A Bit of Uncharacteristic Mushiness


Okay, for those of you who think I’m too negative about America, let me confuse you again.

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.

12 responses to “A Bit of Uncharacteristic Mushiness

  1. Here’s a question for you I simply toss out for pondering. If America’s strength comes from its “melting pot” diversity of our citizens then what might cause that apparent disassociation Americans have from the rest of the world? The Dutch being included in our melting pot diversity, what might have the early Dutch immigrants done (or any other immigrants for that matter) to influence who we are as Americans today? That then perhaps begs the greater question, what makes an American.. American? Or even, what makes the Dutch.. Dutch?
    I enjoy your posts, by the way. Some of us Yanks are not entirely self-absorbed. 

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    • Hi Doug. Good questions. What makes the Dutch Dutch? Well, that’s a long story. My posts about WWII tell you some of it. IF you want a good laugh while you search for answers, I recommend the blog Stuff Dutch People Like.

      But the serious question is why Americans have this apparent disassociation with the rest of the world if America is such a “melting pot” diversity.To begin with, I think that diversity and melting pot are not necessarily the same thing. Diversity implies that there are differences, while a melting pot implies that differences dissolve into one big thing. I think that the melting pot effect is in part the result of intolerance toward differences. Only in part, though, because in order for a country to function, there have to be certain things that everyone adapts to.

      I see that it’s time to pick up my kids. I will be back to continue answering your question. Stay tuned.

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    • Hey Doug, as I was driving across town to get my kids from summer camp, I thought more about your question, and I think I’ll turn it into a post one of these days. Thanks for the prompt. Feel free to give me more any time.

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  2. Sounds very similar here 😉

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  3. Marie-Jacqueline

    A very insightfull peace you have written here.

    You starting to be more aware has to do with a big chance in your live.
    For you it was a marriage and moving to the U.S.
    I can’t properly translate it into English. I mean to say: Je wordt helemaal op jezelf terug geworpen.
    All your core values, that did seem so sure have to re-evaluated again.

    For me was that point was when my father suddenly died in 1991.

    Since then I’m still finding things that are me and not a copy of them, or because it has always been like that.
    I can’t say it is an easy journey, but sometimes the insights are worth it.

    It is very clear: Stilstand is achteruitgang

    –”Be the change…”– isn’t mushy at all!
    It is to the point, and is telling in three words what it is all about!

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    • Hi, actually, the entire quote is “Be the change you want to see in the world”. There, now I’ve done it anyway! Yes, when my dad died, a month before my son was born here, I experienced something similar. That’s when I could see clearly what part of my parents had been my dad and what was my mother, and it allowed me to see both of them more clearly. But that’s a whole other story.

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  4. Beautifully done. And for what it’s worth, I think you successfully side-stepped excessive mushiness while analyzing the evolution of your Americanish self-awareness. Also, it’s okay, I think, to go ahead and quote Gandhi. It’s not his fault someone put his words on a bumpersticker. Probably a good thing, really. I still think most Americans have short attention spans and all the self-awareness of a fruit fly. They need simple slogans, easy-to-remember adages to live by. Honestly, I hope you’re right about maybe a few of us living examined lives. I’m looking forward to your future post on the melting pot effect.

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  5. I loved reading this and it wasn’t mushy at all, at least not to me.

    As to your change after you moved, maybe it has to do with where you are in the US (Texas) and where I am (Virginia), maybe it has to do with the family here that surrounds us, but I don’t really see the people here putting a lot of thought into what they want out of life. They mostly take it day-by-day. However, I do find myself comparing the “American way” a lot to the “Dutch way”, if there is such a way.

    I agree, a lot of Americans seem to be disassociated with the rest of the world but isn’t it the same for a lot of (average) Dutch people? Yes, we read in the newspaper what’s going on in the rest of the world, say “that is really bad’ to each other, put the newspaper away and forget about it. Imho the majority of the Dutch don’t take steps to do anything about it, like you boycotting South-Africa.

    As to America being a ‘melting pot’, I remember a couple of years ago, before I made the trans-Atlantic move in 2005, Amsterdam, for the first time ever, had more nationalities living there than New York. Do I think it makes for a better Dutch culture? If I’m honest I’d say ‘no’ because I feel like our Dutch culture is being taken away and overrun by others who think their way is what is supposed to count. Around 2004 the Dutch were a minority in their own country and that scares me. Criminal statistics have gone through the roof, the quality of life has gone down the drain (I am still shocked about your post about foodbanks in the Netherlands!) and I’m starting to feel old when I think “When I was young, we had…. (fill in)”….

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    • Hi Rubydragon,
      Oh, I know a lot of Americans don’t put much thought into their lives, but a lot of the people we know do. Not all of them. But T’s college friends were the first I noticed this about, and our kids have gone to Montessori schools and now they go to another private school. Maybe those schools put more emphasis on what kind of person you want to become. That’s possible. Though there’s not a really clear line there, either. I know some pretty clueless people who have their kids in private school and some pretty thoughtful people who have their kids in public school. I have just noticed this thoughtfulness here more than in the Netherlands.
      As for the melting pot, I’ll write a separate post about that.
      I think that Americans are–again, in general–more disassociated with the rest of the world than the Dutch, not becuase the Dutch care more, necessarily, but because the Dutch know more about the rest of the world through their education; since Holland is such a tiny country, we feel more dependent and affected but the countries around us, I think. Also, the Dutch get to travel more. More money, more (paid) vacations, more time, and perhaps even less fear, because we speak more languages. All those things make us less insulated. I might write more about that in a separate post as well.
      Thanks for your long comment. Food for thought!

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