An earlier, shorter version of this article was published on ChinaTalk in 2017.
This year, I have been living in the Netherlands for nine years, after having lived in China for the first thirty years of my life. Some of my habits have been spontaneously ‘dutchized’, while many Chinese customs are still very much engrained in my life. In this article I would like to share some of my experiences with adjusting to the Dutch way of life.
Ditching the umbrella
Nine years ago, I used to think it strange when I saw Dutch people eating ice cream in the winter. And often I saw Dutch people walking around in shorts while I was still wearing long underpants to keep warm, loyally following my mother’s advice. Just looking at their bare legs gave me the shivers. But now, when mercury rises above ten degrees and it’s a bit sunny, I think it’s time for an ice cream myself. Otherwise, it would be a waste of such nice weather! But you still won’t see me walking around in shorts at that temperature.
I have lived in the central city of Xi’an for fourteen years. There is no long spring or autumn season in Xi’an; most of the year consist of summer and winter climates. In just a few weeks, the weather changes rapidly from cold to warm. In summer it is always extremely hot with temperatures that can easily reach 40 degrees Celsius. That’s why I never wanted to sit in the sun in Xi’an; you would simply burn up in that heat. But in the Netherlands really hot weather is quite rare, not counting a few heatwaves in recent years. So, when the sun shines, I immediately want to go sit in the garden and catch some rays.
What we do have a lot of in the Netherlands is rain. But looking at the people cycling and walking around in that weather, I noticed many of them don’t use any umbrella. They simply walk or cycle a little faster, keeping their heads down a little deeper between their shoulders. In the beginning I always used an umbrella since I thought the rain was quite heavy and I would get wet. Later I found out that it is often smarter to just walk a little faster, because there is often so much wind that the umbrella is blown inside-out or even pulled out of my hands. In cities like Amsterdam, you will see many broken umbrellas lying along the streets. When it rains in Xi’an it can rain very heavily for three days in a row, but there is relatively little wind.
Getting a little agenda
And then there is the agenda and planning. In China, people rarely have an agenda to plan their time. Everything is much more spontaneous. At work, it is suddenly decided that there is a meeting, and everyone goes to the conference room. But in the Netherlands, everyone plans ahead. Meetings are sometimes scheduled two months in advance. When I look at next year’s planning of the school where I teach, the group meetings are already fixed! It’s all very well-planned and if I don’t keep a good schedule myself, my work becomes a mess. If I don’t make an appointment in advance, I will never get to meet with my contacts. So now I have a little printed agenda to jot everything down and have even started using Google Calendar.
Planning ahead even applies to weather. The weather in the Netherlands can change quickly; it can rain in the middle of a sunny day. As mentioned, in Xi’an it can rain for days on end, but you are rarely caught off guard. Nowadays, when I leave the house, I always check Buienalarm, an app that predicts rain showers. I’ve never used any app in China that could tell me the exact time a shower would start, when it would end and how heavy the rain would be. When my parents visited us in the Netherlands, we quickly had to find shelter while shopping in the city centre when it suddenly started to rain. I had forgotten to check Buienalarm…
From disgusting to favourite food
In the morning, my husband usually has cold milk for breakfast. I still can’t get used to it myself and want a cup of hot water or warm milk, which I feel rush to my stomach with every sip. I then feel my body slowly revive, ready for a new day. Still, unlike in China, always drinking hot water is starting to bore me. Four years ago, I snubbed western tea bags. But now I love having all those different flavours after dinner and I crave a cup of tea made with a sachet.
When I saw my husband eat beschuit (rusk) and knackebröt (crispbread) for breakfast I used to think that it looked painfully dry. Just watching him eat alone already made my throat hurt. But one day I found that I had made exactly the same breakfast he eats every day: toast with chocolate-hazelnut spread and crispbread with cheese. In China we have lots of street vendors selling all kinds of warm breakfast. It’s quick and convenient to buy something freshly prepared on the way to work. Making your own warm breakfast at home in The Netherlands can take a lot of time. My husband’s breakfast is also relatively easy and quick and provides enough energy for the first half of the day.
When I first came to the Netherlands, I didn’t like cheese, but now I often eat cheese when I’m in for a snack. I eat it in slices and sometimes even a whole piece cut from a block of cheese. To help me integrate, my husband even subjected me to a cheese taste test, helping me to tell the different flavours apart and figure out what I liked best.
On my first visit to the Netherlands, one of our friends treated me to a pickled herring. After taking a bite I almost cried, that’s how gross I thought it was. Nine years later I find it delicious and refreshing, especially with onions. Likewise with olives. When I was a tour guide in China and had breakfast with my foreign clients in a hotel, the olives were always immensely popular. But no matter how many times I tried them, I never liked them. Now I see them everywhere, in restaurants and at parties and I have come to enjoy them. I even miss them a bit if I haven’t eaten them in a while and then quickly go to buy a jar in the supermarket.
I haven’t changed my old habit of having warm lunch though. In China people have three warm meals a day. While I can compensate the cold breakfast with some hot water or tea, I really need to have some warm food for lunch. At work, I look at my colleagues and see how everybody brings their lunchbox and they chat while eating their sandwiches and col yoghurt. I tried that but it just doesn’t give me a full, satisfied feeling. I would lack energy in the afternoon, so I still stick to my warm lunch. But since I can’t really bring a lot of ingredients to prepare a meal in school, I normally buy a roasted panini in the school’s canteen or bring some cup noodles.
In the past nine years I got used to a lot of things that I found strange or unpleasant at first and in some cases I have come to love them. I wonder what the next nine years will bring me.