For centuries, if not millennia, all the various people have been struggling to live together on this planet. Unfortunately, this has often result in violent conflicts, with different ideological, ethnic or religious groups clashing over power, resources or territory. A quick look at the news sadly reveals that this still continues today. Sometimes, one cannot help but wonder whether a peaceful world, with all the people living in harmony together, is indeed a utopia, forever beyond our reach.
At times like these, it can be surprisingly helpful to delve into the adventures of expats in the past. They moved to far-away countries, thereby often coming into contact with societies and cultures completely different from their own. As the documents of the EAC demonstrate, this can result in multicultural friendships, creating some understanding, and even appreciation, for the other. A cynical person might describe this as a drop in the ocean: touching but insignificant. While the experiences of expats alone are of course insufficient to end century-old conflicts, at the very least their stories can add nuance to some of the more pessimistic conclusions regarding both the past and the future.
While going through the materials of the EAC, a particularly interesting letter regarding this topic popped up. It is written by a Dutchman in the mid-2000s, who looks back on his stay in Indonesia fifty years earlier. Although the large time gap may have affected his recollection of his experiences, it nevertheless offers an interesting perspective on this part of our history. This is because he moved to the country during unusually hectic times. The political unrest of this period did, however, not prevent him from having (in his own words) a ‘pleasant time’ abroad.
In this specific case, it was perhaps the Dutch expat’s own past which influenced his attitude towards the Indonesians. Being in his mid-twenties when Germany invaded The Netherlands in 1940, he firsthand experienced what it was like to be occupied by a foreign power. After the war ended, he was selected for an assignment in Indonesia, to where he moved in 1948. During this period, the Indonesian War of Independence was still raging through the country, as the result of the Indonesian proclamation of independence and the subsequent attempt by the Dutch government to reclaim its former colony.
Predictably, this situation also had a great impact on this expat’s stay abroad. For example, and his coworkers nevertheless had to patrol their neighbourhood armed with rifles each night, because of the occurring violence. This was not only between the Dutch and the Indonesians, but also between Buginese and Timorese workers, whose clashes often resulted in fatalities. Fortunately, these tensions relaxed when the war ended, allowing him to stay for another ten years. His leave was, however, not on a voluntary base. It was namely the result of the policy of economic nationalism from President Sukarno, which included the nationalisation of hundreds of Dutch companies and the expulsion of thousands of Dutch citizens.
One might expect that all of this have left a negative and bitter impression of Indonesia in the mind of this expat. In fact, it is quite the contrary. In his letter, his tone is rather conciliatory, expressing understanding and sympathy for the Indonesians, and applauding the fact that the Dutch-Indonesian relations have improved since the 1950s. While he does acknowledge some anti-Dutch sentiments among the local population during this period, this has not withheld him from developing good relationships with a number of Indonesians. For example, he emphasises the pleasant cooperation with his Indonesian colleagues in the local church council and his close bond with his domestic workers.
Despite the violent situation and the political tensions, this expat managed to have a ‘good time’ in Indonesia, even developing sympathy and understanding for the local population in the process. If there is a lesson to be learnt from this document, it is that even in times of conflict, it is possible to empathise with the ‘other.’ This does not necessarily have to result in sympathy, but understanding another’s point of view is the first step in reaching a truly sustainable solution. Another reason to delve into other people’s life stories.
Written by: Jasper (Intern at the EAC from May to October 2017)
Culture Shock in a Globalised World
It is evident that the process of globalisation is now affecting even the most remote parts of this planet. Because of the advancements in transportation and communication technologies, the world is becoming an increasingly smaller place. Fifty years ago, it could take days to send a letter from The Hague to Amsterdam. Nowadays, everyone can send messages from The Netherlands to thousands of people all around the world in a couple of seconds. Over the last two hundred years, horse-drawn carriages and sailing ships have been replaced by cars, planes and diesel-powered bulk carriers. This has enabled both people and goods to travel relatively fast and cheaply to virtually every corner of this planet, thereby opening up places formerly considered inaccessible.
While this process has certainly brought many benefits to the world population, like the rapid spread of technological and medical advancements, it has also been criticised, for a number of reasons. Aside from complaints about income inequality or environmental degradation, one of the criticism levelled against globalisation involves the loss of culture. This is because, along with people and goods, ideas and values also travel around the world. People around the world now more and more wear the same cloths, watch the same shows and eat the same foods. By some critics, this has been described as the spread of a Westernised consumer culture, which may threaten the local cultures. In bringing more people together, globalisation might therefor harm the cultural diversity on this planet.
Examining the EAC’s collection, however, adds some nuance to this pessimistic picture. It namely contains numerous documents on people who moved abroad recently, which shows that experiencing a culture shock in the twenty-first century is still very much possible. A fine example of this is a printed out blog, written by a Dutch doctor. After having occupied several posts in the medical sector in The Netherlands, his next step in life was to move to Mongolia, in order to advise the management of a local hospital. While he was able to keep his blog updated from such a remote place in the world (another sign of the spread of communication technologies), he quickly ran into the cultural differences between his old and his new home. The most obvious example of this are the frequent stories and photos of the local celebrations, modes of dress and the traditional Mongolian homes (the gers). It would seem that there is still room for amazement nowadays.
On a more practical level, he was also struck by the differences in their bureaucracy and their work-ethic while working at the hospital. Mongolia had been under the influence of the Soviet-Union for almost seventy years. The effects of this, according to the author, were still very visible in the attitudes of their civil-servants. Blindly following large amounts of rules, without showing much initiative not only prevailed among them, but also among other groups of the population. When he became involved in a charity project for renovating a local school, it turned out that the attitude of the local construction workers towards the customer differed significantly form that of their colleagues in The Netherlands. Apparently, the customer is not always king in Mongolia. The distinct historical development of both nations thus became very apparent in the experiences of this expat.
While this single story is obviously not enough to debunk the earlier criticisms of globalisation, it nevertheless shows that cultural differences currently still very much exist. Moving to remote, foreign places can amaze, puzzle and shock expats these days, despite the spread of goods and ideas around the world during the previous decades. This is another thing which makes these documents so valuable. They provide firsthand experiences of moving abroad, getting into contact with another culture and the effects of the cultural differences. Studying cases like this namely allow one to use their experiences to enhance our knowledge, create new theories or debunk others. Thus, all the more reason to preserve them.
Written by: Jasper (Intern at the EAC from May to October 2017)