Netherlands, thank you and goodbye

Reasons why I decided to leave the country after 4 years of study and work there

I’ve been thinking for awhile about writing an article to explain why I decided to leave the Netherlands, but something kept holding me back. On the one hand, my feelings toward the Netherlands are complex. It’s not an absolute like or dislike. On the other hand, it feels like a relationship without a happy ending — a bit shameful to just spit it out.

Not until last week, when I was invited to speak about my 4 years of study and work in the Netherlands as an alumni at an event organized by TU Delft in Taipei, did I realize that there are many young students and professionals curious about the Netherlands and interested in going. It reminded me of myself four years ago when I looked at them in a packed room — yearning for the rich culture and history offered by Europe, and excited about the affordability of tuition compared to schools in the US or UK.

At such an event, the story I shared was one-sided and selectively positive. It’s true that my experience seems ostensibly attractive — two-year scholarship, master degree from a prestigious university, working in a burgeoning industry (mobile app), earning two to three times the salary of the average Taiwanese, 25 paid vacation days per year, extensive traveling across Europe. I know these things are worth salivating for to a certain extent. However, I also understand that for many people in the audience, studying abroad is less about the degree, and more about what happens after — working, paying back student loans, rebuilding their social circle, making a whole new life. Therefore, for those people, I felt the need to say something to complete the other half of the story.

Why did I leave the Netherlands? Simply put, our separation was because of my deep understanding of the following:

1. Language is the key to blending in

Before I went to the Netherlands, I heard many people say that “you don’t have to learn Dutch to live in the Netherlands because the Dutch are so good at speaking English”. This is very true if the integration wasn’t expected. Definitely, in the Netherlands, even a random granny on the street can hold a basic English conversation with you, which is excellent for travelers. However, Dutch is their mother tongue after all, and for them, it’s the most natural way of communication. The road signs, the movie subtitles in the theater, the cooking instructions on food containers… all these things integral to daily life are presented in Dutch. As for job opportunities, indeed there are some vacancies for which Dutch is not required, but they are the exception. Take my industry (UI/UX) for example, since communicating with users is a part of my job, competency in Dutch matters to a certain extent because most of the target users of products in the Netherlands are Dutch people.

Although these visible barriers can be broken after learning a bit of Dutch, I still experience a clear limitation without mastering the language. For instance, it is often the case that after a client meeting, when the business talk is done, people would naturally switch from English to Dutch and get into small talk with me still in the room. This is awkward, because if I laugh with them, they know that I’m pretending, but if I don’t smile at all, I seem to be impolite. Staring out blankly is simply boring. Outside of work, the situation was aggravated. Most social activities are organized in Dutch, except the few targeting expats. It’s not surprising that the Netherlands was rated “the most unfriendly country for expats” in 2011, with “language” listed as one of the main reasons.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not blaming on Dutch people for speaking Dutch in the Netherlands. I should have shaken off all my excuses — difficult pronunciation, limited time, English is enough — and just put effort in raising my Dutch level. The underlying reason — although it’s very difficult to admit — was that my interest in the Dutch culture was not as deep as I thought. Certainly, I was drawn by those delicately decorated facades of old buildings along canals, and completely carried away by the amazing works of the graphic artist M.C. Escher. However, they are not wired inseparably with my daily rituals such as listening to music, watching movies, absorbing tech and design trends……which even Dutch people enjoy doing by using English sources. Not to mention that the Netherlands is almost the only country in the world which uses Dutch. This makes the utility of learning Dutch limited.

Of course, there are exceptions to everything. I sincerely appreciated some locals who welcomed me like family despite not having a drop of common blood between us. Yet, honestly speaking, in most cases, my relationship with locals can only be skin-deep. It’s not because we are not willing to get to know each other, but because the language gap makes the price of knowing each other too high.

2. The current situation of the high-tech industry in Europe

I entered the high-tech industry after graduation in 2013 and worked as a mobile app designer for almost two years in the Hague. Ever since I started searching for jobs, I had the impression that there were few “large” tech firms in the Netherlands. Philips, TomTom,… pretty much it. International tech giants such as Google or Apple would only have sales and marketing offices in the Netherlands. Although there were many mid-to-small sized companies and more efforts were put in to build up a cohesive tech community, there were very few jobs that truly didn’t require Dutch competency. Also, as an interface designer, I discovered that most of the latest tech trends and knowledge that I have to keep up with everyday are coming from the U.S.

In the article “A Fearless Culture Fuels U.S. Tech Giants”, the author pointed out a few reasons why Europe fell behind the U.S. in terms of high-tech industry development. “Culture” had an important role — Europeans tend to embrace a stable, risk-averse life style. Being fired or having a business fail is a stigma in the society, in stark contrast to the U.S. where those things are considered a rite of passage for many successful entrepreneurs. Another reason is “education” — the European education system tends to be very rigid. Take the Netherlands for instance, the system begins to separate students based on academic performance in middle school. Those separated into the lower classes would not have a direct path into universities later on. In contrast, the American education system is more forgiving. People can catch up and excel later. Even college dropouts can be very competitive in the job market if they prove their skills.

For a flourishing high-tech industry, its core must contain rapid growth and disruptive innovation; both are somehow the opposite of the European culture. I’m not saying that fast growth is necessarily better, it’s just that fast growth would directly influence job opportunities and promotions in the future. For expats, this is one of the deciding factors on whether to stay or go. I’m not like many of my Dutch peers — buying houses in their 20s, picturing life after retirement in their 30s. I need to foresee an advancement in career to keep staying.

In addition, although salaries in the Netherlands can definitely support a stable life, it’s not remarkable. Take the design industry for instance, the average salary of entry-level designers is about €2200-€3000/month before tax (€1800-€2500 after tax). The creative director’s salary is about €6000-€8000/month before tax (€3200-€4000 after tax). After deducting the cost of living in the Netherlands which is at least €1000/month, the result might be disappointing for expats hoping to earn much more in Europe.

When it comes to career, I’m not the risk-taking kind. My goal is simply to keep working on things that interest me, learning new stuff, and exchanging ideas with like-minded people. The Netherlands gave me the sense of financial security, but it couldn’t fulfill my long-term desired life. Maybe it’s because I’m still carrying an Asian spirit in my blood (Eureka!).

3. Love and the sense of belonging are the greatest drivers in life

Perhaps many people felt that “Asians always live as a group in foreign countries”. Before living abroad, I might chime in and suggest that “those Asians” behave like that because they don’t open their minds and dare not step out of their comfort zone. However, after living in the Netherlands for a while, I totally understand — it’s very natural for foreigners to congregate in a foreigner country not because they exclude locals or locals exclude them. It’s simply because they share commonalities with their own countrymen and have a need for making new friends. This applies to Mexicans, Spanish, Ukrainians, Italians, Turkish… and many others, Asians just stand out more because we are more visually distinct among Europeans.

According to Wikipedia, the population in the Netherlands consists of 78.6% Dutch, 5.9% other EU countries, 2.4% Turkish, 2.2% Indonesians, 2.2% Moroccans, 2.1% Surinamese……These figures mean that foreigners account for only a small part of the population, and among that, Asians are the minority. Except for those who marry Dutch people, many of them would leave the country eventually, it’s only a matter of time.

There was a time when my international friends from school would be leaving the Netherlands at a rate of 2–3 people per month. It lasted for almost a year. Although I felt lucky to have a stable job, I couldn’t feel anymore lost and adrift. The brighter the weather was, the darker my mood became. Because I know, at the bottom of my heart, that no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be able to connect with locals on the beach and outdoor bars as deeply as I had with my international friends. It dawned on me that it’s difficult to be truly understood without anybody participating in my past. I felt similar to how the astronaut Dr. Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) must have felt in the movie “Gravity”: space drifting in despair in a gorgeous environment. There were a few weeks when I felt so bored that I started to learn guitar. People would laugh when I explained to them that I started learning guitar because I was bored. Little did they know that this was actually not far from the truth.

Once, one of my Taiwanese friends got into a very serious car accident in the Netherlands. She was hospitalized for a month, and went through many operations. During her hospitalization, some Taiwanese volunteered and formed a mutual-support group, taking turns to take care of her. Her mother, despite having limited English skills and being foreign to the country, flew to the Netherlands right away to provide the necessary material and emotional support. At that time, I couldn’t stop thinking that, what if one day, something similar happened to me without my family and friends around, what am I going to do? The thought frightened me. After all, this kind of bonding is hard to develop in a short period of time. It’s much simpler to just take care of myself and watch out for traffic on the street.

It hits me that who I am can never be separated from where I’m from. Similarly, I can never expect this kind of unconditional love to be replicated in a foreign land. This love is not only about the relationship between partners or family members, it’s about one’s relationship with the whole society. Who doesn’t desire to be loved? If possible, who doesn’t want to settle down right on the spot? It’s unfortunate that after four years, I still couldn’t find that sense of belonging, and couldn’t consider the Netherlands home.

Netherlands, thank you and goodbye

Up until this point, you might be wondering, “Why complain so much? Did anyone force you to go to the Netherlands?” This is exactly why I took so long to put my thoughts into words. To be honest, I don’t dislike the Netherlands. Regretting my years there is the last thing I would do. In fact, I have grown as a person much more than I expected, all because of this country — from a student to a designer, from financially dependent to independent, from being very shy to being able to socialize at ease in English. More importantly, I feel very content in all aspects — I no longer envy people who travel a lot. I think it’s actually not bad to be born Taiwanese. I no longer take family and friendship for granted. I don’t get overly impressed by flowery descriptions on resumes.

I can only say that the four years here had turned me into a different person. I have outgrown the innocent thought I started with — “I want to explore the world”. I want something larger and deeper, something I have to keep searching for, outside of the Netherlands, by carrying what I’ve gained in the Netherlands — I want to realize my potential in my field, to keep cultivating my life in a land where I feel connected, and to be geographically closer to the ones I love and the ones who love me.

A week before saying goodbye permanently, I had dinner with one of my Dutch friends, with whom I felt very connected. She’s turning 60 this year and just decided to end a four-year relationship and moved back from the French countryside to start a small business in the Netherlands. At first, I was surprised by her decision, because she seemed to be enjoying a leisurely and carefree life in France. However, after talking to her a little more, I understood immediately. In France, she was just like me in the Netherlands. The situation had caused a lot of conflict and limitations in her life. I asked her seriously: “what exactly made you decide to leave?” Looking into the distance, she replied: “France is nice, but I don’t see a future there. I don’t want to be like that for the rest of my life.”

Wait a minute. An experienced senior, more than twice as old as I am, having been through all the vicissitudes of life, is now telling me that “she doesn’t want to be like that for the rest of her life.” I was dumbfounded. It made me believe more firmly that the relationship between the Netherlands and me had run its course. It’s time to move on from this relationship that doesn’t work anymore for years.

Because, although change may not always be good, only through change can we avoid regrets in life.

This article was originally written in Chinese in my blog. It went viral and spawned many feedback from both my friends and strangers. It’s noteworthy that people who told me how much they can relate to my feelings are not necessarily expats in the Netherlands but also expats in many other countries. Therefore, this triggers me to write a follow-up story. Please feel free to share your thought with me. Thank you!