The Exception to the Rule

September 26th 2017

....different

Looking back five years can be just as rewarding as looking back a century. To this end, the EAC continues to collect materials about the lives of current expats, using the increasing possibilities of the digital and social media. Gathering these sources might not only safe these experiences for future generations, but also help researchers to make sense of the current state of the world. After all, continuous evaluation of our knowledge remains necessary. This is because, upon close inspection, it becomes clear that some of the ‘rules’ about behavior and societies are not as flawless as one might expect.

Perhaps surprisingly, the document which illustrates this best for the recent history is itself an exception to the rule. Whereas most of the material about contemporary expats consists of blog pages, emails and posts on social media, this document is a diary. It was written in 2011, by a Maltese EAC volunteer and covers almost the entire period of his stay in The Netherlands. Therefore, it provides an interesting overall picture of this expat’s professional, personal and inner life during his journey abroad. Reading this document reveals that this person was also the exception to the rule in more than one way.

First of all, in professional terms, his stay in The Netherlands was not very successful. The archive contains numerous files of expats who managed to use international assignments to boost their careers. Combined with the success stories of expats occasionally published in newspapers and magazines, this might give the impression that travelling abroad as an expat guarantees a successful professional life. Reality is, however, far more complex. The author of this diary went into great detail to describe the difficulties he encountered while looking for a job in The Netherlands. When he eventually returned to Malta, he still had been unable to find employment, partly because of the language barriers in the Dutch labour market. One must therefore keep in mind that not every expat journey is a success story.

The reason why he travelled to the Netherlands in the first place was because of his wife. She had moved abroad to a different European country a couple of years earlier because of her job. This makes their case particularly interesting in terms of analysing European identity. According to most of the academic literature, one could expect to find a strong pro-EU attitude in this diary. After all, he was well-educated, lived in another EU country and his life was touched frequently by the EU. These are the categories in which support for the EU is usually strongest. Once again, however, the author was the exception to the rule. While initially pro-EU, his attitude towards the EU continued to worsen as the time passes, until finally, he outright admitted his distaste for the EU. Although his personal circumstances may have played a role in this eventual outcome, this case is nevertheless useful to keep in mind. It namely shows the problems of trying to place people into certain categories.

Few sources provide such a deep insight in a person’s life as the diary. Close examination of treasures like this can therefore not only lead to new insights, but also to a reevaluation of the established ones. While this case certainly is a unique one, it nevertheless shows that not every expat story is one of success. Furthermore, belonging to a certain group does not mean one automatically has all the traits attributed to it by scientists. We should keep reservations like these in mind, especially when analysing societies and cultures. It does not make the task easier, but it does bring one closer to fully grasping the complexity of this world.

Written by: Jasper (Intern at the EAC from May to October 2017)

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The Paradox of History

September 20th 2017

Opening Up

The documents of the EAC allow one to access a world different from our own. If there is one lesson to be learnt from history, it is that mankind is anything but static. During the last hundred years, our way of life has been changing over and over again, making the twentieth century increasingly seem like a distant world as the years pass. And yet, amidst all this rapid change so much has stayed the same. In essence, most people still pursue the same goals as hundred years earlier: good education, a happy family and a well-paying job. Only the context in which they undertake this quest continues to alter at an accelerating speed.

A piece in the archive which perfectly illustrates this paradox is the homeschooling documents from a Dutch family, residing in Libya during the 1960s. While staying abroad, the children received homeschooling from their mother, for which the materials were supplied from The Netherlands. Their books, homework and reports are currently is possession of the archive. This provides an interesting look in the educational and cultural context of this decade.

One thing which is striking is the continuity in the curriculum when one compares it with the current Dutch education. It was, and still is, focused on Dutch, English and mathematics, while some space is reserved for subjects like geography and history. These kids, like nowadays, went to the all too familiar painful road of developing a proper handwriting, learning the correct spelling and trying to calculate with fractions. Given their grades, it is safe to say they succeeded in all of these tasks. So, while these Dutch expat children were living fifty years ago in Libya, they received the same basics in their education as their contemporary counterparts in The Netherlands.

At the same time, these documents also make clear that so much has changed since then. An example of this are the methods for mathematics. The clever tricks they were taught to solve the most complex calculation have now become unnecessary, because of the increased availability and capacities of electronic calculators. Also the layout of these books, which consists of pages filled with large amounts of text, would now probably be considered too ‘dull’ and ‘unappealing’ for Dutch children.

The exception to this rule, is their geography book, which contains numerous illustrations, tables and maps. But in this case, it is the content of the book that shows how much the world has changed since then. A look in this book reveals that in 1964-1965, for example, there were only 2.7 billion people in the world, less than half of the current population. A map on the next page furthermore shows a significant part of Africa being colonised by the European powers, as well as a Europe divided by the Iron Curtain. But perhaps most striking of all is the demographic section of this book. It namely contains an exercise in which children had to identify the different races in this world, and colour a world map in accordance which each race’s geographical location. While racism has certainly not disappeared since then, it would now be unthinkable to place such an exercise in a Dutch schoolbook.

Looking at these documents thus reveals how much the world has changed since these kids were studying in the 1960s. The political, demographic and technological shifts in the last fifty years have made much of their curriculum seem obsolete. However, they were still taught the same basic skills as kids nowadays. Dutch children still have to learn their languages and develop their mathematical skills, only with different methods and tools. So, in essence, while much has changed, much has changed the same. It is the materials in the archive which allows one to discover paradoxes in history like these. This way, looking at materials from the past can help one to make sense of the present.

Written by: Jasper (Intern at the EAC from May to October 2017)

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The EAC’s hidden gems

September 11th 2017

Coincidence.

One of the benefits of working at the EAC is having the opportunity to delve into the diverse materials this organisation is preserving. Items like letters, photos, circulars, invoices and memoirs: each of these documents tells a unique story of individuals who, because of varying circumstances and choices, spent a portion of their life abroad. Reading about their adventures, struggles, successes and setbacks can serve as a reminder of both the potential and the pitfalls of living a global life. Some cases may even go a step further. They can lead one to reconsider broader philosophical questions, like the role of ‘coincidence’ in life.

An example of such a ‘hidden treasure’ within the EAC is the story of a Dutch sailor stationed in Southeast Asia during the 1930s and 1940s. Having worked previously in Singapore, he was staying in Dutch East Indies when the Second World War in the Pacific erupted. When the Dutch colony was occupied by the Japanese in March 1942, he was captured and sent an internment camp in Cimahi. He would spent his remaining years there, until he succumbed to a disease, eight months before the end of the war.

The reason why we know so much about his case is because of his wife, who stayed in The Netherlands. Being separated from her husband during the entire course of the war, she started a search to find out what exactly happened to her husband during the war. To this end, she wrote letters to his fellow detainees, the camp’s pastor and his company, all of which in turn sent replies. This correspondence is currently preserved in the EAC. Reading these letters not only sheds some light on the experiences of Dutch prisoner in Japanese internment camps during the Second World War, but also on the seemingly random series of events and choices which led to this individual’s fate.

This is because, as it turned out, when the hostilities in the Pacific began, he returned to Singapore first, in order to wait for a reassignment to a ship. Coincidentally, his post became available on the same day that the Dutch consul issued an order for all Dutch nationals to evacuate to Java with a governmental vessel. This is because after that date, they could no longer take responsibility for further evacuations. Having befriended other Dutchmen in Singapore, he decided to take the second option, evacuating to Java together with them. This was the first step in the series of events which would eventually bring him to Cimahi, with his death as the sad conclusion of this tale.

Whether he would have feared better had he taken the other option is doubtful at best and unanswerable anyway. However, his story does stimulate to think about the individuals place within the larger structures. Although he had little control over the events of the war unfolding around him, his own choices nevertheless played a large role in determining the course of his life during the war. For most expats this is largely the same. Both factors beyond their control (sometimes even mere coincidence) and their own choices ultimately work together to write the unique tales of each their lives. Having the opportunity to read interesting stories like these, which may even lead to deeper insights, is what makes working at the EAC truly worthwhile.

Written by: Jasper (Intern at the EAC from May to October 2017)

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