I Am Not Your Juxtaposition

In Amsterdam, I found myself in the courtyard of a quiet university building while exploring the city. Its brick walls were unremarkable, but as I looked up at the windows I noticed a familiar insignia welded onto the facade: VOC, the Dutch abbreviation for the East India Trading Company, spelled out in bent iron. Standing there, in what used to be that Company’s headquarters, I felt like a ghost.

There aren’t enough physical remnants of Taiwan’s colonization to be evidential. Manifestations of our history don’t take shape as much as they remain invisible, a phantom weight even after direct colonial pressures ended. We don’t have big, stately buildings left, no marks left in metal. While they remind themselves of their “golden” age, our oppression is forgotten. In this absence, I remember.

I remember as I travel through Europe, as I study its art and its culture. I remember even as I stand in awe of a towering cathedral, even as I admire the brushwork of a masterful painting. I remind myself that the things we are taught to find beautiful, impressive, and worthy of praise arose in all their glory from a society that could afford to produce them by building itself off the oppression of other people and places.           

The echoes that resonate today do not allow me the privilege of forgetting. I remind myself that we are taught to find these things beautiful and impressive and worthy of praise; they have been “teaching” us this for centuries. So even as I am filled with wonder and appreciation as I explore this part of the world, I cannot let myself forget that so much of what I am experiencing is impossible to separate from the exploitation of other societies and cultures, whose own ability to flourish was cut short. I cannot forget that my people were treated as commodities. We were not considered people at all.        

People stare at me as I walk down the street, and my friendly greetings are commonly met with silence as the Dutch locals I cross paths with openly watch. They blink in my face without registering the words I utter and I feel more like an artifact in a museum than a person living and breathing and walking the earth like everyone else. In those moments I feel a growing disconnect, as if I am becoming something separate from them. Some thing, not someone. My differences dehumanize me.

I’m Asian, and my experience with Europe has been shaped by this simple fact. No colonial history is the same, and the positions of Asia and Europe relative to each other have produced unique tensions. Edward Said’s book Orientalism, claims that the Orient, or Asia as it was understood by its colonizers, was imagined, produced, and tangibly constructed by European powers. Orientalism, distinct from the actual reality of what is Asian or Middle Eastern, represents a separate concept—a romanticized interpretation based on contrasts. Said argues that Europe produced ideas of “the Orient” as “one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other.” It became a tool for differentiation, an aid in culturally defining and reinforcing the West as opposed to the East.

Remnants of these systems continue to have social effects within cultural landscapes. Colonized people became understood in the Eurocentric context as creatures to be studied, as curiosities and as objects. Until 1940, “human zoos” were still an attraction across Europe, displaying people from countries that were colonized. Amsterdam and Nijmegen are among the Dutch cities that put Indonesian and Surinamese people and artifacts on public display as spectacle. The legacy of this cultural consciousness has made way for the post-colonial version of yellow fever, for a European fascination with Asia but never a respectful appreciation that equates us to each other without disparity. Our objectification persists.

A complicated colonial history exists within every interaction and experience I have in the Netherlands. A complicated colonial history exists within me, too; I am the child of these legacies and I am distinctly aware of my burdens. I refuse myself the privilege of ignorant appreciation of the “glorious” European civilization laid out before me. I refuse the story Europe tells of itself because I refuse the story it has imposed upon me.

I am Asian, and I am in Europe. But I am not a fetish. I am not an object for observation, something for you to stare at. My life, and the culture of my country and its people is not something for you to exoticize and dehumanize in the same way the Dutch did when they used us to build their empires. I do not exist as your juxtaposition. This narrative is mine. Consider it a re-orientation.

Kaitlin Harness
Kaitlin Harness is currently a sophomore at Emerson College in Boston, where she is studying Media Arts Production in hopes of one day working to make and produce films. In addition to her interest in media, Kaitlin also enjoys writing poems in her notes app, giving her friends handpoked tattoos, and expanding her collection of knives. She has attended MCWC for the past two years and is honored for this chance to be a part ofNoyo Review.