“Je bent toch gewoon Nederlands?” Yes. Yes I am. But less and less so.
I underestimated immigration. After living in abroad for 3 years, I thought making it permanent and official wouldn’t make that much of a difference. This last year proved me wrong.
Becoming a permanent resident or citizen of a country other than the one you grew up in, shakes you up at your core. You never know how much of your identity is shaped by the culture you’re surrounded by, until that culture is exchanged for another. It is a full time job to go through all the adjustments to a new environment, communication style, cultural history, language and relational context. Your definition of normal gets changed daily – until you give up and realize that everyone’s different definition of normal actually proves that there is no such thing.
When I moved to the States I knew that I will never become a real American. Having missed 20 years in cultural development, I will always be asking questions and miss the punch line of most jokes. That’s not a bad thing, it actually keeps me in a place of childlike discovery! But what I didn’t realize until just this week, is that I will also never be fully Dutch anymore. The longer I stay away, the less Dutch I become.
I’m spending my vacation in the Netherlands this week, visiting friends and family and doing all those typical Dutch activities. It’s the first time I flew across the Atlantic in this direction to land as a visitor. I still entered through my European passport, but I noticed very quickly that I was acting more like a tourist than a local. It is awkward. People expect you to be fluent in Dutch culture, and they don’t have the same grace for you as your Asian, American or Australian friend. When you look and speak Dutch, you don’t get help, translation or more time to spell your name. When you look and speak Dutch, you get welcome homes and questions about politics.
I’m becoming less Dutch, because I no longer see Dutch customs as normal anymore. What I used to call liberatingly honest, I now find blunt at best and rude at worst. I am surprised when a salesman is grumpy or doesn’t offer to help, because I’m now expecting an excellent customer service. I now wonder why the coffee table conversations sound like ‘worrying out loud’, while I called it ‘sharing genuine care and passionate concern’ before. I adore the Netherlands and each of these Dutch characteristics I’m now bumping into are not always negative. It is my perspective that is slowly changing, because I’ve been adjusting to a different kind of normal.
This is no longer home. Belonging has a different context now. Dutch is no longer a box I fully fit in. But then again, I wonder if I ever did. I wonder if anyone ever does.
Since I don’t have to force myself into that box anymore, I can open up to the lessons the Dutch can teach me, and the Dutch beauty I can enjoy. I decided to just enjoy this gorgeous flat nation like a tourist, while also embracing the awkwardness that comes with it. I’m taking pictures of windmills and cute streets like I’m Japanese, I let my face turn red when my Dutch card gets rejected and I can’t pay for my food and I just laugh it off when I mess up a “professional” phone call because I can’t translate the production lingo I only learned in English. Ah well. Big deal.
So here are some Dutch travel tips from a local who also understands the hurdles and joys of being a foreigner in the Netherlands:
Dear Dutchies, be kind. Please, be kind. Be kind for every tourist, immigrant and refugee that’s crossing your way. Be patient when it takes longer to get somewhere, be understanding when they’re not, be a helping hand when they look lost. As an internationally-oriented nation, you will probably get your Dutch bum in many crowded airplane seats and find yourself in many foreign cultures where they’ll hopefully do the same for you.
Dear visitors to the lowlands, pay attention. I’m talking to all you sweet tourists wobbling through Amsterdam on your red rental bikes, crossing the street without looking over your shoulder. Unless you want to die, see many Dutch middle fingers or take a dip in a canal, please just slow down and stop pretending you have also been biking for all your life.
Pay attention to the normal you chose to adopt for the length of your stay. Pay attention to the differences. Wanna hear a story of what happens when you don’t?
My uncle used to work in an ambulance unit in Amsterdam. One day they got a call from an older American couple that got unwell. They rushed to them, and found them sitting on a sidewalk. They were feeling dizzy, nauseated and just very ‘weird’. “We don’t understand what’s happening. It all started after we got a cup of coffee and brownies in this coffeeshop around the corner.” My uncle did his best not to laugh and sent them home to sleep off their Amsterdam high. He left them with some local advice: make sure that the only substance in your next coffee break is caffeine.
Pay attention. Coffeeshops usually don’t sell coffee, look for Koffiebar instead. Oh, and when you find one, just sit down. The Dutch like serving you, and standing at the bar to order your coffee looks like you’re impatient and think you’re more important than the other customers.
Pay attention to the signs and rules posted and follow them, that makes the Dutch feel safe. Pay attention to the way people interact with each other and ask questions if you don’t understand, instead of get offended.
Pay attention to how national pride and a history of openness and tolerance is doing its best to create a welcoming environment for you.
I will join you with this during my last days of my Dutch vacation. Pay attention and you will appreciate this nation for what it is. A beautiful, innovative, stubborn, proud and excellent little dot on the map.