During last October I visited an exhibition, presented within a project of “Open Source Government” called “Ideology Meets Implementation”. In this context I took part in an interactive artwork created by Pendar Nabipour, an Iranian artist, living and working in the Netherlands. As presented in the attached picture, visitors were asked, at the entrance, to choose between acceding the place as either expats or migrants. Instinctively I’ve chosen the “expat” gate, without questioning my choice. Later on, while talking with the artist, I understood that the big majority of visitors emphatically identified themselves with the migrants. The experience made me feel uncomfortable and it stirred an inner debate. Why did I so confidently choose the expat identity? After some deliberate reflection, I began to understand why.
I’ve reflexively chosen expat because I’m a Romanian and, as Romanian, I carry the fear of being discriminated or facing prejudices. In front of that symbolic border, I’ve subconsciously ran away from a potential negative, collective, perception. While personally I have never encountered direct discrimination, for a long time, media around West of Europe had a very inflammatory coverage of Romania and of workers coming from my country. Despite Romania being a Member of the European Union(“EU”) and my fellow citizens, as EU citizens, having the right to work in any of the countries forming the Union(fully since 2014), we were called migrants, more precisely migrants ready to invade different national, labour, markets. This attitude made us feel stepped on primarily because a “migrant” is defined according to the EU law, as a citizen of a country outside EU . For Romanians this confusion was painful especially because we had to face it right after our accession to the EU, after the long process of preparations, when we were eager to enjoy the perks of what we thought it was our well-deserved reward.
In this context I’ve become, like many other fellow Romanians, defensive and I’ve gradually taken up an alternative identity, a cosmopolitan one, with an larger dimension, namely that of citizen of European Union. For me such an identity equalled the freedom of movement, but it also gave me the feeling of belonging to an wider community of those who study abroad, work abroad, travelled, was mobile and existed in a transnational environment.
However, the moment I’ve settled down in the Netherlands, where the big majority of the population still perceives “EU citizenship” as a very conceptual notion, I came to realize that at “national level” society is still divided between nationals and foreigners. Enjoying my residence came however smoothly. Moreover, after learning Dutch I was not only able to integrate, but to also better understand the local culture. Today I don’t really feel as a foreigner, but neither as a Dutch. Netherlands is my adopted homeland and I’m just a Romanian, married with a Dutch citizen and a mother for our little girl, who happens to have a Dutch citizenship. We do live in a suburb of Amsterdam, known as “the expat’s heaven” and we are accordingly surrounded by people having very diverse backgrounds. Here people communicate in English alongside Dutch and kids usually speak more than two languages. There is a syncretism of cultures, but also a strong appetence for experiencing different cultures, including the local one.
What defines us and people around us is an element of transnationality, but also unpredictability. We love the Netherlands, and we would love our daughter to absorb the Dutch identity and culture, but we could very much end up living in a totally different corner of this Planet. We developed an emotional bond to all the countries we have lived in or visited. And exactly because of this bond, we don’t label our identity, but we also don’t know anymore which country to call “home”. Therefore we don’t perceive our identity as fixed, but fluid, nomadic. We believe in a world where human mobility is a fundamental right, protected universally. In the end we are all “native foreigners”, aren’t we?
Ps. If it happens to be in Amsterdam in the coming months, please go and visit the exhibition “I am a native foreigner” at the Stedelijk Museum