A few nights ago I was catching up with an old childhood friend. Facebook has kept us somewhat in the loop about each other’s lives but we really have not had a proper chat since 2006 (that’s 9 years ago!). My friend Crystal told me about expat life as an accountant in the US, and I told her about my expat life working as an academic the Netherlands. And while sharing stories with Crystal, I realized that it has definitely been a journey with ups-and-downs since moving abroad 5 years ago. So today I share a few personal confessions about the things I found, and to some degree still find challenging, about being an expat in the Netherlands.
1. I could get pretty lonely.
I made the first move across the pond from Canada to the UK, and I admit that this first transition was quite smooth. I was doing my master’s and going to the same class with the same people everyday I quickly bonded with some classmates who remain to be my closest friends today. Language was not a problem, to-may-to, to-mah-to, same thing. Fast forward, I move to the Netherlands. It was a fresh start, a new chapter, great! Yet I was starting at square 1, especially with my social network. I suddenly found it difficult to make friends. My colleagues are very all friendly and social, but it never changed from being friendly to friends or social to socializing outside of work. It seemed like everyone had their own life to get to, and mine was rather… I don’t know, lonely? Okay, besides not speaking Dutch, which is a problem that I have created for myself, what else was different that I suddenly found it so difficult to build meaningful friendships?
2. I do things to fit in, but it’s really hard sometimes.
This was something Crystal brought up. She said in her firm there are a lot of young guys in their early twenties, so the atmosphere could be a bit like a frat house. She started watching American Football on telly, not because she really loves it or enjoys it, but she does it to get some conversational starters. She basically watches football to fit in. For me, I ambitiously learned to like ‘drop’, which is black licorice. The Dutch are mad about it, so it was an acquired taste I that voluntarily took up to fit in. While there are some things you can learn to like, there are also others you simply just don’t get. I learned how to ride a bicycle growing up. We rode bicycles in suburban neighbourhoods more for leisure than for function I would say. Nowadays I cycle everyday (almost everyday) to work, but I don’t think I will ever feel that a bicycle is an extension of my body that I can comfortably and confidently maneuver, whizzing through busy traffic with one hand holding an umbrella with the other hand texting like everyone else here. As kids, we like or do new things out of our comfort zones, and we can easily convince ourselves that we like it when truth is that we can just want to fit in. Nowadays I also do things to fit in, but sometimes it’s just really hard.
3. I feel a lot more foreign.
Let’s start with the basics. I’m 5 ft. 3, and while this is pretty average I think back home, I’m like the size of a hobbit In the Netherlands considering that the Dutch are the tallest people in the world. So that’s how I feel physically different # 1. My Dutch is very very basic so culprit of my foreignness #2. I grew up in Toronto, which is a fairly large city with a lot of multicultural diversity; so I guess in such a multicultural environment I never really felt ‘different’, and having a Chinese ethnicity didn’t make feel less Canadian than anyone else. Of course the Netherlands is still very multi culturally diverse, yet the ethnic minorities are more visible in my opinion. I get asked where I am from a lot, which is totally normal, but then sometimes I get comments like: “But where are you really from? Because your eyes say somewhere else”. By no means do I think people are being rude or discriminatory, but I guess that makes me feel like I really stick out as a foreigner because I’m not Caucasian?
Anyway, I feel like I’m ending on a bit of a dire note… but honestly while things were/could be difficult they do get better. I’ve learned and I’m still learning. It’s a path that I’ve chosen and I’m figuring things out on my way. As I said, these are just my personal experience and I do not generalize these experience to other expats. Moreover, I supposed these experiences are not necessarily particular to being in the Netherlands per se, but just being in a different place. On the other hand, it’s also part of gorwing up rather than being an expat. In my next follow-up post, I would like to share the things I’ve learned, the resolutions that I’ve made and how I managed to deal with these hurdles. In the meantime, I’m curious to hearing other people’s experience as expats and their experience with living abroad!