When I was four years old, in 1946, my father left for Indonesia to get a decent job as a teacher. A decent job, because prior to the war my father was working as a voluntary teacher, unpaid. The Great Depression had had a devastating effect on the Dutch economy.
My mother and I joined him two years later. We left on a long, long boat trip during the winter, but finally we arrived in the tropics. I remember that one morning I woke up and saw through the porthole the silhouette of a tiny island with three coconut trees on it, as if I was looking at a comic strip. At that time, I didn’t even know that these trees were called coconut trees, but unconsciously, I realized that life was to be very different.
Unknowingly I befell “victim” to an unforgettable culture shock:
While living in Salatiga, in Java, my parents employed a maid (babu), a cook and a gardener. When my parents were not around, I used to give them orders, me, a little boy of 8. Once my parents found out, they made it crystal clear that under no circumstances I should give any of the personnel any orders. Certainly not ask them to clean up my mess and to prepare nice snacks for me. But time and again, I did not heed the admonitions of my parents. One day my parents returned home and discovered that I had commandeered the servants again. So my father kicked me in the ass and sent me upstairs to my room. Never before had I received corporal punishment, and I was furious. Halfway the staircase I turned around and shouted at my father: “Wait till I am an adult and then see what will happen to you!” Mind you, I had never behaved in such a manner as I was a pretty obedient child. I must have been extremely upset. So why did I behave in such an obnoxious way?
Only after reading the books of Hofstede I realized what had happened to me at that time. The servants called my father “Tuan besar”, meaning “big boss”. When my parents were not around they called me “Tuan kecil”, meaning “little boss”. In a way, when my father was not around, I became the real boss instead. They would then start pleasing me as much as they could: “What can we do for our little boss? Does our little boss want us to clean up his mess? Does our little boss want us to make some delicacies?” I knew that I was not allowed to boss them around, but this was of another order. How can a small child not succumb to such seduction?
Only after I captured the cultural differences between the Netherlands and Indonesia it occurred to me what had had gotten into me. Because of the much higher score of the Indonesian culture on Power Distance did the servants also pay respect to their little boss. It didn’t make sense to them that my parents had forbidden them to treat me like a little boss. So when my parents were away, they behaved “normal”, the way they actually would have behaved all along.
In 1970 I was expatriated to Turkey, together with my wife and twins, as an associate expert for the ILO. For this purpose we had bought a camper. I was, though, not allowed to travel by car from the Netherlands to my new posting. I had to take a plane. My wife with our two little sons and some family members drove from the Netherlands to Turkey. In the meantime I had rented an apartment on the first floor of a house that looked like a Swiss chalet. That was in old Bebek. In those days, old Bebek was an ordinary Turkish village neatly located along the Bosporus. Not the trendy place to be it is nowadays.
The owner had difficulty in finding people who wanted to rent this apartment, as we heard later. For the Turks it was either too cheap or too expensive, and expats were not interested because they could not throw a party there during wintertime. The small steep road leading up to the building was too slippery in winter. Guest had to walk to this apartment which prospective tenants felt to be shameful. For us, though, it was the most beautiful place to live. To the East big boats were gliding along our living room window. To the North opposite of the valley a shepherd was herding his sheep. On two sides there was a narrow garden which in the North-east was tapering off into a lover’s corner with a pergola. When standing there, you would look down into the village and its mosque; you would see Asia at the other side of the Bosporus; the Bosporus itself full with all kinds of vessels.
The first day our kids came home from the Turkish nursery school, we asked them what they had learned. Their answer was unanimously: “Ataturk”!
To be continued……………….