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.
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.
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!