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Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Utrecht, 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?

I came to the Netherlands because my husband is Dutch and, unfortunately there is no cross-cultural training involved for those kinds of cases! This is precisely the reason I started my blog Clogs and Tulips: An American in Holland (http://clogsandtulips.blogspot.com) - to try to offer aid, advise, an outlet, and a community for other expats to learn from my experience as well as each other's.

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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?

Right after I first met my husband, I started learning some Dutch words here are there just for fun. There was a desperate scramble to learn all those polite phrases one needs to know as a dinner guest the first time I met his parents. But I didn't really start studying Dutch seriously until I had been here for a little over a month.

I started classes at that point and a year later I'm still formally studying Dutch. My husband and I speak Dutch to each other three days a week and I joined an all-women Dutch singing group towards the end of my first year here.

I think it's of utmost importance to learn the language of the country you're going to and/or living in, no matter how long you plan to be there.

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

Culture shock was not really a concern, mainly because I had other pressing concerns. Like applying for residency, moving all my junk into my husband's tiny apartment, moving my dog over, our wedding, what I was going to do for work, etc.

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

To be honest, I adapted here in The Netherlands like a fish to water. There were a few things that drove me nuts - no 24 hour establishments, Cola Light instead of Diet Coke, small roads and even smaller parkinglots, impossible to see traffic lights and street signs - that I really don't notice anymore.

Of course, there are some big things like the cycling culture. The most difficult thing to adjust to is the lack of what in the United States is considered common courtesy. There are no "excuse me's" or "pardon me's" when someone bumps into you or needs to pass by you or if you happen to be in the way. It's very Dutch just to wriggle past, no matter how close the quarters. The idea of waiting your turn in lines is also rare.

I would like to say here that this most certainly does not apply to all Dutch or the Dutch in general. It is just something I and other expats here in The Netherlands have experienced. I have met some very lovely Dutch people who also don't understand why such behavior is common 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?

I was a bit scared after first coming here of how and how well I would adjust and fit in. I thought for a short time that I was the only person ever to have moved to The Netherlands for love and possibly stay here forever. That period was extremely brief (a matter of about a week) and then I immediately fell into the "honeymoon phase." And after a-year-and-a-half, I'm still there!

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.

Lately, I've found that the longer I stay here, the less I fit in back in the US. I'm more open-minded, more laid-back, more active, more environmentally conscious. I've noticed no other differences in myself.

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

The Dutch are very outdoorsy and I love that. They cycle everywhere and any time there is sun, no matter what the weather, you will find them out basking in it. It's the cycling culture that I have completely fallen in love with.

I also enjoy how environmentally friendly they are. Most companies will reimburse employees 100% of their travel expenses as long as they use public transportation. The bikes take people most places and rarely do you get a plastic bag with your shopping purchase unless you pay extra for them. Most people carry their own vinyl bags for shopping or stuff purchases in a large purse, backpack, or bag.

Time is also appreciated. Employees get, on average, five weeks of vacation in addition to the many many holidays. The average work week is 36 hours and an astounding number of people work four days a week.

Healthcare is also affordable and easy to come by. Everyone must be covered by law. The government also gives generous childcare aid and maternity and paternity leaves are recognized.

What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?

Of course, the language is challenging. It really does make all the difference when you speak the language.

However, I would have to say that the biggest challenge is making friends. You really do have to start all over again from scratch. Thanks to the International Women's Club I joined, making expat friends has been easy and I've met some wonderful women. My Dutch classes have also proven to be great sources for friendships. But my only Dutch friends were those of my husband and, even then, they are still very much his friends and not so much mine.

To meet more "locals" I joined an all-women Dutch singing group. The girls are lovely, but it has come to my attention that friendships here are valued much differently than in America. It is very American to have tons of "friends" that, in reality, are better described as acquaintances. The average American has several "best friends." Doesn't that sort of defy the meaning of "best friend". Because, there can really only be one best anything. In The Netherlands, once you have build up a strong friend base of 5 or so people, there is no longer a need for anymore friends. At a certain point, the Dutch aren't looking for any new friends. Because of this, they're much more difficult to develop friendships with. After several months in the group, I'm still working at it. But I have observed that once you break in, they are loyal friends for life. Something I think very few Americans really know about.

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

There are so many to list, I could write pages worth. The two very best are language related. My first was (thankfully) while practicing with my husband what to say to his parents at my first meeting with them. I wanted to say "It (the food) was delicious" which is "Het was lekker". What I said was "Ik ben lekker" which means "I'm hot." Oops! The other was when I was asking for directions to someone's house. I translated it incorrectly and ended up asking for psychological help. Oh the difference one wrong word can make! There were also some pretty excellent bicycling disasters, but luckily, nothing too incredibly embarrassing.

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

"When in Rome, do as the Romans do." This cliche has done me nothing but good. Always remember that you are in someone else's country. What is acceptable in your home country may not be here and vice versa. At the same time, don't let go of who you are or where you came from. Of course things will be different, but that's the beauty of living in another country. Different does not mean good or bad, better or worse. It simply means "different."

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Comments about this Report

Oct 17, 2010 03:10

Thanks your interview was lighthearted and enlightening. I am looking forward to transplanting myself to Den Hague in January. I love Holland and the Dutch people, culture and the fact that the Netherlands is so environmentally conscious.

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