Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

The Migration Effect: A “Hybrid” Culture

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Curacao in North America (2011). Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

In the age of migration and globalization, it is often argued that we need to remember where we come from. Whenever people ask me about my roots, I catch myself thinking twice. Where do I actually come from? The answer indeed is quite complex. I was born and raised on a small island in the Caribbean, Curacao, which most people have never heard of. It was my home for 18 years. I grew up there, went to school there, and I love local music, food, festivities and most of all the way of life. Despite this, my family isn’t originally from Curacao, and interestingly enough, we are not alone.

My great grandfather migrated from India to Curacao in 1929, and my grandfather followed in 1951. As merchants they set up shop on the island, as it was an ideal location for trade, with natural harbors, and only a short distance away from the South American mainland. Curacao had always been a trading city, and in fact was home to one of the largest slave markets during the Triangle Trade. While my great grandfather moved to the island alone, when my grandfather moved to Curacao, he brought his wife along, and instead of sending remittances back to India, made Curacao a home. I am a second generation Indian born on the island, and I am definitely not alone.

In this day and age, defining our identity is increasingly important, as it allows us to identify where and whom we “fit in with” best, and it is becoming an intrinsic part of social interaction, especially with a population that is no longer completely sedentary. Originally, East Indians were brought to the Caribbean as indentured workers for seasonal harvesting. However, by the 1870s, colonial governments began offering East Indian migrants the opportunity to simply settle in the Caribbean, granting them land rather than a trip back to India. When the indentured labor system crumbled during World War I, there were approximately 500,000 East Indians living in the Caribbean, 1/3 of which decided to remain there. It was here that we see the first “merging of cultures” between the East Indians and the Caribbean’s. Eventually, western work routines, education, Christianity, and population size caused the Caste system to essentially cease to exist in the Caribbean, as Indo-Caribbeans took on a more western form of social class, based on education, profession, and economic power.

By 1930, migration flows from India had started as stories traveled back to India about the living conditions on the islands and the potential for trade. The merchant class in India took advantage of this development. Displaced groups in India decided that the time had come to emigrate and look for new ways to maintain livelihood. While some Indians remained in neighboring parts of South East Asia, like my father’s father who moved to Saigon, others ventured to the Caribbean, to manage importing goods from the Far East to export them to Central and South America, making a significant profit.


Handelskade, Downtown Willemstad, Curacao (2004). Photo taken and uploaded by Rodry 1 at nl.wikimedia. Licensed under GFDL by author. Accessed at:

Handelskade, Downtown Willemstad, Curacao (2004). Photo taken and uploaded by Rodry 1 at nl.wikimedia. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

During the mid-1900s, many Indian merchants moved to islands like Jamaica, Trinidad, Grenada, St. Thomas, and the Dutch Antilles, maintaining connections with family businesses in the Far East. The most interesting thing about these migrants was not that they moved there and sent remissions home like those at the beginning of the 1900s, but rather that merchants moved to the islands, bringing their wives and families along, and eventually also starting families on the islands. While the Indian population remains a minority on most of these islands, they basically fall into the middle and upper classes of society, and as merchants have day-to-day contact with locals and tourists alike, thus becoming a “face” for these islands.

Their families have remained on these islands for generations, to the point where I, and several like me, find it difficult to place ourselves when people ask us the simple question: where are you from? There are definitely remnants of my grandparents and father’s pasts in India: we often cook Indian food, watch Bollywood movies, and celebrate Indian holidays. Nevertheless, there are certain parts of our culture, for example our ethnic language, Sindhi, which somehow was never transferred to the future generations, thus putting the language at risk.

Nevertheless, I am Curacaoan, and I take full pride in my little island. I speak the language, and have, more than my parents before me, assimilated to the culture, celebrating Karnaval, Flag Day, and other such holidays, lighting “Pagara” (a bright red firework that’s distinct to the Dutch Caribbean) every New Year, and especially enjoying the “ambiente” (atmosphere) on the island, from beaches, to the colorful city center, to all the little secret places that only a local would know. In this day and age, we are all “hybrids,” and we are so lucky to be. I couldn’t imagine being able to pinpoint my culture, as it is not stagnant. I couldn’t imagine being only from one place. While I am proud of my Indian roots, I am equally as proud of my little island in the Caribbean, and everything that it stands for. So when people ask me where I am from, they’d better brace themselves for a lengthy answer!

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Neelam J. Melwani Twitter: @neelamelwani

I am a "Yiu di Korsou," literally translating to a child of Curacao. Born and raised on the small island in the southern Caribbean, I was able to explore a very unique culture, influenced by Latin American and Caribbean traditions, with a historic European cultural influence, and the effects of several other countries through increasing globalization. Like many people in Curacao, my family moved from India to Curacaof two generations ago. I attended the International School of Curacao from ages 4-18, and upon graduating I moved to the Netherlands where I obtained my Bachelor’s degree at University College Utrecht, studying political science, anthropology and history. My thesis explored the causes and effects of a revolution and whether the workers' uprising in Curacao in 1969 could or should be considered a revolution. I recently received my Master’s in globalization and development studies from Maastricht University, and my main research focused on European foreign policy coherence using the case study of South Sudan. Currently, I am based in Tokyo, where I am a Junior Fellow at United Nations University. I enjoy exploring themes related to individual socio-economic mobility and political agency. I am also very much intrigued by the functioning of inter-governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, and other civil society organizations, and their interaction with governments and other actors. Through my posts on Future Challenges, I hope to not only tell stories based on my different experiences, but to also interact with individuals from different backgrounds and engage in a dialogue about some of the most pressing issues that our generation is facing. While Curacao is a small place, it is an interesting example for a variety of challenges/successes facing the developing world today and consequently, I believe that sharing my experiences of Curacao will provide insight to some of global trends as well as teach people more about the challenges that surround small island nations in the Caribbean.