Always an expat, never a local: an international’s attempt to integrate into Dutch life

Shaakira, a South-African living in Amsterdam, shares why she’s still waiting to feel like a Dutch local.

Many, many moons ago, when social interaction was still allowed, I used to love going to Meetup. Meetup, the app, is a really great way to join different interest groups with the aim of fostering friendships, growing skills and furthering interests.

At the best of times, I’m a total extrovert and love making new friends. My main Meetup interest groups were expat-orientated, and I would attend various evenings to have a drink and meet new people.

I recall meeting someone once, and as we made our way through the small-talk checklist (where are you from? What do you do? Blah blah), the favourite: “How long have you been here” came up.

“Almost a year” I replied. “And you?”

“Over two years now,” replied my new acquaintance, Alex from the US.

“Woah. You’re basically a local!” I joked.

Well, the joke is on me, because I’ve lived in the Netherlands for nearly three years now … and I certainly do not feel like a local. Here are a few of the reasons why:

I’m a perpetual student of the language

I am a language lover and have been an ardent student of the Dutch language. Or at least…I was? At some point, I fell off the horse. Of course, I’ve tried to get back on the paard, but also the other day I ordered my coffee in Dutch and they replied to me in English so like…? Qu’est que le point?

I’m still trying but admittedly I lost some motivation when trying to understand past tense vs. present perfect tense (amongst other mind-boggling rules), so for now I’m happy with my charming mix of English and Dutch when going about this land.

READ MORE | 7 ways to learn Dutch fast and easy: our best tips to learn Nederlands in life

I’m still learning the cuisine

There’s more to the Netherlands than just cheese and milk…and bread, okay? It doesn’t stop at stroopwafels, kaassouffle’s (or is it kaassoufflen?) and bitterballen either. There are so many other local foods like zuikerbrood, eierkoeken and mustard soup that I am still trying to get my tastebuds acquainted with.

Yesterday was my first time heard the term “Lekkerbek” which it seems is basically some sort of fish dish. Much like the curfew, my list of foods to try just keeps getting extended.

READ MORE | These are 7 Dutch foods you need to try before you die

I should really learn the national anthem

Is there any greater sense of national pride than singing the national anthem with your fellow countrymen?! I don’t know the anthem (yet) and I’m not Dutch either (yet) so I’ll have to keep you posted on this.

I should really have more local friends

… or should I? It’s no secret that the Dutch, whilst lovely people in general, are reluctant to open their closely-knit friend groups from pre-school, primary school, high school etc., for just any old expat.

Whilst I have made Dutch friends, I wouldn’t consider myself part of a 100% Dutch friend group. I befriend a lot of expats — we make spontaneous plans for coffees, walks and two-people dinners (corona-compliant, of course) — but whilst my door is always open to new friends, the Dutch seem to remain somewhat reluctant to enter.

I should really know the local…things

The things… the things! You know the things. Like those little cultural nuances that really just come with living in the country for long enough. Before corona, this used to be concerns like “when to give three cheek kisses?,” and “what cake do I bring on my birthday?”.

READ MORE | 9 things no one tells you about living in the Netherlands for the first time

Currently, this is looking more like knowing exactly when there will be another press conference, what sort of weather I can expect this time of year (or does it just change annually?), when does the tax year start/end, and exactly when the sun will appear and then disappear.

So I’m not a local. I’m not! Nearly three years later and I still sort of love being an expat. I love the differences (and the similarities) between my own nationality and those I get to enjoy here in the Netherlands.

Do you feel like a local in the Netherlands? Tell us why, or why not, in the comments below!

Feature Image: Sandro Gonzalez/Pexels

Shaakira Vania
Shaakira Vania
20-something year old traveller, coconut lover (Seriously-anything coconut), and Libran. I recently made the cross-continent move to Amsterdam and spend my weekends exploring the country, meeting new people and telling myself I will finish a book every month (a promise I'm yet to keep). If I had to sum myself up in three words they would be: quirky, curious, and meme-lover.

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  1. My humble opinion is that no matter how many years you spend living in the Netherlands (8+ in my case) you will forever remain an expat and can never become 100% Dutch simply because you never had many fundamental formative experiences that ‘locals’ share (e.g. going through steps of the Dutch education system all the way from peuterschool). But that doesn’t mean you’ll never feel like a local, especially on a slightly smaller scale! What I mean is feeling local in your city, knowing its many faces, meeting its many people, and that’s good enough for me 🙂

  2. Been here 30l+ years. I am an international, not an expat, not a local. Seen too much from too many cultures to wanna be only one. So embrace as many as you can. It’s not the language, the cuisine, the open mindedness, nor the national anthem. The Dutch are great at being excellent managers of the small stuff that makes a big difference. It’s the friendships, the direct, in your face – don’t give me this BS attitude, & prepare for the worse, hope for the best mentality. Sometimes it drives you crazy. But better than other cultures that talk big, do nothing.


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