The following story appeared in two publications. The Dutch version in Saturday’s de Volkskrant newspaper.
The headline reads: CHINESE-DUTCH STAND UP Followed by a deck: “Gordon’s derogatory comments about a Chinese participant in a TV show is part of a long, Dutch tradition. Canadian-Chinese Suzanne Ma has had enough.”
It was also published today in English by The Huffington Post.
I wasn’t surprised by what I saw — it’s not like I haven’t heard those things before.
I knew what was going to happen as soon as I clicked on the link and watched a somewhat awkward, bespectacled Chinese man by the name of Xiao Wang wander onto the stage of Holland’s Got Talent.
The PhD student announced he would perform a rendition of “La donna è mobile” from Verdi’s Rigoletto.
And that’s when Judge Cornelis Willem Heuckeroth, who goes by the nickname Gordon, cracked his first joke: “Which number are you singing? Number 39 with rice?”
Following Wang’s impressive performance, Gordon mocked the performer’s accent by referring to his voice as a “surplise.” And as the judges gave Wang their feedback, Gordon added: “Honestly, this is the best Chinese I’ve had in weeks. And it’s not a takeaway.”
After Wang left the stage Gordon continued, turning to the audience and chortling in Dutch: “He looks like a waiter from a Chinese restaurant.”
Finally, just before the commercial break, the show’s American judge Dan Karaty leaned over and said: “You’re really not supposed to say things like that to people.”
“What?” responded an apparently oblivious Gordon.
Butt of every joke
I’m a Canadian of Chinese heritage and I’m lucky enough that I’ve never been on the receiving end of such remarks in my own country, a place where I was born and raised and continue to live today. But I’ve heard similar words in the Netherlands, where my husband is from.
For the last six years, I’ve been visiting Holland a lot. My husband was born and raised there. His Chinese immigrant parents run a takeaway selling Chinese food in Rotterdam, and while their bami (noodles) and nasi (rice) are much loved by their loyal and hungry customers, I’ve encountered rather peculiar behaviour every time I’ve visited the country.
I wouldn’t necessarily call the episodes racist. They were more perplexing at first. While biking in Rotterdam one day, a group of adolescents called to me: “Kroepoek!” they said, using the Dutch word for “shrimp crackers” before bursting into raucous laughter. Another time, while walking in a local park, a young passerby pointed and called me a spring roll. “Loempia!” the boy said. I pointed back at him and said: “Stroopwafel” (a Dutch caramel cookie).
And then more than once, while helping on a busy Sunday at the takeaway, a customer made a jeer about my mother-in-law’s accented Dutch. “Sambal bij?” he chuckled, referencing an all-too-typical joke that imitated the way she asked customers if they wanted hot sauce with their meals.
Marc, my husband, grew up in a small city in the south of Holland. He was the only Chinese kid in his class and sometimes, it was rough.
The jokes don’t translate well into English. “What do the Chinese call buttocks? Wang Snee Wang,” the children would taunt. The words literally mean “cheek cut cheek” but apparently to the Dutch, they also sound like a Chinese name. “What is Chinese and hangs on the wall? Witte lijst.” White rice, but rice said with an “l” means frame. They often sang a song called “Hanky Panky Shanghai” while pulling their eyelids to the side.
I was outraged when Marc told me these stories. But he simply shrugged and said it was a part of every Chinese kid’s experience growing up in the Netherlands. There were many others like him.
A silent minority
We have many friends in the Netherlands who are of Chinese heritage. Most of them were born and raised in the Netherlands, educated in the Netherlands and are now working professionals in the Netherlands. A lot of them speak Dutch better than they speak Chinese.
And yet, their responses to Gordon’s behaviour on Holland’s Got Talent were very similar to what Marc had said to me: We’re used to it. It happens all the time. There’s no point in getting angry. A lot of people think this will never change.
Growing up in this society, you do not realize there is a different way of being treated.
I can understand why my friends’ parents — first generation Chinese — might choose to lay low. As immigrants, they are focused on running their businesses, working hard and earning money. Many speak accented Dutch, and are reluctant to speak up. They don’t want to be seen as trouble makers. Many immigrants who come from mainland China are not accustomed to participating in public protests or speaking to journalists. Back home, that could land you in jail.
But what about the second generation? Surely they have the capacity to speak up? Many friends admitted that they did but explained that, from a young age, they had always been taught to simply brush aside racist jibes, to rise above it, to be the bigger person.
We “are taught to be kind, humble, submissive, polite and not to talk back to people,” one friend told me. “We ignore it instead of standing up for ourselves. Growing up in this society, you do not realize there is a different way of being treated.”
I won’t judge Dutch society based on off the cuff remarks made by one celebrity. But the reaction and responses of my Dutch-Chinese friends are an indication that while there is so much about Holland that is modern, tolerant and progressive, there is still a long way to go.
Marc, my husband, worried about the future. “Are we going to continue to ‘take the high road’, ignore it and yet leave the next generation to grow up in the same environment?” he asked. “Holland may be a tiny country, but it has deeply rooted habits. We do things a certain way, treat each other a certain way, because that’s the way it has always been; this is a sign of a stagnant society.”
Is Canada any better?
Some friends suggested that Canada might fare better, where “everyone knows how it feels to be some kind of minority.” But can we really hold my country up as an ideal? I’m not so sure. Here, we still struggle with issues of race.
In 2010, an article in a national magazine titled “Too Asian?” debated whether Canadian schools were being overrun by overachieving Asian students, leaving non-Asian students feeling they could no longer compete. And just last year, the Bank of Canada edited out a picture of what appeared to be an Asian woman peering though a microscope on the new $100 bill because focus groups objected to the scene.
Perhaps we can’t change Gordon and others like him, but we can change how we as a society react to his behaviour.
The international community has the ability to create its own clout, uniting as one via social media to bear witness to racism, to call for change, and to demand better. It is through social media that I viewed the clip from Holland’s Got Talent, and through social media that I have the opportunity to address this now. A voice is a powerful tool. If you have it, I implore you to use it — even if your parents taught you otherwise.