Featured

Stuck in time: assumptions and change within ideological narratives

We live in sensitive times. It’s ironic to think that the most prominent voices on the internet promote inclusivity for all, yet having one controversial opinion means you can no longer participate. And it doesn’t even matter if that opinion was said ten years ago. It doesn’t even matter that things have changed significantly over the past ten years. One strike and you’re out. And there are no second chances.

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”

― Isaac Asimov

Based on: Dutch PM deems “Black Pete” tradition racist & Jenna Marbles quits YouTube & Is free speech under threat from cancel culture?

Sarah

Navigate
Changes in time: Associating Language
Changes in time: Associating Human Behavior
The times they are a-changing
Jenna Marbles & Dutch PM Mark Rutte – what do they have in common?

We make assumptions every day. A lot of it is an automated response to our daily routine lives. Like how you assume the bus is on time, or assume your food delivery arrives at your requested destination. But when it comes to people, assumptions can potentially be dangerous. In his book Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, author Malcolm Gladwell discusses how our emotions and worldview lead to assumptions about people’s intentions, which often could not be further from the truth. He writes:

“When it comes to judgments about our own character and behavior, we are willing to entertain all manner of complexity, and suddenly, when it comes to making those same judgments about others, we are depressingly simplistic.”

When it comes to human behavior, it seems to me like we often assume because we cannot accept change: we get mad at the driver if the bus isn’t on time, we’re upset if our favorite artists don’t make the exact same music they did 10 years ago, and we’re devastated after a sudden break-up. We assume people behave and think the same, forever.

YouTube star Jenna Marbles recently quit YouTube. She was condemned for racist content she made in the past. Condemnation to such a degree that she felt so overwhelmed, she no longer felt comfortable creating. At the same time, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte acknowledged that the tradition of “Black Pete” will change, after 7 years of resistance. Rutte is seen as fickle and weak for changing his opinions…… Partly inspired by Gladwell’s book, I have some ideas on reasons why we’re so upset when it comes to people talking about racism (or other narratives for that matter, like feminism or sexism, but we’ll stick with racism, because that’s a hot topic). What do Jenna Marbles and Mark Rutte have in common? The answer has to do with our our assumptions, and our inability to understand and accept change.

Changes in time I: Associating Language

So what do assumptions and our inability to accept change have to do with each other? Well, it’s common sense that times change. From our understanding of the world, the language we use, to the way we interact with each other; technology, science, and media developments (among other things) keep altering our existence. Yet somehow it isn’t common practice to embrace that change. We have a hard time diverting from our beliefs, and as we grow older, we seem to lack the ability to acknowledge things are changing all around is, all the time.

Look at the meaning of words for example: just like the many waves of feminism, the meaning of- and language used to describe racism changed significantly over time, and we often go by our own personal connotations to the word. For some, it still refers to slavery during the 1900s. For some it refers to the political construct only. To others it includes individuals using racial slurs. Some see race through the lens of religion. And some groups include intersectionality and micro-aggressions into the mix. This is why you hear people say anything from “racism doesn’t exist (anymore)” to “asking people of color in your own country where they are from is racist,” to “systemic racism isn’t real,” to “if you’re offended by being called a chink, you just need to grow some thicker skin.”

I keep thinking people often believe in- or deny the existence of racism based on where they stopped in time. My mother and I see racism very differently, because she didn’t grow up with today’s understanding of the word (to be fair, it’s hard to keep track). The same goes for feminism: from basic rights (2nd wave) to mansplaining (4th wave); people disagree on what the word feminism should entail. Thus, some people say there is no longer a need for feminism because women already have everything they fought for, while others still feel underrepresented and continue to fight for change. Sound familiar?

I am probably displaying the ultimate level of agreeableness here (I am known to never pick sides. I’d be a horrible politician), but I think all of the above-mentioned examples have some truth to them, depending on the language we use to which we associate our beliefs. I mean, consider all the misunderstandings that could arise from incorrectly attaching meaning to someone else’s words, and assuming your associations are always right. Language is a very powerful tool; the fact that the meaning of a word has gone through a lot of change over time, and now encompasses a lot of different ideas, can make it difficult to understand someone else’s views. If, for example, you believe racism merely applies to things like apartheid and slavery, then it sounds valid to say that systemic racism doesn’t exist in current Western societies. That’s your worldview. But if you believe individual racism, like using a racial slur, is seeped into larger racial or systemic thinking, then it should be just as valid to say that racism is still very prevalent in today’s society, right? I feel like we should get to a point where we stop lecturing other groups about right and wrong based on the meaning of words, because I don’t think we’ll find actual common ground. But we could try to come to a common understanding that someone else may not think of the exact same thing when expressing a similar topic. Language, what words represent, and how we view them are continuously changing. We can’t just assume that our own convictions or associations are true by default.

Changes in time II: Associating Human Behavior

Another thing we can’t wrap our heads around, is how individuals change their minds or their opinions. For example, YouTuber Jenna Marbles recently apologised for content she made 10 years ago and is taking an indefinite break from YouTube because of the backlash she received from that content. But 10 years ago, a lot of similar content circulated the internet and people were not as concerned with racism the way we are now. It wasn’t at the forefront of people’s minds, and their convictions were different back then. Within today’s race and gender narrative, Jenna would probably never make that kind of content.

On The Flipside (see what I did there?), Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is actually beginning to understand that times are changing. From colonial slavery, to arranged marriages, to strict gender roles; long-standing Western traditions or beliefs have been subject to change since the beginning of time. In 2013, Rutte refused to give up the tradition of Black Pete, a character part of a traditional children’s holiday the Netherlands has been celebrating since the 1700s. This year, 2020, he has done some self-reflecting and acknowledged the experiences of minority groups. He now believes the tradition will change. He’s even having discussions with anti-racism advocates about race in the Netherlands. Ironically, he’s gotten a lot of hate for altering his opinions publicly. Where Jenna Marbles is considered racist, even though she’s no longer the same person, Mark Rutte needs to stick with his beliefs and stop changing his mind. Sounds silly doesn’t it? It’s like it’s no longer part of being human to have different opinions or to have a change of heart.

People change. Meaning Changes. Times change. It’s exactly because of our false assumptions based the (weird) preconceived notion that nothing changes, that we seemingly have the power to eliminate or condemn a person, regardless of knowing what their actual convictions are, or how they changed throughout the years, or how time changed what is acceptable behavior, or what language can or can’t be used. One assumption can ruin another person’s life. And what good does it do in the grand scheme of things? (no good, is the answer).

The times they are a-changing

The human strength, as opposed to other animals, should be our ability to reason and self-reflect. But sometimes our hard-wired behaviors still overrule our rational minds. We need to try and self-reflect on our emotional triggers and how they are linked to our assumptions about others, as well as understand that current narratives are no longer what they used to be. Someone’s political preferences or actions in the past are not an indication of someones actual or current beliefs or experiences, and we cannot possibly know how other people are impacted by something. If we can understand that, maybe we wouldn’t feel the need to cancel Jenna Marbles, and we would have more respect for Mark Rutte’s capability of change. If we can listen to others and acknowledge their opinions, instead of letting our emotions get in the way, I think we’re on the road to a better understanding of ourselves and the world. And yes, I get it, it doesn’t necessarily solve any problems. But more humanity and a better understanding of others and the world around us probably helps get there faster, don’t you think?

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

- Bob Dylan

Li-Anne

Navigate
The circle of social media life
How change became something to deny
Making mistakes is human and we all need to do it

These days, everyone has an opinion about everything. Even not having an opinion means something. What’s more, online opinion influences the real world. It’s propelled movements and developments ranging from racism to cancel culture. In this case, both the Dutch Prime Minister and Jenna Marbles are prime examples of the current mechanisms that drive change and discussions.

The social media circle of life

It basically works like this: someone in the spotlight does something noteworthy. In Rutte’s case it’s taking a different stance in the “Black Pete” discussion. In Jenna’s case it’s doing skits and portraying certain characters for a wide public. Discussion ensues and everyone comments about what happened. Then, society changes and the public reviews everything and sees it with new eyes. Renewed support or backlash ensues. Rinse and repeat.

In the process, we all forget that change is human and totally normal, healthy and necessary.

But the cycle is speeding up, churning away at an ever faster pace through everything that’s happening online. It’s come so far that there’s almost immediate repercussions in the real world from what happens online. This discussion can definitely be fruitful. Because society changed and the Dutch who oppose “Black Pete” have gotten a stronger voice, it somewhat forced Rutte to flip his opinion. The flipside is, however, condemning people for the wrong thing. Because we’ve changed in what kinds of things we find acceptable to portray or make fun of in society, we suddenly hold up Jenna’s old stuff to these new standards.

What’s not entirely the same for Rutte and Jenna is their agency and representation. Rutte is a politician, representing a certain party and part of the population. People expect him to actively speak out about his viewpoints and opinions. Jenna and many YouTubers on the other hand first and foremost want to entertain their viewers. Since social media have become deeply personal, this means their outputs now reflect on their ideas and viewpoints which they probably didn’t consider when they created the content at the time.

The lines have become blurry. If your skit featured racist stereotypes, how much does that really reflect on you as a person?

How change became something to deny

It feels like we’re trying to collectively change how we view and approach things, by erasing past mistakes. That’s natural, we now have tools that allow us to get closer and have immediate discussions across cultures and borders. But in this whole overhaul, I feel we’re ignoring some very fundamental foundations that our communication is built upon. Former President Barack Obama said this perfectly in a New York Times piece from 2019:

“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly. The world is messy; there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.”

Personally, I used to be pretty judgmental about things. When I was little, the “Black Pete” discussion wasn’t as visible and heated as it’s now. I’ve never thought brown or black children were this character either. So when I was in university and the discussion started to get overheated, I simply didn’t see what all the fuss was about. I dismissed it as kind of irrelevant, just because I hadn’t ever encountered any of the stuff mentioned by the protestors. But, I now know that your own experience and bubble are only part of why these issues exist. I’ve read somewhere that good habits easily persist. To keep bad ones alive, we call them traditions.

“Just because something is traditional is no reason to do it, of course.” - Lemony Snicket, The Blank Book

Making mistakes is human and we all need to do it

Believing to be open-minded and actually embodying it, are two very different things. True, on the one hand I see the flip-flopping of Rutte as being hypocritical. But at the same time, I’ve been through the same process and I definitely like where I ended up on the other side. Some of Jenna’s past material was racist and cringy, especially if viewed now, but everybody has her or his right to make mistakes. If we can’t make any mistakes, how will we ever learn? What’s the point of doing anything if we’re going to be held accountable for every little thing that goes wrong?

John Oliver of Last Week Tonight described it very aptly when interviewing Monika Lewinsky about public shaming and cancel culture. Basically, at the age of 22, which was when Lewinsky got ‘fully canceled’, we all do stupid things. When I was 22 I still had a lot of anxiety and behaved very immaturely. I’m happy that the stupidest thing I did at that age is not fully available on the internet for everyone to see and judge. I’d be mortified.

In another interview for the NYT, one of the teenagers says this about cancel culture: “It’s a way to take away someone’s power and call out the individual for being problematic in a situation. I don’t think it’s being sensitive. I think it’s just having a sense of being observant and aware of what’s going on around you.” This is a slippery slope to me. Who gets to decide who gets canceled? And how can we be okay with just taking away someone else’s agency?

To be honest, it’s also concerning myself a bit. I am, albeit in a much less widespread fashion putting myself out there as well, and it’s definitely impossible to never flip or do something thoughtless. I can only hope that the audience I reach will be smart enough to understand. Or just not get famous at all, that’s a good Plan B.

I work thus I am

For the longest time, I dreaded starting to work. To my young, ‘hip’ student self, sitting behind a desk all day seemed to be dreadful. Now that I’ve done that for a couple of years, it’s turned out to not be too bad. But something that is very clear, are the generational differences. I’ve different ideas on the work I want to do, with whom, and in which way than my younger and older peers.

Work’s life, am I right?

Fist bumping around the workplace, that’s what we millennials do all the time

Based on: How to lose your mind and build a treehouse

Navigate
Who am I? Exploring the millennial employee
Work’s part of my identity, and that’s fine

To me, ‘real life’ more or less was always about having a job.

In high school I was quite inept as to what was happening in the world and around me. In university, I tried to catch up all that fun I missed during high school and did some further soul-searching. I still remember the realization hitting me like a brick: in a few months I will graduate and need to do something for money. What can I do?

After living the ‘real life’ for a couple of years now, I am finally realizing how unreal my idea of the working life has been. Developments such as the open office, personal marketing and ‘fun’ workplaces seemed far-away, but the ultimate ideal when I was still studying. In reality, it’s been more difficult to really find my own place in the mix of startups and established institutions I’ve worked at.

Who am I? Exploring the millennial employee

Let’s take a look at the larger picture first, because I found this research report by KPMG about the millennial workforce. Especially the points about female millennials really spoke to me:

1. They’re more hesitant when it comes to job applications
2. They’re less confident and optimistic
3. They’re more sociable
4. They’re less keen on technology
5. They’re more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome
6. They’re less likely to actively pursue a promotion opportunity

Basically, it’s a hard yes on everything except point 5 and 4 since I’m (belatedly) learning and developing an interest in programming now. Point 2, 3 and 6 stick out the most to me. To be honest, confidence and optimism are things I’ve never had that much of, and it’s something I still point to as something to improve, personally and professionally.

Point 3 and 6 point to things that are at once making us different from previous generations and more connected to each other. When looking at companies, I’ve often looked at ‘people’ pages and felt I either really wanted to become part of the family or I wouldn’t fit at all. And even though I’ve worked in startup environments where ‘hustling’ was important, I didn’t feel that comfortable with the attitude and still needed something different from my employer.

Looking to the Medium article, I recognize a lot of the anxiety and questions the writer has. His highlighted quote is: “It’s easy to say someone died. It’s much harder to say, “I think I’m having a nervous breakdown.”” Although this doesn’t apply to me specifically, the mindset is recognizable. I’m very focused on my work mentality, but feel things should also happen spontaneously and above all, make me happy. I know I’m needy, but I want others to acknowledge it, while at the same time fulfilling them.

Work’s part of my identity, and that’s fine

Even though I tend to say I am more than my work, having no work at this moment feels as if I am incomplete. This frightens me as well, but I’ve learned to accept that it’s only natural the thing I’ll be doing at least 40 hours a week will be that meaningful to me. And that’s again leading me to search for a workplace that’s as cool as I dream it to be.

It’s been a paradoxical and bumpy road. I worked in startup environments, which were cool because we did something wholly new, but also very stressful. I cried a lot. I worked abroad, leading the expat life while working at an international organization. It was cool to attain a certain elite status and feel like I was actually doing long-term meaningful work instead of just making money. But it also made me complacent and lose a certain drive. I cried a lot. I had the opportunity to work in fast-paced, international business environments with smaller teams and directly trying to start something from zero. But I felt without the proper structure I was just building dream castles.

In the end, I’m now again looking to larger companies, more stability and mentorship. If I may need to forego beanbags or a Nintendo switch in the office, then I’ll take it. Mr. Pavelski said in an interview:

“The reason I wrote that essay in the first place was about catharsis, and I wanted to walk through my thought process and figure out what was going on with me.”

I’m not sure what’s going on with me yet either, but I guess I’ll enjoy the discovering it for now.

It’s all about getting closer, but not really

Social media are so bad for us, but we just can’t stay away. In 2020, this has once more become clear through plenty of events. Whether it’s a worldwide pandemic, ingrained racism or grand elections, there’s so much happening on social media, and so much of it has gone very far south. This video reminded me once again about some of the causes behind this.

Can social media still provide something good?

Based on: Vox: Why every social media site is a dumpster fire

Li-Anne

Navigate
And it was the death of common sense
Escape is futile. The search for a connection is real

“Helps you connect and share with the people in your life.” Apparently that’s Facebook’s slogan. In hindsight, I think almost everyone now realizes that’s most definitely not what this platform and many social media do.

We seem to all have become sheeple…

Even though this video of Vox is basically ancient in internet age, the points they make have only become more relevant. The cycle still exists – anonymity, division and extremism still propel most discussions on platforms. It made me realize a very important thing that I’ve always been missing on social media: the middle ground has no place online.

And it was the death of common sense

Pragmatism is a keyword in my life, something that I adhere to online and offline. That’s why I’ve never been really that interested in the community aspect of social media. It most definitely has to do with my own insecurities, but I prefer to pretend I’m special and not like others. So I remember when social media became popular during high school, I found it really silly that everyone was just doing the same things they did as usual, but suddenly got likes and attention. In my head, the word selfie was still reserved for the weird kind of people that took photos of themselves for no reason whatsoever.

How much has changed since I was in highschool. Oxford Dictionaries crowned selfie word of the year in 2013, saying that “the word has evolved from a niche social media tag into a mainstream term for a self-portrait photograph”. This development has led to many articles calling millennials narcissistic and prone to oversharing. I also really agree with something else mentioned in this article: “All of us adopt different personas that we can use in different contexts. Social media is where we become the people we want to be. It’s a grand stage, and we’re all actors playing different roles. There, we stand out. There, we are the stars of our own shows.” In the end, we’re all humans. We just want to see and appreciate the show, escapism doesn’t use common sense.

But I miss common sense, now more than ever. It’s the reason why I’ve never been really involved in any fandom, even though I am a big fan of anime and kpop, both known for their avid fan communities. I’ve always wanted to present myself as a rational and pragmatic individual, which completes the loop of me not posting much on social media. At the same time, many people in my social feeds clearly believe and actively voice their opinions and beliefs. It all seems awfully dramatic to me.

Escape is futile. The search for a connection is real

In the end, although I may think like that, it doesn’t mean at all that I’m above it. The desire for attention and fame is something I vaguely pursue, even though I know it wouldn’t make me happy at all. I write snarky blogs and comments because the opposite of actively voicing your beliefs is just making quips and only being half-serious about everything. And it’s working against me. I see all these memes passing by on social media that speak more to me than I’d like to admit. And they’re rote. And not funny.

“To live ironically is to hide in public. It is flagrantly indirect, a form of subterfuge, which means etymologically to ‘secretly flee’ (subter + fuge). Somehow, directness has become unbearable to us.”

That’s exactly how I feel, and learning more about the mechanisms behind social media doesn’t make it any easier. I feel there won’t ever be a real stage for common sense, because it would be boring. And so much of our lives already is, we don’t need anymore of it.

On the other hand, there must be more people who feel like this. If the internet teaches one thing, it’s that you’re never alone in your opinions and feelings. Social media platforms have been focusing more on one-on-one conversations and connections as well. And it’s something I’ve found a renewed joy in as well. Especially during these times, nothing is more fun than ironically using #blessed on our real-life, in not #blessed-worthy situations.

It’s something very paradoxical in these times of digital communication, to look for a real connection.

Sarah

Navigate
Social media is a disease. And it’s spreading
Do we follow the media or does the media follow us?
Post avocado on toast

Why we should probably post avocado on toast instead of our opinions

"We're just f&*$ing monkeys in shoes." - Tim Minchin

That quote is a great reminder of our own limitations and insignificance. And it’s an important factor in acknowledging that we are flawed beings. We let emotional triggers lead us to what content we look at and react to. We may spread the wrong ideas based on those triggers, even forcing others to be on our side. Before you know it, you may be spiralling down the rabbit hole of misinformation, or content stretched so far out of context, you can’t even remember what you’re mad about. Remember when we just shared our boring lives to Facebook?

Social media is a disease. And it’s spreading

Recently, I, along with the rest of the world, have been following the Black Lives Matter movement very closely. I usually try to not get too engaged in social media outbreaks of breaking news, but a personal experience can quickly become a trigger for emotional involvement. Whatever my initial intent was for looking more into what was happening in the U.S. and the rest of the world, turned into shock really fast. I became overwhelmed by the outrage and the completely irrelevant (I suppose that’s a personal opinion) media coverage of it. There was no main narrative to be found.

It reminded me of the telephone game: a sentence is whispered into a person’s ear, who then has to whisper it to the next person etc. By the time it reaches the last person in the group, the sentence is no longer coherent and its meaning is lost completely. What started with the death of one man, sparked global unrest; first on behalf of the U.S., then on behalf of other minority groups, and by the time it reached the rest of the world, every individual on the planet had something to say. But it was no longer about George Floyd and BLM, nor was it focusing on racism. It was about peer pressure and not enough engagement from social media influencers. It was about “white guilt.” It was about shunning an artist who once wrote a song containing a racial slur. It was about looting. It was about people’s fashion choices during the protests. It was about anti-racists blaming other anti-racists for being racist:

  • “Blackout Tuesday is about taking a step back and educating yourself on racism in the United States.”
  • “NO, Blackout Tuesday is about silencing the Black Lives Matter movement, it is evil!”
  • “NO, Blackout Tuesday is about standing in solidarity with current events!” You are RACIST for using Blackout Tuesday!”
  • “YOU are racist for NOT using Blackout Tuesday.”……..

Do we follow the media or does the media follow us?

How do we disseminate the right content and distinguish right from wrong within a media landscape in which journalists have so much responsibility to maintain the status quo? How do we keep pointing focus towards the main narrative (and is the main narrative even good)? The problem with involving social media, regular news platforms, and literally everyone who has a voice (Vox Pop), causes problems for conveying “truth.” An excerpt from the book Rethinking Journalism reads:

"They (journalists) have to be socially responsible as well as attractive for the public. They have to speak and to listen, to laugh and to cry, be independent and neutral, be involved and take sides - and while doing all of that, uphold their professional values of reliable news gathering, and accurate interpretation." 

Including the voice of regular citizens to regain people’s trust in the media has increased significantly, but how does that weigh against staying objective? Do we follow the media or does the media follow us? And within that endless cycle, within all of these voices, what is still real? how do we know what’s really important if that is our only reference?

Social media is the intruder that created a blurred line between private and public, and news platforms and social media are not working together in harmony. Everyone can be outraged, or political. We can share fake news, influence others, create a divide between groups believing in different (or the same) ideologies, we can share our wisdom, our hurt, our anger, and all of this can enter mainstream news on a global scale, changing minds, confronting us with new evidence continuously, and spreading information from many different angles on a minute to minute basis.

"Water? What the hell is water?" - The Fish 

I can keep talking about how faulty our current media landscape is regarding the spread of information, but it probably won’t change anytime soon (and maybe it shouldn’t, if we don’t want to challenge freedom of speech). So why don’t we look at us for a moment. What are we doing wrong? How can we teach ourselves to post “better” content? I post opinions myself (like this blog). I get triggered too. It’s not always wrong, but it can potentially be harmful:

David Foster Wallace‘s story of two young fish swimming in water, not knowing the meaning of water, is (to me) a message of truth and solipsism within our media landscape. Our automated response is one of self-centeredness and using our own lens to interpret other people’s experiences. This makes it hard to distinguish fact from fiction, making actual realities hard to discover. It’s often due to a lack of awareness, in this case overshadowed by our own emotions and an overload of opinions. Apart from that, social media presents us with continuous threats. The area in the brain that processes memory “continuously compares the external world to the brain’s core belief of how the world should be. (…) When there is a discrepancy between the external world and the brain’s core belief, a threat occurs.” And that’s triggering.

Post avocado on toast

Core principles of journalism are truth and accuracy (fact-checking), independence, fairness and impartiality, humanity, and accountability. It is my humble opinion that, if we want to have our say and spread a message, we need to try and uphold those principles as much as possible, alongside journalists. Being aware of your beliefs and those of others, and attempting to use your emotions constructively, instead of letting news ignite your fight or flight response and/or retaliation.

If you’re triggered and you must post at all cost, look at multiple sources, look at the message behind whatever triggered you, and try to create something that can help the narrative along its pathway to more awareness. We need to be more empathic. We need to be more aware. If we can’t do that, maybe limit social media to more basic functions: Talk to a friend. Post avocado on toast.

"It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

This is water.

This is water."

Identity crises

Jubilee recently came out with a video showing mixed-race teenagers giving their opinion on what it’s like to be mixed race. It showed the bias other people often have towards multi-racial people, and the struggles (mainly related to identity) they face. I (Sarah) am mixed-race, so I kind of relate to these issues. Li-Anne has a different background, but faced a lot of the same issues growing up.

Recently I’ve heard people say that racial identity is mainly internal, and that it depends on whether or not you take other people’s opinions to heart. To me that’s only partially true. To me, lack of identity is an internal struggle, perpetuated by the outside world.

Based on: Jubilee: Do All Multiracial People Think The Same?

Sarah

Navigate
The mixed-race identity problem
Floating identity

I found this quote in an article related to mixed race on Psychology Today:

“We tend to think of race in terms of skin color and typical physical characteristics. But at a more fundamental level, racial differences are really about differences in culture.”  

It seems that the experiences of mixed-race children are vastly different, and personal identification is more-so a personal matter/feeling than a racial one. But across the board it seems that the vast majority of mixed-race children struggle with some form of identity problem. From experience, three major issues come to mind that arise with growing up mixed race: (1) not fitting in, (2) not being accepted, and (3) not being able to identify yourself. I mostly had to deal with the latter. 

I’m half Egyptian, half Dutch, and I grew up in the Netherlands; a primarily ‘white’ country. My parents and I used to go to Egypt every year when I was young, and I vividly remember my “other hometown” :  the call to prayer, the noise, the dust, the Macarona Bechamel, the music… 

My parents divorced when I was just a kid, and I’ve struggled with identity most of my life. There’s a level of acceptance, now being 30 years old, but acceptance merely helps to deal with things in a more rational manner; it doesn’t magically take problems away. 

The mixed-race identity problem

I initially wondered if there’s a correlation between (interracial) divorces and identity issues: if couples had a healthy and stable marriage, and there was a perfect cultural blend instilled in the child, would that mean children are less ‘aware’ or more accepting of their identity? I realised that, yes, being a child of divorced parents, among living within a culture that is only partly yours, could be part of the larger identity problem that some people face (that’s not directly related only to being mixed race), but the perceived difference is probably the biggest indicator for feeling like you don’t belong: how others see you and how that makes you feel.

In primary school I was often asked if I was adopted, having a mother with blonde hair and blue eyes. Then when 9/11 hit, kids started making fun of me looking Middle-Eastern (I come from a small, small town). I also used to have a very Arabic name, which was the butt of the joke very often, not only in school, but even within my very Dutch family. Kids commented on my larger nose, my “hairy” arms. Adults commented on my thick hair, my “exotic” look. As a joke, people called me Turkish or Moroccan, or they yelled some Arabic slurs. I’ve even been called a terrorist – a harmless joke.

Floating identity

I was never bothered by the teasing, but there’s one clear message in all of it: I was different. It’s funny because It’s not like I wasn’t excluded from anything. I was included, but not fully accepted. I never felt part of anything. I never felt Dutch enough to partake in the overall narrative of “being Dutch,” But I identified far less with being Egyptian, so a part of me just kept floating all over the place.

In the Jubilee video on mixed-race teenagers, the half-Iranian kid hit the nail right on the head. He said: “These past couple of years I’ve been trying to reconnect with that part, because I shoved it down for so long, and it’s been really heartbreaking(…). I too have tried very hard to become Dutch in the past. I changed my name, I rejected everything related to Arabic/Egyptian culture (I started learning Arabic only in 2018), I have no Arab friends, I haven’t been to Egypt for over 15 years… I don’t even know my family.

I tried really hard to belong (to one thing) and not belong (to the other thing) at the same time. And that is heartbreaking. And stupid. I adapted based on how others saw me, and then pushed aside what I didn’t want. But what I didn’t want was just as much a part of me.

“Mixed race identity, for me, comes down to how I see and identify myself and whether I choose to accept or reject the box other people will try to put me in.”  - some very accurate comment on YouTube

So now, the next step is not only to accept, but to fully embrace. And I feel like that message doesn’t merely apply to being bi-racial.

Li-Anne

Navigate
Put me in any box but not the wrong one
Include me too please

Looking like a certain nationality, but growing up in a different country, probably was a big factor in me not having a very strong racial identity.

To be honest, I always joke about the aspect of mixed race people being hot. I think it has to do with the fact that I find it would be a bit easier to stand out in society if you are good-looking and different, than when you are just clearly foreign-looking. However, I am able to escape the standard stereotype for Asian and Chinese people as well, since I have a fully Dutch name and no ‘restaurant background.’ I also grew up in a very white part of the country, which makes me stand out more, but also blend in better at the same time, since people assume that everyone, no matter what they look like, is Dutch.

So I don’t really belong in any common box; I don’t identify with Chinese-Dutch people nor do I identify as any of those 2 nationalities separately. For me, my racial identity feels very fluid.

Put me in any box but not the wrong one

Because of this situation, and the reason that Dutch culture probably puts less emphasis on racial identity than American culture, I found it interesting to hear what the mixed-race teens in the Jubilee video had to say about racial slurs and what ethnicity you pass as vs. your race. I don’t use racial slurs at all and I also don’t think too much about my racial identity. Therefore, I haven’t felt like I needed to hide part of me, but I have also been aware that I stood out and could be misunderstood for ‘something else’. In other words, I am always more focused on making sure I am not put in the ‘wrong’ box than making myself belong to a specific group.

I think this is also because the Netherlands still really prides itself on its multicultural society and being a real melting pot. Even being further away from the bigger, international cities, I still lived close to the German and Belgian borders. Such an environment made me less focused on something like racial identity. Even though I could pass as Chinese, people in my area knew I was ‘not the standard Chinese-Dutch girl’, because my parents didn’t have a restaurant and I spoke Dutch without an accent.

Embracing a fluid identity and living abroad as well, really made me more aware of my behavior in this regard. And also to find ways to use it to my advantage. Especially living in China, I became used to ‘taking on’ different identities. For western people, I would simple be a fellow foreigner. Saying I was adopted, was often enough to make them put me in a more ‘correct’ box as an international person instead of a second-generation Chinese person.

With Chinese people on the other hand, I often took full advantage of them thinking I was a local or a Chinese person coming from abroad. Speaking the language fluently, albeit with an accent, blending in with the crowd, conversing with locals without being explicitly seen as foreign was very comfortable. It made it possible for me to actually feel what it’s like to belong to a specific group, without really belonging.

Include me too please

Wanting to be part of a group, is a universal feeling. That’s why it saddens me to see many people becoming more entrenched and focused on, in my eyes, superficial characteristics that makes them feel others don’t belong. I think racism, especially in recent years, unfortunately always finds its way to the surface, whether in a national or international context.

At the same time, I really feel blessed with a multicultural identity that allows me to be more aware of these issues and provides me with more tools to move through societies as respectfully as possible.

Turning 30: basically just wrinkles and existential dread

Based On:  Dear Therapist: I’m Turning 50 and Panicking About My Appearance

Navigate
But what about my face though?!
It’s just a ride

Ahhhhh, turning thirty. The supposed downfall of every young woman. You can still be a frolicking teenager at 29, but by 30 you need to have it all figured out. By 30, you will have found stability, a long-term partner, a flourishing career, you’ll be thinking about motherhood (or you already have one of those crying little humans), and you probably might want to invest in some anti-wrinkle cream. 

I just turned 30 and I have mixed feelings about it. For one, my adult years have been met with existential dread, and growing closer to death produces an enhanced sense of: I HAVE SO MUCH LEFT TO DO – but more on that later. Let’s start with the really bad, and then end with the not so bad.

One little Google search and hundreds of pages that tell you what to do with your life. Why would you even figure it out for yourself? It’s all right there on the internet.

But what about my face though?!

The main thing I want to address is probably the most superficial. One that’s overtly present in our lives, yet also considered taboo: outer appearance. Ever since discovering that I was seen by the outside world as ‘attractive’, I have wholeheartedly embraced my looks. Slowly but surely, and with age (funnily enough), I started to love my body, my face, and although it shouldn’t matter, I love that other people find me attractive. I even have a public fitness-related Instagram, where I show off the front, the back, and close-ups of my face.

I love how I’ve learned to love myself, but at the same time, I admit that I also feed off of positivity by others. I read an article a few years ago that stuck with me (and if I find it again I’ll link it here) about this woman who had been a model all her life. She basically grew up on the perceptions of others, being in the spotlight constantly. She said ageing was hard because, if the focus of your existence is solely based on your looks, how do you still find your own value as a human being after all of that fades away? Looking at the vast landscape of anti-ageing commercials and prominent figures in the entertainment industry, we are truly made to believe that we have to find a way to prevent growing old and/or hold it off as long as possible. 

Ms. model went on to do charity work and being a spokesmodel for women’s rights (as you do). That’s how she reinvented herself and her value as a woman. Now, I’m not a model, but I definitely have similar fears. Don’t get me wrong, I have hobbies, and I’m passionate about lots of things, but I also have anti-wrinkle cream. I do believe I have value as a woman, as a human, but I also inspect my face for fine lines. My looks kind of go hand in hand with my other qualities. Society is (and will be) based on youth, probably forever. Recently I found out I’m already behind on new technology – another very common phenomenon that comes with age. New idols and actors are now in their late teens and early twenties. Yet I don’t feel different. And I wonder if that’s just what it’s going to be from now on: feeling exactly the same, but looking different, and being perceived as ‘old.’ And that scares me.

It’s just a ride

A little positivity: an article in Forbes takes on a different, but equally true perspective:

"I know your twenties get glamorized in the media, but it is a brutal decade. The good news is, your learning curve is not as steep in your 30s, you have more of a sense of self and self confidence, the benefits of the lessons you learned in your twenties, and less patience for toxic people." 

There’s one age-related thing I have grown less and less concerned about over time: stereotypes & expectations. The expectations of what you need to have achieved before you turn 30 or where you need to be seem completely arbitrary to me. A lot has changed over the years, but the majority of us monogamous humanoids will have settled down by their early thirties. My closest friends all have long-term, stable relationships. Most of them are married, are getting married, and some of them already have children. A lot of them have a house, or are in the process of getting one. Which is amazing. I am so, so happy that we privileged people can live the lives that we want. Which is why the above-mentioned life has never been mine. Although I have doubted my sense of self here and there, stability in the traditional sense is just not something I ever longed for. It never appealed to me as something that I needed. That’s not to say it will never happen, but I don’t want to let age determine where I should be or what I should do in life. I don’t believe it actually matters. I’ve been successful in my own way, and I don’t deem my choices as less important.

We’re insignificant specs on the earth. There are consequences to our actions, of course, but I don’t think there exists inherent right or wrong when it comes to finding direction. Life is just life.

Or as Bill Hicks once said: “It’s just a ride.”

Mastering the pole and redefining masculinity

Head of the family, a scholar-soldier or in high heels and short pants. Masculinity takes on many forms and continues to change in contemporary China. Between communist values, beauty trends and boy bands, another kind of man is emerging. Twirling around the pole, hovering in mid-air. With pole dancing becoming hot and happening in the country, men are getting their game on.

Navigate
A male on male construct
The modern communist heros
A history of Chinese pole and men
Strong men in different forms

What do people think of Chinese men pole dancing? Before we can get to that, let’s first look at the history of Chinese masculinity and the ideal male image. In ancient China, the ideal man would combine the scholar, signified by wen and the soldier, signified by wu. Intellect and civility were equal, or sometimes even more important, than physical prowess.

Besides the scholar-soldier definition of masculinity, there’s actually another factor that played a role in creating the Chinese masculinity: homosexuality.

A male on male construct

Perhaps surprisingly, homosexuality and homosexual relations were quite common in ancient China. There was Chinese opera, where men played both male and female roles, as well as a catered sex industry towards elite men. Construction of masculinity was diverse.

Up ’till the 20th century, such relationships and behavior remained widely acceptable and out in the open. Furthermore, there was no specific term used to describe this. The common word for homosexuality, tongxinglian, literally love between the same sex, was only coined at the beginning of the 20th century.

At the same time, this laissez-faire attitude started to change during this war-ridden and humiliating period. As a means to further improve and develop its country, China accepted certain Western values and ideas. Among them was the idea that homosexuality is immoral. Thus, when all Western influences were denounced in the communist era, homosexuality was viewed as ‘Western import’ and also became criminalized.

The modern communist heros

How do these developments and images combine in a male ideal for modern China? Kam Louie and Louise Edwards write in a paper on masculinity and the wen-wu division:

"The wen-wu divide continues today. In the People's Republic of China the wu ideal has achieved increased prominence through the Communist leadership's bid to promote the peasant of working class 'hero' and more recently by images of masculinity from the West. (...) Despite the increasing credibility of wu it is still possible to see that the power of the softer, more refined, intellectual, masculine form lives on in the daily expression of self by Chinese men. Generally speaking, the dynamic tension created between the poles of wen and wu permits the production of a greater number of possible expressions of the secular male self than would be possible in the contemporary West."

In other words, the modern male ideal is that of a heterosexual working class ‘hero’. However, this masculinity is very much a combination of more traditional values (honor, loyalty, and physical toughness), combined with newer, postsocialist values (such as entrepreneurship and chauvinist patriotism).

And, true to Louie’s and Edwards’ statement above, alternatives do exist. Influenced by pop culture, an alternative male ideal emerged. These are nerdy or more sensitive male figures whose intense focus, sensitivity, and honesty may appear admirable and even attractive to women.

So on what end of the spectrum do we find Chinese male pole dancers?

A history of Chinese pole and men

Over the past 7 to 8 years, pole dancing has become very popular in China. It won’t be a surprise that Chinese men who pole dance are linked to femininity and homosexuality. In a Chinese interview, one male pole dancer says strangers will ask him if he’s homosexual. He rebukes this by saying that pole dancing is a difficult sport that requires quite some skill and strength. Thus, especially in Chinese coverage, male pole dancers are keen on emphasizing their heterosexual masculinity and their muscular strength.

Besides the ‘masculinisation’ of the sport through muscular strength, there is also a mental element. News stories describe young, directionless or nerdy men who are stuck at the bottom of the ladder. After being inspired by pole dancing, they garner success, muscle and strength. Although they are initially rejected by their family and friends, after winning big competitions, showing the pride and skill pole dancing requires, as well as how much fame and money it brought them, this changes. It is a trajectory from weak to strong, in body and mind.

Interestingly, one of pole dancing’s forefathers doesn’t have this explicit emphasis on masculinity. When you look into the history of pole dancing, the belief is that the sport was at least partly derived from Chinese pole. This is actually a male-dominated sport, although women do train and perform as well,  heavily based on acrobatic ability and strength. The acrobatic act, although linked to pole dancing historically, doesn’t share its shady image at all. Even though its most popular move, the human flag, takes an insane amount of training and practice, and looks very much like a pole dance move with the same name.

Chinese pole is still performed in the circus, but what’s interesting is that, as far as I have experienced, pole dancing is not linked to this acrobatic feat at all. I haven’t seen it being mentioned in interviews with men pole dancing, nor have I seen it advertised at pole dancing studios. In a country where acrobatics are still practiced and shown very often, I could imagine pole dancing’s image to benefit from this connection a lot.

But if that’s not happening, besides masculinisation, what other images are projected of this sport?

Strong men in different forms

We can also find the other side of the spectrum, a more sensitive male image, in male pole dancers. For example, Leon Yee, a Hong Kong homosexual male pole dancer, explicitly said that he finds pole dancing a feminine sport. In another interview, Yee mentions he would like to project himself as “an antihero, use a style that is neither male nor female to strengthen this image with everyone. Normal people might already be very surprised to see a man pole dancing, if they see a man with long hair doing it, this will even be a bigger reaction. In this way, I can attract much more people’s attention to this sport.”

Furthermore, one of China’s most prolific male pole dancers at the moment, Coco Ke Hong, also thrives on projecting a not-too-masculine image. He lists shopping among his hobbies, started pole dancing because it’s high paid (not specifying in which situation) and says pole dancing is as important to him as his underwear: “I need to have it with me everyday. I cannot live without it.” His Instagram is filled with pictures of him proudly wearing high heals, dress-like clothes and in feminine poses.

So we can see that male pole dancers are a small niche which show different images of Chinese masculinity. And what’s more, these men are accepted and even adores ’till a certain degree. Whether they are just showing of their skill and strength or wearing 15 centimeters high heals, and fancy makeup. It’s a kind of diversity that’s really necessary.

Leftover women: struggling warriors against the patriarch or just women looking for love?

Just about every women’s rights activist and scholar outside of China seems to be triggered when dealing with the concept of ‘leftover women’. Feminists can’t see sexism separate from history or culture, while sinologists keep stressing nuance and objectivity. But ever since the term leftover women rose to the surface, the majority of mainstream articles voicing women’s inner thoughts and feelings are suspiciously biased, and, for a lack of better words: ‘Western’.

In 2007, the term “leftover women” Shengnü (剩女) was introduced, referring to Chinese educated women who remain unmarried at the age of 27 or above. It focuses on the unmarriageable status of these women, as they are said to be too fussy, too occupied with their careers and therefore unable to find a potential partner. Since 2007, the term has been reiterated and promoted by Chinese state-run media, making it part of a resurgence of gender inequality, stressing marriage as a woman’s ultimate goal and stigmatizing singlehood.
Navigate
Progressive and oppressed
Between tradition and modernity
Final thoughts

The “Western” model

Chinese women are said to be equally progressive to many European or American women, as well as independent and they feel enormous pressure having to struggle with the leftover label. All articles seem to point to one specific direction: Chinese leftover women are changing China’s landscape of equality. With the current U.S. political landscape and an upsurge of what is called the third wave of feminism, approaching the concept of leftover women in media from this particular angle is not surprising.

Living in China however, and having met many single women, I felt like these articles were mirroring the West (in particular the U.S.) and not reflecting women’s true voices. Sure, some women may have been influenced by feminist concepts, and some may believe to be stuck in this cultural ideal brought forward by the government, but what about love and relationships? Are we neglecting that women may have this basic longing for companionship? What does a relationship entail for these women? Do they really see themselves as leftover?

To figure this out, I delved into the world of online matchmaking, and created a male alter ego on China’s largest dating website: Jiayuan (佳緣). I wanted to know if women described themselves as leftover, but most importantly, whether they were pursuing a type of progressive ideal or were in search of a more traditional  relationship.

The results were quite surprising.

jiayuan

First of all, it’s important to acknowledge cultural differences in the use of dating apps or websites (or anywhere for that matter). An example of this being marriage. Western dating sites often give the choice of either wanting or not wanting marriage, with some giving the option of “undecided”. On Jiayuan however, since the idea is to instill early marriage as a goal for women, one can only select a time frame within which a woman prefers to get married. As an alternative one can choose “to let nature take its course”, which I suppose you could loosely translate as ‘flexible’.

Progressive and oppressed

In her book Leftover Women, the Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, arguably the most discussed literature on leftover women in mediaLeta-Hong Fincher argues that educated women feel that China’s marriage law (among other legal developments) discriminates the female sex . Now here’s where I believe a lot of articles go wrong, stating that women are fighting against marriage and actively seek out ways to protest. Seeing as how many women did not disclose their marital preference on Jiayuan, one could indeed suggest that outcome.

However, in women’s personal descriptions, there was no indication of reluctance to get married. In fact, the ultimate goal was to find marriage, but the overall consensus seemed to be that women were not in a rush. They were merely looking for a soulmate, “the one”. User Duckhead mentions: “I don’t accept a lightning wedding”, and user Carole stresses: “I want to get married (…) but there is no rush. It’s ok if you don’t own a car or a house, we can work towards these goals and invest in them together.”

Another argument Fincher (and many articles) claims, is that women not part of this feminist wave often feel so oppressed, they downplay their successes to find a partner more easily. On Jiayuan, an observation that can be misinterpreted is the fact that many women were looking for a partner with either the same degree level or higher. One could argue that this is a typical example of status hypergamy: the “marrying up” phenomenon, in which case a woman’s sense of security comes from a man of higher status. These women however, had jobs of their own with most of them a considerable income. Arguing that these women were looking for mere compatibility rather than downplaying personal achievements to find a financially stable partner more easily is, to me, equally compelling.

In fact, in looking at these women’s criteria for a partner, idyllic love relationships were often desired. Women had hopes of finding love in their life and believed in fate. Progressiveness is even a more fitting term in this case, as the more established women were, the more open they seemed to be to finding a man with lower financial resources. As user Grains of sand points out: “romance is not achieved by money; it’s achieved by emotion.” Similar sentiments from user GuiGui: “I have a stable job (…), I keep thinking women should be independent, especially economically.”

So yes, marriage was put on hold with the hope of finding the right partner, and financial resources were deemed less important than compatibility; this indicates change and perhaps an underlying need for more equality, but it is definitely an exaggeration to state that women labeled as leftover are all suffragette-like warriors against the patriarch.

In fact, women often described themselves as obedient, a good housewife and a sincere and loyal partner. User Long-lasting Sound of the Zither writes: “Regarding love and marriage; if my parents request me not to do something, I will definitely not do it.” and user Awa! writes directly to her potential significant other: “I hope that you have a mature mind, you’re not too short, you show filial piety to your parents, take care of your friends, love children and that you’re preferably a foodie!”

Between tradition and modernity

Love and romance were presented by women on Jiayuan as a sense of loyalty, which is much more linked to tradition than anything else. The goal was stability, compatibility and companionship. Women seemed aware of being labeled as leftover, but it did not discourage them, nor make them fight against the patriarch.

Roseanne Lake, author of Leftover in China, states my opinions the most accurately: “They [leftover women] are treading this delicate balance of remaining filial, and being dutiful daughters, which many of them want to be, but also carving out lives that are more in tune with their own expectations. And their own potential.” 

Final thoughts

If anything, what I want readers to take away from this, is that it’s easy to use one’s own cultural lens to project ideas onto different societies, especially if you’re passionate about something like women’s rights. Not to sound too postmodernist, but there is a sense of truth in all of the aforementioned articles, as well as in women’s descriptions on Jiayuan. We need to attempt to put aside our own personal struggles with an issue, and use the context within which an event takes place to form a more balanced opinion.

One concept most of us can understand, is that the majority of these women are simply looking for a loving and stable relationship. That idea doesn’t need too much analyzing and is, perhaps, something we can all relate to.

All opinions are my own.
Jiayuan is a public space. Whether or not achievements were downplayed is therefore complicated to assess, but as stated previously, I think there’s a sense of truth in these personal statements regardless.
‘Western’ is a very ambiguous term, but within this context I mainly refer to the U.S.

Same, same but different – What makes one city better than another?

Recently, I moved from Beijing to Shanghai. An inevitable question almost everyone asks is: Which city do you like better?

Navigate
Capital or not
Trade and tourism, change or continuity
A never ending story

The rivalry between Beijing and Shanghai is quite real. Of course, this is not limited to China. Worldwide many cities compete within a country to be ‘the best’, whatever that might mean. But where do these comparisons come from?

This blog is a short quest to see what I can find out about the orgins of these city rivalries. Coming from the Netherlands, my first thought is to compare the competition between Beijing and Shanghai, to the one between Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Let’s look at some aspects of these cities to find an answer.

Capital or not

Type in “Beijing vs Shanghai” in Google and you get 179 million hits. Many articles talk about the best sightseeing spots in both places, differences in food and varying characters of their citizens. But something that I’m more interested in, is what we can find in their history.

Beijing became China’s capital during the Yuan dynasty, in the 13th century. The Yuan dynasty was one of China’s foreign dynasties, in this case established by the Mongols. Ever since, Beijing has been the capital or one of the capitals.

Being the capital of a country, is of course an important element of a city’s identity. BBC reported earlier this year that “the capital needs to be protected, but also able to exert control and project unity. For that reason many capitals are built in the center of countries – they need to be seen as representative and accessible.”

Since the capital is often also the place where the government resides, that adds another element to the mix. A research paper from the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) mentions that “Beijing has benefited from efforts by the Chinese government and Beijing’s municipal government to elevate the city’s international reputation, and from Beijing’s legacy and position as China’s political and cultural center.”

Shanghai, on the other hand, has never been China’s capital. It has, however, been the backdrop for important historical events, especially in the 20th century. When the first Opium War ended and foreign powers started to enter China, Shanghai was named a treaty port by the British. With foreign powers such as Great Britain, France and the United States entering the city, it became the center for art, architecture and business.

After several wars, it resumed its position as being a prime spot for business, fashion and finance. It’s currently China’s largest city and its regional economy is growing faster than Beijing’s, with its Gross Domestic Product hitting 3 trillion RMB last year.

Thus, it’s no wonder that these tensions arise between both cities. Are the reasons the same on the other side of the ocean?

Trade and tourism, change or continuity

Amsterdam and Rotterdam are quite antagonistic. Luckily, most people don’t hate each other as much as the soccer fans do, but there’s definitely competition. However, in this case the different images of the cities are even clearer. Amsterdam is the capital city, with a rich history and well-known among international tourists. Whether it’s the canals, tulips or weed, Amsterdam is sure to be most people’s first association with the Netherlands.

On the other hand, although it’s winning popularity as a touristic hotspot, Rotterdam is first and foremost a trade city. With its huge port, it attracts many international businesses. Due to the bombing of its city center during the Second World War, the buildings and environment are literally newer. Compared to Amsterdam’s more traditional, historic city center, Rotterdam has a more modern, creative vibe.

Reportedly, rivalry between Amsterdam and Rotterdam can be traced back as early as the 17th century. This Golden Age period brought about unparalleled wealth and riches to a large part of the Northern Netherlands. This was of course earned by the lucrative slave trade and rich colonies, which were heavily exploited.

But the two cities not only competed in trade, they also did so in infrastructure. However, even with being heavily bombed, Rotterdam managed to revive quicker from this blowback than Amsterdam and prospered after this period.

In Dutch newspaper NRC, cultural history researcher Patricia van Ulzen thinks part of this rivalry is fueled strongly because both cities have always been the largest in the country, and are thus compared to each other all the time. She adds: “Amsterdam has a glorious history and benefits the most by keeping the status quo. (…) However, Rotterdam as the second city has had to prove itself all the time and is thus better off with continuous changes.”

A never ending story

Looking from a historical perspective, we can see that there are clear differences between the Chinese and Dutch cities. Shanghai and Beijing were of a very different size up until the middle of the 20th century.

Moreover, in the Chinese case there’s an emphasis on geography. Beijing and other former capital cities like Xi’an were partly chosen because of their strategic location. Shanghai is of course near the sea and thus much more vulnerable in that sense.

On the other hand, Amsterdam and Rotterdam have a similar size but also a very different character. The rivalry between these two seems to stem from a difference in values and city images. Amsterdam emphasizes its rich history with its canals and well-preserved heritage. Rotterdam focuses on trade and exuding its modern vibes with innovative architecture.

For all the differences and (friendly) rivalry between these cities, it does seem that there’s no real position being challenged. And perhaps that’s what lies at the bottom of it all. It’s a way to make cities’ characteristics clearer by juxtaposing them to each other. Comparing a large metropole to another one, can elevate its position and legitimize its importance. And in this day and age, city marketing also takes a smart approach in nurturing a city’s image.

So, just to add some fuel to the fire I’ll say it on the record: Beijing wins in my book.