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 moons ago, I used to love using the app, Meetup. It’s 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 I love making new friends. I was mainly interested in the international crowd of Meetup, and I would attend many evenings out on the town to indulge in a fresh drink, socialize, and mingle with new people.

I can recall one time, in particular, when a meeting with someone quickly turned into a fun memory.

As we made our way through the small-talk checklist, such as “where are you from?” and “what do you do?”, a favourite conversation starter came up: “how long have you been here for?”.

“Almost a year”, I replied. “And you?”

“Over two years now,” said my new acquaintance, Alex from the United States.

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

Well, the joke is on me because I’ve lived in the Netherlands for basically four 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’m a language lover, and I’ve 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 (horse), but every time I muck up the courage to order a koffie in Dutch or ask for the rekening (bill) at a restaurant, alas, they catch the not-so-Dutch accent on me and reply in English. So like, what even is the point? 😕

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

I’m still trying, but admittedly I lost some motivation halfway through my stay here, especially when trying to understand past tense vs present perfect tense, amongst other mind-boggling rules of the Dutch language.

So, for now, I’m happy with my charming mix of English and Dutch when going about this tiny land of tall people.

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, kaassoufflés (or is it kaassoufflen?) and bitterballen either.

There are so many other local foods, like zuikerbrood (sugar bread), eierkoeken (egg cake), and mustard soup, that I’m still trying to get my tastebuds acquainted with. 🍲

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

Yesterday was my first time hearing the term “Lekkerbek”, which seems to be basically some sort of fish dish — all in all, let’s just say my list of foods keeps getting extended.

I should really learn the national anthem

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

I need to have more local friends

It’s no secret that the Dutch, who are generally quite a friendly bunch, are reluctant to open their closely-knit friend groups from pre-school, primary school, and high school, for a good ol’ international, like myself.

READ MORE | Moving to the Netherlands: all you need to know

Don’t get me wrong. I do have Dutch friends, but I wouldn’t consider myself 100% a part of a Dutch friend group.

I befriend a lot of internationals, and we make spontaneous plans for coffees, walks, and dinners — but whilst my door is always open to new friends, no matter their culture, the Dutch seem to remain somewhat unwilling to enter. 🗣

I should know the local…things

The things… the things! 🤔 You know, those little cultural nuances that really just come when you live in the country long enough. Things like:

  • When should I give three cheek kisses?
  • What cake do I bring on my birthday?
  • What sort of weather can I expect this time of year (or does it just change annually?)
  • When does the tax year start/end?
  • When exactly will the sun appear and then disappear?

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

So, I’m not a local — I’m not! Nearly three years later and I still sort of love being an international. I love the differences and 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 July 2022 for your reading pleasure.

Feature Image:Depositphotos
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.

Liked it? Try these on for size:

What do you think?


  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.

      • Right?! Are we sure that she’s talking about the same place we are? Buh byeee, fo sho. I like how you roll, Steff.👍🏾

    • I feel you, I do not think you are the only one feeling like this. Just try to travel as much as you can, there is a place called Schiphol, which has planes and trains that allow you to be in Belgium, Germany, France in two hours or even in Spain, so use them. The NL is good for your work career, for the rest just go away as much as you can that’s what I do and it works, I do not try to make friends here, its a waste of time, but important to learn the language though

  5. The word is “gastarbeiter” not expat 😉 – I have been here for almost 50 years and speak pretty good dutch but all you might hope for is what is what happened to me many years ago while out in the sticks was being accused of being a “tiefus Amsterdammer” because of my accent. ? There are several stages to living here so just enjoy ….

  6. I’m a Kiwi living in the Netherlands – on and off for 9 years now – and while I’ll never be Dutch, I do feel like a local, or an Amsterdammer in my case. I know most of my neighbours, I have drinks with them at the local pub, do favors for them and them for me – like feed their cats or water their plants when away (they do the same for me). I chat with staff of stores or restaurants I frequent often, in English, and I give them Christmas cards each year. I have a small collection of Dutch friends too who I met through work or church.
    I really wanted to feel like a local so I guess in a way I forced it to happen. It does mean sometimes sitting in a group of Dutchies where you don’t understand some of their jokes or context to their conversations, but I think that’s normal. Every now and then I get shit for not speaking Dutch (I understand most but only speak bits & pieces), and I think that’s normal too. It’s their country!
    In general I find the Dutch to be the most open-minded, accepting, thoughtful and respectful people groups. If you’re looking for warmth and kindness, it’s there, but you have to understand how they communicate warmth and kindness – its through words and respect. I love them and I love my life here. I feel like a local but it’s because I made a conscious and determined effort to make it that way. It’s the best.

  7. I lived there for three and a half years. I learned the language well enough so that service people were undecided as to speak to me in English or Dutch.I like to think I made lots of friends who I still call friends to this day six years later. I felt part of the community but there were those who never accepted me. I chose to move on to warmer people and pastures. I’m more of a local now but more of an immigrant who still loves traveling and meeting people. I currently live in Albania next to the Adriatic Sea and I love it.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related posts

Latest posts

The Netherlands sees a surge in freelancers (and the government isn’t having it)

We're all in search of the perfect work-life balance, but office jobs can make that extremely difficult for employees. Enter: freelancing! Freelancing has absolutely taken...

More interest, more money: how saving up money is actually worthwhile again

Savers in the Netherlands have had a rough few years. First came coronavirus, then skyrocketing inflation rates. However, while inflation is certainly an issue,...

Dutch energy suppliers are letting you set yearly contracts again: here’s what you should know

Fed up with the uncertainty of not knowing how much extra you have to pay on electricity each month? Well, these Dutch energy companies...

It's happening

Upcoming events

The latest Dutch news.
In your inbox.