the most shocking culture shock

(so far)

There are tons of things to adapt to about living in Ghent/Belgium/Europe that are different from the US or Kyrgyzstan. Little things, like discovering that my favorite mascara costs 11 Euros here (compared to $5-6 in the US) and taking the minuscule step of buying store-brand make-up from a chain I’ve never heard of. Bishkek didn’t have chains, at least, not ones that sold their own brand of make-up, so I always just stocked up in the States. Obviously, this is trivial change in my routine.

But then there’s Zwarte Piet, and I’m pretty conflicted about him and this tradition. (Why couldn’t they just have Krampus instead?)

Zwarte Piet is Sinterklaas’s sidekick. Sinterklaas gives presents to good kids (or oranges?) and Zwarte Piet takes the bad ones and puts them in a sack. Or he doesn’t. I really can’t figure out this whole thing. Zwarte Piet is zwarte (Dutch for “black”) because he came down the chimney… or because he’s a Moorish person from Spain. He’s naughty or he’s mischievous or he’s playful.

I don’t know the details. I’ve been in a few discussions about him with local Gentians, and it very much reminds me of the discussion of bridenapping in Kyrgyzstan (not the action itself, duh, let’s not even go down that road). There’s a lot of talk about tradition and culture and misinterpretation and “We don’t mean it like that” and “You don’t get it because you’re not from here,” etc. The United Nations has even made statements about their disapproval of the tradition, calling for the Netherlands (and Belgium, I’m assuming) to just stop the whole St Nicholas tradition.

Darwin got to visit Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet a few weeks ago. Umm, he was curious.

Besides the obvious and broad questions and concerns I have about Zwarte Piet (is it racist? how does that impact the tradition? what’s a non-offensive solution? are people being too politically correct?), what am I personally supposed to do? I thought about hiding this picture. I’ve told some of my friends here in Ghent that in the US, we just don’t do blackface… ever. It’s a big deal. Then the conversation takes a turn like, “Yeah, but we don’t mean it like that though.”

But Darwin will grow up here, Sinterklaas will come every year with his horse (what) to take the beer and carrots (what what) and leave gifts in his shoe (what what what), and his classmates and friends will no doubt enthusiastically want pictures with Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet and watch when they arrive on a boat from Spain (whaaaat?). I guess this is part of being an expat, raising a child in a culture that’s different from my own; I get to grapple with confusing questions and situations where there is probably no easy solution.

4 replies on “the most shocking culture shock”

  1. Oh wow. I’d be very uncomfortable with that. It isn’t just the blackface. I think I’m even more uncomfortable with the fact that a dark person is being associated with bad. It also seems rather inaccurate as far as a Moorish person from Spain, arriving on a boat? A boatload of NO.

    However, I can see how it is a difficult thing to explain to people who see it as their tradition, so I see the dilemma.

    1. Yeah, there’s so much of this that I don’t understand. I wonder what Spain thinks of the tradition? It’s all very strange and confusing.

  2. I first came across Black Peter when we visited Rob’s family in the Netherlands over Christmas – I reacted in exactly the same way. We both kept giving each other side eyes, going “is this… really allowed?!” We asked for clarification, and were told (with a completely straight face) that Peter is black from the chimneys, and it helps to make him ‘scary.’

    I wish they’d get rid of the Zwarte and just have ‘Peter,’ but I guess that’s a long way off. I see some interesting discussions with Darwin in your future! x

    1. I read somewhere that the actor who plays the character on the big Christmas TV show in the Netherlands insisted on just being called Piet, so that’s something. He’s still black though…

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