12th March, 2007 - Prejudice
Though my daughter and I both speak fluent Dutch, we habitually communicate in English. This gives rise to all kinds of awkward moments, as I’m sure every expat experiences sooner or later. Some people will simply speak Dutch to you and insist that you understand them. Most expats won’t, of course, but even if you do, there doesn’t seem to be an appropriate moment to admit to it. This language barrier question recently came to a head when I’d treated myself to an Independent at Schiphol and, comfortably installed in a train compartment with my paper, a middle-aged Dutch woman sat opposite me. Without a moment’s hesitation she began to tap on the outside page. I responded by lowering the paper and raising my eyebrows. She asked ‘how long you are in Holland’? Truthfully, I told her three years now. ‘You must read Dutch newspapers’ she said. I shrugged my shoulders and told her I didn’t want to. Visibly in a huff, she told me ‘you are the foreigner we don’t want over here’. She collected her belongings and went to sit somewhere else. My jaw dropped. It would never in a million years occur to me or anyone I know to even stop to think about someone’s choice of reading matter. Having spent nearly two decades in a British city with more than half its population speaking one of six Indian languages, it’s only natural that people read in the language they’re most comfortable with. And that they keep up to date with what’s happening ‘at home’. That’s quite apart from the argument that Dutch papers provide very little news, still less of it foreign. When the train arrived at my stop, I made a point of using the exit near where the woman was now sitting. As I passed her seat, I said in Dutch ‘and I’m sure your rudeness is not welcome anywhere else either’. I felt better for having put her in her place but the incident itself left a nasty taste. She might have asked before venting her prejudice.