Monday, October 4, 2010

Welcome to a meeting of the United Nations!

The lion and lamb visiting class
Every Wednesday and Friday I attend a meeting of the United Nations. Okay, I admit, it’s not technically a UN meeting as such. Our meetings are not about creating solutions for world peace and we are not world leaders, but we do have wide representation from countries around the globe. On Wednesdays and Fridays I go to Nederlands lessons, and our group is just so culturally diverse it makes it a wonderful experience.

So just where do these people who attend my Dutch lessons hail from? Last Friday we had students from Afghanistan X 2, Iran, France, Morocco, Afghanistan via Sweden, Australia, Somalia, Syria, Brazil, Colombia, Eritrea, Lebanon and Iraq. Last Wednesday the class included people from Hong Kong, Turkey, India, Siberia and Kazakhstan (I showed great restraint not making any Borat references). And this is by no means the exhaustive list as students come and go and this week we were missing people from China, The Netherlands Antilles, Ghana and Pakistan.

So apart from the fact that I go to Nederlands lessons to learn Dutch (which is sometimes a by product from attending) I also go there for the social interaction. The most amazing thing about this lesson is that I feel like I’m in a room of equals. That’s right, it doesn’t matter that we all come from differing family, religious, social and economic backgrounds. It is irrelevant that we have vastly differing levels of formal education and that we don’t speak the same mother tongue. We are equal as we all muddle along with a varying ability to speak Dutch, some with far greater fluency than others. We are all foreigners in this land and all trying to improve our ability to communicate in Nederlands.

For the most part the individuals in our lessons are tolerant of one another, there is often much laughter and the atmosphere is gezellig (pleasant). Occasionally we celebrate a birthday or event and there is a range of foods produced from different cultures, and it is always delicious. For the most part it is women who attend these lessons and we are all there to learn, to have a good time and respect the differences of one another.

There have been so many benefits to me from attending these classes which are held for free by Piezo (a not for profit). Some of these include:
Communicating in Dutch – I’m forced to speak in Dutch both in the lesson and with the friends I’ve made as for the most part Dutch is our common language
Common bonds – being able to relate with others about their experiences assimilating and sharing, has made me feel not alone in adjusting into a new society
Cultural understanding – this has probably been the biggest highlight for me, meeting so many wonderful people from differing nationalities and learning about their customs and beliefs
Gratitude – a number of my classmates are refugees and I realise how easily you can take for granted; safety, peace, privilege, health care, education, employment and an easy life with an abundance of choices
Geographical knowledge – on a number of occasions I’ve had to race home from the lesson to consult Wikipedia to clarify just where a country is, that a fellow student comes from
Having fun – for the most part the lessons are fun and I do enjoy learning, although probably could prioritise it a little more outside of these classes

It’s great to learn what other buitenlanders (foreigners) enjoy about living in the Netherlands. For many life here is much better than in their originating country, but for many separation from family can be hard. I think for the most part people feel like Holland is safe and an easy country to live in and like the Dutch people. There are differing views on how good or bad the weather is in the Netherlands and the lady from Siberia says she feels the cold more here! A reference I will be sure to use again “if the lady from Siberia thinks it’s cold here, then it must be freezing” (FYI - an Oz definition of freezing is anything under about 13 degrees).

Before coming to the Netherlands I didn’t think I was going to be a foreigner as I thought we’d be locals as I live with a Dutchman. Now I’m here I’m happy to be a foreigner, but don’t really think of myself as an expat. When we return to Australia we will also be foreigners to a degree, not me, but our Dutch speaking lion (for awhile till her Aussie English kicks in) and for the Dutchman (till his Aussie accent replaces his Dutch one – if that ever happens). What I’ll take back to Australia is a profound respect for migrants and their plights, in particular for refugees who leave war ravaged countries and seek refuge in a “lucky” country for a better, safer or easier life with opportunities and choices.