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Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Amsterdam, Netherlands

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Did you receive any cross-cultural training for your move abroad? If yes, was it before or after the move?

No. No cross-cultural training before the move and it was several years into my job when we received such training. (By then it was a little late. Well meaning but late.)

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If they speak another language in your new country, do you speak the language? If yes, did you learn the language before you moved or while abroad? If no, are you planning to learn the language?

Dutch is the native language here of course. I can speak it now, if haltingly. It's not the easiest language to learn. I took courses paid for through my employer after I arrived here and months after my employment started. I want to be much better at it and plan more training even if it's not covered by work.

Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?

No not so much. I was more excited by the opportunity and the experiences I'd have. I longed to live in Europe for years.

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How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?

Not huge but not unnoticed. I was so intensely focused to learn the language, my job, the city and culture that I didn't truly feel the culture differences or shock until a year or so later. Everything was so new to me and it took some time to let things sink in. I was lucky to be surrounded by a Dutch family and their friends. It wasn't until we were separated when I knew how much of a stranger I was here.

Expats often talk about going through the "stages of culture shock." Examples include the honeymoon phase, the irritation-to-anger stage, the rejection of the culture stage, and the cultural adjustment phase. Do you feel like you went through these or any other stages as you settled into the new culture?

Yes. Actually all of these apply. I also went through an 'apologetic phase' where I made excuses for the Dutch and their culture to my American friends who couldn't grasp some cultural or behavioural aspects.

What, if any, were some of the changes you noticed in yourself that might have been caused by culture shock? These might include things such as anger, depression, anxiety, increased eating or drinking, frustration, homesickness, etc.

At one (and, sadly, lengthy) period, I felt very dissociated. The Dutch circles can be difficult to penetrate. Feeling friendless and an outsider after a warm start was confusing to me and I did feel sad, depressed and confused. I'm an intelligent person and it baffled me why I couldn't figure it out or a way in. Having expats around me - who I at first refused to accept their criticism of the Dutch or Holland - became a big help to me to share experiences and feelings. I wasn't so alone after all.

What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?

I appreciate the relaxed atmosphere and level of safety compared to where I came from. I appreciate the Dutch appreciation for time off with family and friends. They know when to stop working and enjoy life, people, each other. They also don't consider themselves competitive as we are raised in the US. This has minuses but definite pluses in how they view life and what they feel is important.

What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?

Most challenging aspects for me are the Dutch language, the occasional "that's not possible" attitude of the locals, and the lack of becoming something exciting. This place has so much potential to be greater but I think the Calvinist remnants in the culture hold people back from freely exploring their limits. I also am so puzzled by the menus in Dutch kitchen restaurants and cafes. They are almost rubber-stamped in offerings. It's rare to find creative alternatives. Many ethnic options here of course but too much Dutch sameness.

Did you "commit" any embarrassing or humorous cultural blunders? If you did and you'd like to share them, please do tell!

Probably. Perhaps many. But I've done them and have moved on. I expect I'll screw up more before I leave this place.

Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?

Trust yourself and trust in the people around you to help you through. Most people I've met have been thoughtful, caring and supportive. Be diligent in your language studies. It's not true that 'everyone here speaks English'. Maybe in the larger cities but, even in Amsterdam, I've met people who cannot or won't speak English. Be patient with yourself as well as the locals. You will discover over time that we are all humans underneath everything. But you will also discover that there are things you didn't expect in the culture. The way you react to situations and people might not be the same as the way the locals react. Law enforcement is also a potential shocker. Here the laws might seem to be more lenient than in the US. Just remember that it's *their* country. You don't have to agree but don't let it stress you out. Do try new things no matter where you go. Make the expat experience greater than you planned.

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