I realised while trying to put down my thoughts that it was around this time that I had met her. It was 2013 and I was pursuing a short term Art Appreciation programme at the National Museum Institute. I became friends with a bunch of other people, and amongst them was a guy who would sometimes bring his girlfriend to the class. His girlfriend was from the Netherlands and was in Delhi on an exchange programme. I remember when she told me where she was from, I had to jog my geographical memory to exactly locate the Netherlands. At that time, going abroad for studies was just a stray thought, I was still looking around. Never in my wildest dreams would I have envisioned meeting her again, but this time in her country, and not mine.
Fast forward to January, 2016. We are sitting in a Vietnamese Baguette place in Rotterdam. It still feels surreal to me.
“In India it is so easy to spot the difference in status and wealth between people. But in the Netherlands it is so hard.”
She mulls a bit, “Well you see the rich in the Netherlands usually pursue subjects like medicine, law, or engineering.”
“Hahaha, hey! it is the complete opposite in India; mostly the rich pursue the arts and the humanities!”
“Oh, yeah. You are right.”
Biting into my baguette I say, “You know for the first time it is just easy for me to tell people here that I am from India, hence, an Indian. In India there are so many identities I need to profess. That I am a Bengali, but a Delhiite etc etc…”
“Hm, but I actually like that. You know where you are from, which community you might belong to. Here I don’t know… I don’t know my roots. At least you know them.”
“Interesting, I never really thought like that. It does becomes difficult though to sometimes explain to people here which part of India I belong to, the languages I speak and why?”
“So do you like it here?”
I contemplate a bit before replying, “Strangely enough, I do. I like that I do not need to constantly talk about my success and the amount I am earning after graduation. People tend to apprise you on the salary package that you have been offered. It is so nice to go to a club wearing casuals, especially since I really do not like dressing up.”
“Oh yeah, once my friend and I went to a club in Delhi dressed in jeans and a shirt. We stood out obviously.”
“Haha, I can imagine. During the summer vacations while in Delhi, I went to a popular club and I experienced a reverse culture shock as the people were dressed in such fancy clothes!!”
Both of us laugh when I tell her, “But you know I am comfortable here. Everything is efficient here, but sometimes I get annoyed. The houses here remind me of cookie-cutter houses. It is as if houses are produced in an assembly line production. And not only the houses, but also the people, same nike shoes, same jeans and the same eastpack backpacks.”
“Yes, perhaps what I like about India is how different things can be at the same place.”
“So how many places did you travel to in India?”
“Ah well, I went to Kolkata, Kerala, Varanasi, Rajasthan…..”
“So what did you like in each part? Anything which struck you?”
“I think for me India is many different countries in one country, it is all so different.”
She continues, “I was once sitting in my balcony in Delhi when I spotted a foreigner downstairs. He looked so Dutch that I rushed down the stairs to confirm, and he was! He told me about the Masters in Global Studies and that is why I am studying it today, since it gives me the opportunity to study in different countries, and also go back to India.”
“You know when I came here I never imagined I would fall for a Dutch guy, such tall, blond guys haha.”
“Yeah! Life is so unexpected. You can just never know. While dating my Indian boyfriend I had to counter many stereotypes about white girls in India, and even my boyfriend faced questions.”
“But I really like it here when late night I can return home on my own, I do not have to rely on any of my guy friends to drop me home. That is when I really feel at home here.”
She smiles at me, ““Hmmmm…. I will like to go back to JNU, the intellectual environment there is so attractive. But do you think you can live here long enough?”
Kim Van Kastel
“I would like to pursue a PhD. here, but after that I would like to go back. I don’t think I could live here.”
As she’s talking, I am thinking; but you are already living here. In the short time we walked through the big city she had already run into friends twice. She has a network. She has been creating roots here for some time now already.
Instead I say: “Why?”
“When you leave where you come from, you start appreciating it more, or differently. ” I considered whether this was the case for me. Did I start loving the Netherlands more after leaving it for so long?
“So, you return to India after studying?”
“Yeah, it is home. I tried to explain this to my father. That I don’t want to live here. It is very comfortable here, but it is not the same. How can I explain? It is, for example, the way the houses look here. They all look more or less the same. Or the shops, they all sell more or less the same things. I realised that in India every little street corner shop has a uniqueness to it and I miss that. Where is home for you? Here or in India?”
“That’s such a difficult question. I’ve been asked this question before so many times. And each time I get confused.” I think for a while. The space I feel most comfortable in is the space in between. The not being restricted to one or the other. So to have to make a choice between the both feels impossible.
Then I continue, “It’s strange. Here I understand everything, because it is the world I grew up in. But I don’t identify with many things of this culture. I feel like people can be so distant here. Also, I think the Netherlands bores me a lot of the time. Yeah, I am quite sure I don’t want to live in the Netherlands. Still, I will never be able to completely leave because my family lives here. Whereas in India, I feel excited, challenged, I feel at home. I am starting to build a network there and I get quite familiar with different aspects of living in India. But on the other side, no matter how long I would live there, people will always see me as a foreigner”.
“That’s true. In India, people attach a lot of value to where you come from, and what community you belong to. Regardless of whether you want to belong to that community or not.”
“We don’t have that so much in the Netherlands.”
“I feel like you can live here for quite a long time and people will always be nice to you, but it takes a long time to get close to them.”
“Yeah, that’s so different from India where, for example, you are friends by default when you are flatmates.”
“I love that! I enjoyed sharing my room with someone the first time I went to India. In the Netherlands this is very uncommon for students. And my Indian roommate really made an effort to befriend me and to take care of me. Never did she treat me as a person invading her space. I love this culture of sharing everything. It makes sense to me.”
“Yeah, I usually cook a little more for my Dutch flatmate when I cook, and the first time I gave her food, she was so surprised. I realised that this is not normal here. But now she shares her food with me too. Especially when she has something typically Dutch.”
“So what do you like most about living here?”
“The liberty. The fact that I don’t have to dress up. In Delhi I was often the odd one out, because I don’t care about fashion so much. The Dutch are pretty down to earth. Here nobody minds anyone’s business. It was so liberating to cross the streets and have nobody care about me… And cycling. In the Netherlands, riding your bike is not a class thing. Everyone has a bike. In general, I also really like the fact that people here are modest and do not show off. At least, I can’t really tell from how somebody looks whether they are wealthy or poor.”
“I never thought about that, but that’s right.
“So what are things you really don’t like about India?”
“What I had to get used to mostly is not being able to roam the streets alone at night. Here in the Netherlands, I wouldn’t think twice whether or not to ride my bicycle home alone in the middle in the night, but in Delhi this is not really advisable. I have to admit that I have started to be careless in Delhi too. But, in general, I know that there is more at risk. And related to that, I struggled for the longest time with men making decisions on my behalf.”
“Oh. That’s interesting. How did you notice that?”
“That some men tended to decide for me? Well, I had an unpleasant experience once when my male friends had told me they would bring me home by car after going out, but instead they took me to another party location, thinking that I would be up for it. The stereotype a white woman has to fight when living in India is that she is up for partying all the time and ready to have casual sex with practically anyone.”
“This was obviously a kind of extreme example. But often I would be aware of my gender in more subtle ways. I was in a relationship with an Indian guy and when we travelled together he would make all the decisions about our travel plans by himself without bothering to discuss them with me. In the beginning I thought it was because we were in the place he was born and it would be logical for him to guide me. But then I noticed that he surpassed me for even the tiniest of decisions such as when and where we should eat. And then I started noticing that nearly all my male friends did stuff like that. I would be extremely surprised if any of my Dutch male friends did the same…”
“I think the best situation is when you feel like you have roots somewhere, but you don’t let those roots completely define who you are.”
Article by Anubha Sarkar and Kim Van Kastel