On Being an Outsider in Curacao

October 6, 2012 — 25 Comments

This is my second week here in Curacao, and I’m glad to report that things have been going pretty well so far. This go-round is actually my fourth time to come to the island this year. In the beginning, for the first few days, I was definitely in vacation mode. Sleeping, eating, playing with my 8 year old neighbor, and some beaching were all I wanted to do in order to de-tox the New York from my system. After a few days, however, it began to set in that I needed to switch off from vacation mode and turn to “I-actually-live-here-and-need-to-get-a-job” mode. And living here has been, and will prove to be, an interesting experience.

By the Fisherman’s Wharf in Wllemstad

I come to Curacao as an outsider in so many ways. Linguistically, I don’t speak much Dutch and I don’t speak Papamiento (the local language of Curacao, which is a mix of Dutch, Spanish, English and Portuguese). I can definitely get by in English here, but my inability to speak Dutch and Papiamento makes me feel like I have to contend with a double language barrier here. Despite the assurances of both Dutch and locals that English is sufficient to survive and get a job on the island, I suppose I’m looking to do more than just “survive” here. Most Dutch people speak English, and many are kind enough to switch their conversations to English when I am around, but I do admit I’m conscious of the fact that they are switching to accommodate me. But I am lucky that my Dutch boyfriend and his circle of friends have done an amazing job of making me feel welcome and have agreed to speak “Dinglish” to me so that I can start speaking nederlands little by little.

Culturally, I admit I had never really met a Dutch person before coming to Curacao this year. My experience with the Netherlands had be limited to countless KLM layovers at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport en-route to Ghana. I have probably been to Amsterdam   Schipol near a dozen times by now, but I was never adventurous enough to go explore the city. So oddly enough, my time in Curacao has been my introduction to Dutch culture, Caribbean-style. They love potatoes, mayonnaise on their french fries, being tall, efficiency, honesty, being VERY punctual, and cheese. Not necessarily in that order, of course. It is clear though, that there is a separation between the Dutch community and the local community. More on that later.

Curacao does not have a huge diaspora to the United States, so being here is the first time that I have been introduced to their culture. This is my first time really learning about Caribbean culture in general. That week long Carnival Cruise my family and I took to the Carribean when I was about 10 or so hardly counts as real “experience” in the Caribbean. I find the Caribbean to be under-reported in America, and even more so the Dutch Caribbean.

Now, there is of course the question of how I interact with the local people here. Even the words “local” vs. “native” is tricky. There are Dutch Europeans whose families have been here for generations. There are people from Colombia, Venezuela, Haiti, and Jamaica. The question of who is a yu di Korsou, (literally means a “child of Curacao” in Papamiento), or a true Curacaoan, is a bit of tricky question of identity.  Because really, the way I see it, whether they are the descendants of the African slaves brought by the Dutch, recent migrants from South America or other Caribbean islands, everyone here is from somewhere else. (The actual native Amerindian tribes that were on Curacao either migrated out, or were subdued by Europeans). For the most part, I see “local” as referring to non-white European inhabitants of the island. Despite my dark skin, people can immediately tell I’m foreign. Most people assume that I’m Jamaican. I don’t know why. It is true that not as many Americans visit the island. Maybe for people here, “English-speaking black foreigner” = Jamaican.

It’s difficult for me move between local and Dutch worlds here in Curacao. Despite the incredible diversity of peoples here in Curacao, there is a serious lack of interaction between the Dutch communities and non-white locals in my opinion. Lack of interaction contributes to a near absence of integration. The capital city of Willemstad is divided into two parts separated by the large natural harbor. One side is the Dutch side, of Punda, and Otrobanda, (which literally means “other side”) is where the locals live. There are Dutch friends of mine who have been here for years and cannot speak Papamiento, and who can count the number of local friends they have on one hand. I hear Dutch people saying that the locals are lazy, not professional, never on time, aren’t educated, and are ignorant of the world outside tiny Curacao. There is also a sentiment that anti-Dutch sentiment has increased on the island in last few years, and some say they are even afraid, as a white person, to go to certain areas. (Granted, I normally ask what they are afraid of, exactly. Well, of being attacked! “Really? Have there been reports of racially motivated attacks on Dutch people or something?” No. Not really. So then where is the fear coming from? I don’t know, that’s just what people say! The locals don’t like us and don’t want us here!) I’ve heard too many times, “They (locals) and their culture is just too different from ours. We cannot mix well, so we stay apart.”

Talking with some locals, of course there is the perspective that the Dutch people are arrogant, condescending, and racist. Locals here are accurately aware that numbers of Dutch people (as well as politicians in the Netherlands) see Curacao as a backwards banana republic headed by incompetent and corrupt politicians. Of course, not every Dutch person feels that way, and many live here and love the way of life and the culture. But locals seem to feel that the Dutch come here to make their money and live their island paradise lives without making any attempt to contribute to the long term human development of the locals on the island. There is a sense among locals that the Dutch refuse to acknowledge or recognize the economic and human exploitation of the past, and that those past exploitations and dependencies were, and still are, systemic. But there is a sense of increasing nationalism and an attempt to assert a Curacaoan identity apart from the Dutch that is here.

“Stop Dutch Apartheid” stickers in Willemstad.

Being black outsider isn’t such a bad thing.  As an outsider to both the locals and the Dutch, I suppose I take a bit of an observer role. But its almost like I can physically feel a deep rooted mistrust and tension between Dutch and local populations here. To me, it is obvious that there is a lack of cultural and physical spaces for meaningful discourse and dialogue between the Dutch and local people. It’s incredible, and a bit tragic that such hostilities and resentment can exist on such a small island, and judging from the impending elections here in Curacao, it is possible that things could get worse.

I will say, that many people find me to be interesting. Again, not many Americans come here, and I think that people, both local and Dutch, appreciate that I took such a risk to come here and learn about the island and about cultures totally different from mine. Plenty have told me that they are interested in my perspective as a non-Dutch and a non-local. I will definitely continue to share my thoughts here so, watch this space!

So far, so good in Curacao!

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25 responses to On Being an Outsider in Curacao

  1. 

    good read! good luck on your journey.

  2. 

    I enjoyed reading your blog, hope to read more soon because it is interesting to look at Curacao from your persepctive. keep up the good work.

  3. 

    first off ‘yu di Korsou’ i feel that can never be a dutch person..many persons come to this island and fall in love with it,then from a guess the want to make it home then they want to change all sorts of things and speak bad of the local who are the true owners of the land since slavery is over without realising that what they fell in love with or what made them actually stayed is not what they want differently but those things and system they came and meet.As an outsider aswell,i dont understand why so many dutch persons are so fronted about curacao,their culture,way of living,language,what they eat or how punctual they are,they should care less and spend more time in their land instead.

  4. 

    Thank you for THIS: …”But locals seem to feel that the Dutch come here to make their money and live their island paradise lives without making any attempt to contribute to the long term human development of the locals on the island. There is a sense among locals that the Dutch refuse to acknowledge or recognize the economic and human exploitation of the past, and that those past exploitations and dependencies were, and still are, systemic.”

    Dutch governmental decolonization has been failing since 1954 but Dutch economic and financial decolonization has never ever started. Hiring YDK (Yu di Korsou) and paying taxes is not enough. Ownership is what counts and brings real social change.

  5. 
    Kevin Chevalier May 4, 2013 at 12:31 PM

    Hi, my wife and I, and two small children are contemplating a move to Curacao. She has dual Canadian/Dutch citizenship and I have Canadian. She could work as soon as she finds a job and I am not sure but because I am her spouse I believe it would be possible for me to begin work immediately as well, but I am not sure. Now just to strangers from North American Civilization, is there any reason why you would advise against moving to Curacao? We are both essentially Canadians, my wife cannot speak Dutch anymore. Is there an inexpensive way to get to Venezuela or other places? A ferry or planes? We do like to travel and the island is small. We live in a small city now and prefer small communities. Thanks and I hope we can get your thoughts or advice.

  6. 

    Hi,

    I really enjoyed reading your post. I am also new to Curacao and speak english. I have learnt a little papiamento but not too much dutch as yet. I am finding it very difficult to find a job on the island that does not require me to speak Dutch. What was your experience like job hunting?

    Regards,
    Lissa

    • 

      Hi Lissa,

      Thanks for reaching out! Where are you from? Finding a job only speaking English was hard. I was lucky to find a job working for a small start-up doing social media work through Twitter, but yes, many jobs seem to want Dutch, English and maybe Papiamento. It made it hard for me as an American to figure things out. You can email me at karen.attiah@gmail.com with maybe a little more about your background and what you are looking for and I can see if I can help!

      Best,
      Karen

      • 

        Did you find anybody who taught Papiamentu? I am English and have just moved to the island and want to learn the language.

      • 

        Hi There! Check out Papiamundu on Penstraat. The lady is a little….”interesting”, but its a good way to start practing written and spoken Papiamentu if you can try to go at least once a week!

  7. 

    Hi Karren!

    How was the moving process for you? did you move with all of your house hold belongings? I know furniture and all is cheaper in the States than in Curacao. I’ve been there myself, and considering moving there as well. What tips advice would you give?

  8. 

    Hi Karen, I have a question.. I have been living on the island for some months now and its been difficult for me to make new friends. What would you recommend me to do to change that? I am not the type of person who would approach someone at a bar or club. What did u do to make friends while you were on the island? Greetings.

  9. 

    Hi Karen, I recently moved to Curacao myself. I am looking to make new friends here. What would u recommend me to do? Greetings, Maria

  10. 

    Greetings!

    I enjoyed reading your blog; I’ve learned so much. Thank you kindly. I will be traveling to Curaçao in November to present at a conference, and I’m interested in language barriers there between those who speak Dutch versus those who speak Papamiento. In the USA there’s a debate regarding speaking Wnglush versus Ebonics, and unfortunately many African Americans continue to be stereotyped negatively in the USA when we speak Ebonics as opposed to standard English. Is our Evonics debate similar to the debate there with placing hierarchies on language? Thank you kindly. I look forward to hearing back from you.

    Cheers!

    Dr. Akassi

  11. 

    I so enjoyed reading your blog. I too will be traveling to Curacao with my partner from Dallas, TX in November, and look forward to the culture, beautiful scenery, and people of the island. What an interesting diversity and history. I hope that you are well living there and that your adventure has proven to be positive in your life.

  12. 

    thanks for posting! Can you give some recommendations about what places to see or visit would give a true local perspective on Curacao. We are renting a room at the moment and plan to do some exploring for about one week here in Curacao!

    • 

      Hello! I hope I’m not too late with my comment! Do go to Plasa Bieu for local food. Also, Playa grote knip, is one of my favorite beaches on the island. I would also check out the island’s “Blue Room”!

      • 

        I really enjoyed your blog. I am Nigerian and a u.s citizen by birth. I am contemplating moving to curacao for a couple of years with my family for my medical education. do you know anything about their elementary education? and how did you move? was it when. you get to the island you went to their embassy for a resident visa? Please reply

  13. 

    Hey I’m looking at moving there as well as an black American. Do you mind if I add you on facebook to get your feedback or twitter

  14. 

    i have a couple of questions, I want to live in curaçao and I want to know what did you do to get work permit and who sponsor or what company are hiring US citizens in curaçao, thanks and I love your forum!!!

  15. 

    Awesome post. You really hit the nail on the head with this one. Everything you said is exactly what I felt and saw when was living on the island for a very short while. I’m African American, so during my 6 months there, I fit in just fine. As far as my interactions with the Dutch, at times, yes some were very condescending…until they noticed I was American. In those few times, two things either happened: they would change their tone and turn super nice, or change tone and walk away like nothing happened. But overall, everybody on the island was just real chill.

  16. 

    Hello Karen.
    I just read this, and it’s quite amazing. I’ve been at Curacao two times the last 2 years, and I’m considering to move to the island, but I’m really concerned about getting a job, because I don’t speak Dutch or Papiamento. How did you find your job? And how long did it take?
    Regards,
    Sofie

  17. 

    HI Karen! Loved your blog! I had questions regarding income taxes etc. You think I can communicate with you over email?

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