Wednesday, May 6, 2009

‘Before and After’ meme for expats

Isabella has posted a meme for expats to consider: I have a few hours before the plane today, so it’s a good opportunity to pause and reflect on her questions.


  • Before you knew you'd be coming to the Netherlands, for whatever reason you originally came to the Netherlands, truthfully how much did you know about the country?
      I’d also , and had interviewed for a position with a Dutch startup in 1987 (life moves in circles sometimes).  More recently, I’d worked with physicians and scientists on clinical projects, so I knew my way around Amsterdam and had driven the motorways with our local sales reps.  As a result, I believed that I knew a lot about the country’s history and culture, and felt like I understood the people well.
  • Did you learn about the Netherlands in school when you were growing up?
      Next to nothing: we learned all of the stereotypes of windmills and dykes, wooden  shoes and traditional clothes.  Very little that was relevant to the country as it exists today.  The biggest gap was probably the complete lack of coverage of the Dutch occupation during the second world war: I had to go do a lot of reading to really understand what happened during that period.
  • Do you have family who is Dutch or Dutch heritage?
      A grandmother who was “Pennsylvania Dutch”, which I now know is actually German.
  • Were you aware the language the Dutch spoke was Dutch and not German or any other language?
      Yes, although it sounded more Scandinavian when I looked at it casually: something about all of the nouns piled up in the middle of words.
  • Had you ever lived outside of your home country for longer than one month prior to living in the Netherlands?
      I had lived in Switzerland for a summer and England for a year.
  • Had you learned to speak any other language than your own, even if only partially so, before coming to the Netherlands?
      A bit of French and German, although neither one well.
  • When you learned you'd be coming to the Netherlands, did you feel it was important to learn Dutch?
      Yes, I believed that it was necessary to participate in the social life and was an important part of immersing in the  new (for me) culture.
  • Did anyone prepare you with information of any type before you came to live in the Netherlands, did you attempt to find information on your own, or did you come to the Netherlands without preparing?
      Yes, the company provided orientation services prior to expatriation.  A session with a local Dutch resident was helpful for understanding the community that I was moving into, and one with another expatriate businessman helped me with the professional customs.
  • How did your friends and family react when they learned you'd be moving to the Netherlands?
      Supportive and interested: they understood that this meant a lot to me, but were concerned that I wouldn’t come back.
  • What did you think would be your biggest challenge living in a foreign country? Or did you feel you would face any big challenges?
      Language and isolation.  I felt confident that I could fit in and find my way, but knew that social connections outside of work would be difficult to make.
And after:
  • Upon arriving, can you remember the overall impression you had in the first 48 hours?
      Excitement and a bit of bewilderment in trying to find where familiar things were.  Everything was similar, but different enough that simple errands took hours to complete.  I remember reminding myself that it was worth taking any task (such as finding mousetraps) through to the end because I’d learn so much, no matter how long it took.
  • Tell me about your bicycle, if you have one. Is it borrowed/rented or do you own it? And how often do you use it weekly? Have you ever had your bike stolen? Feel free to mention and elaborate about anything special concerning experiences you have/had with your bicycle.
       I don’t have one.  I set up a ‘birthday bicycle’ fund a year ago but the move to a new apartment interfered with completing the purchase.  I plan to buy a bike in the next two months.
  • Name three of your favorite things about the Dutch culture which first come to mind:
      The openness of the people; the fact that stores are closed on Sunday and everyone goes to the park; the art on the roundabouts.
  • Of the things you never knew before coming here, what have you learned about the Netherlands?
      How to find mousetraps :)  (at the pet store).  I have learned that, even though they’ve mastered how to manage and exploit water, they surprisingly don’t fish, don’t boat, and don’t have a cuisine based on seafood.  While they have a rich history in exploration, trading, and arts, the country is forward looking, inward centered, and renewing itself constantly.  People are aware of tradition, but they think more about the future more than the past and are open to creating new alternatives to solve problems together.
  • Culture shock.  Does this ring a bell? 
       No, it wasn’t too bad: I had very few bouts of homesickness or disorientation.
  • How far have you come with learning Dutch?
      Periods of progress followed by backsliding.  Not nearly as far as I would have liked, or as I need to. I’m far better at reading than at listening or speaking.
  • What was/is your overall impression of the inburgering [immigration] program?
      I have no experience with it, but am actively investigating how to get involved.
  • Has your view on politics or world issues changed from how you previously viewed things before living in the Netherlands? 
      I understand how the Europeans and Americans can view the same event from very different perspectives, and can see how both are true yet cannot be combined to a single truth. Some issues I agree with the Dutch perspective, which is liberal and pragmatic, sometimes with the American one, which is conservative and aggressive.  Parochial misconceptions and prejudices in both cultures still surprise me: I don’t understand how people can have strong beliefs about world issues without having direct experience with the relevant people and places.
  • Coffeeshops and smartshops. What is your opinion? Have you ever visited a coffeeshop or smartshop? You don't need to go too far in detail, if you feel it's too revealing on your own blog.
      I have not visited the shops yet; I think that they are socially harmless for the Dutch who visit them.  I am, however, dismayed by the planeloads of young tourists arriving simply to take advantage of them.  I regret that the government seems to be closing them down.  The social experiment is a good one, and I feel like the rest of the EU should tolerate and adapt rather than trying to enforce conservative conformity here.
  • Since living here, have you learned anything new about yourself? Or perhaps have you learned anything else new? A new hobby or a new way of life?
       A new way of life.  I think that the pace and balance of life is better, and I like the neighborhood-centered living  with shops in walking distance of home and friends dropping by.  I’ve learned a lot about myself, and have changed opinions and attitudes in many ways during the three years that I’ve been here.  As a result, I’ve recently made a decision to leave the expatriate position that brought me here, preferring to stay and seek both destiny and fortune independently.  I think that there is a resonance between Dutch spirit and style and my own sense of what makes a good life: I want to explore that alternative more thoroughly.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Very cool, Dave! Thanks for doing this! I have to agree with many things, but especially the misconceptions of many who have never been here to understand that the things which they are told = usually incorrect.