“I didn’t know white people had ethnicities.”
Ironically, the woman who said this to me was pureblood Greek Orthodox. But she, like many outside of my West Michigan home, was surprised by my casual mentions of Dutch heritage: my last name, the Droste chocolate I got in a care package from my my mom, Sinter Klaas day traditions. It had never really occurred to me that my connection to my ancestral home was in any way unusual—my conscious life has taken place almost entirely within communities of other immigrants from the Netherlands. But my trips outside those communities—semesters off campus, my time in Egypt—have strengthened my appreciation for my family history. I like knowing where I come from. I like belonging to a people.
I’m currently in the Mother Country on a Mennonite Central Committee retreat, and my enthusiasm has been absolutely insufferable. The contrast to my current home in Cairo has only underscored my delight. Everything is lush and green and spotless. Streets are neatly bricked with lanes for bikes and pedestrians. Street side garbage cans are paired with recycling containers. Tall, good looking blondes cycle expertly along the canal. Even the sheep are clean and fluffy, and the horses are frisky and fat. It’s marvelous.
I’ve been consuming an odd sort of patriotism along with my stroopwaffels and hagel. Perhaps it is related to the way the legacies of the motherland have shaped my family’s culture and framed my temperament and aesthetic sensibilities. Maybe it’s the familiarity of Dutch foods, which evoke Christmases and slow Saturday mornings spent flipping poffertjes with a plastic fork. Maybe it’s just that the Netherlands makes sense to me in the way that Egypt does not, which means that my time here has been a literal breath of fresh air. I’m in a place in which I belong, in some abstract way, and here, unlike Cairo, almost everyone looks like me. (When making plans to meet up with friends, I almost told them to “look for the confused white girl,” an effective designation in Cairo. Then I got to Amsterdam Centraal, scanned the crowd, and suddenly remembered how hard it is to find other pale brunettes in a city of Caucasians.) Holland has been easy because people are more like me, which has me thinking again about the Body of Christ, and the hard work of diversity, and respecting other cultures when you celebrate your own.
I’m proud to be Dutch, and some days, I’m even proud to be American. At the same time, I am ever more aware of my poor responses to cultural difference, of the prejudices I carry, of my own love for power and tight grasp on the way I’ve always done things. I’m also learning that Christ requires more than tolerance. The best answer to my daily cultural dilemmas is, like most truth, somewhere in the messy middle of the tensions between Egyptian and Western traditions, between what is familiar and what feels strange, between what seems easy and what makes me uncomfortable. This is, of course, a provisional rather than pronounced answer. But again—I’ve found that the best responses often lie in the space between the liquid and the absolute.
It’s often difficult for me to appreciate Egyptian culture, society, worldview when it is so different from my own. I am prone to see that difference as negative, whether it is “worse” or not. This is a rather common struggle, I think, but an important one. I need clear vision to make sense of both where I come from and where I am, to see flaws and strengths of both situations, to see and evaluate both what is and what could be. So I pray, I guess. I want my love for my heritage to open me to the stories of other cultures and countries. Perhaps by knowing who I am, I can more graciously welcome others and come to know them. One has to start somewhere, and there is no shame in that.
There are ugly sides to my history. I don’t know the details of Dutch colonialism, discriminatory laws of the Netherlands then and now, nor the more particular sins of my great great grandparents. I know they were many. But they also made great pancakes and worked hard and prayed fervently and passed those things down to me, and my best answer, my best self, is found between acceptance and rejection of that story. The middle path is, perhaps, the hardest one. But it’s also the most honest and at its best the most gracious, and I learned those values from my Dutch family, too.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.