Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Standing on the outside looking in...

On our weekend trip to Assen to visit family, I had a revelation. I think it is worth documenting my little story, in case it helps any other expats.

I come from a big family and until recently I thought this has stood me in good stead to adjusting well in life. The interplay of family dynamics and differing personalities in our family of eight has taught me to how to socialise in group settings. In the past I have been comfortable managing multiple conversations at once and the hive of activity that occurs when a group of people get together after not having seen each other for awhile. Since living in the Netherlands I’ve felt a different part of my personality come out (the quiet and introverted side) and I haven’t enjoyed social situations nearly as much as I would have in Australia.

I’ve had my challenges settling in to life in the Netherlands. The six months of winter has probably been the biggest challenge for me, as I’m a person that loves summer, warm weather and the great outdoors. The kids also suffer from cabin fever and last winter we went out on bone chilling cold days which if they had of occurred in Australia, we may not have left the house. Given winter went on so long here, I had no choice but to get on and live life regardless of the weather, and I’m impressed by the Dutch who do just that.

Summer has been wonderful, and I’ve loved experiencing a real change to the seasons. If summer was longer and winter much shorter, living in the Netherlands on an ongoing basis would be a more attractive proposition. I love that it is warm enough now to have a more outdoorsy life. We leave the back door open all day, the kids roam inside and out, they dig and play, and drag all the dirt back inside. Fine by me, they are happy, I’m happy.

Next from the weather the biggest adjustment for me has been the social barriers that I’ve encountered. I think the Dutch are in many ways quite like Australians, and while there are different customs and norms, they like to have fun (well the ones I know), celebrate with food (don’t we all) and are up for embracing life. The Dutchman and I strike a good relationship because we have very similar values. This is even though we were raised in different cultures, in different decades and about 16,500 kilometres apart. The biggest social barrier for me has been the language and lost freedom of expression, and the feeling of isolation I’ve had when a conversation takes place and I’ve had no clue what is going on.

I think my Nederlands comprehension is at a tipping point. While I still struggle to make myself understood with my poorly constructed sentences and mispronunciation, my comprehension has improved markedly over the last eleven months. So in the past when I would have completely checked out of conversations and tried to hide my embarrassment, while praying my face wasn’t going red (stupid really that I was embarrassed because I didn’t understand a language I’d never learned). I now listen and even dare to make eye contact. I’m not smiling as much like the village idiot, instead my clogs are whirring and with a duh duh duh twenty second delay (up to five minutes or maybe even a day), I finally get it. While I tend to get the topic of conversation I still have a good knack for missing the point or the joke.

So this is my revelation that occurred. On Sunday while having a really pleasant day sitting outside in glorious sunshine with family and listening intently to the conversations (95% of which were in Dutch unless I asked questions or they were directed at me). I realised I felt like I was standing on the outside looking in. For the first time I realised they were not being rude mostly speaking Dutch. They were just being a family, enjoying each others’ company, laughing and having fun and speaking freely (albeit brutally honestly) in their native tongue. I almost cried and wished I was my sister who is good at communicating her feelings with others. Instead I made an offhand and somewhat abrasive remark (well probably not for people who like directness) about speaking Dutch all day. My brother in law responded with, “oh I think you can speak Dutch when you say grote dikke buik” (big fat stomach), my father in law apologised and my sister in law said "but you do understand". The penny dropped even further. I think the Dutchman's family are more comfortable now in my presence, to talk freely and have fun, without having to stop and translate, or fill in the gaps for me. This revelation that the reason I have trouble fitting in is hopefully less to do with my personality and more about my poor Dutch language skills. It was a double edged sword because while I was pleased/relieved to finally articulate what has been a source of previous frustration I also felt really upset and isolated.

It triggers my flight or fight response. I want to flee this country and return to the familiar and the loving fold of the family I grew up with. I want to escape hostile winters and live in a far more agreeable climate. That said, I am a resilient person and will keep trooping on. I think this revelation just has to increase my resolve to improve my Nederlands language skills, so I can also be a fully fledged member of the Dutchman’s fun loving family and so they also feel at ease with and accepting of me and hopefully get my jokes.

No more feeling sorry for myself. It’s time to adopt the great human resource principle of FIFO (fit in or fly away). I think even though we can try and embrace diversity as human’s we naturally find it easier to relate to people like us, particularly if there are no communication barriers.


  1. I know how you feel. I went through something very similar. I've experienced the frustrations that made me want to leave as well but I'm very glade I struggled through them.

    since then I met my Dutch girlfriend and I've experienced the family thing too. They were also very welcoming but would speak Dutch most of the time. Why not I thought, it's their language and their country but I felt left out too. Luckily for me they notice when this is happening and try to bring me back in by switching to English for a bit or very easy Dutch.

    All I can tell you is it gets easier over time.

  2. This is so well-written! Big kudos to you! Not only do I think all of us expats here understand precisely, word-for-word, what you've shared, but it's great you've shared it for others. It'll help them to realize they are not alone. And keep on trooping on! Have a great week :-)

  3. @ Stu - it's good to know I'm not on my own and I'm pleased to hear it gets easier over time.
    @ Isabella - thanks, it was your culture shock post that inspired me to write a blog.

  4. Great post! As the people who have preceded me in with their comments, I know how you feel, especially because I come from a large family too and the shock of being all of a sudden "left out" was overwhelming for me too, at some point.
    Thanks for sharing this and making us realise we are not the only ones who feel that way!

  5. @ Aledys Ver thanks it is so good to know it's not just me! Both you and Stu mentioned the words 'left out' and it is a bit of a shock as an adult to experience this.

  6. It's not easy and anyone who tells you otherwise is a big fat liar! But it does get better and it does get easier. Unfortunately, as we are transplants in this country, in order to feel like we fit in, we need to learn the language as opposed to expecting everyone to switch to English any time we're around. But, as you said, it's a language we've never learned and have had ridiculously little if any experience with prior to coming here. One thing I've learned as I'm working on making friends here that aren't expats is that there's nothing wrong with admitting that you're not fluent in Dutch and really they don't give a you-know-what if you contribute to the conversation in English or in Dunglish. I'm working on becoming more comfortable with and not being ashamed of throwing in English words and phrases (can't tell you how many times the Dutch throw things like "so be it", "alright", etc in their every day convos anyway). I've found that it's actually helped in my relationships. I learn Dutch at school and with my husband, but concentrate on building relationships with the in-laws, new friends, and my husband's friends. Now that we understand it, we can participate but rather than beating ourselves up because we can't participate in Dutch (that will come with time), just do what we can using the languages at our disposal. So glad you're resisting the temptation to run - you're not alone and you can so get through it. Thanks so much for sharing this - I think it's so valuable :)

  7. @ Tiffany - thanks for your feedback, it's good that others are identifying with this post