My life as a so-called immigrant

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. 

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