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, 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. gesture 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, 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 — all in all, my list of foods 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 as of yet either so I’ll have to keep you posted on this. 🎤

I need to have more local friends

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 dinners — but whilst my door is always open to new friends, the Dutch seem to remain somewhat reluctant to enter. 🗣

I should know the local…things

The things… the things! You know, those little cultural nuances that really just come with living in the country for long enough. Before the coronavirus, there 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

Things 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!

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in March 2021, and was fully updated in September 2021 for your reading pleasure.

Feature Image: Sandro Gonzalez/Unsplash

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.

  3. Dear Shaakira.Beeing a Greek living in Cyprus (Greek island)feel the same. Fortunately we”the”expats” make the difference to any new place for sure!!Always in the correct way 😊

  4. I can totally relate to this.. Im 5 years here now and there us no way I can feel like a local.. Sometimes I ask myself what the heck am I doing here? My kids are dutch, thats basically the reason.. still struggling with the decisison if we should stay or if we should move somewhete else.. were I can find friends and were the people ate pherhaps more open…i feel lonely here and feels like my life is passin by.. this country is extremely expensive on top, feels like everybody is huntin u down for money.. cant yet find 3 reasons strong enough to spend the rest of my life in a cuntry like this so I def cant wait to find a way to get out and enjoy my life again full of friends and surrounded by friendly, nice people.


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