My friends have stopped asking me about what it’s like to live in the Netherlands now. Those that have never set foot in the country have images of a land of hedonism, where prostitutes seduce their customers from behind glass windows in the Red Light District, coffee shops with herbal goodies and space cakes line the streets, where people are happy and gay with no fears of reprisal.
Those that have walked the cobbled streets of Amsterdam light up when they reminisce the pretty canals and friendly neighbourhoods. It’s clean, safe, compact, and anything goes. The place has the kind of post-modern, post-religious, post-gender reputation that’s the wet dream of left-leaning liberals.
It’s not so, simple. Northern Europe can be very deceiving that way, because on the surface, they just seem like a blonder, more homogenous, more socialist, and more compact version of North America, with a bit more history. Travelling to any of the capital cities of those countries, you will find that everyone speaks English, menus in restaurants are more or less the same trendy fusion stuff with a local twist, basic infrastructure and layout of cities uniformly confusing.
But don’t always believe the advertising. Here’s what took me a couple of year to figure out.
Amsterdam is not the Netherlands. Obviously, a country is much more diverse than its capital. Leaving Amsterdam and venturing into the rest of the country, you would rightly expect to hear less English, see less foreigners, and experience next to no flamboyant display pleasure-seeking activities. In reality, most Dutch do not consider Amsterdam Dutch. Instead, many are apologetic for the way the country is defined by the exaggerated reputation of one city and its liberal policies. Which leads to the next point.
The Dutch are conservative. Not conservative like bible-thumping moralists that rant and preach. But conservative in a post-religious society, where Calvinism holds much sway in what’s acceptable and what’s not . The Dutch’s foray into legal prostitution has more to do with their attitude of “to each their own”, than a whole-hearted acceptance and embrace of the practice. Besides, it’s hard to regulate, never mind tax an activity, unless you legalize it. And the Dutch wants to tax everything.
No “packaged liberalism” practiced here. In North America, socio-political beliefs usually come in a package. For example, if you are left of the centre thus can be labeled as a socially liberal, you are most likely pro-choice, pro same-sex marriage, for gender and racial equality, for sex education, for reforming immigration policies, etc. If you are right of the centre and socially conservative, then you are most likely against abortion, against legalizing same-sex marriage, for policies that encourage women to be primary caretakers, and for abstinence education in school.
In this country, I am continually surprised at how disjointed socio-political beliefs can be here. For example, anything relating to sex is a non-issue – whether it’s nudity, sex education, prostitution, or same-sex marriages (although the Dutch word for gay is “homo” by the way, a term all English speaker refuse to utter). It’s an equal society in terms of gender expectations – men are expected to do work around the house and change diapers.
But at the same time, a very high percentage of women either move to part-time work or quit their jobs altogether after having kids – a phenomenon that seems counter-intuitive in a society that prides itself on gender progressiveness. Child care is expensive, private nannies are hard to get into the country. Besides, with housing at a premium, where would they live?
So like the Germans, but distinctly from the Scandinavians, Dutch society pushes women back into homes after birth. I recently heard that as high as 75% of women in the country work part-time in response to social pressure and incentives, rendering this type of work arrangement the norm. Thus, traditional gender roles assign women as the primary caretaker and men breadwinners in the household.
The difficult to comprehend issue here is that social tolerance is not spread evenly across all issues. For example, most Northern European would much prefer a gay or lesbian head of state (Iceland is already there), than having one of colour. It turns out social tolerance does not translate well across all subjects. As an aside, a sign that its language, and perhaps its underlying socio-political ethos has yet to catch up with its more politically mature cousin, English? The word for black (people) is still “negro” in Dutch.
For a country that’s renowned for its sense of justice – with both the ICC and ICJ stationed in the Hague, you would expect some level of insight or sophistication when it comes to domestic politics from an engaged Dutch public. Not so much. The public face of Dutch politics is reserved, tolerant, and almost insanely liberal. But behind closed doors, people are not shy to speak their minds, and what comes out continue to shock me. The system is equal, but it’s still equal but “separate”. Yet the Dutch see the “segregation” problem as one that is “their”, or the immigrants’ fault, not placing much weight on circumstances under which problems arose – the country’s faulty immigration and social policies, employment system and welfare system, not to say anything of the approach taken by its people.
Much of racial and immigration dialogue that goes on in the US, are not discussed in Europe with enough sanity, rationality, and diversity. More often that not, neglected subjects such as those have become hijacked by extreme right-wing politicians whose obvious un-electability and shortcomings in actual “politicking”, is rescued by their ability to actually spit out what rest of the population would only mutter behind close doors. What could be construed as gross stereotyping, discrimination, and most likely mis-representation of facts are accepted, circulated, and perpetuated, simply because people cannot find a socially acceptable way to discuss it in the public arena without being accused of bigotry.
The policies adopted to integrate its immigrants in the last few years, targeting its Muslim immigrant population, are now draconian. For example, people from outside of the EU and a select number of rich countries can not apply to stay in the country unless they have taken and passed integration (inburgerining) exams in their home countries. Although the policies are out there to target its Turkish and Moroccan “problems”, the policies inadvertently affect many other groups of foreigners that want to stay in for reasons that will eventually benefit the country. But as the rules clearly demonstrate, keeping the wrong people out trumps the negative externality of not letting the right ones in.
The problem with homogeneity, is that nobody will stop to ask why. Compared to its northern neighbours – the extreme case being Iceland, Netherlands might be considered diverse, given its colonial past and its influx of new immigrants. But its singular focus on “integrating” its newcomers into the Dutch way – which is much more encompassing than reciting a pledge of allegiance and buying into a capitalist mentality, for example, makes its people very set in the way they look at the world and approach new problems.
One Dutch friend shrilled in protest when I mentioned how similarly everyone’s home is decorated (they are!), which says something about how they see themselves. Might this also explain the lack of consistency and efficiency in their government procedures, despite so much practice?
Getting my visa status switched to one attached to my Dutch boyfriend, involved me getting a document from the Canadian embassy that vouched for my unmarried status. But unlike the Netherlands, where marriage is monitored nationally, in Canada, US, and many other confederated states, marriage falls under the jurisdiction of the local province or state. So taking my word for it, the embassy stamped its seal of approval, and handed me something that meant less than the paper it’s printed on.
The same lack of consideration drives, well, driving. It turns out expats sent over by multi-nationals may have their driving license transferred automatically, where those that come out of their own volition have to go through the entire process again to get on the road. It makes little sense, since driving on Dutch highways during traffic hours is not for the faint hearted, so why the rulemakers would choose to throw some uninitiated ones to the lions, where handholding others, is a mystery to me. Just a couple of examples of the sometimes arbitrary nature of its bureaucracy.
It’s a world of contradiction. The Dutch culture is tolerant – we are all equal; yet mired in social control and conformity – big brother is watching, all the time. It is the trailblazer of many leading social issues around the world – same-sex marriage, prostitution, legalizing pot; yet retains a surprising attachment to its traditions – the most puzzling one being home births being the predominant method of giving birth, yes, those with midwives, due to conservative pressure. Where one might expect a culture that endorses such sinful indulgences to have a affinity for the extreme and decadent – Red Light District, nudity on late night TV and Dutch movies, the biggest ecstasy lab on the planet; the Dutch are shockingly moderate when it comes to lifestyle and consumption habits, thanks to its Calvinist past. Where neighbours such as the UK, Germany and France struggle with their youths’ anti-social behaviour, the Dutch children are by and large, grounded and well-behaved. Its people are proud of their directness (some would call it rudeness), yet nobody speaks up when they are stuck with bad services in restaurants . For one of the most well-travelled people in Europe – the Dutch spend more on travelling per capita, than anyone else in Europe; they are not very curious when they meet foreigners in their own country after all.
And that is the contradictory way of life here.