The Netherlands


I’m waiting at the Golden Lounge (as an Enrich frequent flyer member, though I did have to pay in miles) for my flight to Johor Bahru. It’s nearly 7 in the morning and my flight leaves just before 11.

I got upgraded to Business Class on the flight from Amsterdam (which involved a surly hostel receptionist, no breakfast, missing a train, being stuck in a checkin line for an hour, having to board immediately, and not knowing my seat number until seconds before boarding because the flight was overbooked). For all the stress, the relaxation I got with better seats and better food eased all of the other worries. It was also lovely to see and hear Spidey in the MAS videos at the beginning and ending of the flight – it was like having her by me.

For confidentiality reasons I can’t exactly divulge what went on at the workshop (for those of you who’ve done it before – it’s pretty much similar). It was an emotional rollercoaster and really pushed me to all sorts of emotional limits. There was one person, however, that turned things around for me and made a big impact on my workshop experience.

Steini in his usual crazy modeA rare candid non-hammy photo of Steini

Steini is from Iceland and is best friends with Inga, the lovely lass that had been taking care of all the TestPilots. He is utterly flamboyant, sparkly, bouncy, loud, energetic, flaming, screaming, drama queen – one of the biggest nutcases I know (and I know quite a few nutcases!). We were pretty similar, in a way; we both had boundless energy and didn’t quite know where to focus it all.

Steini was a hit with our group and became our “class clown”, cheering us up whenever things got dour. I, on the other hand, didn’t feel as welcome. I knew that I had a tendency to be unwittingly overwhelming (no matter how hard I try to reign myself in) and I worked hard to keep calm and give everyone a chance while still contributing. However, this meant that I often lost out in group discussions as one or two people would dominate the conversation and make it a two-way between themselves – that was seen by the rest as leadership. The only way I could get a word in was to nearly force my way in, which was seen by the rest as overwhelming. Body language was telling – the person next to me sometimes turned his back towards me to concentrate on others, and when I raised my hand to indicate that I would like to say something, I was signalled to put it down, as though I would barge in (then my raised hand would be ignored and they’d just have their two-way).

There was an exercise to show who helped you the most and who hindered you the most. No one thought I was helpful; half the group thought I was a hindrance. Overwhelming, loud, won’t listen. I didn’t think that was fair. I did listen, and made a strong effort to connect ideas together and relate them to our end goal (we had a major assignment and I was very strong and vocal on making sure we kept to the spirit and goals of the assignment and not get lost in being “young, hip, and cool”). Just because someone may have beaten me to my thought, or because I never got around to saying anything, doesn’t mean I didn’t care. I thought some of the comments were hypocritical (I certainly wasn’t the only supposed domineering character) but I was not given a chance to defend myself.

The exercise was already making me physically ill – I remember doing it in Stockholm and even though I fared much better there I still found it unbearable. Myself and Katherine, another girl that was getting the brunt of the criticism (including from me and herself!), broke down in tears. Katherine tried to laugh it off; I just sobbed.

Earlier in the day, not knowing of this exercise (or maybe he did, from Inga), Steini pulled me aside and told me that some people were feeling uncomfortable around me. I hate being pulled aside for any reason (even if it turns out to be something good) and this didn’t make me feel any better. So I was quite surprised when Steini, who had been sitting across from me watching me cry, jumped over to me and held me. He tried to cheer me up, telling me that I will be a KaosPilot, that we would live together when that happens, that I am a good person. I wasn’t feeling any of those (I particularly felt that my chance of being a KaosPilot was over, and can’t shake it off till now), but I really needed that comfort.

We were also meant to tell the group what we ddi positively and negatively, and what we learnt. Time was up before myself and Raha (another group member) had our turn, and the group decided that we could finish it off at lunchtime. In that space I talked about how I worked hard at keeping the big picture (our assignment) in mind, that I didn’t feel like I contributed anything useful, that I have been holding back a lot and still it was overwhemling and I don’t know how else to not be overwhelming without shutting down, that I was loud because my mother has hearing problems and I had adapted to speaking louder so that she could hear me (I only worked this out a week ago despite being told off as “loud” for ages).

Something in the group changed. Everyone told me about the ideas and thoughts I’d contributed, the things I’ve said that has made a big impact. The guy who said I didn’t listen retracted his words, saying I do listen in a different way – by making the ideas bigger. Steini, sitting next to me, reaffirmed the importance of me reigning everyone in. As we worked to finish our assignment before presentation hour, I found a focus for my energy – my contributions were being appreciated and things were actually getting done. Our presentation rocked.

Somewhere along this day he told me that Inga had a similar experience in her Aarhus workshop (she was rejected there and moved on to Rotterdam). She didn’t receive any positive or negative feedback, and felt quite ignored and unappreciated. Steini said that experience affected and changed her a lot, and that he could see that I was going through the same thing.

Later that night we had an afterparty at a bar in the city. I’m not a big clubber (bars and clubs are not my favourite places in the world) and I was very drained. However, I didn’t want to be completely anti-social. It was cold outside and I didn’t bring my jumper as it was reeking of cigarette smoke (from sitting in another bar watching Euro 2008 and waiting for our group to finish). I kept moving from bar to outside area, keeping my distance from everyone, not knowing whether to join in when I had no alcoholic beverage in my hand.

Steini kept pulling me to him; at one point he asked me to sit next to him and said “don’t feel like you don’t belong”. He saw that I was cold and gave me his sweater and jumper. Before our first cab came at twelve, he told me that he really cared for me, that he saw all my potential and thought that the KaosPilots were the right thing for me, that he wanted me to be in the school more than he wanted himself to be in it, that I have so much capability to do great things in the world. He told me about how he used to fear and deny his sexuality (he’s gay, possibly bisexual) and had faced a lot of depression and loneliness – but then he found a channel for his energy through being cheerful and making other people happy.

I asked him why he cared so much about me. After all, we had only met two days ago, and it’s not like I did anything particularly important for him. He told me that I reminded him of Inga.

When I was feeling completely alone and unappreciated. Steini broke through all my barriers and reached out to me. He gave me comfort and healing when I needed it the most, without any concern or worry about compensation. He gave his love to me unconditionally – not a romantic love (not going to happen anyway), but one of companionship and humanity. When I was lost and lonely, Steini kept me company.

Thank you so much, Steini. I don’t know if I’ll see you again, but please know that you mean so much more to me than you’ll ever realise.

Having a Bangladeshi passport (despite being born & raised in Malaysia – long story short: Malaysia is not a jus soli country and I am a Permanent Resident in Malaysia) means that I need to get a visa for about 90% of the world.

Bangladesh Passport Cover by Russell John
Bangladesh Passport Cover by Russell John

The Netherlands is one of those countries. As The Netherlands is part of the Schengen agreement, this makes my Dutch visa applicable to many other European countries, which is great – I took advantage of the Schengen benefit to visit both Sweden and Denmark on my last Euro trip. (The annoying thing about Schengen is that, despite the UK being in the European Union, it’s not a Schengen country – I’ll need a separate visa, and I can’t visit my sister in Bristol this time round. boo.)

The thing with Bangladesh passports is that many countries make it a high-risk passport, which means it normally takes longer than usual for me to get a visa. It doesn’t matter that I’ve spent my whole life in Malaysia, that I’ve been travelling since I was a baby, that I have been in Australia for two years. Because my passport is green and comes from a Third-World country, I’m somehow a travel risk.

When I asked KP NL to fax over an invite letter to the Netherlands Embassy in Malaysia, the staff member asked (paraphrased): “can’t you just apply for a tourist visa? I’m sure our country isn’t that xenophobic!”. I am applying for a tourist (short-stay) visa – that’s why I need the invite letter! I don’t know if xenophobia has a part in it, but it’s more bureaucracy than anything else.

The naivety of people who’ve never had to deal with visas can be really cute sometimes. Though it does mean that KP NL will have to be prepared for dealing with student visas.

So anyway. I found out about my invite when I was in Brisbane, but I was flying to Malaysia on the 8th. I contacted both the Brisbane and Kuala Lumpur consulates asking what to do. I found out that all visa applications had to go through the Netherlands anyway, so I figured – couldn’t I just send the application in Brisbane and get the visa in Kuala Lumpur?

No go, says KL. They need to know that I’m legit.

Brisbane isn’t a go anyway; they’ll have to send it to Sydney, and by the time my passport gets there, I have to go to Malaysia.

I arrived in KL on Sunday night and on Monday morning my dad and I went to the Netherlands embassy to hand in my application. The form, two photos, Dad’s bank statements (since he bought my plane tickets), the letters from KP NL, a letter from my university stating I was a student in Brisbane, and copies of IDs and insurance and such. They’re sending it to The Netherlands (it should be there now), and hopefully I’ll get it back in time.

Dad had just come back from Amsterdam, though it did take a little while for the clerk at the embassy to recognize him. Hopefully this would be a plus in our favour.

Getting the Swedish visa last year for the KP workshop in Stockholm was an adventure all to itself. I had less than a week, and I knew that trying to get my parents’ approval would delay the process.

I went to the Swedish Embassy in Brisbane first thing in the morning, and explained my predicament. The lady took a look at the papers and told me that chances were low because even Australians needed a month for visas. She called up the Sydney office for me – then looked at me in surprise as she explained my luck.

If I could get all the papers in order within two hours, the visa is mine.

This meant that I had to buy my plane tickets on my own. I definitely wasn’t going to inform the parents yet, and looking for funds won’t work. I had money in my account set aside for uni fees, which was enough to cover my airfare.

I went to the Flight Centre office in Brisbane and went through the cheapest airfares. The main complication was that return seats were filled up, and in one case a return via Bangkok was not viable because the layover would have been 14 hours and I needed a visa for anything above 12 hours. Eventually we worked out a flight plan that went Brisbane – Singapore – Amsterdam – Stockholm – Amsterdam – Tokyo – Sydney – Brisbane. Over $2000 gone in an instant.

With my tickets, insurance, letters, and passport, I handed over my application. The chances were good but still super risky. I decided not to tell my family about it until I had the visa in my hands.

In the meantime I arranged my own accommodation. Couchsurfing and the Hospitality Club wasn’t working out for me, so I had to find a hostel. I found The Red Boat, a youth hostel that was actually a pair of moored boats on the Stockholm river. I placed a long distance call and had my room.

Three days later, my visa arrived. I was shaking; this is the first time I’d applied for a visa on my own, and I did it. My dad kept telling me that I’ll never be successful at visas with my Bangladesh passport unless I had him and his job to support me, but I did it. I didn’t need my parents’ status. I just had me.

My parents didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when they heard the news.

I eventually made it to Stockholm (and a side trip to Copenhagen and Aarhus) on my own. It was very challenging, especially since I was jetlagged, a bit culture-shocked, and was recovering from massive uni assignments. I was extremely exhausted and battered on the way home – especially when I had to go through 10-hour layours in both Tokyo and Sydney, find out that I was rejected from KP Stockholm while in Tokyo with no one to console me, and had to fight for a new flight when my Sydney-Brisbane flight was cancelled and no one was helping me get onto a new one (except for the lovely Flight Centre lady – thank you!!).

Despite all that though, the trip was absolutely worth it. I proved that I could apply for a visa on my own merit. I did a solo international trip and didn’t get into trouble. I could take care of myself. I could survive massive challenges. I did feel that I didn’t want to look at planes for a while (not possible, since I flew home a week later!) but I survived.

At least this time round it’ll be easier flight-wise. Accommodation’s been taken care of, and it’s just JB-KL-Amsterdam; no crazy stopovers. Rotterdam is just 50 minutes away by train. All I have to worry about is whether someone will try to feed me hash brownies (eww pot).

Now all I have to wait for is my visa.

So as some of you may know, I tried my luck with applying for Team 2 of the Kaospilots Netherlands in Rotterdam.

I just found out today that I’ve been shortlisted!

I’ve been invited to the Admissions Workshop in Rotterdam on the 19th and 20th of June. They’re also providing accommodation and food (so the workshop fee is a bit higher, but at least I have a place to stay).

The main hurdles so far are flights and visas. Visas should be OK because I’ve got official paperwork, but I do need a ticket to get a visa (and to get to the Netherlands!).

Since I’ll be back in Malaysia at the time, I’ve asked my parents to help me arrange a plane ticket so I can apply for a visa as soon as I get home. They’re being Dolly Downers about the whole thing, though, so I’m not entirely sure I want to trust them with it. KP NL couldn’t fund me flightwise, so I think I’ll try asking KLM for help.

Any of you have any experiences with KLM or other Dutch-bound airlines? Any recs on those that are great with sponsorship?

But anyway! Great news! The principal, Peter Linde, wrote me a very thoughtful and personal email. I am totally touched and honoured.

I would also like to give a shoutout to Bob Sloat and Michael Doneman – you two got mentioned in the email and it was your feedback that got me through!

yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay 😀

I wish KP NL would hurry up and tell me the status of my application already.

Of course, the last time I wished that, I got rejected 5 days early.

argh. The anticipation plus all the end-of-sem assignments (including a rather messy rhetorical essay) is just stressing me out.

I’ve been following the blogs of some KaosPilots, particularly those that are on OutPosts overseas (that tends to be the main reason for their blogging). Quite honestly, I haven’t seen much in the way of cultural awareness – or even an attempt to understand and appreciate their host societies.

Most of the OutPost blogs tend to feature parties and gatherings – photos after photos of blonde blue-eyed Scandinavians drinking the night away while they party in an exotic country. There’s very little in the way of actually examining the culture, exploring their location, or even the work they’re doing. The work in their OutPosts are usually relegated to one or two posts – “this is our project, tada!”. Otherwise? Party party party.

The team in Mumbai right now are tasked with answering questions about India, sent in by the KP board members. One student is taking in questions from the Web – and, quite frankly, his response to the latest two questions shows a deep level of ignorance:

Implying that the West has made mistakes is apparently biased!
Cellphones and Internet in India is rare, people marry young, and Indians must be liberal with porn because men like to share porn on phones!

Complete headdesk-worthy. (Read my comments on the above posts for my responses.)

Two KaosPilots blogs that I find to be very thoughtful and reflective about the educational processes are Henrique‘s and Zulma‘s (Zulma’s website also rocks hardcore). Henrique is in China and his blog has plenty of thoughtful and interesting entries on China and Chinese culture, including the conflicts with Tibet. He really shows his effort at understanding his host country. Zulma’s is more personal, but she talks a lot about her projects, and the processes she goes through in completing them. She also talks about her budding life in Denmark – including a new baby! (aww).

It’s really interesting that the two blogs I featured above are both from international students – Henrique is from Brazil and I believe Zulma is from Colombia. They have had to face the challenges of being outsiders, of being foreigners, from Day One – while most of their classmates would have been right at home in similar cultures. Now these students are overseas too, sent by their outposts – and they haven’t quite picked up the skills of cultural awareness, of just being curious about where they are. They’ve instead become insular, clinging on to old patterns while dismissing their host culture’s patterns as just oddities.

I’m rather glad that the KaosPilots Netherlands have announced that they’re received expressions of interest from all over – Russia, India, Nepal, a few other places (including multi-country me). This would lead to a much richer pool of applicants, and hopefully this batch would be much more culturally aware than the others. I’ve checked out the Facebook group for the latest Aarhus school, Team 15, and there doesn’t seem to be any indication of non-Europeans in their team (and apparently Macs are MANDATORY! What?!).

It does make me wonder, though – why are the students of the “best school for the world” seemingly unaware of the world they’re in?

The KaosPilots NL are developing some creative financing ventures for potential students. Among them is a corporate-supported fund to cover fees for the first year, and work experience programs. They’re also working on getting Government funding.

They seem to be pretty focused and thorough on the funding ideas; the funding page just went up but there’ll soon be entries from those that have found creative ways of supporting themselves. Another plus point for them!

Also, I got a postcard from them this morning. Aww thank you! It’s purple with “Arabic” writing that says “this card can change your life”. I think they meant to send me something too with it, because there’s a strip of sticky tape in one corner, but it got lost in the post. Sorry guys!

Don’t forget to get your chance at KaosPilot A-Z 2!

Because I’m about to reapply for the KaosPilots – this time in Rotterdam.

Would this blog count as a form of marketing for KP? The creative assignment is to design & test a marketing campaign to promote KP NL. Though this blog has mostly been about the Aarhus school, I still managed to promote the KaosPilots to a whole bunch of people who had never heard of the program beforehand. It’s meant to portray KaosPilots Netherlands in a positive light though – and I haven’t really mentioned anything either way about them (except the fact that they too are recruiting).

Well, here’s something positive: they offered to send me a token by post in appreciation of my interest. Aww.

Hmm. Maybe my blog AND the Facebook group have been great marketing strategies. KP (all schools) have done blogs and FB groups too, but none’s really from the perspective of a potential student – sure, it may be hard to find one to blog for you if you ask them (because it may seem to be biased – “oh we’ll guarantee you acceptance if you write about us”) but as I mentioned before, it has linked KP to a whole bunch of new people.

At least I have a bit more than a month this time! And this time, I will have FUN with it. Be silly. At least give them a laugh, if nothing else. Maybe finish it off in 5 days or something.

Mwaha!