Yesterday, St. Nicholas arrived on his steamboat in Gouda. Rows of children were lined up for hours in the rain, waiting to get a glimpse of him and his Pete helpers. A lot of them were wondering if his Pete helpers from Spain were even going to show up. After a leak had apparently sprung on the steamboat, the Pete helpers panicked and went overboard. It was a day full of suspense and excitement.
It was equally suspenseful for adults. Parents knew that armed, undercover police were at large, dressed as Pete and on alert. Before the festivities were over, 90 people demonstrating for and against the tradition of Black Pete were arrested. Parents literally felt compelled to remove their children from the scene, for fear of their safety.
As a parent of four young Dutch children, I am sorely disappointed and angry. Disrupting a children’s special holiday – as one fellow expat put it – on a day full of “magic” – is not the way to move forward. I have lived in the Netherlands for ten years now, and I have found a way to live with the people with whom I do not see eye-to-eye.
This is the story of how.
I will always remember when my daughter, five years old, came home from her Dutch school and told me there had been a birthday in class that day.
“We sang ‘Hanky Panky Shanghai.’”
She showed me. She sang a Dutch song to the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’ and pulled her eyelids into slits. After the song, she burst into a cacophony of gibberish, apparently in imitation of an Asian language.
I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach.
“Your whole class sang it?” She nodded. “And the teacher?”
“She sang it, too.”
The next day, my Dutch husband paid a visit to the school. He explained to the teacher that his mother-in-law was Japanese, and that we found it difficult to justify a song that ridiculed the way a grandmother in the family looked and spoke. The teacher agreed to sing it without ‘Chinese’ eyes. The gibberish would remain, though, because it was just that, gibberish.
I am an American woman from Los Angeles, California. My mother was born in Tokyo and my father was born in Tehran. I not only love diversity, I embody it.
After having lived ten years in the Netherlands, I speak a foreign language in which the slang term for irritating, miniscule gnats is “Turks.” I am living in a country where Ushi – the Japanese word for “cow” – is also the name of an unflattering and wildly popular Japanese television persona characterized by the Dutch actress Wendy van Dijk. Ten Dutch Christmases onward, I find myself surrounded by an 83 percent majority loyal to the controversial black appearance of Dutch Santa’s helper, Zwarte Piet.
Friends living on the outside – observing my expatriate life from the periphery – can’t wrap their heads around the persistence of the last figure, whose name translates in English to ‘Black Pete.’ David Serdaris’ essay Six to Eight Black Men has been the best apology I have to offer, supplemented by the list of op-eds I’ve published in Dutch newspapers on racism, xenophobia and etiquettes for multiculturalism. I have been there, on the periphery, with the lot of them. I was a shocked outsider once, too. Even now, after having celebrated six Christmases with my Dutch children, I am just as bothered by Zwarte Piet as I ever was, if not more.
But I’m no longer on the fringe, looking in.
While I wait for my kids in front of their elementary school every afternoon, I chat with the other mothers standing with me. They are blond, blue-eyed and Dutch. My kids will go home with their kids, eat their food and lie sprawled across their couches watching “Frozen.” These mothers will call my children “sweeties, ” app me pictures of our kids in dress-up costumes, and punctually bring mine home for dinner. That’s right, I never have to pick my kids up. Their friends’ mothers bring them to my front door.
After the playdate, I will encounter these mothers on social media. They are the people in my feeds posting appeals to preserve Zwarte Piet. They call on the world to boycott the Albert Heijn and HEMA, stores that have announced that their holiday advertising will omit him. Though I will continue shopping at these stores, I trust my children with the mothers who will boycott them. These Piet lovers are generous, reliable, and hospitable. They go the extra mile. They take good care of my kids. I know I can count on them when I need help. I have learned to love them, even though they love Zwarte Piet.
The current tension in the Netherlands around the question of Piet’s blackface reflects the growing pains of a culture in demographic transition.
At the end of the day, the Dutch people in my life who love him are upset by the disappearance of a quintessential character from their childhoods, their Christmas, and – ultimately – their identity.
Those of us who are thankful for this gradual change to Dutch tradition – who recognize cultural diversity as an important social value – can also recognize that diversity is not a cakewalk. It is learned in practice, often only when it starts to feel tough.
I don’t find it tough to let Piet go. I find it tough to embrace the people who, after all is said and done, refuse to see a problem with him. It took ten years, but I’m finding a way to do it.
The very people who love Piet have helped me to find other things to love about them.
Diversity is a two-way street. If I, too, am willing to cross it, this is the best living lesson on acceptance that I can bequeath to my community, and to my children.