A Chinese’s first impressions of The Netherlands

In the past months I have shared several articles about things that surprised me when moving to The Netherlands in 2013, how the local culture changed some of my habits and what being married to a Dutchman is like. Recently I came across another article that predates all these experiences. I wrote it in 2012 after a 10-day visit to The Netherlands, my first journey outside China besides a trip to Cambodia and Vietnam earlier that year.

As a tour guide, I had been servicing a lot of people from Europe, the United States and Australia, but this was the first time I would visit a ‘western’ country. The reason for my visit was to get to know my boyfriend’s (now my husband) family and experience the country, while we considered possible scenarios for our future together. We were both living in Xi’an, China at the time and moving to The Netherlands was one of the options.

It’s interesting reading the first impressions the country that I now call home left on me. At the end of the article, I will reflect on reading this again, 10 years later.

The original article from 2012:

In late April and early May (2012), we travelled to The Netherlands to meet my partner’s friends and family. It was my first trip to Europe. Because of my own experience as a tour guide, I hoped for a ‘authentic’ tour rather than touristic travel. I got what I hoped for, and it turned out to be a world totally different from China. I will go through different aspects to see what The Netherlands is in my mind now. Let’s first look at …

Eating and drinking in The Netherlands

Dairy products are a necessity for people. They cannot survive without them. Milk, yogurt, cheese, ice cream, puddings, you name it… Breakfast and lunch are almost the same: bread, cheese, Nutella, all kinds of fruit jams and some fresh fruit.

The first day, I saw my partner’s mother pack her lunch box. I was surprised at how simple it was. On the last day, one of my partner’s friends told me it’s because if they had a very heavy lunch, then they would feel sleepy. So, they do enjoy their leisure time but they want to be more productive when they are working.

They have a very simple menu for lunch and dinner. Unlike China, where warm lunch and dinner don’t differ much. They will stop serving sandwiches around 4 PM, which is considered the end of lunch time. And dinners are very international, from Mexican food to local Dutch food and even Chinese food! I tried local stoofpot (stew) when we had dinner with friends. This stew was chicken cooked in beer, had a very strong taste and was quite greasy. I didn’t even finish one third. My partner had warned me that I would not like it, but I wanted to give it a try and ended up thinking it was really…

The first day, I cooked 5 (real) Chinese dishes for the family, and they liked it, especially sweet dishes like Cola Chicken Wings. In general, what Dutch people eat is much sweeter than what Chinese prefer. Maybe that is the reason why they are such sweet people. 😉

Their idea about Chinese food is Fu Yong Hai (fried eggs with a sweet sauce) and saté, which I had never heard of as a real Chinese person. On the other hand, when I cooked famous dishes like tangcu liji, yuxiang rousi and mapo doufu, they had never seen it in their local Chinese restaurant.

At that restaurant, I got the chance to talk to the Chinese owner. She said saté only exists in The Netherlands (later somebody found it is available in the UK too, which I am sure was introduced by Dutch people). Obviously, they love it, and they want to share it with the rest of the world.

All the Chinese dishes were adapted to local tastes when they came to The Netherlands. Smart Chinese people always change to adjust better. If I must rank all the food I had in The Netherlands, saté would ranks last. Sorry, dear Dutch people, nevermind me and please continue to love your saté.

Trying our Chinese food in The Netherlands for the first time.

Some snacks are quite nice like stroopwafels, bitterballen, Bossche bollen and drop (liquorice) which most foreign people seem to hate but is okay for me. Dutch people are used to drinking beers, coffee and tea. They never knew hot water, the main drink of Chinese people, is good for them. They have many kinds of beers of which I never remember the names. There are just too many.

They love coffee, which they drink from when they wake up to the last minute before they go to bed. Local coffee brand Douwe Egberts came up with the idea of making a coffee machine that makes one or two cups rather than a full pot of coffee, then Philips produced the coffee machines, which ended up being a win-win.

They like all kinds of teas, but they don’t have tea leaves, they drink from tea bags, with flavours like orange, apple, cherry, lemon, strawberry, and my favourite ‘Minty Morocco’. Others are a bit bitter to me. The last day, I did a little tea ceremony with Chinese red tea, but I felt they like their tea bags better.

Living in The Netherlands

There are two forms of accommodation in The Netherlands: apartments and houses. Most of the people live in a house, which has two to three floors, where the first floor is the kitchen and living room, the second floor are the bedrooms, and the third floor can be a storage (attic). There often is a small garden at the back of the house. People keep their bikes and enjoy the sunshine there, although sometimes the weather changes quickly. The day we stayed over at a friend’s place I woke up from hearing the heavy rain. I thought it would be a pity if we had to see Amsterdam in the rain. Later it became very windy but without any rain.

People are generally very relaxed, polite and friendly. I went to the police station to register my stay. They even asked us whether we wanted a cup of tea. The officer made a couple of phone calls, so we didn’t need to drive to another town. I guess in China, they would simply say: “It is not our business, I am afraid you have to go there to do this.” Finally, the officer asked how I felt about The Netherlands and wished me a nice trip. It seems they never worry about their long to-do list at work. Or maybe they don’t have one at all...

I really appreciate how they can work thoughtfully and smile. Most of the time, people in China are under pressure to finish all the work. We don’t have time to explain things patiently and carefully, our first aim is to get things done.

On Queen’s Day I saw a lady with a tattoo in Chinese characters and I was very curious but felt embarrassed to ask her about it. My partner encouraged me to go and talk to her. She didn’t feel uncomfortable at all and kindly explained to me why she had it. When I ordered a zure haring (pickled herring) with my newbie level Dutch, the merchant was very patiently listening to me and communicated with me even though she knew I could not speak proper Dutch. She even praised my Dutch. Such a positive atmosphere.

There is one thing I feel Chinese will take ages to learn: working hours. My partner’s mum works two and half days per week as a secretary at a law firm. I can immediately imagine what that job would be like in China, but on the contrary, nobody called her at all during her leisure time. Not at all.

In China, we always have a so-called emergency or deadline. In fact, we could do it the next day, but they don’t respect ‘working hours’. In the evenings I often receive a lot of phone calls and messages from students and their parents. I even dreamt about them. I told my partner about my dream, and he said: ‘Maybe it is because late at night you didn’t want to pick up the phone. They came to find you in your sleep.’ It will never happen in The Netherlands, and I never heard his mum discussing anything related to work.

I talked with one of my partner’s sons about social equality. In China, there definitely is no social equality. We have family planning, which means one family can only have one child, but the rich people can pay to have a second. If you have a rich or well-connected father, you can get a good job. Ooohh, sorry … you can even get paid without working at all. I don’t think that would happen in The Netherlands.

He asked me if a person would get equal treatment if he was sick. In China, social welfare has all the rankings. A migrant worker doesn’t have any holiday or paid sick leave. Whether ordinary working people can enjoy certain benefits depends on the organisations they work for. But in The Netherlands, even supermarket staff enjoys all social benefits. I guess that is the meaning of equality.

Dutch people don’t care all that much about politics. When I visited the country, the Dutch Government had just fallen, and they faced a political crisis. But people are still enjoying their own life, cycling, camping and going for a drink on Queen’s Day. Nobody talked about it at all. It seems it had nothing to do with them. If the Chinese government would fall, I cannot imagine…

One thing I found interesting about Dutch people is that they are bold and frank, more objective and real. Whether they like men or women, they are very natural. One culture shock I experienced was going to a mixed gender sauna. A naked sauna! Not like in China where everybody wears some comfortable clothes in a sauna. On the day we went there, one of my contact lenses had broken. My partner was teasing me: ‘That is what happens to people when they go to the sauna with the wrong intentions.’ But when I went there, I felt less curious than I had expected.

Besides the sauna, another thing I tried once was marijuana. Those are two impossible things to do in China, one is simply illegal, one is just not happening. Just this morning I read the news that Dutch government is paying for its disabled citizens to have sex with prostitutes. I hope they also get paid the travel costs to Amsterdam. 🙂

People have easy access to information about things like sex and drugs. They can try it legally and then feel less curious about it. It is much better than to hide things, which causes people to look for the answer in the wrong way, which most of the time ends up being more damaging. It is better to know more about genders and sex rather than getting an abortion. It is better to go the Red-Light District to get legal paid sex rather than raping an innocent girl.

At the same time, I feel the contradictions. A friend told me about parents that lost control over their daughter who wanted to become a prostitute, because the country makes it legal. Who would like their child or their friend to become a prostitute? The society also tries to save people from doing that. Citizen’s taxes are used to rescue women from prostitution. But at the same time, if the government pay the disabled people to go there, that increases business in the prostitutes’ labour market. It may also take time for citizen themselves to figure out how they want their taxes to be spend.

One morning, my partner and I were also talking about serious topics and politics. Finally, we concluded that there is no perfect system; every system has its own problems and advantages.

But if I was asked to pick one word to describe Dutch society it would be: humanized.

Reflections on my original writing

When I was reading my original writing 10 years later, I had to laugh and still remember the culture shock ten years ago. The first time I ate saté, I was thinking: ‘What evil genius could possibly create such disgusting thing?!’ Ten years later I like it. Ten years ago, I thought the food at the local Chinese restaurant was all way too sweet. I recently went to eat there and liked it a lot.

Regarding the pickled herring, I almost threw up the first time I tried it: cold, greasy… Now I am craving for it if I have not had it during the herring season. I still remember the patience of the merchant in that herring shop. Dutch people are all very encouraging and tolerant. They often compliment me on my Dutch and patiently listen to my fumbling with wrong word order and strange pronunciations with Chinese accents. They mostly try to patiently figure out the meaning instead of rushing me. I always really appreciate that.

Of course, they are not always as sweet as I experienced 10 years ago. They can be very direct. The advantage of that is that nobody needs to hide their opinions out of politeness. You could discuss and illustrate your arguments. This is also expected of you, and I had to learn how to do this in the right way.

If I would now have to describe the country in one word, after living here for 9 years, I will choose ‘reasonable’. People can discuss and reason. Others will listen to your reasoning. Decisions are mostly made based on reasoning.

Trying out a Dutch herring for the first time.