A reality check

Dialogue with the Dutch does not exist without the dialogue with the non-Dutch, and I am very pleased to publish the very first DWTND blog. For this blog I interviewed my good friend Maja de Garcia-Majdanac on the topic of raising kids in the Netherlands as an expat. Maja is Croatian, and she has lived and worked in the USA, the Netherlands and currently she is staying in Vienna with her family. Maja is not just an expat, she is in fact a psychologist who is specialised in children, which makes her the perfect person to ask some questions about having a family in the Netherlands as an expat and to put some of the research data on the subject in a more personal perspective.

The basis for this interview is the HSBC annual expat survey from 2017. This survey researches various topics, such as ‘economics’, ‘experience’ and ‘family’ along almost every country that hosts a certain number of expats. The categories are divided in sub categories. For ‘family’ these categories are for example ‘relationships’, ‘education and childcare’ and ‘raising children’. Then these sub categories are divided even further as you can see in the image below. This image also shows, that out of all the countries, the first position worldwide goes to the Netherlands.  That’s a big thing, being number 1 on such important subject. The question is whether the research results match up with personal experience on the subject, and that is the thought behind this interview.

hsbc.jpg

The question I asked Maja, is whether the Netherlands really is as family friendly as the research results show us. To answer this question, I asked Maja if she could elaborate on her experience of having a baby while abroad, away from what she knows.

Maja said the Netherlands to her is indeed a very safe and nurturing place, although expats complain a lot. She said that by not living in the Netherlands anymore she realises how openminded the country is. “It makes kids ready for challenges in life. In many Eastern cultures, like the Croatian culture, kids are raised more protectively. For example, in wintertime you would not see any kid on a bike. You would shelter the kid more in Croatia, make sure parents are always around the kid as a shell or a bubble. You have parents, school, doctors. Doctors are super important.” Maja explained that in Eastern Europe schools for example do dental and physical check-ups as well. That basically these institutions take lots of precautionary measures, and that the Netherlands feels like the opposite. Because of all the resources that are available in Netherlands, it feels uncomfortable to her that kids are not more protected and not more precautions are taken. Maja also mentioned that in general, the way of living and parenting is just more open in the Netherlands, compared to what she has seen in other countries. She says that if you know how this works from early age you are better prepared for life and challenges, “Once you grew up protected you have more fears, you always feel the need to rely on others, like doctors or family.”. Maja feels that kids with more open mind probably have an easier life later on, and that with these Dutch values it’s nice to raise a family. She also mentioned that she doubts if expats are open enough for this. To quote Maja: “In perspective I would say, that with the safety, openness and natural approach to life I can see how the Netherlands is one of the best countries to raise a kid. When in the Netherlands I was not a fan, now I left the country and I see it was pretty good. Just so different from what I was used too.”

When I asked Maja if she noticed a difference between expat families raising kids and her Dutch neighbours raising kids. She immediately said: “Dutch neighbours bike, with kids, when it rains heavily. They don’t dress the kids warm enough.” Maja feels like she was judging the parents for not being responsible enough, but in the end the kids turn out to be healthy and independent. To quote: “Difference, yes there is. Personally, I do admire it, because it prepares kids to use their talents and independence and to be a strong person. More than when you are sheltered and protected.”.

At last I asked her if she feels as an expat she was accommodated by the Dutch system in the early stages of her new family life. She said: “I freaked out a bit over the system in the Netherlands, I really wanted a gynaecologist, no intern or midwife, but an actual doctor. We had a good experience though. Also, in the ‘consultatiebureau‘, people where very nice to us. We heard stories about less pleasant experiences though. Not willing to be more flexible with rules for example. It feels like a clash between my expectations of other places I lived and life in Netherlands. For example, a doctor asked me why don’t I speak Dutch, so blunt, this doctor did not make me feel great, as I came there with a problem and the doctor was only interested in why I was not learning the language.”

Maja concluded with the following: “So far, we moved to 4 different countries, the Netherlands will always be remembered in good terms. Every place has things you like and don’t like, crappy people and great people. It’s hard to integrate within Dutch friend circles. Become friends with a Dutchie. This seems like a contradiction with how openminded and liberal people are. If you are open to all kind of people, then it’s contradictive you have to pass this invisible test to be trusted. We have a lot of Dutch friends, but not many would invite us to our house.”.

Looking back at the different subjects that where covered in the survey, the quality of life when it comes to raising kids is considered very well. When it comes to healthcare, although there are great resources, the system can make expats very nervous. Social life leaves a gap though, Dutchies are known for having pretty closed social circles. Although I wrote previously in my article “being at home in the world” that expats are on average English speaking and very often they don’t speak the local language. That they demonstrate a kind of openness to the multicultural society, yet they are not aware of the local customs, which makes that they form a community within a community. An important aspect for the local environment is they don’t feel like a threat to the local society and therefore local communities, the Dutch in this case, don’t feel disturbed by them. This phenomenon also known as the “expat bubble”: being in a place but don’t engage with this place. This makes expats known for keeping their own culture and having limited amounts of contact with locals. Which makes sense, because they will on average move to another position in another country within just a few years. Not feeling welcome by Dutch friend circles should never be a result of this though. Dutch are known for having pretty closed social circles, that’s true. Anyone interested in being part of the local life should at any time feel more than welcome though. This country is built on world travellers, who decided to settle down in this “low land”, it’s a tradition I proudly hope Dutch people will continue.