Stuck between two cultures

An outsider in your own country

They’re Dutch, grew up abroad, and have now returned as students. They are called ‘third culture kids’, and they’re going through severe culture shock. ‘This is my country, but I don’t feel like I belong here.’
By Eva van Renssen / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen / Photo’s above Felipe Silva

‘When my twin brother and I were six we lived in the Netherlands for a while. We went to this tropical indoor swimming pool. It was amazing. Like something out of a dream.’ Stephen Johnson, a first-year student of English language and culture, reminisces about his childhood in the north of India, where his mother lives and works as a missionary.

‘Our parents fully embraced Indian culture’, he says. ‘We played in the street with our friends, chasing pigs and dogs with sticks. But the Netherlands was so neat and organised, and you could drink water straight from the tap. It was a world of difference. Seeing that kind of contrast as a little kid changes how you look at things.’

Stephen is of Dutch origin but spent his childhood abroad. He is what is known as a third culture kid, or TCK. These people are intimately familiar with two different cultures: the one they grew up in, and the one their parents came from. This means they grew up in a unique culture mix, also known as a ‘third culture’. ‘A lot of the international kids we hung out with lived in something like a mini Europe’, says Stephen.

Dutch club

Bernard Brouwer, a fourth-year student of physics and philosophy, recognises what Stephen is talking about. He’s the son of an Amsterdam expat and an Indian mother and he grew up in the south of India. ‘We mainly socialised with other non-Indian people. We also had a Dutch club; we’d celebrate Sinterklaas together and people brought back hagelslag from home’, he says.

‘I saw things the way my father did; he’d always emphasise the negative side of India. White people are discriminated against there: people look at you strange and children yell at you in some gibberish they made up that’s supposed to sound western. I always wanted to return to the Netherlands. It was important to me.’

Most TCKs tend to feel like they don’t really belong anywhere, Stephen says: ‘You can really feel when you’re being excluded. Indian people are really protective of their culture. I always felt like an outsider.’

I always felt more Greek. My mother stopped trying to teach us Dutch early on.

Nasia Pilidou, second-year European languages and cultures

‘In America I didn’t feel all that American’, says Chloë Moorlag, a second-year student of international and European law. She’s Dutch, but was born in Colorado and later moved to Switzerland and Germany. ‘I would get compliments on my English. I was like, yo, I was born here!’

Nasia Pilidou, a second-year student of European languages and cultures, is half Dutch. ‘But I always felt more Greek, probably because my mother stopped trying to teach us Dutch when we were still pretty young’, she says. ‘But she was different than other Greek mothers. She didn’t hound us about stuff as much.’

These third culture kids have a hard time making the switch from being half-Dutch abroad to being half-foreign in the Netherlands. ‘I stayed with my older brother for a month and a half and tried my best to adjust’, Bernard says. ‘After that, it was just me and my suitcase in a student room. I’d never felt so lonely.’


‘In the bus, when I was biking… I felt eyes on me everywhere’, Stephen admits. ‘It was probably my own paranoia. I was so homesick it was killing me. Being the new kid always makes you extra alert. I was more sensitive and just kept thinking people were judging me. In India I felt like I didn’t belong. But coming here made me feel like an Indian person.’

Cloë didn’t have an easy start, either. ‘I thought it would be easier to settle in in the Netherlands than in a strange country, but it turned out to be harder. In Switzerland I could adapt to and enjoy the culture without having to worry about whether or not I was a “real” Swiss person. I thought I’d meet more people like myself here. This is my country, but I don’t feel like I belong here. I am always aware of the fact that I didn’t grow up here.’

The TCKs also have trouble making friends at university. ‘Some Dutch students would approach me’, says Stephen, ‘but I just wasn’t very interested in what they were talking about. It’s like this individualistic battle of opinions. Religion is really important to me, but for a lot of Dutch people it was like a dead concept. They joke about it. I wasn’t used to that.’

I like the Dutch directness. I like hearing the truth straight up.

Bernard Brouwer, fourth-year science and philosophy

Nasia has almost no Dutch friends, although she doesn’t mind that much. ‘It’s not like I avoid Dutch people; it’s just how it goes. People just prefer to speak their own language. And Groningen has this very particular student culture, which is fun. Really open-minded, not typically Dutch. Everyone does their own thing. It’s pretty individualistic, but there’s also freedom in that.’

‘I never really made the distinction between Dutch people and internationals’, says Stephen. ‘But let’s be honest: there’s a clear divide between the two groups. Internationals feel excluded by Dutch students while Dutch students think that all the internationals gravitate towards each other and aren’t interested in the Dutch.’

‘Whenever I tried to speak Dutch to my fellow students they’d switch to English’, says Bernard. ‘I felt rejected.’ There are also culture clashes. ‘This one time, a classmate and I crashed our bikes into each other’, he recalls. ‘No one was hurt, but I kept offering to pay for repairs to his bike. He thought I was overcompensating. It was really awkward.’


But it’s not all sorrow and misery for the TCKs. ‘I like the Dutch directness’, says Bernard. ‘I like hearing the truth straight up, I’m not bothered by it.’ Chloë: ‘It’s so interesting to finally be living in the Netherlands. Some things are really recognisable, like the way people greet each other and everyone is always sitting outside on stoops and terraces.’

This time I chose to unpack. I really live in Groningen now.

Chloë Moorlag, second-year International and European law

‘There are definitely advantages to having roots in two different cultures’, says Nasia. ‘You get to choose the best of both countries. The Dutch way of planning taught me about discipline, but I also enjoy the Greek spontaneity in my friendships.’ She also feels really comfortable abroad now. ‘I don’t think I’ll be returning to Greece when I graduate, but I’m not sure I’ll stay in the Netherlands, either.’

Stephen thinks being familiar with two different cultures makes you wiser. ‘Some disagreements my parents had clearly just came down to cultural differences.’ Chloë agrees: ‘My ability to adapt is definitely one of my talents. I think that’s mainly because I grew up in different cultures.’

‘TCKs have to decide for themselves what “home” means. ‘It’s very subjective’, says Stephen. ‘My twin brother, for example, only misses the people he knew in India, whereas I’m homesick for the place itself. I miss the smells, the landscape, the climate.’ He recreates this in his student room. ‘Nature – leaves and shells – lots of pictures. It really represents “home”.’

Chloë has done the same thing. ‘The fact that I actually put up photos and postcards on my wall is unique. I normally want to be able to pack up and move as quickly as possible, but this time I chose to unpack. I really live in Groningen now.’

‘I need open-minded people around’, Stephen concludes. ‘I don’t care if they’re Dutch or international. But I do feel more at home with other people who feel out of place. Fortunately, Groningen has a lot of international students.’



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