A graduate has arrived

Have you ever driven an incredibly long distance? You sat  in the same position for far too long. You contemplated turning back at one point after you had already gone too far. Your vision started to blur as you fought the road doze. You wondered if the destination was was even worth it – why were you even going, again? You even considered just giving up and moving into that Motel 6 right there, making a new life in a town that may or may not be named after a klan member. But you kept going.

You know that feeling when you finally arrive and take that first step out of the driver seat?


Your muscles ache. Your ass is numb. And your brain is fuzzy. But you’ve arrived. No matter that it’s 2am and no one is awake to greet you. That first real (and audible) stretch of freedom is all you really needed anyway.

Well, congratulations. You know what it’s like to complete a Master’s degree. (I imagine a PhD would be more like arriving at the destination only to hop on a sailboat to cross the Atlantic?)

So, yes. Finally I am finished with school (for good this time – really, no more!).  A bit later than expected – technically I finished at the end of February 2013, when it was supposed to be more like August or September 2012. But this allowed one (and now two) trips to Suriname. And then things didn’t go as smoothly as I had hoped – I felt miserable quite a lot.  And I procrastinated just as much in my 30s as I did in my 20s…what can I say? Some things just don’t change.

But it was worth it.  Even if just to get on the cover, inside, and back of the University’s grad school brochure.  Supahstar.

2013 GSSS Brochure

After all of the writing, and reading, and ugh – all the thinking, it was worth it.  I finished what I started.  When the University sent me that email to let me know everything was processed and my diploma was printed, it marked an official end to the chapter that started this little, gigantic journey.

And when my friend sent me photos of my diploma (she picked it up since I’m not in Amsterdam), although I had already moved on to focus on Ancestors unKnown, I finally felt that relief of arrival.  

So I took a damn good and well-deserved stretch. But, ya know, my ass might still be numb.

BlackGirlDiploma - Gefeliciteerd!

BlackGirlDiploma – Gefeliciteerd!

Let the Master’s Begin

As of this week, I am officially a Master’s student.  After a semester of “prep,” the University of Amsterdam has deemed me qualified to work toward a Master’s in Sociology.  Never mind the fact that the somewhat disorganized University hasn’t provided me with a new id card and my residency permit is currently in limbo (let’s all pray to the spirits that I don’t get kicked out of the country before someone figures out how to process paperwork).

Last semester felt like a valuable warm-up.  Sort of like a Taebo work-out after not lifting more than a glass of wine for the past eight years.  And now I’m getting ready for capoeira (something that I’ve always wanted to do – both in and out of metaphor).  Now I have three classes: one on social theory, another on qualitative research methodology (beginning with ethnography), and finally migration and integration (my concentration).  Anyone have any well-written, academic papers I can buy?  I kid, of course.  I’m almost positive I can handle this.

I’m not as nervous.  My apartment is furnished.  Dutch no longer sounds like complete gibberish (except when I try to speak it).  I’ve met some great new people.  And I know the differences between Weber and Durkheim.  If that doesn’t make me a future master of something, I don’t know what will.

But this is it.  I basically have nine more months before real life picks up again.  So while I’m studying this semester, and preparing to write my thesis next semester, I will be thinking and planning for the future.  A source of income, a place to live, and a way to turn the ideas in my head into something real.  After this, I’m not sure how many do-overs I’ll be granted.  So I need to make this time count.

And if you’re wondering, returning to the States (to live) is nowhere in the plan.

Ahh, Sweet Summer Freedom

I just finally finished my last paper for the semester.  Seems like an incredibly long semester, I know.  It was.  This last one had a late deadline, which means only my few classmates in this elective course have continued to work, while it seems like the rest of the universe has moved on to joyful and relaxing vacations.  But for me, the last few weeks have mainly involved late nights and anti-social behavior.  I almost completely stopped responding to emails, neglected a number of tasks I need to complete, and haven’t logged into wordpress since the last time I wrote something – and I’m not even sure when that was.  It’s been as if I think I’m only capable of completing one intelligent task at a time – even if the priority task requires more than a week.  Doesn’t matter.  All of my brain power must be focused.  So if you asked me a question during this time – I hope to get around to thinking about it and answering it soon.

emerging from the darkness

Okay, but focusing my intelligence on one task doesn’t mean I haven’t allocated a certain amount of time to mindless activities.  So don’t feel too sorry for me.  I’ve been having a pretty good time.  I’m just looking forward to no longer feeling guilty about the mindless activities, while also thinking intelligently about some other things.

One of my regrets of my self-imposed non-school-thought strike is that I’ve lost track of whatever I should be sharing here.  I even had some moments of self-doubt and considered not returning to the blog.  But there is still plenty to share.  Even if no one still finds this interesting.  Like when I ran into a little boy on my bike – literally ran into him.  Well, he ran into me.  It was his fault, I swear.  But I knocked him down.  And it was horrifying.  This is what’s going on over here, folks.  And I need to get it off my chest. (The kid was fine, by the way. His father only chastised him and didn’t even acknowledge my frantic concern for his careless child’s well-being.)

So now with some new thought time on my hands, I’m going to try to catch up on stuff – in real life and blog life.  I have a new appreciation for summer.  I better not waste it.

Things to Celebrate


I’m sitting here with some tea and my barely functioning laptop, settling in for another late night of paper writing.  It’s been a long day in class and the library.  And in spite of my best efforts to avoid this, I still have work to do.  Apparently it’s just my way.  It’s deeply rooted.  And I’ve decided today that I will accept it.  I’m a procrastinator.

So in honor of my paper due tomorrow, I will write about something else…things that I’m currently celebrating (in spite of the whole paper thing).

1)  Last class today.  My other classes ended weeks ago.  But this class just held on, with serious work involved on top of it, including a presentation today.  Speaking of which, it was about zwarte piet.  I’ll have to share some updates on that at some point.  So today was the last class of the semester.  And after I write these three papers, I’ll be on summer vacation.  That is something to celebrate (until I remind myself that I need a job).

2) Sunshine.  Today wasn’t really sunny.  And yesterday wasn’t sunny either.  In fact, yesterday was chilly and rainy.  But last week was super sunny.  So sunny, in fact, I got the tiniest bit of a tan, which continues to makes me thankful.  Gardens, parks, beaches, and forests.  A lovely few days of sun.  I hope to see it again someday.

3) New  and known people.  The past few weeks have been filled with new people – great people, including residents, newcomers, and visitors.  And the next month promises to be filled with just as many friends visiting.  This makes me happy.

4) Plane tickets.  I’ll be in NYC for a bit next month.  Meeting my new niece and my friend’s wedding are the types of things that will get me to return to the States.  I’m super excited for the visit.

5) Prince’s birthday. Of course.

24 hours of mood swings

A couple of days ago I was sleeping hard.  Like that painful kind of sleep.  It was my recovery from a Tuesday/Wednesday emotional roller coaster that wouldn’t quit.  It. just. wouldn’t. quit.

Tuesday – 4pm.  Confidence wavering.   I think this is a good place to start.  I had been working in one of the University’s basement computer labs for most of the day.  And I was in the process of cutting a class for the very first time this semester.  An assignment was due on Wednesday morning – quantitative data analysis using SPSS, a computer program.  I was feeling pretty confident about the statistics stuff.  So although I could have started working on it last week, I thought Monday and Tuesday would be plenty of time.  But after spending the vast majority of Monday trying to install SPSS on my computer (a shockingly long and lost battle), I was left with far less time to finish the thing.

Since I needed SPSS to even begin the assignment, I would have to start and finish it at a computer lab on Tuesday.  So I worked on it, experiencing some setbacks and breakthroughs along the way.  But by 4pm, I was beginning to realize time was going by faster than I was working.

Tuesday – 6pm. Irritated.  Apparently the University thinks 6pm is an acceptable time to close a student study center.  I was on the hunt for another computer with SPSS on it.  I knew of two more labs.  The one I chose would close at 7.  I was limited to one more hour on SPSS.  I would have graphs and tables all ready.  But I would just have to analyze them on my computer at home.

Wednesday – 2am. Agitated and nervous.  Although I expected a smooth process once I opened up the graphs on my computer, the computer’s temperamental personality made an appearance.  The charts and things wouldn’t open.  And on top of that, the computer was freezing every 30 or 40 minutes.  But as long as I could get to the earliest opening computer lab at 8:30 am, I could make it.  But at the rate it was all going, I wasn’t sure if I would sleep.

Wednesday – 5am. Tired with acceptance.  After an incredibly painful process with my computer, I was finally finished – long after I expected to be.  Although I knew I would only have a brief nap before I would have to rush to the computer lab, I was just happy to have completed the hard part.

Wednesday – 8:45am.  Completely panicked.  After arriving at the library at about 8:35, I was facing the absolute slowest computer start-up in history.  I was literally sweating and shaking.  I would describe it as a mini breakdown.

Wednesday – 8:59am.  Relieved.  After a magically speedy editing job, I was finished.  I handed it in electronically.  And I was calm.

Wednesday – 9:15am.  Furious.  The perfect way to celebrate would have been to purchase tickets to one of the Prince concerts in July.  They went on sale on Tuesday.  I was worried they would be sold out.  But no. They had tickets.  They just wouldn’t let me pay for the purchase.  I tried everything.  Imagine my rage.

Wednesday – 1pm.  Ecstatic. After getting some work done and attending a class, I finally got through on the phone.  I had a ticket to see Prince.  To know me is to know how happy that makes me.

Wednesday – 4pm.  Like I’m the shit.  Not only was I still awake and functioning, I was wrapping up a perfectly awesome meeting about my internship.  They gave me really positive feedback on my proposal.  And after dragging our feet to really get started, we’re making a big push to make it happen over the next couple of weeks.  I’ve already been introduced to some dope historians and genealogists who are teaching me a ton, and enthusiastically offering to provide support throughout the projectWe talked about the significance of uncovering the stories of Surinamese families, including the challenges of enslaved people and some interesting trends among free people.  They seemed as anxious to get started as I am.  Overwhelmingly exciting. 

But while I was having some type of conversation about genealogy, as the meeting went along, all I could think about was my excitement to get home to tear up some sleep.

Asking for Trouble

I’m already picking fights with people.  It’s awful.  I just got here.  But that hasn’t stopped me from being annoyed with about 90% of the Dutch population.  I need to lighten up.  Stop taking things so seriously.  But really, if you were here, this would piss you off too.  Difference is – it probably wouldn’t piss you off so early in the year; and you probably wouldn’t constantly find yourself in conversations about it.

First, to avoid any confusion, let me say that I’m still ridiculously happy here.  I’m feeling quite grateful and enjoying everyday, everything, everyone.  Nothing has changed.

I just have this thing with Zwarte Piet that I can’t shake!  Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is a beloved character in the Netherlands (and apparently Belgium) who comes around during the holidays, beginning in November.  I won’t get into all of the details of Piet’s story.  That’s what wikipedia is for.  The important thing to know for the purpose of this ramble is that this beloved Piet guy is black – well, of course.  But he’s portrayed in black face.  White (and some black) Dutch people paint there faces black, cake on tons of red lipstick to make their lips appear larger, put on an afro wig, accent it with large gold earrings, and wear what I guess is their interpretation of a Moor’s attire.

I had heard and read quite a bit about Piet before I got here.  So I considered myself prepared for some shocking sights in November and December.  Seeing a few people continuing to partake in such a blatantly offensive tradition would be a lot to handle.  But I expected it to be just a few.  I didn’t imagine it could possibly be more than a few.  Although, I will admit that this page from the University’s magazine for new international students raised some broader concerns:

Shortly after arriving I learned it’s more than a few exceptions.  The blackface thing is much larger than I realized.  Portraits of the minstrel character are plastered around the country for the days/weeks leading up to the holiday – in stores and in homes, on cakes and on napkins.

This leads up to a big parade – a minstrel parade.  Adults and children clown around in straight-up, unapologetic black face.  So happy and so abundant.  It’s like an alternate reality.

As I learned more about Piet’s popularity, I started asking more questions.  I had trouble believing that the rational people around me would defend this tradition.  Rather, I expected people to have stories about how frustrated they are with seeing these horrifically offensive representations of black people taking over the country each year.  I didn’t think it would be hard to find Dutch people in opposition to Zwarte Piet.

But there’s nothing but love for him.  I hear a lot of the following:

  • “We love him. He’s a friendly character. That’s not racist.”
  • “He used to be black. But now he’s that color because he went through the chimney. It’s not about race”
  • “The children love him. It’s not racist.”
  • “We can’t change it. It’s a Dutch tradition.”

My favorite quote came from my Dutch teacher: “I don’t think it’s meant to be offensive, is it? I mean, he’s not really a negro.”  He meant it with no harm.  It was actually kind of sweet the way he said it (as hard to believe as that may seem).  After I informed him that it is horribly offensive and turns my stomach, he explained he had just never thought about it before since he grew up with it.  Makes sense.  And I find it fascinating.

So several weeks ago, in my ethnic diversity and popular culture class, I listened as people brainstormed ideas for final projects.  I volunteered my idea that was born out of that fascination (and frustration) – what’s the deal with Zwarte Piet?

Along with a partner, who bravely asked to work with me on this, I’ve committed to drowning myself in images, literature, and conversations about Piet.  Historical research, interviews, maybe a survey…all requiring objectivity.  My lack of objectivity has already proven to be a challenge.  And once I begin having one-on-one interviews with people who adamantly defend minstrel shows in 2011,  I may need the assistance of spiritual intervention to keep my attitude and volume in check.

So yeah, I walked straight into this controversial fire voluntarily.  And this is not going to be easy.

Fascinating, I’m sure.  But not easy…

Homework, Procrastination, and Freak Outs

Homework sucks.  Well, no.  I understand it from a reasonable perspective.  If I only attended class, even if I listened really carefully and took diligent notes, I wouldn’t learn much.  Most of the substance comes from reading, reflecting, writing…all of that.  I get it.  Really I do.  But for some reason homework brings on this unwelcome sense of dread and anxiety.

I think it goes back to when homework started picking up – maybe 4th grade.  I used to expect to be finished with all of my assignments by about 7pm.  So when Jeopardy was coming on in the living room, and I still had more than one assignment left to finish, I would freak out.  It would start with biting my nails, progress to a racing heart, and finally escalate to full-blown tears.  It was insane.  My mother would explain that I was only wasting more time with my freak out.  But I couldn’t be reasoned with.  I was already convinced I would still be doing math word problems as the sun rose…on my 20th birthday.

I didn’t have as much time to panic over homework in high school.  I was always involved with a bunch of activities, mainly ballet, that kept me busy.  By the time I got home and had some dinner, I only had a couple of hours before I needed to be asleep.  So even though I hated it, I just had to get it done.  One night I remember eating my dinner on the way to a rehearsal, while writing a paper, relying on the light in the car.  If I had taken time for a freak out, I would have missed rehearsal, and I wouldn’t have finished the paper.

The problem became procrastination, a good friend I met in college.  More free time meant more time to waste.  If I had 2 days to complete a paper, something else of critical importance would take priority on the first day – something like cleaning my roommate’s hair out of the vacuum or sitting in a room with a few friends discussing how much work we had to do.  On the second day, I would get everything else out of the way at the beginning of the day – checking mail, having breakfast and lunch, maybe a class or rehearsal.  Nothing would be finished between any of those things.  So I wouldn’t start until they were all completed.  And that usually left me at 9 or 10pm, beginning a paper that was due the following day.  I had it worked out to a science though.  Mountain Dew, commiserating friends, and knowledge that it had been done before got me through it every time.  I lost a lot of sleep.  And I had a reasonable number of freak outs.  And none of it helped improve my relationship with homework.

Law school was just about the same, defined by procrastination and complaining.  But that complaining was warranted.

And now, here I am about a decade later, still biting my nails, wasting time, and freaking out about homework.

I handed in my first real paper last week.  Although I left myself plenty of time to write the paper, it took me far longer than I expected to finish.  At one point I had to trash my argument because it was centered around an article that turned out to be absolutely nutso (took me three reads to realize the guy was talking about magic more literally than is acceptable in an academic environment).  Researching, re-reading, and trying to make sense of it all just went on and on.  I expected to finish with plenty of time to spare.  But around midnight, the night before it was due (it was to be emailed by midnight the following night), I was making fried rice and tea, knowing I would be up for several more hours.  And then, of course, old habits came back to haunt me.  No tears were shed.  But self-doubt made an appearance.  And then there was that woman I haven’t been in touch with for 4 years on facebook – I needed to look at all 121 of her Grand Canyon vacation photos.  And then there was my phone’s ringtone – that had to be changed.  And then of course there was the discovery of Top Chef All Stars on youtube.  My goodness.  There was just so much to do in such a short period of time.

But there’s a happy ending.  I finished the paper, emailed it, and handed in the hard copy before 6pm the following day (perhaps my earliest ever).  And I think it made sense.  If it didn’t make sense, well it’s not so much a happy ending.  But it certainly felt happy to get over that hurdle.  And having spent so much time on the paper, I understood more of the concepts than I had before I began.

So finally feeling a bit smarter and more confident, I think homework and I may have reached a better place…but that’s not to say I won’t be looking at every single photo you’ve posted on facebook the night before my next paper is due.

Bits of Updates

Although I like to think that every small event in a day holds tremendous significance in the bigger picture of a person’s life, there are some smaller events that just don’t warrant their own blog posts. So for these smaller occasions, I have decided to lump them together as bits of an update.

My Birthday. Today is my birthday! Okay, maybe this should be more than a bit of an update. But since it’s my birthday in a new city, I don’t have too much to report, other than the fact that I’ve technically entered another year. And that feels great. It also happens to be Queen Beatrix’s birthday. She and I have more in common than she realizes.

Exploring Amsterdam and beyond. My mom and her husband met me in Amsterdam on the day I arrived. They were troopers, walking with me through all parts of the city as I tried to get my bearings and shop for essentials. We walked through the touristy areas of central amsterdam, the southern canal belt, and oost (my neighborhood). We explored Vondelpark, while socializing with plenty of happy Dutch dogs. We took a canal cruise through the city, and a bus trip down to Rotterdam, the Hague, and Delft. We walked through plenty of markets, including Dappermarkt, which is my favorite because it’s just a couple of blocks away from my apartment. We visited some great museums, including Van Gogh and Tropenmusem (tropics museum). And we ate in all types of restaurants, ranging from Ethiopian and Tibetan to falafel and frites with mayo.

Sadly, in spite of my efforts to convince them to move here, they left on Saturday morning. The weekend felt instantly lonelier.

Immigration status. I had a bit of a snafu with my immigration paperwork. The University claims they sent me an email back in December. But I never responded to it because they never sent it. Since I didn’t respond, they stopped working on my application. As a result, I haven’t been able to move quickly on opening a bank account. And everything else that requires a bank account to begin has been on hold. But no fear, I have been able to set an appointment for this week, at which time I should get all of my official numbers and things of that nature. I know I’m legit. And soon the Netherlands will know this as well.

Apartment makeover. The apartment has been painted some lovely colors, including an orangey-red in the bedroom, a golden-yellow wall in the kitchen, and sage with a dark green accent in the living room. In addition, the wonderful paint team also aggressively cleaned all of the wood in the apartment. With a smoker previously living here, the walls were horribly stained and everything was stinky. Now it all looks so fresh and so clean. I hope to have my stuff shipped relatively soon, arriving by March. With the walls looking so nice, I just need some furniture between them to make it feel like home.

The same contractor who managed the paint and cleaning will return this week to begin working on my garden. Clearing out all of the crap, filling-in and painting the fence, and turning the little pond into a fountain are the plans. It should be a great blank slate. I will work on the rest. I’m going to get a gardening for dummies book. There is always room for a new skill.

Starting school. Today/Monday/my birthday is the big day. I have an orientation for the graduate program, as well as an orientation for my language course. This will be my first chance to get a good sense of what my program is all about, as well as assess my peers. It feels like my first day of grade school. But in addition to meeting new people and trying to appear intelligent, I need to navigate the city under more pressure than I have had to so far. Over the course of the day, I will be in several buildings throughout the city. I’ve studied the map. I think I’m ready.

This won’t be my first orientation day. Last week I participated in the international students orientation. We were split into groups of about 10 or 15. I quickly realized I was one of two or three graduate students. The rest of the people in my group were undergrads, spending a semester of their junior year abroad. While this will certainly be a great experience for them, and I wish them the best of luck in everything they do, I didn’t want to spend an entire weekend with 19 year-olds. Our interests just aren’t the same. And I didn’t appreciate feeling like a Golden Girl so early on. I skipped out on the rest of that orientation.

Although I will share one priceless quote from a policeman who said a few words to the group of international students: “Never buy soft drugs off the street. Sometimes it’ll be fake. But most of the time, it’s just shit.”

Fulbright application. The good news is that I am now a finalist. There isn’t more I can say on this without feeling like I’m cursing myself with all types of bad luck. Let’s just say I’m really happy about this and everything else mentioned above.

Time for School

I am indeed moving to Amsterdam. But I can’t forget that this move is for a purpose. Going back to school.

Recently I’ve become consumed by all of the planning and logistics. Fill out this form, email this person, pay this agency, ask this person something. Housing, visas, financial aid – they’re all important. And fortunately, the University has been really helpful as I work through everything.

My course registration materials may be the most exciting email I’ve received so far – well, maybe with the exception of having a place to live. Reading through course descriptions and deciding which will suit me best helped the idea of studying full-time again to sink-in fully.

As I mentioned way back when I was first accepted, my first semester in Amsterdam will be a semester of preparatory classes. This, they say, will set me up for success in their Master’s program, which will begin in the fall of 2011. Until then, I will take three classes: two required and one elective. My required classes are Research Methodology and Foundations in Social Sciences. For my elective, I have chosen “Experiencing Differences” as my first choice. This course focuses on ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in the context of the Netherlands.  According to the catalogue, the course will “provide insight in the concept of cultural diversity in relation to the construction or social formation of identities and communities, and processes of exclusion and inclusion.”  Ooh!

I’ll go to class several times a week and commit to reading every single word of my assignments (unlike my approaches in undergrad and law school, during which skimming was a preferred strategy). I’ll write my papers well in advance of the deadlines. And I’ll get to know my professors beyond our required interactions. I’m doing the school thing right this time, not taking one moment of it for granted. I expect the setting of Amsterdam to either help me appreciate and take full advantage of my circumstances – or it will be the main distraction that I will need to resist to get my work done.

Following my remedial…or rather, prep semester, I’ll begin the Master’s program in Migration and Ethnic Studies, within the Dept of Sociology. Merging all of the recent work I’ve been doing with my family research, I’ll be seeking to prove the importance of genealogical research for black youth throughout the African Diaspora. And I’m hoping to turn my research into something concrete. The ultimate goal is to start an organization that will provide young people with access to their histories.

Before any of that can happen, I have to go to school.  And I’m finally ready!