Photo by Zuzana Ľudviková

Living between two cultures

Not Dutch, not international

Photo by Zuzana Ľudviková
There are Dutch people in Groningen and there are internationals, and the two groups don’t seem to mix all that much. So what is it like if you’re neither, or rather, a bit of both? Two students and two staff members talk about their experiences.
14 June om 11:21 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 19 June 2023
om 15:18 uur.
June 14 at 11:21 AM.
Last modified on June 19, 2023
at 15:18 PM.
Avatar photo

Door Yuling Chang

14 June om 11:21 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 19 June 2023
om 15:18 uur.
Avatar photo

By Yuling Chang

June 14 at 11:21 AM.
Last modified on June 19, 2023
at 15:18 PM.
Avatar photo

Yuling Chang

Ruben Wagenvoort (20)

Third-year international law student

Born in Denmark from Dutch parents, grew up in Denmark and the USA

‘I lived in Denmark for fourteen years, but I was never seen as fully Danish’, says Ruben. He has Dutch parents, but hadn’t lived in the Netherlands until he came to Groningen to study in 2020. 

His parents own an agricultural business and they moved several times before he reached high school age. Ruben has lived in different places in Denmark and also in the USA. ‘I would have just made new friends and then my parents would tell me we needed to relocate again.’

In both countries, he was always the foreigner. ‘I really hated that when I was young, because I never really belonged to any one group’, he says. 

I’ve learned to embrace my background

When he moved to Groningen, the same thing happened all over again. ‘To the Dutch community, I’m not Dutch, because I don’t speak the language fluently.’ He can converse in Dutch, but, he explains, ‘you’ll definitely notice that I’m not a native Dutch speaker. And I’m also not fully international, because I do speak Dutch.’

Nowadays, though, he has accepted his background, seeing the positive side of it. He no longer struggles to belong. ‘I’ve learned to embrace it. It’s actually a blessing. I can see both sides of the story and build the bridge in between’, says Ruben, who serves as a student member on the university council. ‘Seeing both perspectives helps me when I need to come up with solutions.’

Igor Monjane (21)

Third-year international law student

Born in Mozambique, has been living in the Netherlands since he was 15

‘It wasn’t hard for me to adapt to Dutch culture, because adaptability was already ingrained in me’, says Igor. Born in Mozambique, he moved to Mali when he was twelve, then to the Netherlands for his mother’s and stepfather’s jobs when he was fifteen. 

He did notice the cultural differences, of course, the most obvious being the Dutch cycling culture. ‘I cycle to school every day, even in winter or when it rains’, says Igor. ‘I’m used to biking, but the temperature here is much lower than in Mozambique or Mali.’ 

Another difference is that in his home country and in Mali, people would greet each other with a kiss or a hug upon first meeting. ‘I miss the warmth of people. Even people I had just met on the street would invite me to their homes for tea.’

I find it attractive, being well-versed in different cultures

Igor – who has a Dutch residence permit through his mother – is making an effort to learn Dutch, ‘but I’m not very good at learning languages.’ He went to an international school in the Netherlands and primarily spoke English there. ‘I attended Dutch courses twice, but my proficiency is only at an elementary level.’ English is the language he speaks best: after he left Mozambique, he rarely used Portuguese – the country’s official language – anymore. 

Living in three different cultures hasn’t made him feel confused about his identity, he says. ‘Instead, I appreciate it.’ He has learned to understand and communicate with people from different cultural backgrounds, which gives him a unique ability to connect with others. ‘I’ve always found it attractive, being well-versed in different cultures.’

However, introducing himself to new friends can be complicated, because it’s hard to explain his entire life in just a few minutes. ‘I don’t go into too much detail’, he says. ‘I share the truth without delving into where I feel like home. I always mention Mozambique, Mali, and the Netherlands, and I hope people don’t ask me where I’m from. Because I see myself as a mix, merging three different cultures.’

Diana te Braake (30)

Personal support advisor at University College Groningen

Dutch nationality, born and raised in Zimbabwe

‘If you ask me about my nationality and identity, I’m Dutch Zimbabwean’, says Diana. ‘For many years, I was simply Zimbabwean. But at some point, excluding the Dutch part no longer made sense.’

Diana’s Dutch grandparents migrated to Rhodesia – as Zimbabwe was called when it was still a British colony – in the 1950s and started up a chain of butcheries. Although her parents were born and raised in Zimbabwe, they decided to move to the Netherlands in IJsselstein when she was fourteen, because the Zimbabwean political climate had become unsafe.

Despite her ties to the country, it wasn’t an easy transition for her. ‘I was bullied in high school here, because I was different’, she says. 

She always spoke Dutch to other Dutch people, only switching to her native English when talking to her best friend from New Zealand, but even that was frowned upon. ‘People around me constantly felt the need to express their opinions: I should leave the country, go back to Zimbabwe.’

Diversity is celebrated in Groningen and that makes me feel more at home

And even after learning Dutch, Diana says, ‘I felt unwelcome in the Netherlands.’ The international environment in Groningen makes her feel less like an outsider, though.‘I have felt embraced since I started studying here. Because diversity is celebrated in Groningen and that makes me feel more at home.’ 

After sixteen years in the Netherlands, she’s fluent in the language and understands the culture, but she still has many non-Dutch perspectives and habits, she says. ‘So I’ll remain mostly international.’

That was highlighted once again when she got into a relationship with a Dutch man. ‘I was surprised by how direct the Dutch can be, even though I already knew that. But it’s different in a relationship’, says Diana. The culture in Zimbabwe is much more indirect: ‘We read meaning between the lines. So it was easy to take direct words personally, and sometimes I felt insulted.’

She started communicating with him in a more Dutch way, but when that relationship ended and she met her current boyfriend, who’s from Northern Ireland, it turned out she had become a little too Dutch. ‘Now I’m adjusting again and communicating more indirectly, because I can sometimes be too direct for him. I’m still learning to find that balance.’

Joris de Tomasi (30)

Communications advisor at the Faculty of Science and Engineering

Half Dutch, half Italian

Even though he has a decidedly Dutch first name, Joris couldn’t speak the language when he first came to Groningen to study in 2012. His mother is Dutch, but she moved to Italy with her Italian husband, which is where Joris grew up. 

The fact that he didn’t speak Dutch made it hard to make friends, he says. ‘I was really struggling in terms of integration.’ But now that he’s been here over a decade, that has changed. ‘I still have an accent, but at least I can converse in Dutch now.’ 

The topics I discuss are different when I’m among Dutch people

He also understands the culture better. ‘The topics I discuss are different when I’m among Dutch people. We talk about what items cost, or what we’re going to have for dinner, for example. Italians rarely discuss their dinner plans with friends or colleagues, but it’s a common topic for small talk here, so I do that as well now.’ 

Some Italian habits die hard, though: ‘I don’t make grocery lists like Dutch people do. I always go to the supermarket to get some inspiration for cooking’, says Joris. ‘I enjoy the journey of grocery shopping.’

He’s really come to appreciate his bi-culturality, he says, because it helps him understand people from different backgrounds. ‘I can look at the differences with more nuance.’