• Discrimination in Groningen

    F*cking yellow Asian girl

    Is Groningen as open-minded and tolerant as we think it is? Many Asian students face humiliation and discrimination because of their nationality.

    By Melanie Wimmer 

    Advisor: ‘I always take your side’

    In 2012 five cases of discrimination and seven of sexual harassment were reported to confidential advisor Marijke Dam, of the University of Groningen. The numbers for 2013 were even lower.

    However, she realizes that this is only because these students spoke up. ‘I think the problem is much bigger’, Dam says. ‘There are more international students, so there are also more incidents of discrimination and unequal treatment. We have a lot of cultures on campus and students often do not know how to interact.’

    The confidential advisor listens to students and gives them advice. The procedure is informal and she always takes the side of the student. She can refer the matter to a person of higher authority who will act as a mediator in an attempt to find a solution. ‘Because of my role it is easier for me to take action and I can do a lot if it happens on campus.’

    If you are a victim of undesirable conduct, unequal treatment, sexual harassment or discrimination, please contact Marijke Dam. For more information go to www.rug.nl/confidentialadvisor

    Initially, Noriko*, an Asian student, enjoyed her life in Groningen. She had picked up enough Dutch to be friendly with the locals, had become friends with students from around the world and enjoyed walking through the city. That is until one day, when a group of Dutch guys approached her, said ‘We will rape you’, laughed and left. She felt humiliated: ‘I didn’t want to show any tears, but as soon as they left me alone, I started to cry.’

    This isn’t the only time something like this has happened to her. Noriko is now afraid of being subjected to offensive remarks every time she goes out. ‘For a girl, nothing is scarier than nasty comments, like “How much for sex?” It makes me feel vulnerable and helpless.’

    However, the humiliation did not end there. In her dorm she overheard Dutch students calling her a “f****** yellow Asian girl”. When she told her housemate that comment really hurt her feelings, the girl played down the incident: ‘Oh, they didn’t mean it that way. It’s just a cultural difference.’

    Feeling scared and sad

    Nobody seemed to understand what she was going through and nobody recognized that it was a problem. ‘Being subjected to offensive remarks in the street is one thing, but feeling scared and sad in your own home is totally different. I decided to move out.’

    Over time her sadness turned to anger. ‘I find it frustrating that Dutch people don’t want to acknowledge that there is a racism problem in the Netherlands. I came here with the stereotypical image of the Netherlands as an open-minded and tolerant country, but now I really don’t want to live here anymore.’

    It was an incident on the TV show Holland’s Got Talent that convinced her to stand up for herself. Xiao Wang, a Chinese PhD student from the University, was one of the contestants. When he came on stage, one of the judges asked: ‘What number are you singing? Number 39 with rice?’ After a great performance and a standing ovation, the judge continued: ‘This was the best Chinese I have had in weeks.’

    Controversial ‘jokes’

    ‘It doesn’t matter if the judge didn’t intend to be offensive, the root of bias and prejudice, and Gordon’s very controversial “jokes”, is ignorance: a lack of knowledge of other cultures’, says Xiao. ‘I believe the best way of ending racism is to eliminate this ignorance through communication and cultural exchange.’

    He pleads for more cultural activities, especially at the University. ‘Students from different cultures would discover that there are different colours and beauty out there that they had never noticed before and many interesting things they didn’t understand.’
    Xiao wants the RUG campus to be a place of mutual respect and appreciation, ‘like a big, vibrant, harmonious family’.

    However, that’s a dream for the future. Lixian*, a 23-year-old student from China, has had similar unpleasant experiences. It ought to be normal when you travel to the other side of the world and strangers greet you with a curious but friendly ‘hello’. However, in Groningen the ‘ni hao’ from strangers to Lixian is different. ‘They say it in a way so I know they are making fun of me and when they are drunk, you know what people really think of you. Then they will shout “Chinese pig” or “Go back to China”.’

    Inclusive atmosphere

    Her supervisor has just offered her an attractive PhD position at the University, but Lixian does not want to live in Groningen any more. ‘If I’m going to do a PhD, I want to do it in a more open and international city. Groningen is a young, dynamic student town, but it doesn’t have an inclusive atmosphere.
    ‘Of course, cultural differences matter, but I feel Dutch people avoid becoming friends with foreigners. The Dutch culture feels unreachable and those remarks about my nationality upset me. It’s like an endless loop.’

    These girls have experienced discrimination from the inside out. However, Sylvia Frank, a 26-year-old International Relations student from Germany, sees it happening to fellow students from Asia and Africa. Dutch students make fun of their English behind their backs, call them stupid and exclude them from their group by only speaking Dutch.

    She went to the programme director to make sure she was aware of the problem and did something about it. ‘Some things may be meant as a joke, but where does racism start?’, she asks. ‘Before, I thought that racism could only be witnessed in major incidents, but the small, daily incidents count too.’

    Lack of awareness

    She thinks Dutch students rarely leave their comfort zone and do not understand why Asian students move to the Netherlands. ‘They need to realize that it’s a big step to leave one’s home country and move abroad – where you are on your own, do not speak the language and everything is foreign and different.’

    Sylvia lived in China herself for one semester and was greeted with open arms. ‘People were so proud that I wanted to live in their country that they did their best to make sure I liked it. I wish international students could be received in the same way in Groningen.’

    She herself does feel accepted, but she wants to stand up for her international friends. ‘Asian students, for example, would never complain. It’s not in their culture, but it’s a serious topic which needs to be addressed. There is a lack of awareness at the University and something has to be done about the daily incidents and interactions on campus.’

    *Noriko and Lixian are pseudonyms to protect the students’ identities.

    ‘Students should speak up about discrimination’

    Rumours of discrimination, especially concerning Asian students, have reached the directors of various programmes in the university.
    Janny de Jong from the Erasmus Mundus MA Euroculture programme, has heard about it after the incident with the TV show Holland’s Got Talent. ‘She had posted a private comment on Facebook. We discussed this at a meeting of the Board of Euroculture and with staff members, and asked some other Asian students whether they had also experienced discriminatory behaviour. Fortunately this was not the case.’

    International classroom

    Nienke de Deugd of the International Relations Undergraduate Programme, says the problem is really about inclusion, not just integration. ‘It’s more natural for international professors to create an international classroom. We Dutch lecturers need to change our habits. When students ask me questions in Dutch, I always try to reply in English so that they will switch to English as well and all students can understand the conversation.’
    Her collegue Arjan van den Assem says students have to be aware of cultural differences. ‘I don’t think the problem will disappear, but we can learn how to deal with it. As lecturers, we try to establish a more comfortable culture with a softly, softly approach – by talking in English and organizing social and intercultural events.’


    Chairman of the University Board Sibrand Poppema, has heard the rumours about discrimination too. However, he doesn’t think it is a big problem. ‘I can also imagine when it happens to you, you feel like it is. So the question is really if it’s something systematic within the university within certain programs, or whether these are incidents. That would be a totally different thing. However, we have never heard from any of the students about this, also not through the University Council. They should come to us’.

    Warning for racism

    Mitsuho Nishida, Assistant Professor at Osaka University in Japan, always briefs students before they travel to Europe. ‘Racist behaviour is mentioned as a precaution in general. We recognize that people who don’t look like Westerners could be subject to racism attacks in Western countries.’
    Osaka University has not yet received any official complaints from students about discrimination, though. ‘I think that some students, especially those who are living abroad for the first time, do not recognize the attacks because of the language barrier. However, some students have told us about unpleasant episodes in casual conversation.’