After two weeks of devouring all the bread in Paris with my mother, a three and a half-hour train ride packed with a screaming baby (not me), and two definitely-overweight-but-the-ground-staff-let-me-pass suitcases in hand, I arrived at Amsterdam’s Central Station on August 11th, 2018.
What hit me first was not the canal spectacle or the bustling streets; instead, it was the shocking, awful coldness that didn’t even bother to acknowledge the few layers of clothing I had on. I quickly abandoned all train of thought, as well as, I’m ashamed to admit, my mother, who’d been trailing behind with another two of our overweight suitcases.
We pushed through the crowd, accompanied by the deafening sound of our suitcases rolling against the cobblestone road. What was supposed to be a 6-minute walk to the hotel from the train station became a 15-minute battle of trying to cross the street whilst looking out for pickpockets and dodging bikes coming left and right.
As we made the final stretch to the hotel, we found ourselves between a gay sauna and a genital piercing shop, a scene that made my conservative mother let out a peal of light laughter in disbelief of what she had let me get myself into.
At night, as we emerged out of our hotel room to scout for food, we walked over to Amsterdam’s own Chinatown, Zeedijk, to fulfill our Chinese food cravings that we’d neglected in favor of Parisian croque monsieur and coq au vin for the past few weeks.
We shoved ourselves into a hole-in-the-wall diner and ordered familiar dishes off of the menu. While we expected a basket of hot steamy soup dumplings, we were greeted with a plate of clumped, dried up, flaccid dumplings. We looked around the restaurant and all the Dutch locals seem to enjoy them, so we quickly swallowed the dumplings alongside our particular standards for dumplings.
After a few days, as my orientation week was due to begin, my mother left. I arrived at school alone feeling a bit out of place, despite advertising itself as a diverse environment, I could not spot many diverse faces on campus.
When I met up with my orientation group and made small talk with others, I was hit with the loaded questions of “How do you speak English if you’re Taiwanese?” and “Do you eat dogs in China?” and the back-handed compliments of “Your English is very good for an Asian person” and “You don’t look that Asian”. Even though they were presumptuous at first, they quickly explained that they haven’t seen Asian faces around growing up and didn’t know what to expect.
I’ll be the first to admit that it was a cultural shock for them. I was quickly taken back by the Dutch directness - which can definitely be seen as rudeness at times. However, the questions and doubts marked the beginning of what will be a long road of assumptions based on my ethnicity I will soon experience. Whenever these arise, sometimes alongside with the request of “Can you give me the ‘chink’ pass?”.
I find myself staying silent when people are criticizing international students for taking up space (my school takes in students on a rolling basis, under Numerus clausus) and harassing Asian students over the stereotypes of affluence and ego. I didn’t want to speak up, knowing that it would leave me excluded from the majority and be pitted against.
I felt confused and upset, mostly at myself, and for the longest time, blamed myself for the decision to come to Amsterdam. I didn’t feel like myself anymore, I felt like a token Asian friend in a sitcom that desperately needed a laugh track.
I felt alone. In the beginning, when I did manage to make some friends, I didn’t feel like I could truly be a part of them. Whenever I was with them, I felt like I was playing a role, and downplaying my Asianness in order to be liked.
That lasted longer than it should have.
When I went back to Taipei for winter break, I found myself stuttering and slipping at every word and sentence, getting lost on the transit systems and lagging behind on cultural and political references. I didn’t even know our own mayor had a mumble rap viral hit.
I was in between a rock and a hard place, with no sense of belonging. However lonely it could be, it had made sense to feel out of place in Amsterdam: I was a newcomer, an outsider, and from the other side of the world with a vastly different culture. I thought my trip home would be a chance to bring me some much-needed clarity, away from what was hurting me by making me compromise who I am.
Feeling out of place in Taipei, the place that made me who I am, it was like pouring salt on my open wound. I couldn’t find the same security I’d felt growing up there. In my heart, I knew it was just because I haven’t been home in a while, but it felt like something much more than that.
It was less about my surroundings, and more about how I reacted and adapted to them. At the root of it all, I realized, what drove such staggering loneliness in places both familiar and not, was that I had lost touch with myself.
Fast-forwarding to 7 days later, when I had to go back to Amsterdam, I felt reluctant and miserable at the thought of another two and a half years there.
I knew it wasn’t fair to dread Amsterdam. I loved everything else, but I felt like the inability to enjoy the city was holding me back. I wanted to love the city and what it has to offer but I had surrounded myself with people who were tarnishing the city for me for too long.
Although I struggled at first, I began reaching out to people I’d seen around in lectures - especially international students, knowing that they may be feeling the same way I do.
I embraced my homesickness, I went to get boba almost every day, filling up my boba stamp cards and befriending some like-minded individuals who were homesick too. Together, we found comfort in little things, like our daily dose of boba. But even now, I still find myself struggling with my identity from time to time. Earlier this year, I found myself attending the local Taiwanese church’s fellowship, learning more about my roots and seeing how they managed to transplant in and adapt to Amsterdam.
Losing the familiarity of home propelled me to see the importance of my own ability to create a home. I spent the majority of my high school years wanting to leave and move as far as I could, and when I did, it was everything I didn’t want. In high school, I felt like I wasn’t myself, and envisioned college as the only chance I would have to truly be myself. When I finally made it to college, I felt like being myself was wrong, being Asian was wrong, and worse, I was wrong to think I could call this city my home.
Despite the circumstances, I push myself to work twice as hard to prove that I deserve to be here. I work to thrive in my school, work, and my personal life, to fight against prejudices against me and my ethnicity. Even though it came off as defensive at first, my friends in Amsterdam were vocal about their understanding and appreciation of me and never hesitated to offer support.
I spent a lot of time with my head down, avoiding conflict and keeping quiet to fit in, but I wasn’t happy. I only became truly happy with myself and who I was when I built up the courage to define who I was and where I belonged, on my own terms.
I reclaimed my Asianness in Amsterdam, and as I found my way around the city, I found myself too.