Do I seem schizophrenic to you? Well, that’s because I am. Not clinically, but being Dutch in America, I can’t help being in a permanent schizophrenic state of mind. Depending on what I’m reading or watching online, I will notice either everything in America that’s weird to me as a Dutch person, or everything that’s becoming increasingly weird to me about the Netherlands, having been away for so long now.
Depending on my mood, I will notice everything that’s different in my surroundings, and I’ll feel totally alien, or I’ll be looking for what’s similar, or what’s grown on me.
Sitting here on my couch in Austin, I follow blogs by Americans in the Netherlands, which transport me back to shopping in Utrecht, buying flowers, taking a break in the cool shade of a cloister garden. I can almost smell the smells and feel the temperature of a day in Holland, even as the ceiling fan is spinning overhead and my daughter needs to clean the cat litter box . . .
All these things make me contemplate myself and my place in the world more than I would have if I had just continued living the life I knew, without stepping out of my comfort zone. That sounds more than a little ridiculous, so let me explain.
There is one big thing about living in America that I have been meaning to write about for a while now. I keep putting it off. Maybe because in a way it’s hard to admit. And because I keep wondering if it’s really true, or whether other factors are responsible.
I think that, living in America, I have become more self-aware.
My American husband has definitely made me much more self-aware, and he has made me want to be a better person. I know, that sounds cliché, but it’s true. However, I still think I wouldn’t have changed as much if we had stayed in the Netherlands.
It’s easier to change when you are not surrounded by the people who have known you forever, and who expect you to behave a certain way. At least, I suppose I expect them to expect me to behave a certain way. And so I do. It’s easier to break cycles when you are put in a completely different setting.
But it’s also America. I am still flabbergasted almost daily by the many incredibly ignorant and unaware people there are here, regardless of the level of their formal education. And yet I have also been impressed from the very beginning with the level of maturity and thoughtfulness of T’s college friends, who were only barely in their twenties when I first met them.
It seems they and many others put a lot of thought into what they want out of life, and what kind of person they want to be, what kind of parent they want to be, what kind of people they want their kids to be. And they try to act accordingly as much as they can.
I have to say that those issues were not brought up in Holland. At least not in my family, and not at school. In my home and at school, it seems I was mostly just navigating my way through the day, one day at a time. Apart from choosing a career, life pretty much happened to me, and I reacted, just like my parents did.
Taking an Atlantic-sized step back and being able to look at myself (and being forced to look at myself) from out of a different culture allowed me to see what I didn’t like about myself, and I was then able to make conscious changes, as a person, a wife and a mother.
Sure, being able to look at myself more objectively may have been possible regardless of which country I emigrated to. But I do think that a lot of Americans truly think about these things more. In school, my kids are constantly made to contemplate who they are and who and how they want to be.
And I am far more conscious in my parenting than I think I would have been in the Netherlands. It would have happened to me (if at all) and I would have been navigating motherhood from day to day, mostly just reacting, and probably continuing some really bad cycles.
I know, my American friends and family who know me probably think I’m still pretty darn clueless. True. Most of the time I still feel like a bull in a china shop. But every now and then I can actually make it through a get-together with friends or family without once putting my foot in my mouth.
And my children are getting the full benefit of this American introspection. No, that’s not fair. It’s not just introspection. It’s being aware of your world, and what part you want to play in it. Being aware that you can make a positive impact, be it ever so small.
I’m not saying Dutch people are unaware, going through life just reacting to their surroundings. But I was.
Sure, I wanted world peace and I consistently boycotted South Africa, but it didn’t occur to me that peace starts with my own language, for example. Sometimes I can get fed up with what at the time feels like people avoiding the issue at hand by focusing on one bad word (see my post Damn!). But the same American aversion to bad language did make me more aware of verbal abuse, the effect it had had on me as a child, and that that’s not okay.
World peace starts with not yelling at my kids, being a good example when it comes to patience, respect, thoughtfulness.
Whoa! I was getting very close to quoting Gandhi here–“Be the change…”–but that would really be way too mushy. And too much like a bumper sticker. Aren’t you glad I was able to stop myself just in time?
I seriously don’t mean to be mushy. That’s really not me. I still prefer Dutch directness to all the talking between the lines, and I’m not known for my grace under pressure. I’m just saying I’m better than I would have been if I had stayed in the Netherlands.
So even though there is a lot about America that I have trouble understanding, even though living here is incredibly insecure and bad for my overall health, even though the idea of growing old here still scares the bloody daylights out of me when I think about it too much, America has made me a better person.
There, I’ve said it. You can expect another scathing post soon, to counteract this highly uncharacteristic confession.