Thursday, January 15, 2015

7 ways to ace the Dutch integration exam

Last month I spent eight hours in a centre proving how worthy I am of staying in this country. In other words, the Dutch integration exam or inburgeringexamen.

As I walk into the ordinary looking building that houses several other offices, about 30 faces greet me: mostly brown, some are white. Some are married to people holding Dutch passports and must do the exam or risk a fine, some are refugees who have lived here for almost a decade and need a Dutch passport, some are from rich countries looking to gain another citizenship in order to become "a world citizen", some have come in the 70s as guest workers and have to show that they haven't been creating their own ethnic ghettoes, others are economic refugees or students looking to escape their countries.

I fall under the first category. But I'm about to find out that this exam is not created to take all these candidates into consideration; it's just one long day of alternate feelings of embarrassment, amusement, outrage and pity.

It doesn't take long to be micro-aggressed. First I have to register, standing face to face with an overly chirpy Dutch woman who makes it a point to note on my paper that although my name is too long to fit on my residence permit, it is indeed my name and I am not posing as someone else. Smiling too much and enunciating each word slowly, she even tells me that since my hairstyle is different from my photo, I need to tuck my hair behind my ears because it's hard to tell brown people apart or something. 

I chose to do all 5 exams in one day: Dutch language listening, speaking, writing and reading skills, and knowledge of Dutch society (kennis nederlandse samenleving). Each test presents a few "cases" or situations, with 2 or 3 related questions. They're all done on a computer except for the writing test. One participant who is on her third attempt tells me that the speaking test used to be done with an examiner, which predictably makes things more stressful. With the new format, you watch a video of someone making small talk and asking a question. You record your reply in the software and you can repeat until your time is up.

I laugh out loud at certain questions, because they were so ridiculous. But I know I just have to put aside any critical thinking skills (saving it for this blog post) and just give the right answer. So here you go, here are 7 ways to ace integration, the Dutch way.

1. Work a labour-intensive job and don't study too much

One of the writing tasks is to compose an email to a colleague (you work together in a cleaning company) asking her to please vacuum the next day because you forgot to do so, and explain what you'll do for her in return. My vocabulary on household chores is pretty poor (because hey, I don't go around talking about it), so I come up with the only thing I knew the words for: that I'll clean the windows.

In one of the questions for the speaking test (which consists of only a handful of actual speaking into the microphone and then a series of multiple-choice questions on what your best response would be), you have to pretend to be a (Black) baker, busy packing something when your (White) boss asks you to get him coffee. The computer suggests that you can give a plain "no", you can tell your boss to get his own coffee or that you can tell him that you're busy. It's clear you need to say no without pissing off your boss. (No points for guessing the right answer.)

Other situations involve characters that work in a nursing home and supermarket. While their ethnicity or cultural background is not overtly stated, there are obvious clues that they are Moroccan, Turkish, or Black Antillean. There are some situations with characters pursuing some sort of education, but these are limited to vocational courses like cooking.

2. Submit to authority 

Meet Zam (not his real name). He has a headache and he goes to the doctor, who prescribes him a medication. He doesn't feel too good after taking the meds for a while, so he stops taking it. He shouldn't have done this even though he may know the best for his body (this is actually one of the answer options, but it's accompanied with a very Photoshopped photo of Zam looking like an arrogant know-it-all so WINK WINK). Instead, he should apologise to the doctor for not having consulted him first. (Though from my experience with medical professionals here and how some pretend they cannot speak English unless you're White, they should be the ones apologising to you.)

3. Learn the value of (White) opinions

In life, you will hear about the trials and tribulations of others. If you hear about a jewellery store robbery, you need to learn to accept that robbers are perhaps poor people who needed to eat (I'm pretty surprised at the compassion taught in this example but anyway). It's unacceptable to say that this is a ridiculous idea or that one is forbidden to have such ideas.

If you tell someone else that you plan to divorce your wife and said friend is not married, you must not assume that said friend doesn't know anything. White people can have an opinion on any and every topic (including how C-sections are not all that bad hey, true story) and you must listen to this opinion because, free speech. To be properly integrated, you should ask him why he holds such an opinion even though you're starting to feel mighty irritated.

4. Love gay people

This is very important. Probably the most important thing that determines your worth as an immigrant. It's not important to think of people as being on a continuum of sexual orientation, but rather that "homosexuals" are a simple alternative to "heterosexuals". Trans? Queer? What's all that complexity?

Just remember that gay people are allowed to hold hands anywhere in this country. Especially if they're white. Never you mind about the hostility faced by queers of colour (or God forbid, couples of colour!). Just love them for being lucky enough to be living in this country of freedom.

5. Love the police

Never mind that if you look Moroccan or Turkish, or if you have dark skin, you're more like to be stopped by the police on the street. Never mind also that you can be shot for merely putting your hands in your pockets because it looked like you were reaching for a gun.

Repeat after me: the police is your friend. If you are just taking an innocent walk around the block with your wife and you see a young man in a hoodie throwing a brick through a shop window, what should you do? (hint: call the police.) If you encounter a group of protesters who are suddenly attacked by a mysterious group of young men (with the same hoodies), what should you do? Just. call. the. police.

6. Accept whitewashing of history

Meet Dinh, a new immigrant from Vietnam. He wants to learn more about Dutch history so he goes to the museum. There he sees an exhibit about the VOC (Dutch East India Company). Now as a migrant from a former colony of France, Dinh probably knows a thing or two about colonial powers, so he knows that the VOC didn't just go what is Indonesia today to simply trade in spices so they could establish Conimex.

But just pretend that that is all they went there for. Colonisation, oppression, violence -- that's all much too messy for the integrated mind.

7. Know that this is not real life

It is striking how the test tries to consciously work against stereotypes. Although many practice questions for the test focus on how this country is the land of gender equality (where men and women split housework 50-50, where contraception is seen as female emancipation, and where men are not allowed to hit women), during the test you'll meet a white man who hits his wife and kids, while his Moroccan neighbours are left with the awkward dilemma of trying to get him to stop drinking, get a job and stop abusing his family (no idea why you can't call the police in this case, because it seems like a pretty good option).

This Moroccan couple has the darndest life. Not only does their daughter's bicycle get stolen, but one day they encounter a group of white protesters on strike, demanding higher wages. For some reason, they are attacked by a few young brown boys in hoodies (I get it, hoodies are scary).

The most important thing to know about the exam is that these situations do not reflect real life in the Netherlands. The test is a representation of what a few people in power thought Dutch life should be. If you can put this aside and put on your integrated-immigrant hat, you'll pass with flying colours.

At least I did. :)

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