Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Sinterklaas with his zwarte piet, a need of color change

Last Saturday at 2:30pm, it was the arrival of Sinterklaas, what Dutch also call Sint Nicholas. It is holiday mainly for kids. Finally I got to know that this Sinterklaas is the origin of Santa Claus in North America. It was celebrated by Dutch immigrants in the place which used to be 'New Amsterdam' in 17th century and is later called the New York City. Slowly, Sinterklaas in US merged together with the Christmas day. In its real hometown, it is still celebrated on Saint Nicholas' eve, Dec. 5th. He is a real person back in the 4th Century: a Bishop in Turkey named St. Nicholas became widely known for his good deed with poor children in Europe. He has been depicted as a tall, dignified man with big white beard, dressed in red vestments carrying a Bishop's golden crook, and riding on a white horse. He also carries a big book with all the children's names in it, which states whether they have been good or naughty in the past year.

Sintterklaas has his helpers, called 'zwarte piet' in dutch, which means 'black piet'. He was St. Nicholas' African servant. In the history, St. Nicholas carried a Birch switch used to punish children who were naughty and Zwarte Piet was said to put bad children in his sack or would leave them a lump of coal in their shoes instead of treats. Nowadays, they are more welcomed as expected gifts from Sinterklaas, and black piet is more like a joker.

Of course, the meaning of black always gives racial connotations. There are a substantive share of black population were from Dutch colonies in Suriname and Morocco. It should be a quite sensitive issue for them. We talked with our land ladies about this, and she totally agreed. When her kids were in school, she would not let them go to this kind of festivals, unless some more liberal schools would like to present some pink or blue piet.

Later it comes a more political correct explanation for the zwarte piet: Piet's face is said to be "black from soot" (as Pete has to climb down chimneys to deliver his gifts to kids). Nevertheless, the tradition has been accused of being racist, and attempts have been made to introduce Gekleurde Pieten (Coloured Piet), who are coloured blue, red, etc., instead of black. According to Wikipedia, this phenomenon of "Coloured Piet" was introduced nationally in 2006. The explanation given for this was that "Sinterklaas passed through a rainbow with his boat.

Now when I look through pictures I took that day, I really couldn't find any ethnically black kids in this event. We saw quiet a lot of kids trying to paint their faces black, wearing black stocks. Some even, were trying to cover their hair with black wig, very curly short hair styles. It is interesting to see how this festival will go as more and more immigrants are part of the society. How long can they tolerate the existence of black piet, and when will all piet become colorful?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

You get a job as long as you have a degree

For a person like me who is desperately looking for a job at the moment, I would feel so much grateful if employers can tell me that this is true: you will have job as long as you have a degree, no matter what subject. Unfortunately, this was not from any employer, but from a Romanian girl I recently got to know and had some chat with. She should be in her twenties, coming from Romania four years ago, in the name of love, and now lives with her boyfriend in the Netherlands.

The love story was quite romantic. One of her friends asked her for company to come to the Netherlands attending another friend's wedding. She met her current BF in their wedding. Since then she decided to live here although in the past four years she also spent around two years time back in Romania with her Mom. Her family used to live in Spain. Her father passed away because of an accident when she was 10 years old, then her Mom decided to go back to Romania, their home country. A foreign trip four years ago led her meet with her current BF, who was from Turkey. Her BF has a business of marble trading from Turkey, but not in good shape. He also drives a truck, and has been here for ten years.

I asked her when she planed to get married. She is not ready. They have a cat at home, and she takes care of most of the housework. Her BF thinks she doesn't need to work, but she is not happy about it. In the Netherlands, partnership is legally protected, and many people just chose to live together rather than having a marriage registration. Maybe it is still not too late for her to realize that she needs a degree. She is now taking a Dutch language course, and hope to take some college entrance exam next year. She was surprised to know that I already had a diploma, although she didn't know what is a Ph.D. I tried to explain that it was the highest degree you could get, anyway. She then looked at me, and said, 'then it should be very easy to find a job!'.
'But my major is not popular.'
'no, no matter what subject, as long as you have a diploma.'
I smiled, and didn't know what to follow. She was serious, and made plans to talk with her BF and her friends about me. I couldn't say too much to discourage her warm-hearted, but really ignorant according to me, HELP.

Romania, a country in my childhood was China's communist friend. More in memory, was its gymnastic athletes winning gold medal in Olympic games. I remember maybe it was 1992, that Chinese athletes did also well and the TV broadcast had quite a lot gymnastic programs. I met another student from Romania in US, but never had close contact. Now it comes to this young lady, it gave me a concrete connection with this country.

She smokes a lot. It was a torture for me to stay in an coffee with her for an hour. Well, she had already 10 years of smoking history. Then the time she started smoking must be in her teens. In my mind there formed a picture of a teenager girl smoking and working, going to some private school during the weekend at relatively cheap cost (500 euro per year), dropping off from school, running away from home with a guy met in her trip. Quite a story, life can be so colorful. She offered me her experience that make me thinking, things that I have never experienced. She is happy, optimistic, and enthusiastic about her future. She feels the Netherlands is a great country, would like to pay for people to go to study, and much better pay relative to the amount of work (according to one of her friends' experience). It is still much better than Romania, you can not expect studying for free over there.

I am wondering whether it is because I know too much of the world, comparing to her, it also takes away the kind of happiness she own, and I would term it as ignorant. I don't want to point her out. I would like to see her having an happy and optimistic attitude towards her future.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

PDF printing tips for PhD

It is my first try in making a video, and I try to make it useful to people. I am not very sure, but hope it can inform some.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

One day trip to Maastricht - a medieval town in the Netherlands

Fifty percent of the land in the Netherlands is claimed from the sea, there is no wonder you don't see much sudden land level changes in this country. However, in the most southern province Limburg, it locates the highest point in the Netherlands, 322.7 meters above the sea level. The Drielandenpunt, where the three country Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium meeting at one point, is also close to the oldest city in the Netherlands, Maastricht. Thanks to the rail system's promotion during the weekend, we made a visit to this famous oldest dutch small town.

We arrived at 10:30am and the train was rather packed on a Saturday morning. It was the end point. The whole crowd floated out of the train station and floated into the main street which was then an antique market. The city looked more lively because of the in-flow of tourists. You can see the streets on both sides were very deserted. The whole crowd were moving to the west, crossing the river maas via the
oldest Saint Servatius bridge, eventually spreading over into the maze of twisted medieval streets.

Most part of my life time I have lived close to mountains. I was so excited to see this little hill and realized that I have been missing the hills in my life in the past several months. This is a part of the old city wall, possibly man-made in the history. Well, when most of the landscape was man-made and similar, this is extraordinary even if it were man-made. We ran on top of the hill pretending this were the highest point in the Netherlands, which is actually kilometers away.

Before going, I have read some about this little town, and many said it was the most beautiful Dutch city. I can only agree that this is not a typical Dutch town. In fact, it is a typical medieval city that if comparing to other medieval cities in other parts of Europe, there was nothing much excellent. I couldn't agree more with the city guide in BBC:

The Dutch think of it as that foreign picturesque little city down south, cut in two by the river Maas. With its laid back ‘Burgundian’ [i.e. flamboyant] atmosphere they love to spend a weekend on its cosy cobble stoned streets, admiring the wonderfully un-Dutch like architecture and getting a fair bit of shopping done in between. Taking the hilly surroundings of the Southern Limburg region into account, it’s the closest the ‘Hollanders’(as all people coming from the North are referred to by the locals) can get to going abroad without actually leaving the country.

It is just different. Most Dutch towns are affected by canals and polders design, street networks are mostly crosscutting and straight. A medieval town is famous for its organic growing nature of the town development with curly and meandering streets. It is possible that Dutch people made this town the best tourist town just because of its uniqueness.

I still enjoyed walking slowly along the cobble stoned streets without looking at the map, and suddenly realized that we were back to the place we were before. There are a few things worth noting down. It is a nice city for window shopping, lots of brand shops in small scale but very fancy or humane interior design. There were stone dogs on leash in front of shops. I love the one with a little cute bull dog. The bike sign on the street made out of white color cobble stone was interesting. I love the Kinderboerderij here, but it was weird to see a fake zoo in the park along the city wall. They put animal sculptures in a fence, giraffe, penguin, wood-peckers, ... also with introduction plates outside the fence.

This town is also famous for the Maastricht treaty in 1992, which led the creation of EU and was the result of separate negotiations on monetary union and on political union. I heard also it had a place where Karl Marx lived for several years, which was actually his sister's home. A little surprise to us was a Li-Ning store. It always makes me feel embarrassed that there are so few Chinese famous brand in this world. For a 15 million population Netherlands, there are Philips, Shell, KLM, ... but for a 1.3 billion China, too few to be counted.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Women in Art

A friend send this via email. It is quite interesting, including 84 famous painting about women. Very nicely done.