Friday, November 13, 2009

A Very, Merry (Dutch) Christmas:

I become a bit more comfortable with the Dutch language every day. I love speaking Dutch, now that I'm getting better at it. The strange thing about learning a new language isn’t even that it sounds odd compared to what you spoke, about, 100% of the time before now. And even stranger–no one else knows exactly how much (insert name of language here) you actually know, first of all because you’re still learning. I can read signs, headings of newspapers, paragraphs if necessary, and speak when needed, in Dutch–or after an evening of intoxication. Which as we know, alcohol brings down inhibitions–aka this is why people do crazy acts when they’re drunk. And what makes the fear of being socially rejected less pronounced. (Which is basically what speaking a new language around people whose native language is the language you’re speaking is, right? A fear of rejection? Everyone wants to be accepted by others, I’m convinced. No matter how individual or apathetic or anti-this-or-that you are–I think everyone needs some form of acceptance in their life, to feel as if they belong to whatever group they need or should belong to.)

I think most people don’t speak a non native language around native speakers–simply because they know they’re sound odd, then again, of course you will, but how will people react? Surprised that you can? Laugh at you because you have an accent? I imagine it depends on whom you’re talking to. I imagine that’s what it’s like to immigrate to the USA, from a non native English speaking country. And have to learn English upon arrival in that country. (Which I now always refer to, as ‘America’–as the Europeans do. When I lived in Germany two years ago, I told someone that I was ‘from the States’: they then replied, ‘what States?’ That fixed that.) But in the USA, in cities where people aren’t backwards enough to say things like–‘This is America and we speak English!’, as they loads their gun–for the most part won’t mind what language you speak. It's all about communicating and being understood, anyway. The USA does not even have an official language. English is its de-facto language.

Therefore, in cosmopolitan American cities (those on the coasts) people will, for the most part, realize that ‘you just arrived’ and you can therefore speak whatever language you want. But, please speak some English if you, for instance, run a shop. Other than that–you’re fine. Do whatever you want.That's the beauty of America: there is no national language.But not in the land of tiny. Like, for instance, a few weeks ago at work I opened the door–similar to this. But this time it was a Turkish guy. After a few exchanges of broken Dutch on mine and his side, he realized we could communicate better in English, than in Dutch–so we both switched. Then he got all heated on me and asked why I don’t speak Dutch. Because apparently he gets told he has to speak Dutch–by Dutch people–all the time. That’s odd. Most Dutchies tell me not to even bother. Which just gives an inside glance into the immigrant culture her in ams. Then again, it just poses the question, I’m not an immigrant. So therefore our cases are different because, he might not be? But even if he wasn’t–would he still be told he needs to learn Dutch? Probably.

Those in the Netherlands, by the way, have a habit of shipping in people from 'other' countries–and then allowing them to stay, but only if they do the tough jobs that the natives do not want to do–for example all the Turkish people came in the 1960s. But now that the second generation of ‘Turkish-Moroccan-Dutch' people actually live (and have a life/house/kids/job) here–the Dutchies are having a hard time accepting them into ‘Dutch’ society. I imagine it’s similar to the black/white/slavery relations in the USA. Except in the USA African Americans are already assimilated. That's the strange thing about Europe: each country is their own race of people–or so is the narrative. Each quite homogeneous. And will say that that is the native consensus. It’s strange to grow up in the USA and no one really cares what religion you are, or what language you speak–because the country’s so enormous. For the most part you can always find similar people to surround yourself with–everywhere you go–because the country is so, diverse.

I don’t think I will ever comprehend the local attachment to zwarte pieten. (In English: black peters. They are the (blackfaced) Dutch version of Santa's elves. Meaning the people in this picture are white, with afro wigs, and bright red lipstick on? And that's OK in the Netherlands.) There's no need for me to explain it either. Last week I had a Swedish girl ask me if I had seen the decorate-able zwarte pieten head gingerbread thing–much like a gingerbread house kit–available for purchase at the local grocery store. She was literally shocked and had no idea what it was. Until I picked up that she was trying to–subtly–tell me she thought it was a bit, shall we say, politically incorrect or racist.

Saturday I went to De Bijenkorf (a department store in the Netherlands) to exchange something. While getting lost (which is surprisingly easy considering De Bijenkorf is just one giant rectangle) I ran into the Christmas decorations! Natuurlijk, in the foyer near the escalator. What was there? But threegiant zwarte pieten; animatronics, and climbing up and down ropes strung from the ceiling. I was torn between laughter, shock, and just plain–‘Hey! get out your camera, John!’–mode. So I did just that. It was quite frightening, to be honest. Today I asked someone (Dutch) if they thought zwarte pieten was racist. They immediately fired back: ‘Yes’. But that’s OK–because you could easily look to the USA’s version of Christmas–and invent some reason why Santa’s elves are politically incorrect. For instance, because they resemble those with dwarfism. I can’t not say that I’ve never taken part in Christmas in July. But not matter what sort of accompaniment Santa, excuse me, Sinterklaas may have, it’s all good with me. Because Christmas really isn’t about the elves, Santa, the presents, badass food and drink, or the time away from work (if work may happen to be your thing). I imagine Christmas is about being around those you love. And I think that’s what matters the most.