It’s been ten years since I first arrived in the Netherlands as an expat. So when the folks at Akteos asked me to offer some tips to newcomers, I had to think back to how I felt at the time. What I can share is the benefit of my experience. Now that I have been an expat in several different cultures, I feel like I’m getting better at it. I think my first year in the Netherlands would have been much smoother if I had taken a different approach to getting settled. As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20.
Take responsibility for your own social life
I relied too much on my Dutch husband for my social circle. His friends and their wives are lovely, but it wasn’t the same as having my own friends, especially girlfriends, with common interests. You can’t rely solely on locals for your social network; they already have friends and a busy social life. You might be interesting and fun, but they aren’t going to drop everything to be your bestie.
Now I am skilled at creating a vibrant and satisfying group of friends. Expat networks are brilliant for getting started. Your hobbies, sports, and food interests can also be the key to finding like-minded people through special interest groups, networks, and classes. I highly recommend InterNations and Meetup. Volunteer work is another wonderful way to meet people. I met my best friend while teaching English as a volunteer at a women’s center.
Find your tribe
They might be Dutch, they might not. It doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about fitting in, or about what the locals might think of you, your culture, or the funny way you speak Dutch. You are an expat. You will always be different — and that’s okay. Find people who get you. They exist, but you’ll never meet them sitting in your apartment. I know it’s cold out there, but put on your coat and walk out the door.
Develop a thick skin
Dutch people are very direct and tell it like it is. You will need to accept hearing your faults spelled out, especially if you are trying to learn and use the Dutch language. Jokes will be at your expense. Yet, it would surprise your Dutch friends if you got upset by this. If you are from an indirect culture and straight-talking bothers you, this is YOUR problem. Get over it. You will spend too much time being upset unless you learn to accept unfettered honesty. Be like Elsa, and let it go.
Use logic to make things happen
Bureaucracy is part of Dutch life. Many of the things you need to accomplish will not be simple. There are systems in place to deal with you (and everyone else). Calmly follow procedures and be patient. If things don’t go your way, getting upset will get you nowhere. Anger and hysterics are counter-productive. The key to changing the situation is to apply logic. In my experience, it’s not common for service people or government workers to think outside the box. Think through the problem yourself and find a rational solution. Then politely persuade your potential ally to join your cause. This works more often than not.
Ten years down the road, what I learned through trial and error in the Netherlands (lots and lots of error!) helped me immensely in my relocation to Singapore (another direct culture with a lot of bureaucracy). You could say it was easier because I am older and wiser now, but hey, why should you wait until you get old to be wise?
Lynelle Barrett has both US and Dutch citizenship. Before moving to Singapore in 2013, she lived in Leiden for eight years, teaching Business English and working as an editor for Expatica. Originally from the US, she has also lived in the Czech Republic, Belgium, Nepal, and Hong Kong. She is currently teaching Business English at the British Council Singapore, and travelling around Asia as much as possible.
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