Sunday, April 14, 2013

Ethnic Makeup: Good migrant, bad migrant.

This post was originally written for, published on 13 Apr 2013.
"Meet the whole world at The Hague Market"

Judging a book

My first experience with Holland was a tin of condensed milk of the “Dutch Lady” brand. Many of you might have grown up with it as well: a fair-skinned milkmaid wearing a blue and white traditional dress, holding a pail of milk, freshly expressed from the black and white cows behind her, munching on green grass, with windmills in the far horizon. Today, tourist advertisements for Holland emphasise the Keukenhof tulips and windmills. In particular, the tourist video playing on loop at the Dutch Consulate will endlessly repeat that “The Dutch are among the tallest people in the world.”

Don’t blame me for thinking that Holland was full of tall, white, milk-drinking people frolicking among tulips and/or windmills.

On the other hand, Singapore has consistently portrayed itself to be a country of immigrants (to the point of ignoring the indigenous population) who can keep on receiving foreigners as long as they fit into certain ideas of class and race. While Holland has yet to admit that it is indeed a multicultural country, Singapore has created four ‘races’ or socio-politically constructed categories, often referred to as CMIO (Chinese/Malay/Indian/Other), which Kat has beautifully unpacked previously, and which Chua Beng Huat criticises for being a ‘neutral empire’ in creating ‘racial’ divisions and managing ‘racial harmony’, peace and equality.[i]

What’s sure is that the constant “gloat[ing] of Chinese hegemony” means that people I meet in Holland either think Singapore is part of China, or they insist I’m not Singaporean because my skin is “so brown!” (excuse me—olive or sawo matang, please).


When I was studying in France, I was often told that I looked Polynesian, with some people even comparing me to their relatives who lived on Wallis and Futuna islands (a French territory in the South Pacific). Because I spoke fluent French, many people I met simply assumed that I was born in France. People try to make sense of strangers by connecting them to their country’s heritage; in this case, the Polynesian territories of France.

So it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise that I would be constantly taken as Indonesian.I’ve been told repeatedly by Indonesian friends that I have a typical Javanese appearance (which helped me to blend in with my Indonesian domestic workers respondents when I was researching for my thesis). I have been told once that I look like I’m “from the East Indies”, the biggest Dutch colony, (which says something about the relationship of contemporary Dutch society with their colonial past).

I accept that in Singapore I am often mistaken for a domestic worker when I’m hanging around my Pasir Ris heartlands. I used to be offended before I knew better, but now I see it as a form of solidarity with them. Before I went to study in Holland, I expected to be simply taken as an Indonesian in Holland but as I found out, it was a little more complicated than that.

"Friends for life"

Good migrant, bad migrant

The majority of the Indo people in Holland arrived in a series of migrations called the ‘repatriation’, after the Second World War, when most Eurasians of mixed Dutch (and other European) and indigenous ancestry left what was then the Dutch East Indies. The Dutchman’s (my husband, but that’s another story) grandmother (born in a town close to my own grandparents in East Java) was one of these migrants.

Many Dutch people my age have some ancestor from what is now Indonesia, and might possibly have grown up or lived for some time in Indonesia themselves. During the Japanese occupation of 1942-45, many were put into Japanese concentration camps aimed at eliminating European presence. Later, when they arrived in Holland, they may have also suffered some sort of discrimination or feelings of a loss of belonging because of their mixed ancestry.

"Healthy/You'll find it at The Hague Market"

My father-in-law is proud to tell me that his mother “completely integrated” by learning Dutch; only speaking Javanese occasionally with her brothers and sisters. Hans van Amersfoort posits that the Indos’ familiarity with Dutch language and culture before coming to Holland, and also their Dutch citizenship, helped them to “seamlessly assimilate” into contemporary Dutch society.[ii]  As a result, migrants today from Indonesia who move to Holland for studies or marriage are more likely to be accepted—at least at face value—as authentically ‘Dutch’.

The fact that white Dutch people will talk to me in Dutch automatically is a sign that my Javanese appearance has some cultural capital. Other appearances that ensure a positive welcome are being white, or Chinese.

"Present/You'll find it at The Hague Market"

"Fashion/You'll find it at The Hague Market"

A group of ‘good’ migrants are those of Chinese-Surinamese descent, or those who look Chinese, no matter the country of origin. Formerly a Dutch colony, Suriname saw a lot of Surinamese migration to the Netherlands after its independence in 1975. Just like Singapore, Suriname is also made up of several ethnic groups (besides their indigenous Amerindians) which include Chinese, Hindustani, and Javanese: their ancestors originally came over as contract plantation labourers from China, India, and Java respectively. In addition, Surinamese migrants to the Netherlands also include Maroons (descendants of West African slaves) and Creoles (mixed West African-European ancestry).

"Party/Meet the whole world at The Hague Market"

Singapore also has categories for its temporary labour force, based on their countries of origin: ‘expats’ or high-skilled workers, and ‘foreign workers’ or low-wage transient workers such as male construction workers from mostly Bangladesh, and female live-in migrant domestic workers from mostly Indonesia and The Philippines (this group forming the bulk of all foreigners in Singapore).

To put it rather crudely, thanks to its history of colonisation, Holland has a population that is mixed: white, black, yellow, brown, and every shade in between. But in right-wing political discourse, migrants are racially profiled according to their socio-economic status, conflated with their religion or ethnicity. Another right-wing discourse is that these newer migrants from Turkey and Morocco (1960s onwards) are ‘parasites’, ‘Islamic terrorists’ or ‘criminele allochtonen’ (from a foreign soil, with the tendency to be involved in crime). Now, which ethnic group in Singapore faces the same conflation of socioeconomic status and ethnicity?

A Singaporean in Holland

If you look Chinese, you won’t have a problem. Even though the Chinese-Dutch community can remain insular, politically speaking they do not pose a problem because they can be rather well-off and/or own significant businesses. More recent migrants from China come via networks that are already existing in various Dutch cities. A girlfriend (Chinese born in Holland, grew up in Shanghai and now studying in Amsterdam) explained the familial closeness of these networks, i.e., “all the Chinese people in Amsterdam know if I’m dating a white guy”.

Preserved herring, a Dutch delicacy

If you look Indian, you might be mistaken for a Hindustani. The reception to this community is ambivalent: they own most of the tropische winkels (neighbourhood stores that sell ‘exotic’ produce, spices, dried fish, etc.), but they cannot escape the racialised policing of public places that target young, dark-skinned men. A close girlfriend (Hindustani Surinamese born and living in Holland) laments that working in a Dutch government bureau meant constantly explaining where her parents were from and making sure that she was using enough fancy Dutch vocabulary to prove her fluency.

If look Malay, you might be mistaken for an Indo or an Indonesian, both of which are two completely non-threatening groups. (This is shown by the seemingly class-based political classification of Indonesian migrants as ‘Western’ foreigners, alongside the Americans and Japanese.) I am often mistaken for being (honorary white) Dutch, with the expectations that I should be able to speak Dutch. And if I cannot (yet), I must assimilate by learning it. I can never be an expat, who are never expected to assimilate.

If you look nothing like the above categories, congratulations. A friend of mine (white Canadian woman married to an Indian man) was even told by a Dutch girl before moving to Holland that she would have “no problems integrating” because she was white, while her husband would have some problems. Yet they were moving to Holland because he got a job here!

"Meet the whole world at The Hague Market"

Migration and Islamophobia

When I first came to Holland, I was surprised to hear from an Egyptian-Dutch friend that she thought Holland was “one of the most Islamophobic countries in Europe”. I saw plenty of women wearing headscarves in the streets and trams and I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Later on I realised that while Indonesian-looking Muslim women in their neat instant-hijab did not attract any attention, Turkish- or Moroccan-looking Muslim women sometimes got dirty looks. Increase the degree of nastiness in this order: whether she’s wearing a long skirt or jeans, a long dress, or a face-covering.

In solidarity with other Muslim women, I immediately took up arms—psychologically. I was ready to explain to politically liberal, young white Dutch people that Muslims are not just those who wear a beard or a headscarf. When one such young man asked me whether I had faced any negative prejudice for being Muslim, I admitted that because I didn’t wear a headscarf, and because I look Indo(nesian), not many people would assume I was Muslim. “Ah, then to us you’re not really Muslim!” His reply revealed just how ethnic appearances and religion had been easily conflated, in addition to socioeconomic status.

According to Liz Fekete, before 9/11, the Dutch government was more concerned with the economic integration of migrants with a Moroccan or Turkish background.[iii]  These communities had migrated to the Netherlands from the 1960s as contract workers (and thus not expected by the government to stay), and were currently experiencing high levels of unemployment and poverty after decades of marginalisation. At the time, Dutch security measures primarily focused on asylum-seekers and migrants. However, after 9/11, security services took the view that Islam per se constituted a ‘threat’, and very quickly Muslim migrants or asylum-seekers all became threats by default.

"Fruit/You'll find it at the Hague Market"

Ethnic makeup

I was once called a ‘Chinees kontje’ in the street; this racialised slur only reveals a lack of knowledge about the different ethnic communities within Holland, and greater issues of migration patterns in general. Simply because I “don’t look like a Muslim”, I don’t face the full force of Islamophobia, even though it is a personal and social wound.

Somewhere on the hierarchies of race, religion and migrant status, my privileges shift in comparison to what I might have in Singapore, where they remain rather static. I didn’t think twice about being politically categorised in Singapore, but Holland has its own set of categories.

And then I think, amidst global processes, what does it mean to be Malay? Or Chinese, or Indian, or Other?

[i] Chua Beng Huat, “Multiculturalism in Singapore: an Instrument of Social Control,” Race and Class 44, no. 3 (2003), 58-77.
[ii] Hans van Amersfoort, “Immigration as a colonial inheritance: post-colonial immigrants in the Netherlands, 1945-2002,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Commission for Racial Equality, 2006.
[iii] Liz Fekete, A Suitable Enemy: Racism, Migration, and Islamophobia in Europe, (London/New York: Pluto Press, 2009), 43-73.

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