Bridges are to be crossed, not burnt

My Dutch is finally decent enough to be able to get through a novel without major difficulties. Reaching immediately for the top shelf, I picked out Max Havelaar by Multatuli. 

It follows the travails of a European administrator in the erstwhile Dutch East Indies. The pluricentric structure paints a vivid picture of colonial times, in the ‘motherland’ as well as the colony. What jumps out though, is the author’s deep rooted passion for a land and a people that were not his own. Truly astonishing, considering it was written in the late 19th century. 

In our own century, just last week, I was asked by a good acquaintance whether a certain stereotype of my country held any water. My stomach churned. It had been a while since I had heard something so ludicrous, and I needed a moment to get past the shock. Yet, it was deeper than that.

When you’ve lived abroad a long while, you stop being aware of your own ‘foreign-ness’. You become so entrenched in the web of your local relationships that you begin to blend in, if only in your own mind. Hearing this was like stepping out into the rain after an evening with friends. In an instant, I was surrounded by strangers who looked at me funny.

What set Max Havelaar apart, was his ability to see the humanity in people

It is here that the road forks. The first path, often trod nowadays, was to mount my moral high horse and use the offence given me to cudgel the remaining the joy out of the room. The other was to be reasonable, and to carefully explain the absurdity of the assertion. Considering my own silly ideas before coming here (think weed and wooden shoes), the latter was the obvious choice.

What set Max Havelaar apart, was his ability to see the humanity in people who at first glance seemed completely alien to him. The differences do not become irrelevant however. No amount of fraternising would’ve changed his place of birth, or his position as a colonial officer- the Samaritan remains a Samaritan. Yet, those things didn’t stop him from going the extra mile for his neighbour in need. 

It didn’t take long before my friend and I could joke about what had just happened. It just goes to show that bridges, even rickety ones, are meant to be crossed, not burnt. 


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