The Netherlands and I (Pt. 2) – Learning from not fitting in and Moving on

by Yaska Sahara

In Part 1, I mentioned why the Netherlands wasn’t really for me. While I’ve had so many lovely experiences with the Netherlands and its people, I just don’t feel like I blend in with or enjoy the place in itself enough to have a future there. I don’t regret my time thus far. I had a good two years. But that was enough. Without my active life there, the drawbacks and the not blending with Dutch culture became more apparent. This post will look at accepting you don’t love a place and how it doesn’t make you less of a global person. It can still be a good experience and show one how living and visiting a place are very different.

Why you went to a place matters

I went to the Netherlands with the express purpose to go to university. Living abroad is very different when you have one express purpose. If it’s taken away as it was with the Covid-19 pandemic, your whole relationship with a nation can change. Frankly, with the intensity of my degree, the university was my whole life. I spent most of my time in the library studying. I even had my social circles there, we had our favourite spots and favourite study rooms and preferred seats and drinks of choice in the café. The physicality and emotion of it were important. So it’s not unnatural I would start to feel disconnected when that was taken from me. This idea was strangely hard to spell out to myself. Read here about how integral it was in a blog I wrote for my university.

The bad sticks out more than the good?

I noticed that because it wasn’t somewhere I had neither a deep connection to nor a long history with, that if a bad thing happened to me, it became associated with where I was, in this case, the Netherlands. By ‘deep connection’, I mean a passion for the place, not necessarily connections there. For example, while I don’t have many connections to Japan, I still had a long history of researching and learning about it, and a love for the language. If a bad thing happened to be there, it didn’t make me feel alienated from Japan itself. (Read this story on my first stay in Japan if you’re curious about my connection to it)

Many of these bad experiences in the Netherlands were bad because of Dutch mannerisms or culture, as mentioned in the last post. However, because of this unsteady relationship with the place, random bad luck stuff ; falling off my bike or doing badly on an assignment became tied to it. This is unfair both to me and the country. But unfortunately, it is just the human brain at times. I couldn’t waste my time trying to rectify this when I had so many other places I could just go to and be happier, not having bad experiences colour my temporary home. Equally, also mentioned in the last blog, I plan to return and see my friends and the place, so maybe I just needed a break from the country and the bad state I was in towards the end of my stay there. Then, I can create good memories without the feeling of being trapped.

Some places are just more ‘you’ than others

I instantly felt like I vibed with the Spanish when I went there to learn the language. When I landed in Japan, I felt so much wonder, a culture I’d been enamoured with since childhood. I never felt this sort of connection with the Netherlands, I chose it because it was one of the few places that had a degree I liked the sound of.  I’d heard good things too. Also attractive was that it was away from home, but not too far for my family to get to me within a few hours. It was something new, different and unknown. (read more about my choosing it here).

I was okay with this. Some people are more suited to certain places than others. But as mentioned, without accessing the student life and without being able to travel to other bigger cities, Leiden was not for me. And that the Dutch culture was also not for me just made it all the more heavy to align with.

I did try to light that spark. I would go out to the bars and chat to people in my first year when I had a small life beyond academics. I went to museums and different cities, made Dutch friends and met their families, saw a lot of the scenery, became conversational in the language… yet, still no deep connection.

It took me quite a while to come to terms with this. I felt like I was being disrespectful or like I had failed somehow because I hadn’t fallen head over heels in love with the Netherlands after two years of being there. I know of a few other people who felt this, especially when the pandemic hit.

But now I’ve learnt it’s ok. That I had some good times and got a lot of new experiences and that’s enough. That sometimes you can try and that place is still not for you. You haven’t failed, you’ve just tried something and it turns out while you can enjoy it, you think there is somewhere you can enjoy and blend in more. I know some people who love the Netherlands and really feel at home there and that’s great. How do we know if we don’t try and experience it, right? How do we know what we like if we don’t encounter things we don’t like?

Why I’m not a fake global citizen

(Read about this in Next week’s post)

This warrants the need to discuss what the hell that buzzword means anyway. I didn’t realise until this whole experience, but its not some flowery ideal of someone who can go anywhere and just fit right in. To me now, it’s someone who makes the effort to venture into the unknown, who exposes themselves to different cultures and learns more about the world and themselves through what they did and didn’t like. And that is what I did.

What I learnt and the good parts

I have so many lovely memories with friends and of student life and I’ll learn to focus on these (read about Kindness in the Netherlands). I still enjoyed a lot of the Netherlands and it was so good for me to learn the skill of forcing myself to learn and to constantly adapt and to try. Things do deserve a chance, after all. Deep connections are not always instantaneous. (You can read about my love at second sight in Budapest here)

Not only that, I had to do so much adult-life stuff, registering with the city council, opening a bank account, living alone and more all at 18 years old, all in a new country. That gave me more maturity and insight than I appreciated at the time. I am very proud of myself for having done that.  I look back on it with a fun sort of bittersweet nostalgia, stressful in the moment, but a fond memory and accomplishment now.

Living vs. Visiting

In my third year (currently) I’d planned to do all the things I hadn’t gotten around to. You know it is, when you live somewhere you think you’ll get round to it someday and then find yourself rushing to as your time there runs out. I wanted to spend my last year working on my thesis but also seeing Van Gogh Museum, AnneFrankHuis, going on a Rotterdam Boat ride, going to Delft instead of passing it on the train, and far more. I planned to really enjoy the Netherlands before my degree finished but something involving a virus kind of happened.

So, I plan to do it justice in my own small way as I plan my return there. Not by going back to live there and forcing myself to put up with cultural elements I don’t like, constantly confront bad memories and juggle Dutch with Mandarin… But by having a nice goodbye, by visiting without the feeling of being trapped, by having some good memories with friends again, by properly saying goodbye to the beloved library, by seeing the campus and being able to know it’s my last time on campus… By appreciating all the good that happened, and leaving the bad behind.

I plan to return in June 2021. I am unsure whether things will be open and I can see those attractions I mentioned. But currently, that is less important to me. I mainly want to walk the streets, go to the Dutch supermarkets, see all the cyclists, use my OV chipkaart, buy Dutch products and most importantly, to spend time with friends, to round off the three years and finish the last revisions of my thesis in the library where my university experience started… perhaps when the world is truly ‘normal again’ I can visit in a few years and be more of a tourist.

Where on earth does this complicated relationship with this nation leave my Dutch? Did I learn any? After next week’s post on what it means to be a global citizen, I will be writing two posts to discuss Dutch. One of my learning journeys, and another on fun Dutch literal translations. (links will be inserted when these posts are out)

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