Read about her struggles settling into life here in the Netherlands in the first of a series of Guestblogs written by various internationals for The Dutch Culture Blog.
Why am I here then, in this cold, grey little country in Europe? My husband was headhunted a few years ago, and we decided it would be an opportunity not to be missed.The prospect of coming to the Netherlands was exciting: the travel opportunities! The café culture! The European-ness!
By the time we arrived, with much enthusiasm for all things Dutch, in 2010, I’d had time to learn the language, so I had that under my belt, at least. But what I soon discovered was this: no matter how well I speak the language, I am, and never will be, Dutch.
When I arrived, I wanted to make Dutch friends, I wanted to embrace the culture, I wanted to be European. But, I underestimated how alone I would feel, how much of a stranger in a strange land. So along the way, I have found that I have gravitated towards other South Africans, and towards other expats who are all experiencing that same loss of what we call ‘home’. Because despite the fact that my grandparents all came from Wales, Scotland and England, I didn’t realise just how un-European I was.
Last year, during my third year in the Netherlands, homesickness hit me hard. And then, in December, the terrible news that us ‘Saffers’ had been awaiting arrived: our beloved Madiba – Nelson Mandela – had died. I cried for days. Never before had I felt so far away from home, because all us South Africans were Mandela’s children; all of us equally proud to have called him our leader.
But the straw that broke the camel’s back (the one-humped, African kind), came the day after Mandela’s funeral. It was my husband’s company’s year-end function. I hauled out the ol’ red silk dress and high heels, and off we went for some free food and drink and a bit of a boogie. The company for which he works is Dutch, but it employs 17 nationalities, including South Africans. One of his colleagues pointed out that there were four South Africans in the company. I said there were really five Africans, because a Nigerian man had also been recently hired.
‘Yes, but he’s African,’ said one of the Dutchies.
‘So are we,’ said my husband and I in unison.
‘No, but he’s from real Africa,’ said the colleague.
‘So are we,’ we said again.
‘Yes, but he’s, you know…?’
‘He’s what?’ I asked, knowing full well what the idiot meant, but the bitch in me wanted him to say it.
‘He’s… um, well, you know…’
‘Black,’ I said. ‘He’s black.’ Aghast looks all around because I – the white South African – had dared to utter the ‘B’ word.
‘So does that make him a real African?’ I asked, fuming.
‘Well, um… yes.’
‘So what are we then?’ I waited. For a while.
‘Well, you’re South African,’ ventured one of them.
‘Ah. Well that’s different then. We’re not really part of Africa.’ Sadly, I think the sarcasm was lost on them, because they all nodded and smiled brightly, as though finally, I had understood what they meant.
I know I probably allowed that incident to affect me more than it should have, but it just brought home to me how little people know about my country; how terribly uniformed and ignorant they are. And it isn’t their fault; I shouldn’t blame them: all they know is what they see on TV. My anger at these people was fuelled, also, by the feeling I often get when talking to Dutch people, that I am a country bumpkin from ‘the colonies’, and therefor what do I know?
I have found that Dutch people tend to jump to conclusions about me. Because I am a white South African, I think many people assume I am racist – because that is all they know about South Africa: Apartheid.
Well it’s been 20 years, people: South Africa has moved on; so should you.
What I discovered, once my ire had died down to a simmer after the above conversation, was that I am more African now than ever before. Oddly, living in Cape Town, it didn’t matter to me as much: being African.
But now that I am not surrounded by the beautiful people, the smells and sounds, the richness of the cultures, the 11 official languages (yes, 11!), I realise I am not, and never will be European.
And I don’t want to be. Because I am African, no matter what anyone else thinks I am, and I beat to a very different drum.
She is gaining valuable experience as a proofreader/editor for Dutch websites, as well as content writing for businesses that need help with translating from Dutch to English.
Visit Leigh's website here.