Mixed-up Migrants

As in many societies, the Dutch are engaged in a perennial debate about the level of successful integration achieved by their immigrant population.  Language acquisition is of course the most obvious concern, but it goes much deeper than that. What use is it if someone can speak flawless Dutch but has failed to embrace typically Dutch values?   Which naturally gives rise to another debate: are there any characteristically Dutch values shared by all?  If an educated, well-spoken white Dutch national espouses racist or intolerant ideas, for example, it goes down a lot easier than when coming from a recently arrived non-white immigrant speaking in broken sentences with a heavy accent.  The one is trumpeted as a hero of free speech; the other is threatened with deportation.

By most accounts our family has done a good job at integrating here, certainly compared to many other North Americans.  When we arrived Renata and I made a grand effort to learn Dutch, and have been reasonably successful at it.  The girls have all excelled in school and are completely at home in Dutch language and society.  There are many things we like about our lives here, and some we love.  In fact, we sometimes feel more like “foreigners” when back in the USA or Canada, than we do here.

Having said that, we are still American and Canadian in our identity.  At home we speak English almost all the time.  We still celebrate some of our non-Dutch national holidays, we prefer church worship in the English language, search out some typically North American food products at specialty stores, and I avidly follow North American sports on television.  I file US income tax returns every year and vote in federal elections.  In the morning I scan the Washington Post, the New York Times, or the Seattle Times for the latest American headlines.  I regularly watch the online version of CBC Vancouver at Six News – only 4 hours old by the time I get to it.

Really, we are quite typical of a first generation immigrant family: the values and culture of our birth are still the root and stem into which have been grafted a few Dutch branches.

I have to laugh inwardly when I hear some of the trivial concerns voiced by  the more strident members of the everyone-must-be-fully-assimilated crowd.  The same people who complain loudly about foreigners not embracing their new surroundings are often the ones who are most proud to show off their Dutch-ness when traveling or living abroad.  They are tickled pink (or Orange!) when they travel to Canada, the USA, or Australia, and there find communities of Dutch emigrants with their own newspapers and radio programs, their own stores selling Dutch products, and their own social clubs.  How wonderful that these people have held onto their Dutch-ness!

A couple of years ago I saw a documentary about a large number of Somali refugees admitted to the Netherlands.  When they had lived here long enough to qualify for Dutch passports and could move freely around Europe many of them moved off to the United Kingdom where they gained easier recognition of their educational degrees.  About twenty thousand of these Somalis ended up in and around Birmingham.  But their sojourn in the Netherlands had bonded them in an odd way: no longer where they simply Somalis, they were now Dutch Somalis.  They spoke Dutch to each other on the streets of Birmingham, had their own networks and even opened up little shops selling typically Dutch household and food items.  They had become thoroughly mixed-up migrants.

Which, speaking from my own experience, is not at all a bad thing to be.  Honestly, I get a lot of joy from observing someone who is through-and-through Dutch; I love seeing someone who is thoroughly rooted in their culture and identity.  But a significant and growing portion of the world’s population is made up of people like me – people who, because of circumstance, have got to weave together a life made out of many different cultural and linguistic strands.  Those creations can be beautiful too.

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