Issue Fifteen - October 2009

A Summer of Unfinished Business

By Alie Wiegersma Smaalders

“I feel like a princess,” was my reaction to life on board an ocean liner from Rotterdam to New York. It was July 1951. I was twenty-seven. I came to the U.S. with other Dutch “Fulbrighters” for a year of graduate study. To prepare us for academic life we spent the summer attending one of twenty orientation programs held across the country.

I found myself on the campus of a midwestern university, where the radio kept playing “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame ” from South Pacific.

The make-up of our group of fifty-three seemed somewhat off balance: only ten women and thirteen Europeans. Over half came from Japan, the remainder from India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Panama, Brazil, Columbia and Equador.

It was not the first time I had been part of an international group. The year before I had spent a month in Sweden at a Unesco seminar on libraries in adult education. Participants there represented their countries and had their profession in common. Here we came from different disciplines trying to learn as much as possible about our guest country, the United States of America. We gathered for daily class sessions where we worked on speech and dipped into a multitude of subjects. American history appealed to me, it was about ordinary people, unlike European history where emperorsand kings dominated.

We listened to excellent lectures–I particularly liked one on American dialects–and watched documentary movies on American social manners which showed us “Table Manners” and “Introductions,” different from our own. Our classes always ended with group discussions. Discussion as a problem solving technique was stressed; the staff urged us to come to them with our “personal problems,” a suggestion that puzzled the Europeans, not yet familiar with such counseling.

The staff was a mixture of professors, lecturers and graduate students, but it was the students who spent the most time with us. While they sipped their cokes–only five cents a bottle– they hotly debated whether President Truman had been right in removing General McArthur. We bombarded young staff members with questions of every kind. I wanted to ask what “You bet!” meant, a throwaway line I’d overheard more than once at the postoffice.

Getting acquainted with the United States was an overwhelming assignment. What made it more complicated was that inevitably some of us were still lugging old baggage from World War II, resulting in unfinished business with each other.

All three Germans had served in the army. Quite a few of the Japanese had been in the occupying forces in Indonesia. I thought about my Aunt Anne and Uncle Waling and all they went through in the Japanese camps in Indonesia.

Things came up that made me feel ashamed of Dutch colonial history. Said, from Indonesia, mentioned in class that when the Dutch got out in 1948 there were way too few hospitals and schools. I felt defensive at first, but kept quiet. Listening to him, I had to accept he knew what he was talking about. In school we had been taught that preparing the Indonesian people for self-government was a slow process. We obviously had been lied to over the years. I hadn’t yet had the courage to speak to Said. Would he even want to talk to anybody Dutch?

One afternoon, alone in my monastic dorm room, I settled at the window. Down below Guenther, definitely the nicest of the three Germans–or was that because I found it hard to imagine him as a soldier?–was in earnest discussion with Louis, the stocky Belgian fellow. Guenther had been drafted in 1943 at age fifteen and taken prisoner by the Russians in 1945. The Nazis must have loved his looks: tall, blond, blue-eyed. Too thin, as if he never had a chance to fill out. Why did I feel so uneasy about him? He was nice and gentle, a graduate student in ornithology at twenty-three. Having had only one year of English, he did remarkably well. Even more remarkable he played the piano like a pro: Bach without a note in front of him.

The discussion below my window was becoming quite animated. Most likely they were speaking German again instead of English. Maybe that’s what bothered me, speaking German with Guenther. I’d never before met any Germans socially, never spoken German with anyone. During the occupation I’d acted as if I didn’t understand the language. Now, just hearing those guttural sounds made me flinch. I could still see that German soldier coming in for a house search. Mother sitting up in bed, sitting up tall, indignantly mumbling what right he had to go snooping around in her closets. I felt terrible that I couldn’t protect her. I hated the soldier stomping around in my mother’s bedroom. Of course, that particular German was not necessarily a monster, he was doing what he was told to do. Caught, just as the Dutch were caught. Still…

Guenther and Louis were now walking toward the Student Union. Guenther in his ugly plusfours. Dutch high school boys used to wear those heavy woolen tweeds in the thirties. High school diapers we called them. Much too warm for this kind of weather. He must be hot in those pants. I blushed. Admit it, I told myself, you’re attracted to him.

I sat very still, thinking of the walk I took with Guenther a few nights before to the little glen on campus with trees along a stream, where we talked for a long time, lying down in the grass. I noticed a bulge in those hideous pants of his and felt kind of smug: I surely wasn’t going to do anything about it. A small postwar victory: minor torture of the enemy. It made me feel good.

So much, I thought, for war baggage. But there was more. I had to overcome another barrier, a sense of unreality. I’d felt the same way in Sweden the year before. In the Netherlands the somber depression years had been followed by five years of German occupation and even now the country was in the grip of postwar shortages. The long fingers of the Second World War still left their imprint on day-to-day life, while in Sweden and the United States people lived in the lap of luxury in comparison. My own country was way behind. I always thought of it as contemporary and up-to-date, but it was clear we had a lot of catching up to do.

If I were asked to characterize Americans in a few words, I’d say hospitable, helpful and kind. Sometimes a little naive: many assumed we’d prefer to stay in the States and found it difficult to understand that we wanted to go back.This WAS after all the best country in the world. Patriotic songs and poems everywhere talk that way, but Americans truly believed it. It irked some of the students who began to call the orientation program “the “Americanization.”

Our Sunday visits with American families were a great example of American hospitality. We enjoyed leaving our international environment to see how people lived and raised their children.

Soon I realized that everyone here had a car and used it as we would use bicycles. Everyone, not just physicians and businessmen, who were the ones who owned cars at home. I saw a woman in a shiny Studebaker drop off a workman’s lunchbox for her husband, a stoker for one of the labs on campus.

Not only did everyone own a car, there was also little difference in the way people dressed. We went to see a performance in a tent theatre of Kurt Weill’s operetta “Lost In the Stars,” based on Alan Paton’s “Cry the Beloved Country,” a plea for racial understanding. Professors and farmers in the audience wore white shirts with rolled-up sleeves and straw hats. I couldn’t imagine a Dutch professor in anything but coat and tie.

Both cars and dress were equalizers. So was the fact that teachers and professors worked with their hands during the enormously long summer vacations. They dug ditches, did carpentry, and painted their own houses, for the simple reason that they couldn’t afford to pay a painter as much as $2.50 per hour. That seemed odd at first, but I did like the fact that these teachers were handy enough to do all these practical things. At home there was a definite division between people working with their hands and those working mostly with their heads. In other words, there was less of a class sytem here. Except, if you made lots of money, you did belong to a different caste. As George Orwell said in ‘Animal Farm,’ “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

And what about the Negroes, as blacks were called then? During my short stay in New York I was taken to Times Square and Hotel Astor where I was introduced to Sammy Kaye and his band. Negroes were tolerated, but their presence was not appreciated. That became quite obvious when one young Negro woman set foot on the dance floor. How come skin color was so important? After all, many white people tried desperately to get a tan, the darker the better. In our international group people came in all shades, from pale to bronzed, from brown to black.

We’d been told we were to put on a Home Talent Variety Show by the end of August just before our trip to the Tennessee Valley Authority. TVA, created in 1933 to build dams on the Tennessee and its tributaries, controlled floods and generated hydroelectric power. Jobs for the unemployed and lower electric rates were the result of this unusual American government project. I was pleased we’d get a chance to see it. We’d be staying at a hotel in Knoxville.

A look at my watch made me race downstairs and to the Student Union.The first meeting for the Talent Show had already started.

“We’re voting for an emcee,” Jacqueline whispered to me as I slipped in a chair next to the French woman. Fred Johnson would be my choice. He was from Panama, a coal black Negro, with whom I had whirled around the dance floor a few nights ago. He laughed at my astonishment when I noticed that the palms of his hands were “flesh color.” I told him then that the first time I’d seen a Negro had been in high school when we had a special lecturer from the Dutch West Indies. Too preoccupied with watching him, I had failed the test about his lecture.

Fred Johnson won by acclamation. His engaging, jovial manner made him well suited for the job. There was another Panamanian, a woman, Felicia. She was equally well liked. Friendly, helpful, and generous, she had none of the aloofness of some of the other women.

Jacqueline asked if I would be willing to join their French group for the Talent Show. “One woman and two men just doesn’t work for what we’re planning.”

“Yes, of course,” I said. I loved being on stage and appreciated the opportunity to join them. French had always been my best language, I should do fine. The youngest Frenchman, barely twenty, a charming, funny fellow, was a pleasure to work with. At one point during the rehearsals I wanted to tell him how much I liked him.

“Je t’adore, Philippe,” I said. The French burst out laughing. Jacqueline, a self-assured librarian in her early thirties, carefully explained that the expression should be reserved for truly passionate moments.The subtleties of French usage were obviously beyond me. I felt cut down to size, but Philipppe gave me a warm smile.

For the Talent Show our Dutch contingent was joined by Louis, the Belgian, and by Said from Indonesia. Both spoke Dutch and were happy to join us. We practised folk songs, accompanied on the piano by Guenther. The audience favored the Flemish “Zeg kwezelken, wildet ge dansen?” Say little nun, will you dance? The song is about a young novice who refuses to dance, though she is offered first an egg, then a cow and after that a horse. We made bold signs to illustrate the offerings. Only when the man proffers himself, does she finally accept her dance partner.

The evening was a success. The Japanese sang and danced with great enthusiasm; their large numbers made it a remarkable performance. The finale was an impressive choir: we all sang America the Beautiful. Tears came to my eyes. It made me think of the improvised large choir at home at the end-of-war celebrations in May 1945.

Preparing for the Home Talent Show cemented the group; the Europeans no longer formed a clique and we all became better acquainted. We also were more at ease with several of the Japanese whose English was excellent.

We were looking forward to the trip by special busses to Knoxville,TN. Our eager anticipation was shattered when Fred and Felicia came back from a meeting with the Director with the news that they would be the guests of the Dean of an “exceptionally fine” Negro college, while the rest of us would stay at the local hotel. No reason for the invitation had been given, but it was clear that Fred and Felicia would not be welcome at the hotel. Immediately “No Jews admitted” flashed through my mind, the omnipresent sign during the German occupation. I felt a strong sense of uneasiness. What was happening?

We called everyone together:

“What a way to handle this, talking to you two in private.”

“How on earth did they think they could get away with not talking about it, they’ve been hitting us over the head with ‘discussion as a problem solving technique’.”

“Mon Dieu, they’re tactless.”

“They should never have planned a trip to the South for our group. What will the response be to some of the students from India? They’re darker than Felicia.”

“We’ve been living together all summer; either we go as a group, or we don’t go.”

In the discussion that followed the suggestion was made to divide the group, so some others would also stay at the college. I suggested that a few of us take that proposal to the Director. A friendly and soft-spoken man, the Director was liked well enough, but he tended to avoid answering direct questions. He never seemed comfortable thinking on his feet in front of a large group. If we talked to him at our regular class session he might be less likely to respond favorably. Others disagreed. After a lengthy exchange, the majority of the students felt we would do well to bring the problem to next morning’s class session.

One of the Japanese, Yoshiko, was chosen as representative. His English was excellent, he wouldn’t be at a loss for words. But Yoshiko was a bit uneasy. The Japanese had come under the War Department, not the State Department like the rest of us. The Peace Treaty with Japan would not be signed until the following month, September ‘ 51. To make it clear that this was a group effort, I would ask for the intial request for time.

As soon as the Director moved in front of the class the next day, I followed him. “Sir, would you allow us an opportunity to ask a few questions this morning? Yoshiko will be our spokesman.”

“I would rather not hear any questions unprepared,” was his answer. That did not bode well. I signaled Yoshiko that our request had not been well received.

It was obvious that the Director was ill at ease. In his introductory remarks he made an akward attempt to present the arrangements that had been made for our stay in Knoxville as something unique, emphasizing what a great honor it was for Fred and Felicia to stay at this special school.

Had Fred and Felicia not filled us in, this would have been the first we heard about it. It made me groan.

Behind me Yoshiko got up and said: “Excuse me, Sir, I would like to mention that we are most appreciative of the efforts of the staff, but we’d prefer to all stay together or not go at all.”

The Director made a clumsy effort to answer. One staff member, originally from the South, came to his aid. I was relieved, knowing that this history professor was a wise and sensible man, who would do an excellent job moderating. Unfortunately, instead of allowing a free exchange of opinion, the Director cut off all discussion. We had no chance to air our proposal.

Next morning came the news that the visit to TVA had been canceled. Many of us were relieved, there was no longer any enthusiasm for the trip, though to my amazement some were unhappy. Wanting to spare the Panamanians’ feelings, they had so far kept quiet, but now they ran to the staff and complained about not getting to go to TVA. A childish reaction, I thought.

Somehow the group managed to carry on, but it was depressing to find the staff quite upset with us. I had no idea why. Weren’t they the ones who should have anticipated this problem? Did they expect us to simply accept their arrangements? I still felt we’d done right by trying to voice our opinion.

The local newspapers and the radio stations reported the story without comment. They did mention–pointedly–that Uncle Sam was paying for our study.

The incident was still bothering me after the fall semester had started at my university. One day I talked to the Dean of my graduate school; I thought of him as an ‘elderly statesman’.

“They were so eager all summer to help us with any ‘problems’ we might have,” I said. “But when we had a real problem they couldn’t see it. Why not?”

“Because this touched a raw nerve; it was their problem, not yours,” the Dean said. He took two clippings out of his wallet and handed them to me: two narrow columns, an editorial from The New York Times. “For your scrapbook,” he said.

DEFEATING OUR PURPOSE was the caption. Scanning the text, some phrases jumped out at me:

“Fifty-three youngsters…(‘youngsters’? I thought) have been given a bad taste…difficult if not impossible to cannot be denied that many dark-skinned students from Asia and Africa have had unpleasant and embittering experiences…due to the segregation…

The editorial went on to say that …segregation is fighting a losing battle…necessarily a slow and tough one… and it ended with advice …by careful planning ..skillful guidance… prevent… embarrassing incidents…”

I looked up, astonished. “It made The New York Times!”

The Dean laughed. “You sound like an American.”