In 2000, I was working at Shell in Bangladesh as a reservoir engineer, when I was sent abroad to Netherland for training. The training center was a microcosm of Shell’s global operations, with new employees from Scotland, Spain, France, and America, as well as countries that were just starting to hire local employees where Shell was developing oil and gas. There were geologists and engineers in training from Venezuela, Brunei, Syria, and other Arab countries.
In the Bangladesh office, I was the only Bangladeshi engineer in the explorations team, besides two local geologists. I had fought to join the explorations team, at great opposition from the explorations manager. The country manager had forcefully inserted me into that team. I forget what they, the expats, called us, the local employees, in the Bangladesh office. Perhaps we were locals, or perhaps we were called natives. The global employees sat separately at lunch, and, in general, expressed vicious frustrations about the country and the local employees working for them. They complained about the air quality – they were concerned about their children’s health, and many of the employees’ spouses wanted to leave Bangladesh. One geologist referred to Dhaka as a block of concrete. There were other, constant snide remarks, about the corruption of Bangladeshis, the laziness of Bangladeshis, and the lack of technological capacity. Once I made the mistake of asking an expat if they had traveled in Bangladesh, mentioning the Sundarbans, and the man looked at me with shocked eyes before replying that his children were too small to travel.
Most of the global employees were Dutch or British, with a few Americans. The atmosphere was toxic. In the explorations team, no one spoke to me, except for the reservoir engineer who was training me. When I did speak to someone, they were hostile, and they let me know what they thought of me. I had studied in the US for my undergraduate and master’s degrees and just returned to the country, so this level of open racism was shocking to me. It felt like I was back in colonial times. Once, I was asked to prepare a report. When I was about to send it out, the English engineer who was supervising me, a tall, bald-headed, smooth-faced guy, one of the nicest people in the office, said that he would check over my work first, as he was a native speaker of the language.
After months of facing constant prejudice and humiliation in Bangladesh, being in the Netherlands among other bright-eyed international trainees was a welcome change. Everyone was friendly, and there were no barriers among us. The training center was located between Noordwijk and Noordwijkerhout, beside the North Sea. I believe this was the Hotel NH Noordwijk Conference Center in Leeuwenhorst. At the end of the day, we went out to either town, Noordwijkerhout or Noordwijk, for shopping or dining. We hired out cycles to bike to the North Sea and walk on a beach scattered with striking blue jellyfish.
I was there to attend two courses. The first course was introductory. Expensive consultants had been hired to facilitate team building among new employees. We were split into several groups. Each group had to arrive by themselves at a retreat in Liege, in Belgium, while performing some wild tasks en route. The first challenge was that we had to hit about five or six countries on the way. We cracked the riddle ecstatically, putting our heads together. We would simply visit the embassies of these countries in Hague, and then take a train to Maastricht. On the train, we had to sing a song and get strangers to sing along with us. In Maastricht, we slept outside the train station all night in the cool fall weather, till finally making it to our cabin, where we slept on bunk beds and cooked and cleaned the cabin ourselves. By the end of the first week, we were fast friends.
When we returned to the training center, many of the trainees would show up at the Schiphol airport on the weekends to catch a flight to another European city. Others rode the super-fast trains to cities in the Netherlands, Belgium, or Paris. There were other kinds of entertainment. Some of the men went to a live sex show, or they brought women home with them to have sex and then later clean up after them. At our training center, no outside visitors were allowed. It was a big hotel, with a dining hall downstairs that served the same food for weeks. The only relief was the Indonesian sambal served on the side, an acquirement from the Dutch colonization of Indonesia. This bottled sambal added some spice to our bland food. We used to all dream of our native foods at night. Once, the young American engineer from Texas begged me to go out to a McDonald’s restaurant with her. I forget where the McDonald’s was. Amsterdam? Hague? Or in the local village? I will never forget that meal. We relished our burgers and fries, marveling that Europeans ate their fries with mayonnaise. The American engineer, whom I remember as a round-faced, blonde-haired, jolly person in T-shirts and jeans, was my favorite person there. She was charming in her innocence and earnestness, and we soon bonded over our nostalgia for America.
On a November day in 2000, as I watched the US election results from my hotel room, there was a shocking turn of events. George W. Bush had won the election. When I rode the elevator downstairs, all the international trainees at the dining table were stunned, either speaking in fast voices or sitting mutely with ashen faces. There was a heavy sense of bad things to come. Only my dear American friend from the Houston office seemed blithely unaware of the cataclysm the rest of us feared. Despite being my favorite person, she often made remarks with which the rest of us vehemently disagreed. We would round on her and educate her on the spot.
Once we had been having breakfast in the dining room, digging into fried eggs and fried tomatoes and paring grapefruit, when she had said, “America is trying to help world poverty by sending food and money to other countries, but how much can America keep giving?”
The rest of us had challenged her, saying that was not what caused poverty or famine, not a lack of food, and that America was not helping by keeping countries in debt. Through these debts, America and other Western countries controlled these countries’ government budgets by spending, siphoning off poor countries’ resources and controlling their policies by holding them hostage.
In a few weeks, we finished the introductory course of team building and bonding. I stayed on for another course with the other engineers and geologists. Downstairs in the hotel lobby, a large poster showed the price of oil in barrels. One day, an Iraqi employee arrived. We were immediately put on high security. Even before the man stepped foot on campus, all the trainees were briefed on the conduct we would have to follow. We were not to speak to him. He was not allowed in several areas. I believe he was not allowed access to the computers. I never saw him, but like others, I was disturbed by the tense atmosphere in the conference center. I couldn’t stop thinking about how he must feel, moving through this sea of hostility, restricted access, closed doors, and frightened faces turning away from him.
In 2008, when I read Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland about 9/11 and its aftereffects on a Dutchman living in New York, a novel the former President Barack Obama gave his seal of approval by telling the New York Times magazine that he was tired of briefings and was relaxing at nights with the novel Netherland, I was already familiar with the Netherlands, its colonial history and its neocolonial present. In 2000, I had sat together at meals with young people from all over the world with a dread in the pits of our stomachs that President George W. Bush was going to turn the world upside down. For O’Neill’s character in Netherland, 9/11 was a shocking, lifechanging event that struck a blow to his comfortable cosmopolitan existence in New York. His character didn’t seem too concerned about the US invasion of Iraq — a war that would result in over a million dead Iraqis, over five million orphans, the torture of Iraqi civilians, depleted uranium waste left behind that caused widespread cancer, and the rise of ISIS. But from where we were sitting in 2000, the people outside of America, we could already see the future, beyond the scope of the novel Netherland.
Gemini Wahhaj is the author of the novel The Children of This Madness (7.13 Books, Fall 2023) — a complex tale of modern Bengalis that illuminates the recent histories not only of Bangladesh, but of America and Iraq, and the short-story collection Katy Family (Jackleg Press, Spring 2025). Her fiction has been published or will be forthcoming in Granta, Third Coast, Chicago Quarterly Review, and other magazines. She has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Houston, where she received the James A. Michener award for fiction (judged by Claudia Rankine) and the Cambor/Inprint fellowship. She is Associate Professor of English at Lone Star College in Houston.