ‘asset’ yet cringe at the sight of working class immigrants in their cities. They’re the self-congratulatory hegemonic middle classes who are quite alienated from political issues, but boy do they love to bring them up! And now you have to deal with it.

The thing about interacting with political and/or economic conservatives is that, well… We all probably know (and love) a lot of them. I can’t speak for everyone but if my social network is any parameter, it is unavoidable. They’re our uncles, cousins and old friends. They’re the people we know well enough to look past their shitty ideas about the world. They are, in sum, the people with whom we exercise our deepest tolerance.

But how exactly do we avoid talking politics? Especially when they know – because this aforementioned affection is a two way street and they know you well enough to have caught on to the fact that you’re a ‘leftist hippie’ (their words, not yours of course) – you care about these topics. And what’s more: they are absolutely sure that your opinion differs from theirs. And that you’ve probably spent more time thinking about whatever social issue they are interested in debating than they have. So they provoke you. Harmlessly, I choose to believe. But the truth is that they want to hear you say how much you think they are being unreasonable, in order to engage you in that which you avoid at all costs: arguing with someone you love who has a very strong opinion about something you feel they don’t know enough about.

The trickiest part in my opinion is playing this game of avoidance without seeming like a snob. This is something I struggle with a little. As a social scientist, even though I am leftist or Neo-Marxist or whatever the fuck you want to call it, I try to remain somewhat unbiased in my work. I say somewhat because no one studies social justice, exclusion, poverty, immigration and feminism without some orientation about morality. So what used to happen a few years ago is that I would arm myself with empirical evidence from particular cases, combine that with whatever theory I saw fit for its educational purpose, slowly count to ten and very calmly explain why, in fact, my conservative loved one should reconsider his or her opinion. Very peacefully and rationally I would try and nuance their views. I would think to myself: we don’t even have to agree, but if I can get one zombie conservative to think contextually before blurting out whatever hate speech came to mind at that point, my job would be done. (Although I must admit that this calm rationality I speak of was only ever reserved for loved ones.)

But here’s the thing about mindless conservatism that reiterates ideas from the right-wing media: these opinions, more often than not, do not come from a place of reason. Take it from me and do not fall into this trap. See, it’s a little bit like arguing with a toddler. The only real way for them to let you get through the little speech you prepared in your head is if they’ve stopped listening. Instead, what usually happens is that they’ll become agitated and start shouting before you even finished your point. And if you do choose to continue – say, because your good intentions equate to a form of masochism – this process will repeat itself endlessly. The result is then that you accomplish nothing except lose a whole lot of emotional energy and patience. And in the process you begin to have a harder time seeing through your friend/cousin/uncle’s shitty ideas about the world.

Look, I’m not by any means saying that you shouldn’t argue with anyone who thinks differently from you. There are so many people who think differently from me who do very much come from a place of reason and it leads to (undeniably) frustrating but very fruitful and interesting discussions – whereby we both still think we’re right but our views have become more nuanced as a result. And then there are also people whose morally questionable choices we refuse to accept and will forever attempt to change because we assume they are just having a lapse of judgment – say, those very very close to us.

Yet in my experience, when it comes to people we don’t need to deal with that often who we genuinely like in spite of their opinions, there is very little to be gained from this engagement. Looking past a sexist joke from an old friend is one thing, having confirmation of his utter irrationality and inflexibility can be very damaging for your relationship.

So although I do not have a secret formula as to how to win this game of avoidance, one of the best things I ever did was to start playing it. I used to drive myself insane and experience seriously hardcore heart palpitations when talking to my conservative loved ones about certain issues. And for what exactly?

We all weed out people from our lives for various reasons from time to time. But seeing as we have kept these specific people in our lives thus far, in spite of what we see as their questionable moral choices, why not then keep the relationship at that shallow level where it works?

Yes, I do realize this might make me sound somewhat cowardly. But I am passing on this piece of advice because I can tell you from experience that I have made myself infinitely happier by learning to pick my battles and most importantly: my opponents.