For those of you who aren’t aware, I attend Leiden University in the Netherlands. I lived there for two years, would have been three had the pandemic not happened and class continued face-to-face. I had an overall great time (Especially before Corona)!
Last week, I discussed Kindness in the Netherlands. Other fun reads on the Netherlands are on Amsterdam and Rotterdam. I wrote in those posts that I’d actually come to feel more attached to the Netherlands. This was and is true in that I felt more comfortable there due to the experience I’d gained and the good times I had and the exploring of the country. But more attachment does not equal me being happy there long-term.
So, I’m going to do a few blog posts over the next few months to reflect on the two-year experience. I will be discussing my cultural experiences (good and bad), Dutch language experience and hopefully my visiting again. In the case of the Netherlands, I’m able to discuss it with a balance of insider-outsider perspective. Unlike the UK and India, the other places I’ve lived in, the Dutch culture is not ingrained in me, which makes it easier for me to discuss. With British and Indian elements, they are so normal to me I don’t examine them in the same way.
NOTE: All places have good and bad and we have to find our own balances, both within ourselves and in different social situations.
Be warned this post will discuss some negative aspects of the Netherlands but everyone is different in their perception and experience. In general, I like to keep things positive, but more recently I see the merit in not shying away from discussing the bad. For example, in my Kindness in Japan post, I wrote that while a very kind and respectful country, sometimes I felt respect to be driven from fear and formality over being genuine, which can make gestures at times feel fake or insincere. Or how, in stark contrast to the Netherlands, many Japanese people struggle with being direct and outright refusing, often causing confusion or frustration. Japanese politeness has good and bad elements, I similarly found this with Dutch cultural elements. I believe that in many cases with cultural aspects, often a positive ideal is taken to an extreme.
I feel that there isn’t enough attention to the not-so-pleasant aspects of the Netherlands and the fact that I constantly feel the need to make disclaimers is an issue in itself. Criticism by outsiders is often dismissed. But actually it can be valuable, particularly when the nation has an increasing number of internationals. All countries need to try and do better and use culture as an expression of self, not as an excuse for intolerant behaviour. People make Culture, Culture does not make people. (Chimanada Ngozi Adiche said in ‘We should all be feminists’)
My two years was a good experience in many ways. I chose the unknown-to-me Netherlands for an adventure, and I certainly got that. I really value the experience of learning how to navigate a new culture and nation that I didn’t instantly gel with, was a very valuable life experience. More on that in the next installment.
If you want to skip ahead a little, some things I will discuss are: Dutch Directness, Dutch debating, going Dutch, Dutch order and so forth. I also delve into post-colonial superiority complexes too. I’ve tried to start with the less serious ones.
My life in Leiden Pre-pandemic
Other than having Dutch friends, I won’t really have much connection with the Netherlands once I graduate. I did enjoy my time there, largely because of the convenient and fun student life I had in Leiden. Living a 10-minute walk away from campus and most of my friends was what made it worthwhile for me. Leiden is also very picturesque, making it a nice place to live; lunches on the canal, Christmas lights reflecting on the water, old quaint buildings and more!
Also, Leiden was fairly accessible by train. I could get to central Rotterdam or Amsterdam in under an hour. I could get to the Hague central in about 15 minutes and to the beach in an hour! So, even when I was bored with the small city that felt like a town to me, I could go on a little adventure.
Pandemic Life in the Netherlands
Then the pandemic hit. Class went online and nothing was open, so my central Leiden apartment was of no use. I stayed with my brother in Amsterdam for a while which helped. I found I liked Amsterdam more than I thought, even during quarantine (read here). Then the weather got better and I missed having my own space, so I went back to Leiden. I enjoyed the sun and hanging out with my one friend who was still there. Things weren’t too bad. But something was still lacking. I was starting to feel disconnected from my surroundings and the little pandemic world I had.
I came to realise how when you move abroad with an express purpose, the rug being swept from under you makes you view that place in a whole new light. I went to go to university. Then I didn’t have it. That was strange.
The Decision and why I didn’t feel it
When I learnt physical class was going to be off the table going into my third year, I was sitting at my desk in my second apartment in Leiden reading my screen. I then leant back and looked at the lightbulb hanging from my ceiling and thought ‘What am I doing here?’.
I thought about saving on rent if I went back to London, seeing some close family, having the comfort of crumpets or other British and Indian things I missed, my local area and other comforts I could benefit from in these times. I considered how much I didn’t enjoy Leiden when I’d seen so much of the scenery, when I had nothing keeping me, especially when I had only one friend around, who also had a lot on her plate. I thought about how it would be good for me to get reacquainted with London, I’d planned on doing so anyway after uni.
I then thought about how without these things, did I really fit in with the Netherlands? Did I even like it that much? That was a hard question but once again, also easy. I was more and more aware of the area and felt comfortable but there were also so many things I couldn’t bare now that I didn’t have the things I liked. I just don’t blend in with Dutch culture that much to be frank. I can cycle but I don’t live and breathe it. I don’t like the food much, things close so damn early… Dutch was fun to learn at times and interesting, but overall I find Sinitic, Bantu, Romance and other language families more appealing than the Germanic family.
So? Why was I feeling disconnected?
Beautiful and Fun Chaos vs Dutch Order
One thing I also missed was the randomness and beautiful chaos of London and India. Seeing an elephant on the road, random events and festivals popping up, the buskers, the occasional eccentric stranger, the hustle and bustle you can get lost in. I discuss this a little in my posts on London and Ahmedabad. Strangely, the Netherlands was too orderly and predictable to me. I have a friend who wanted that and it was why she liked the Netherlands. Perhaps after a while living in India, I’ll crave the order I once cursed. Once again proving how different we all are, showing that my negative experiences are someone else’s positive ones and that time changes things. Also, noteworthy is the relativity of cultural perceptions in this vein, I’ve met numerous Dutch people find other countries too boring and orderly compared to theirs.
Going Dutch and giving
Another thing the Dutch have a reputation of is ‘going Dutch’. (Some of my Dutch friends were very surprised when I told them that is a real expression we use!) It is pretty great in many ways. It meant I often was able to frankly say “I’m not paying the same amount when I ordered cheaper vegetarian dishes” without being met with disdain. It also meant it was easier for me to afford fun with friends even when short on cash.
There is literally an app for splitting bills and costs, Tikkie, and Dutch banking apps also make it very easy to request payments from friends. It’s actually really great and convenient (until you receive one for 10 cents). This just goes to show how deeply ingrained this culture is and thus how it is made easy to split costs.
Having said that, I come from a gift-giving culture and I enjoy treating people and having friendships where you are constantly indebted to each other, both monetary wise and through other emotional aid and favours, rather than counting 10 cents. I’d rather buy us coffees today, and you tomorrow. If I don’t see you tomorrow or if you never offer to get me coffee, or never offer to give or help me in another manner, then it’s money well spent, because I understand you.
Not everyone I met was quite so meticulous, but many were. I understand that ten cents can accumulate or that some of us are tight on cash. But like I say, gestures don’t have to be monetary. I guess I would like a bit of a halfway between mine and the Dutch version. Being less wary to ask people to pay me when they owe me is great, but I also want to encourage more gestures and gift-giving, and less counting. Having said that, gift-giving cultures can sometimes place a large pressure on getting the perfect gift for someone of a certain status, which also takes the fun and kindness out of it. Taking certain elements of different cultures to create a unique balance is what I strive to do. In that sense, though I don’t fully fit in with the Dutch way of doing things, it has shaped my outlook and way of doing things to an extent.
Dutch Debate Culture
I chose Leiden for this, it’s even the university motto, ‘ Praesidium Libertatis’ – Bastion of Freedom. I noticed numerous UK universities being funded by organisations with a political or religious agenda, thus restricting the curriculum, negating or manipulating history to change its onward projection and perception. The Dutch tendency to directness is known to foster a great environment for debate. This was particularly professed regarding higher education. I did find this to be true in many instances. It’s still not as free as I would like in the Netherlands but is far better than other nations’ institutions in my experience.
A positive more personal experience I had was getting into a heated debate with a friend about language instruction. I was worried our new friendship was doomed and that he no longer liked me. He asked why I was awkward next time I spoke to him and I explained my worry to which he kindly laughed and said he loved a good heated debate, he’s Dutch after all. The idea that debate and contradictions in opinions are completely fine is great and I came to see I could have heated debate with friends only for them to embrace me the next minute.
Having said that, I sometimes found this innate desire to debate was sometimes overkill. A debate is only a debate if parties are genuinely open to new perspectives and if there isn’t a desire to excessively impose your opinion, which often happens with Dutch people. I remember once telling a Dutch friend how a lady I met said something I didn’t agree with in my presence. I texted my friend reasons why I thought this lady was wrong. To which my friend responded; “Then what did she say?”. It took me a moment to compute the response. My friend assumed I’d said these reasons to the lady. I then understood and noted how very Dutch it was of her to assume that I engaged in a debate with this lady. She hadn’t wanted a debate, she was not hurting anyone with her opinion and she was clearly very steadfast in it.
Yet, many Dutch people I know still insist on discussing it. Often not internalising the fact that other cultures do not always enjoy or even allow this, often unable to simply let go if they feel someone else is irrational, which is possibly why they often come off as arrogant and impose their opinions. It can cause unnecessary tension that I don’t feel is worth it, especially when some Dutch people, or people in general, aren’t actually as willing to change their opinion as they think or say, often wanting the final word. The point of debate is not to show the other person they are wrong but rather to expand one’s perspective here are often internalised biases and racism in thinking that their opinion is better and need to show the other the proper way.
Are the Dutch open? progressive? tolerant?
The Netherlands is quite diverse in its population; numerous African, Turkish, Surinamese communities live in the Netherlands. Over time, Dutch identities have become more pluralistic. More and more people are accepted.
However, I have had many bad cultural experiences with being allowed to express my cultural views but people not really having them taken into account. My issue is essentially that the Netherlands itself and others often profess how tolerant it is. The country is in many ways its own brand. Its image has often been too squeaky clean and does not fit the reality of experience. Thus, I found while there were some freedom and openness (in terms of diversity acceptance and liberal ideas), the image given off was very exaggerated. I sincerely believe I’d have been pleasantly surprised had I not been bombarded with the idea they were so progressive. The professing of it gave me higher expectations that fell short.
Tolerant is an odd word. It feels as if you can be different, it will be tolerated, but you can’t really show it and express it as much as proclaimed, and different cultures are not equal. Yes, they have a lot of people from different cultures and homosexuality is far more accepted, but there are still numerous racist and homophobic ideas and peoples.
Tolerance and conformity
The idea of all people being held to the same rules and standards is very Dutch in my experience, and also quite admirable. The notion of equality is always admirable. But it that idea sometimes gets twisted and taken to an extreme. I find that the equality idea is also part of the Dutch brand that falls short in reality. Dutch society is often quite hierarchical.
I also noticed there was a subconscious culture of conformity. Some I have discussed this pointing to the history of Lutheran Christianity and Calvinism (also said to explain the phenomena of many Dutch people having large windows with no curtains, not caring about passersby peeking in. Don’t quote me on it though.) A milder example is how I personally found Dutch fashion to be rather mild and at times boring. Each to their own, of course. But I noticed that things some Dutch people considered ‘bold’, I considered ‘normal’. I’m from London and loved goth and punk fashion as a kid. The goths and punks of the Netherlands, even in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, were far milder than what I’d seen. Often wearing patterns, outfits or unconventional makeup got me stares, again even in the big cities, some feeling judgemental and hostile. Of course, I got nice looks too. But I found this hostility far too common. Its very subtle, and perhaps it was my imagination. But I do have other people who report similar odd looks when dressing boldly.
Dutch Directness and condescension?
It often happens that they are direct and it can often be helpful to know where things stand. But I found far too often it was just a pretence to be plain rude, unhelpful or condescending. Even many of my Dutch friends don’t like this stereotype. Many stereotypes are based in truth but many Dutch friends tell me of the passive-aggressive uncles who won’t just say their problem, of the rude sounds they get when they fumble for a second in a queue and much more. There is a fine line between stating a fact and insulting someone. Sometimes niceties are in fact nice and there is nothing wrong with that. I also had numerous experiences with unhelpful customer service, with landlords, doctors, shopkeepers and many more all talking down to me because I wasn’t aware of or didn’t agree with their way of doing things, saying that they’re just more direct when they’re actually just being uncooperative. These situations caused unnecessary, extreme discontent or stress. In the next blog post, I will also discuss how bad experiences can feel different depending on your relationship with the place.
Oddly, I find that though I had some rude ‘direct’ comments and had what I perceived to be judging looks regarding my appearance in the Netherlands, I have never once experienced or seen the Dutch comment of appearance in a degrading or irritating manner. Strangely in much of Asia and even other European countries, I’ve found it far more common and acceptable to comment on people’s weight, skin, dress etc. It can be a massive culture shock. In some cases, it’s passive-aggressive, but it’s also just often normal and not at all malicious. It’s particularly brutal when it’s something like weight or skin that isn’t in your control. Why mention my large pimple? WHY? Even worse is simply stating something about my appearance. In Asia, I regularly have heard ‘Oh you’re wearing eyeliner’ with no positive and negative comment. And its like… ‘I know?’ In the Netherlands, though the ‘directness’ can be rude, I rarely find it to be totally out of the blue comments for seemingly no apparent reason.
So, many ups and downs once again.
The Netherlands and Racism – The roots, the nuance and my experience
This is a complex issue that is hard to delve into but I still think it important to scratch the surface. Firstly, some background on deep-rooted racism in the Netherlands and Europe in general. It is a remnant of colonialism; intentional misinformation, obscuring information or purely focusing on the negative of Non-European peoples and cultures. There is often a deep-seated belief that Asia and Africa are backward and that the European systems are infinitely better and many Europeans don’t even realise they think this way. It’s all around them, so it makes sense. Even I and other Diaspora non-Europeans in the west internalise these things at times!
Not only that, but much of the success of Europe comes from using other nations as resource economies, impeding their development with effects ongoing to this day. Then, they turn around and look down on the resource economies they depleted. If you are interested, you can also read about soft colonialism and the effects of imperialism on the economy and international trade. I will only stop talking about this when it stops being relevant, which will never be the case. I say this because even if we reach a world where this subtle colonial-background racism disappears, understanding and acknowledging its history is key. Currently, it is still extremely relevant because people don’t understand how deep-rooted these things are.
Even compared to other European nations, I noticed it was quite strong in the Netherlands. Perhaps because they have much success in their systems and are looked up to by even other European nations. A friend of mine, who is half-Dutch, having lived in and out of the Netherlands, thinks as follows: “I think it is actually because they are in gross collective denial about the dark side of their colonial presence in Asia or even what life was like for the average Dutch person up until the 1960s. The Dutch narrative of the golden age really glorifies a past that didn’t exist.” Not only that, policies such as marajuana decriminalisation show progressive mentality. As mentioned, there is a cause for this pride to an extent, the Netherlands has done much well, you can be proud. But it does not excuse speaking down to people.
I was sometimes spoken down to and it was incredibly frustrating and rude, yet so often unintentional, which often made it even more frustrating. An example is instant dismissal of my Indian medical treatments. Because India is poor and backward, of course. Because Asian health care is not as good, of course. Being told my old treatment plans or diagnosis are not relevant. Excuse my french, but that’s bullshit. India is leading in medicine and pharmaceuticals and much of the European medical products and expertise come from India. I have often got far kinder, more efficient and faster medical care than in the west. But to dismiss my Indian treatments and dental work before even seeing it by virtue of it being Indian is extremely ignorant. Other developing Asian nations such as Thailand and Indonesia have also made very cheap and accessible healthcare. I will say that here I should have taken a page out of the Dutch book and kindly corrected these people, some friends and some medical professionals, and engaged in a discussion. But I often just left it, feeling they wouldn’t listen even if I tried.
I discuss these internalised racisms in the Netherlands in the context of gender, sexism and youth sexual health in a guest blog on the Lazy Women site, exploring what it is to be sexually liberated.
Subtle racism and sexuality – The backward and sexually repressed Asian?
– (Discussed in a blog with the Lazy Women. Read here)
That concludes my long cultural reflection of sorts, for now. Once again, I met plenty of lovely Dutch people and had many good experiences, even during the pandemic, nice walks and moments with friends… But they didn’t make me feel more obliged to stay, they didn’t make me feel more connected to the nation and its culture or language.
Essentially, I realised that it just wasn’t for me and that while I’d had a good two years, in order to be happy. I needed to be back in London, or one of my other homes; that this had run its course and there was no use beating a dead horse. That I had tried but I just didn’t blend in that well and couldn’t find a good balance there. That I would rather come back later and appreciate the country when I didn’t feel like I was trapped in it, to later do it justice.
As mentioned, I do plan to go back to have a proper goodbye; do and see the things I didn’t get round to. I also feel that moving away in the pandemic make things end abruptly and frankly there are times where the whole two years feels like a fever dream. So going back will be nice. But I don’t see myself returning to the Netherlands for anything more than visits in the future… And that’s fine. Sometimes you try and a place just isn’t for you. Honestly, it took me a while to not feel like a failure. To not feel like I wasn’t doing the nation justice and to not feel like I was a failure of a world citizen. But I’m not, I’m going to discuss more those sentiments in part two… Also, a post is to be a world citizen coming soon, read here when out!