Tuesday, April 29, 2014

X is for Xenophobe

“Goedendag,” I said upon entering a kitchen supply shop in Antwerp, Belgium.
“Goedendag, juffrouw,” the shopkeeper replied in Dutch.
After me, two women entered the store and addressed the shopkeeper in a language that was neither Dutch, English nor French. He gave them a shrug to say “I don’t understand you.” The women huffed and promptly exited the store. The shopkeeper shook his head in disbelief.

When briefly vacationing in another country it’s impossible to learn the host country’s language in its entirety unless you are a walking-talking Berlitz dictionary, a whizz at memorization or a major overachiever. I don’t fall into any of those categories naturally. Nevertheless before I went to Belgium I tried to learn how to say “hello”, “please” and “thank you” in French and Dutch. 

Spoiler alert: After studying French for seven years, let’s just say I didn’t have a problem in the Bonjour-S’il vous plait-Merci Department. Meanwhile Dutch was a different kettle of  pronunciations. But with a little bit of practice in hacking up phlegm lodged in my throat I learned to say Goedendag-Als u blieft-Dank u in a convincing Dutch accent. Don’t get me wrong: Dutch speakers in Belgium never thought I was a Dutch speaker from Belgium, they just thought I had a bad case of hacking up phlegm lodged in my throat.

Thus despite my pseudo language prowess, I was a foreigner in a foreign land and to hear a shopkeeper of pots, pans and spatulas say disparaging things about foreigners didn’t sit well with me. I gave him a tight smile.
“What’s wrong with foreigners?” I said in Dutch.
“They act like they own the place. This isn’t their country, it’s mine.” I winced. He sounded like a xenophobe, that is someone who feared (read: disliked) foreigners. I’d been warned about people like this blue eyed, blond haired shopkeeper. Since the 1990s many European countries have experienced large waves of immigration from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, which has brought peoples who look different, speak different languages and follow different laws and values to predominantly white, historically Christian, European countries. Since the early 2000s, many European nations have seen the rise of anti-immigrant political parties who were created to fight against the foreigners in an effort to protect their white, traditionally Christian cultural identity. Belgium and the the Netherlands were not exemptions.

“But I’m a foreigner,” I said. “Are you saying you don’t like me?”
“You’re different.”
“Because I’m white like you?” The shopkeeper shook his head.
“Because you speak the language of this region. And you don’t expect everyone in Belgium to speak your language which makes you different from the other foreigners who immigrated to Belgium and refuse to speak Dutch or Flemish.”

Needless to say, the shopkeeper did not want to see a Chintown or Little Africa in Belgium.

The United States is a nation founded—and still run on—the skills of immigrants. Immigration is part of the American experience. However immigration and its challenges to the host culture are new phenomena in Belgium and the Netherlands, which have led to the rise of right-leaning political parties like the Vlaams Belang in Flanders and the Partij van Vrijheid in the Netherlands. Both of these political parties promote speaking Dutch or Flemish, in the Netherlands and Flanders, which is understandable. What is less understandable is how these parties are fighting to leave the European Union and wanting all immigrants to leave the Low Countries.

If I can speak a few words of Dutch on a vacation, I think immigrants to Belgium and the Netherlands should at least try to speak the language of their new country. Doing so might help eradicate xenophobia and even promote international understanding.

And if those immigrants need help learning how to speak Dutch, I can teach them how to sound native by hacking up phlegm lodged in the throat.