Last week, my daughter’s school held an information evening for the parents of rising high schoolers to explain how the next four years of course scheduling will work. Having already sent one child through the same school, I remembered enough from her older brother’s time there to know the process is long, and way more complicated than it seems. The Dutchman and I decided a refresher course wouldn’t be a bad idea.
After the presentation, when the time came for Q & A, a frizzy-haired woman a few rows up raised her hand. “My daughter is very talented in the visual arts, and I’m worried her schedule may lean a little too heavy in that direction.”
The Dutchman and I exchanged a look. Was there a question in there somewhere? The Principal handled her non-question like a pro.
A few moments later, her hand jutted into the air again. “Is there any way my daughter can exempt from the 9th and 10th grade English courses and go straight into the upper levels and APs?”
The Dutchman and I lifted a brow. Talented and brilliant, wow.
By now, people around us were exchanging looks, as well. I doubt any of them were surprised when the woman took the floor yet again.
“How do I go about getting my daughter in AP statistics her freshman year?” she said. “Because blah-blah-blah-blah-blah…”
This was the moment I stopped listening, and began wishing they served wine at these things. Honestly, lady with the frizzy hair, is your daughter truly that amazing or are you just trying to impress us? Because right now I’m kinda the opposite of impressed. I’m kinda feeling sorry for you both.
So let me tell you a little about my daughter. My daughter likes to paint and draw and sculpt, too, and some of her stuff isn’t half bad. My daughter is a voracious reader, but only if Dance Moms isn’t on TV and none of her friends are on Facebook. My daughter tolerates math and science but just barely, and thank God for her tutor because I’m not a big fan of those subjects, either. The grades my daughter brings home are perfectly adequate.
But she’s smart and funny and talented and pretty and kind. She’s well-adjusted and well-rounded. She sings, loudly and almost always on key, in the car and in the shower, and she can spike a mean volleyball. But most importantly, she’s happy.
And isn’t that what we should be bragging about?
Though I loved my years in the Netherlands, I never much liked being called an expatriate. Tax benefits aside, for me the word always carried a negative connotation, one of exiled, expelled patriots, as if by picking up and moving to another country, I was somehow less of an American.
If anything, the opposite was true. Most expats will tell you an experience abroad only heightens their feelings of nationalism. There’s nothing like being a stranger in a strange land to make you feel connected to the place you left behind.
My first few months in the Netherlands were confusing and intimidating and exhausting. The loneliness was brutal, the pangs of homesickness even worse. I missed my family and my friends and my comfortable, air-conditioned existence. I missed my car and big gulps and skyscrapers and walk-ins welcome. I didn’t just feel American, I felt uber-American, and very out of place in Holland.
But as the months turned into years and the years into a decade and more, I also became part Dutch, leaning to love the language, the culture, the people. Some of my favorite memories happened there. Some of my favorite people still live there. It took a long time and an enormous effort to put down roots in Dutch soil, but then suddenly, without my even noticing, they took hold and became firmly entrenched. There to stay, even if I’m not.
So what does that make me now? A Dutch expat? Maybe. Because when I heard the news that on April 30th Queen Beatrix will be passing the crown down to her son Willem Alexander, my reaction was to check ticket prices. The Netherlands hasn’t crowned a king in over a century, and the Dutch are already getting excited for this one. Especially considering this beer-loving future king earned the nickname “Prince Pils” in college. What a party his coronation will be!
And like any good Dutch expat, I won’t want to miss it.
Appropriate, I remember thinking, for the worlds largest drama queen.
But after preaching to my kids that I don’t care what their passion is as long as they find it, I couldn’t say no. When Isabella came to me with hers, I had to put up or shut up, as they say. So I did a little research, found a local group about to hold tryouts, and signed her up. Two weeks and a couple hundred dollars later, it was a done deal. Isabella had snagged a part in MZ Stageworks‘ rendition of Aladdin.
That first musical, she was cast in the chorus. In the next chorus, too, as well as the next one and the next one. Still, even without lines or solos, she was determined to keep trying. Even though she watched new kids come in and get better parts. Even though she looked like she felt, especially in the beginning, incredibly uncomfortable and nervous up there on the stage. She simply refused to quit.
Much of her determination, I have to say, is because of the fabulous MZ staff. Miss Merrideth and her colleagues are so incredibly loving and encouraging, they turn what is so often a competitive and catty profession into a positive experience for these kids.
But my daughter is also a Swaak, which means when she sinks her teeth into something, you might want to back up. If you get in her way, things for you could get dicey.
This past December, though, Isabella surprised me. It wasn’t that she got a big part, or that she walked onto that stage and owned it. For me, the surprise came as soon as she opened her mouth and belted out her first line. The girl can sing. The girl can sing. Who knew? Apparently, not her mother.
But this mother has never been more proud.
There are few Dutch traditions more debated, and more fiercely protected, than the celebration of Sinterklaas. The controversy has nothing to do with the jolly man in the red suit and white beard, but rather around his entourage, a slew of colorful guys named Zwarte Piet (Black Pete).
There are as many tales of their origins as there are Pieten. Ethiopian orphans who were saved from slavery by Sinterklaas, chimney sweeps with an aversion to soap and water, Moors who are Sint’s friends and helpers. Whatever story you choose to believe, in real life the Pieten are often Dutch (read, white) natives who paint their faces black, don a curly wig, and carry a switch.
Here we go, y’all! It’s the annual Zwarte Piet debate.
In the pro-Piet camp are the Dutch, who are beyond passionate when they declare Piet to be an innocent, festive tradition and an essential part of their culture. Piet is a lovable fairytale figure, more clown than curmudgeon, and is Sint’s friend, not his slave. He makes kids laugh and passes out candy. What could possibly be wrong with that?
On the other side is pretty much the rest of the planet. Blackface, they claim, has no place in any culture, neither as historical context nor source of entertainment, and Piet is a blatantly racist disgrace. And this from a culture that claims itself to be so modern and progressive?
Honestly, I get both arguments.
My kids and I are Americans. We live in the birthplace of the civil rights movement, and we have lots of black friends. No matter how much my Dutch friends and family value their traditions, I can’t come up with a single argument to defend Piet as anything other than politically incorrect.
But my kids are also half Dutch, and our family lived there during their prime Sint-believing years. For three weeks a year, Piet is literally everywhere — in every store, at every school, on every street corner — and we couldn’t have avoided him if we’d tried. Which we didn’t, by the way. My kids adored Piet, and quite frankly, so did I. It’s hard not to adore someone who’s singing and dancing and handing out free candy.
Each year, the media spreads more images of Zwarte Piet in real time around the globe, and each year, the protests in and outside the Netherlands increase in both volume and vehemence. If you ask me, Zwarte Piet’s days are numbered.
And when he fades from the Dutch streets into the history books, I know it will be a good thing. But I also know I will be more than a tiny bit nostalgic.