Layered identities as a result of global migration are not the future, but the world of today.
A year ago I visited New York and remember that a stand-up comedian asked me where I’m from. When I told him that I live in Rotterdam, the second biggest city of The Netherlands, he looked at me in suprise. ‘Are you the only brown person in Rotterdam?’ he asked me. The truth can not be further away. I like to describe my hometown as a multicultural metropolis. Yes, Rotterdam is famous for having one of the largest ports in de world. But it is also one of the most multicultural cities. Rotterdam is home to about 617,347 people who represent around 174 different nationalities. For me it is surprising that the urban diversity and energy of this city has not reached the other side of the ocean everywhere. But it is a much bigger surprise that some Americans are unaware of their own decades of diversity.
When Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America last September, it was not her talent and beauty, but the combination of beauty and controversy which caused her name to flew like a rocket on social media. Also in the Netherlands we learned very quickly that the first Miss America of Indian origin was something that not every American was thrilled about. A few examples of tweets: “This is Miss America … Not Miss Foreign Country,” or “She’s like not even american and she won Miss America”. Some thought that these tweets were not weird enough and even associated her name with terrorism and 9/11. Fortunately, we also saw plenty of other sounds: “Its amazing that Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America. THIS is the American story. “
In the Netherlands, this would not happen quickly in the field of beauty. Over the years we have had a Miss Netherlands of Moroccan, Turkish, Surinamese-Hindustani and Cape Verdean descent (side note is that these beauty pageants in The Netherlands are a lot smaller in comparison to those in America). When it comes to other representative functions it’s more problematic, a few years ago there were discussions about the loyalty of prominent politicians named Ahmed Aboutaleb and Nebahat Albayrak of Moroccan and Turkish descent.
But also at other levels it can lead to wonder.
Last August I went back to New York to attend the United Nations Alliance Of Civilizations Education First (UNAOC-EF) Summer School. I was very happy to be selected along with 99 other participants from all over the world to discuss global challenges in the context of cultural and religious diversity. I was honoured to respresent the Netherlands during this special event. The special thing about representing your country is that it makes you look at your country with the eyes of an outsider and then consider what you really want that person to know about this country. I left packed with objects (diary of Anne Frank, postcard with the painting The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer, sirupwaffles and chocolate sprinkles) songs, books and interesting facts and tidbits about the Netherlands (like the saying “God created the World, but the Dutch created the Netherlands’, to emphasize the special relationship my country has with water).
The UNAOC-EF Summer School was a lifechanging experience and a boost of inspiration which will reverberate a long time after. The participants I met excelled in critical citizenship / global citizenship. They are enthusiastic and think about the future and their contribution to the world. I have had the honor to meet and interact with a mixed group of journalists, volunteers (in addition to their regular jobs), poets, writers, standup comedians, peace activists, representatives of youth organizations and NGOs. They make themselves heard at various levels, they write critical opinions, create stories and poems, ask questions and use humor to tackle stereotypes and confront people with exclusive ways of thinking.
One of the highlights of the Summer School was a dialogue with Jan Eliasson, Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations. After this visit to the United Nations I posted a picture on facebook with myself sitting behind the seat of The Netherlands. Responses on this picture ranged from pleasantly surprised, amazed, to sincere surprise. “You don’t really look Dutch” or “It’s really special that they selected you to represent The Netherlands.”
I was born and raised in the Netherlands, my parents are from Suriname (South America) and my ancestors are from India. This familyhistory has ensured that I have a layered identity, with influences from three completely different continents. My background is part of my interpretation of being a Dutch citizen (and a global citizen). It makes me no less Dutch than the next Dutch man or women. Just like Nina Davuluri born and raised in America, with Indian roots, would be less American because of her history (especially since America is the land of immigrants!). It simply means that her story is different from that of other Americans who live in the country a few generations longer.
This is no new sudden development. During the Summer School and the interaction with so many participants from all over the world I saw it clearly: people with layered identities as a result of migration patterns are the future, if they are not already the present. A few examples: Norway was represented by a young man who was born and raised there and has his roots in Pakistan. Australia was represented by a young woman with roots and family in Hong Kong. And so it went on and on. Then there are the connections that people create themselves: there was a young leader from Brasil who lives and works in India, a Spanish young women who lives and works in Yemen, and an American who blogs about the Arab world. All these people are proud and especially critical citizens in their own country, while at the same time they thrive and move easily on a global, multicultural stage. A stage in which ethnic boundaries sometimes blur and global citizenship arises.
It is the world of today: young people who naturally balance between their roots, that often lie across the border, and the country they live in. Both aspects shape their identity, just like the people they come across during their trips around the world. This way the whole world is a playing field with international friendships, inspirations from other continents, glocal thinking and acting. And above all, a world in which the fact that Nina Davuluri is crowned Miss America is no exception, but is something that’s actually very, very normal.
This article was published on Joop – a place for opinion and debate in The Netherlands connected to broadcasting association VARA