Three weeks ago from today, I hugged my mom at the airport, walked away, and started on my trip to the Netherlands. Three weeks is not that much time, but when I look back at myself from three weeks ago, I realize how much I’ve learned since then.
Yesterday, someone from home asked me what my favorite part of my semester was so far. This is a difficult question because my mind automatically goes to what I’ve done, where I’ve been, and what I’ve seen, but none of these really capture my experience in the Netherlands.
In the end, I told her that the people were my favorite part of my trip so far. Classic, cliché, all of the above. But true, nonetheless. Because you know what I’ve been doing a lot of? Hanging out with people. I spend so much time with the other SPICE students, my host family, other host families, and even other Dutch students, occasionally. People are making my experience rich.
How fitting, then, that we learned about stereotypes in our intercultural class. And it makes for a very interesting mental and emotional journey to be learning so much about ourselves while learning about how and why we stereotype.
Why do we have stereotypes? To get through everyday life. As our professor put it, they are our observations of people that turn into generalizations in order to understand the world. They are similar to habits, which are actions we take automatically so that we do not have to make a decision about literally every action we make in a day. So, stereotypes are not always bad, but they create problems when we believe them over believing unique characteristics we see in individual people.
Of course, I could have told you this before I came to the Netherlands, but it means much more to me now. Do I want people to believe I’m fat, annoying, rude, and stupid? No, not really. Actually, I’ve been learning so much about myself—that I actually like trying new foods, that I like biking, that I need time to reflect before making decisions, that I need to be with people just as much as I need time alone—that it is a relief when people see me as someone they can get to know, not just as an American.
I was talking to one of the host parents about what their expectations were for what “we Americans” would be like. She told me this: “I just try to see each person as their own person, and not make judgements about them before I’ve met them.” Seems obvious! But I’ve found that having that attitude is not that easy.
If people stereotype in the Netherlands, I’m pretty sure they do it back in America too (okay, yes, I could have also told you that before I came on SPICE, but again, work with me. I’m seeing this in a new light). That is why I’m happy to meet actual Dutch people and spend time with them—this aspect of my semester is better even than getting to go to so many places and see so much!
Now, I’m not at all saying that I’m opposed to all Dutch stereotypes. If you look at my social media, you’ll see pictures of windmills, hagelslag (the chocolate sprinkles), and canals. But these actually don’t give you very much information about my semester. Only I know the context in which I took those pictures: my host family watching me as I took my first bite of hagelslag, the Dutch professor I sat next to while we were on the canal tour, and the fact that people here actually see windmills as an antiquity, and we were being total tourists by finding one to take pictures with.
So, this semester, I hope to show you not just the stereotypical aspects of living in the Netherlands, but also (and more so) individual people who live here and have jobs here and have unique hobbies and different tastes in food.