As I stray further and further away from the term ‘expat’ and closer and closer to the term ‘immigrant,’ I find I’m becoming too familiar in a land that was so unfamiliar to me not so long ago.
Before I forget the challenges altogether, I wanted to document in a four part series, the amusement and frustration of moving to a new country and integrating into the Dutch culture.
This is the finale of the four part series and probably the most difficult to convey.
The final stage: integration into the Dutch culture
Cultural integration is two-fold. It consists of understanding and identity and it takes years to fully integrate, and some people never do. My integration level at minimum is superficial and at most involves basic adaptation. Having not lived here long enough nor the fluency in the nuances of the language puts me at a disadvantage for deep-seeded integration. I can’t express my full identity in Dutch and in the way that is native to a Dutch speaker. I may use more superlatives than the average Dutch person; and I can only understand information that has already been made available to me. I can’t relate to my colleagues my age about a show they watched as children that I never heard of. But I also haven’t taken the steps to gain the upper leg.
If I wanted to make better headway, I’d date a Dutch man not a German…nothing to worry about, Schatz.
Change of mindset
Once I committed to the goal of remaining in the Netherlands, I did everything I could to integrate into Dutch culture. I began biking into work to grasp the tolerance level of Dutchies when it came to rain and cold weather. I signed up for an OV-fiets abonnement (a membership to rent bikes through the provider NS) and picked myself up after every fall, trying my best to laugh about it and not throw a dramatic fit. I learned Dutch to grasp who they are as a culture (not where I fit within that identity). I sold my wares at the Koningsdag market and participated in the orange-wearing extravaganza.
Initially I impressed my colleagues with my enthusiasm for integration at the expense of alienating some of my friendships abroad. I was so gung-ho that I preferred what the Netherlands had to offer more than the States.
I liked the challenge that the Netherlands provided and the expanded bubble. Assimiliation additionally aided in alleviating loneliness – a trap that was so easy to fall into as an expat.
But even then, I still felt separated. I wrote a piece for the New York Times last year which was not accepted (although I received a very nice letter from the editor) and it was about lacking an identity despite my attempts at integration. I described myself as follows…
I stand out like a small windmill in a row of giant turbines, barely noticeable but definitely present. I walk differently, talk differently, and communicate differently. But I try to fit in with the other Dutch women by “playing it cool,” not wearing my emotions too much on my sleeve, and least of all, not showing my vulnerabilities.
Even with the efforts I still felt misplaced and willingly let myself be swallowed by perceptions that may or may not have been accurate.
After a trip to the States in December 2015 and a soul-searching journey for one to Iceland, I finally threw my hands in the air and begrudgingly said, “screw it” (the censored version).
The States grounded me and reminded me of the person I have been and of the person I am. I am not completely American nor am I completely European; I am kind; I am empathetic; I am an ass sometimes; I am cynical; I have a big heart; I am judgmental; I am funny; I am a risk-taker; I am egotistical (isn’t that why I have a blog?); I am a passionate romantic.
I realised I was letting my quest for integration change who I was.
And I was not going to have any of that now.
Self-discovery amidst assimilation
I’m learning that rhythm and routine go hand-in-hand with integration. Knowledge through experience lends itself to future routine. I know now how the home owner’s insurance works and can understand why Dutchies insure everything (always better to spend EUR 5 a month versus the EUR 4,000 to replace the white carpet you unintentionally spilled wine on). After seeking a formal dress for months and settling on one from the UK instead of the Netherlands, I can also tell you that the lack of formal attire and the casual nature of the Dutch extends all the way back to their Calvinistic ancestry.
This knowledge helps to construct a solid foundation for my home, but I realised that I shouldn’t let it dictate what colour walls to paint the bedroom.
The most important nugget I can take from my cultural integration process is to accept that unless I put the tireless due diligence and time into full integration, I will never be Dutch.
And that’s okay. I’m happy being Lauren.
This by far is the trickiest part of the expat experience, but also the most rewarding. Self-discovery amidst the registration, apartment hunting, settling in, and assimilation process is the biggest challenge I’ve faced thus far, and the most important aspect to my life as an expat.