This past Sunday Bogdan and I had an altercation with an older Dutch man that ended in him telling us to “go back to your fucking country.” We’ve been living in the Netherlands since October 2017 – just over a year and a half. In that time we’ve experienced xenophobia only one other time.
The first time happened last summer. It was pretty tame. It happened at an open air theater in Vondelpark. We were having some beers with Bogdan’s coworkers at a picnic table tucked back behind the elevated seats facing the stage. I guess we were being too loud because a breathless red faced man came down and sternly shushed us – “we’re trying to watch the show… it’s a Dutch show” he emphasized the word ‘Dutch’ and then told us one more time to be quiet before heading back up to his seat.
Like I said, it was minor – but it still felt very much like he was making a claim. One got the impression that we were intruders and so should be mindful of our place. That the Dutch observance was more deserving of being in that space than we were. I wondered at the time if the mixed ethnicities in our group had anything to do with what he said. I wondered if Bogdan’s Turkish and Indian coworkers had experienced this kind of thing before in the Netherlands. If they felt what I felt…if they were used to it.
But we didn’t talk about it. The guys chalked it up to a crazy old drunk guy and we moved on….a little quieter.
This past Sunday was a different story. We were walking with Oliver in the off-leash dog area at Westerpark. We were crossing a paved road under a bridge to get from one trail to another. Oliver shot ahead of us, as he usually does, and met with an older man in a blue tracksuit with rollerblade attachments strapped onto black tennis shoes. As Oliver was passing by the man reached a gloved hand down to let him smell.
As anyone who’s known a dog will know – sometimes they get spooked by people. Oliver just didn’t like this guy so he backed away and barked at him. This has happened a handful of times before and most people react by going on their way. Disengaging from the interaction. This man instead started swinging at Oliver. Swinging wildly with both hands while, if you’ll recall, he’s on rollerblades. This only made Oliver freak out more and bark louder.
As this was happening we were trying to stop him of course and took a quick left to get off the paved road and onto the next part of the trail. That’s when things got weird. This man starts telling us that he just got bit by another dog this past Thursday and that if our dog does anything to him “I’ll kill your dog.”
The first time he said it I think we both thought he was being dramatic. But then he kept repeating it. Three, four, five times or more I lost count. All we’re trying to do is get Oliver away from him and instead of leaving he’s keeping pace with us and telling us he’ll kill our dog.
At one point he even lifted up the leg of his track pants to show us where the dog bit him – a few scratches on his leg. And he keeps saying it “I’m serious – I’ll kill your dog.” At this point Bogdan has had enough and finally replied – “Okay yeah – you’re starting to sound crazy.” This man then yells “Fuck you” across a street full of kids and people quietly enjoying a sunny Sunday in the park. Shocked we both look back and only then do we see him finally taking off on those roller blades, screaming through the crowds “Go back to your fucking country.”
This was the second time we experienced this sentiment in the Netherlands. Don’t get me wrong – we hear whispers of discontent here and there. Mostly in the vein of Dutch people complaining about expats driving up housing prices. But the truth is that we also live in the Amsterdam expat bubble – a quickly expanding circle bolstered in large part by tax incentives offered by the Dutch government – the so-called 30% ruling that gives certain high earning immigrants a tax break that reduces their income by 30% for 5 years (it used to be 8 until this past year.)
This makes Dutch expats a distinct social class – separate from regular immigrants and refugees not only in earning potential and economic power but also sadly in ethnic makeup.
Bogdan and I have lived in three countries, none of which have been the country of our birth. We each started life as poor immigrants and grew up acutely aware of our difference. But Bogdan and I are white and that’s afforded us the privilege of cover in every country we’ve lived – Canada, the US and the Netherlands. In these countries whiteness bestows the privilege of anonymity. Of an otherness that doesn’t immediately register. Of an identity and belonging that isn’t often questioned.
My friend Sam is from Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto. Her grandparents came over from Trinidad and though she holds strong to her West Indian heritage, she hates when people ask where she’s “really from.” Having your belonging in a community questioned is really shitty, especially since it’s so often on the basis of assumptions.
I thought a lot about what the old man on the rollerblades said. Go back to your country. What country is that, I wondered. And more importantly how would this feel if I couldn’t? What if this was it? I wondered how often this happens to people because of the color of their skin. What would life be like if I walked with the knowledge that I could be singled out for banishment – rendered unworthy of belonging – at any moment for assumptions totally extraneous to the substance of my character. And then what if I couldn’t retreat back into the comfort of my privileged (anonymous) existence as an expat of Amsterdam? What then?
On the whole life in this country is beautiful and the majority of Dutch people I’ve met have been nothing short of accomodating. This society is safe and orderly, innovative and progressive, and I’m constantly grateful to the Dutch for not only tolerating but welcoming so many foreigners into their small nation. But nothing is perfect and sometimes, on rare occasions, cracks appear in the perfect facade. This was one of those times.
Until next time,