Not feeling at home anywhere, anymore

The saying ‘there’s no place like home’ is a troublesome one for international students at the University of Groningen. After living in the Netherlands for several years for their studies, they often feel like foreigners when they go back to their country of origin. 

Lies Becker – Aruba

‘You’re so Dutch’, 22-year-old Lies Becker hears when she returns home to Aruba. She has been studying American Studies in Groningen for four years now and has had to adapt to life away from Oranjestad. However, she cannot fully fit into Dutch society, either. ‘I’m symbolically homeless’, she says.

The cultural changes she has undergone are more profound than you might think. That especially goes for the way she experiences time. On Aruba, the daily routine feels much slower compared to Groningen. ‘Time is something people feel like they have limited amounts of here.’

What’s the rush?

So when she comes home, she appears to be constantly in a hurry. ‘Slow down! What’s the rush?!’, Aruban friends and family tell her. ‘It takes a while to get used to the pace again.’

Take appointments, for example. Even for a job interview, being five minutes late on Aruba is not a travesty. So when Lies came to Groningen, she felt it was alright to be a bit late when meeting friends. ‘Being late for an interview here implies you are unreliable. It really affects the way you are perceived’, she says. ‘People here call you out for being late. They genuinely don’t appreciate it.’

Being uptight

At first, she felt overwhelmed by the pace of life here. Now, she has come to appreciate it. ‘I learned to get so many things done in a small amount of time,’ she says. She no longer feels it’s punctual or typically Dutch: ‘It’s being responsible.’

On Aruba, Lies’ desire to plan is sometimes taken the wrong way. ‘It is seen as me being uptight rather than responsible’, which is upsetting to her.

‘I need time to adjust to life back home. I am not used to it anymore,’ she says. Few people understand that struggle. Lies believes that if more people should leave Aruba to study or work to get out of their comfort zone, they would better understand her point-of-view. ‘I don’t think the notion of me feeling foreign back home will ever change, unless you give yourself the opportunity to change yourself first.’

Victor Bueno – Brazil

‘I am in an in-between state’, says 19-year-old Victor Bueno. ‘I don’t know where I’m from.’  Victor came to the Netherlands from Brazil six years ago, so he has spent nearly one-third of his life here. He currently studies International Relations.

He also struggles with the concept of time, even though he is a quite relaxed guy. ‘When I am back in Brazil, I always want to make appointments to go to the beach with my friends’, he says. And he doesn’t like it when his friends can’t keep their ‘afspraak’.

Chill out

He comes across as unusually stressed to his friends there. ‘They always tell me to chill out, that we have the whole day’, Victor laughs.

Life in his home city of Rio de Janeiro is chaotic, and so are its inhabitants, he says. Bus stops don’t even have arrival times: ‘People go with the flow.’ Whereas in Groningen, people get upset if their bus is a few minutes late. ‘I am used to having structure in my life. So there, I come across as different because I can’t fully adapt to their pace anymore.’

Identity crisis

What’s more, Victor has developed an American accent when speaking his mother-tongue, Portuguese. ‘I even feel like a different person when I speak English,’ he explains. He has to think much harder about how to express himself in Portuguese now.

He is different, and his friends won’t let him forget it. ‘They joke around that I’m trying to impress them by saying that I’m foreign’, he says. He’s fine with it. ‘They love foreigners in Brazil.’ Still, he is proud to have Brazilian roots, mostly because of football – ‘although maybe that’s less of a reason now, because of what happened in the last World Cup’.

And now, he plans to go even further abroad and travel more. Won’t that deepen his identity crisis? He smiles. ‘I will always love Patat Speciaal, at least’, he says.

Layla Mahmood – UK/Somalia/Pakistan

‘Saying I’m from England is not what people here want to hear’, says 24-year-old American Studies student Layla Mahmood. Her appearance belies her Somali and Pakistani descent, and that makes people in Groningen curious. ‘People in London just aren’t concerned with that stuff’, she says.

It took her some time to integrate here. At first, she travelled back home every four months. But that prevented her from properly integrating. ‘I was comparing Groningen to London. I needed to appreciate it for what it was’, she says. So, she made a conscious decision to only go back home two times a year.

American accent

Her English friends tell her she has changed. ‘They are keen on pointing out the things that changed since I left, such as my apparent American accent’, she says.

Layla also believes that she has become less funny. She had a very British sense of humour: very sarcastic and ironic. ‘When I came here, everyone thought I was horrible because they took things I said literally,’ she explains. She still thinks she comes off as mean sometimes. ‘It’s getting better, though,’ she says.

In the end, she doesn’t really feel at home anywhere. But she still identifies as English. ‘I feel like people in London are generally very different, but they are proud to be. I feel like a foreigner there also, but everyone else does, too.’