A few years back, during a period when I was saying “yes” to every invitation that came my way, I agreed to provide weekly English tutor sessions to a recent Somali immigrant. My only qualification was that I could speak English and had time on my hands. She and her husband had six kids under the age of eight, the youngest had serious health problems that required them to visit OHSU on a weekly basis.
The tutoring sessions would consist of me holding one or two of the babies, while going over the oldest kid’s homework and explaining to Howa (the mother) the many sheets of paper in his backpack. I wanted to spend more time with her, but that proved difficult given her situation. She told me that she wanted to learn English so that she could get a license and drive a car. Drive a car?! I thought and probably said out loud—though not to her. There was more to driving a car than reading a STOP sign! The test itself can be highly complex, even for some native English speakers and wouldn’t she want to be learning English for higher pursuits like reading her child’s school notices or David Sedaris essays?
I’ve been driving around Eindhoven for the past few weeks and let’s just say I’m eating a bit of humble pie.
Howa, I’m sorry for even questioning your desire to drive and I can’t imagine how you got/get around Portland with six kids dependent upon your husband, a bus or the kindness of friends. And from what I’m learning, reading the language, while helpful for actual driving, is not necessary.
I know this because I’ve already driven through construction zones closed off to cars, mistaken 70 km per hour to mean 70 miles, and gone the wrong way down a street. While there is a universal pictograph sign language where many signs don’t have words, somehow in the States I’ve never seen them, and so am having to learn the sign language as well as Dutch. I know this might be self-evident to most, but all the signs in the Netherlands—or at least the important signs—are in Dutch!
I’m proud of myself for getting around Eindhoven and I can almost get from our temporary rental to our “new” home without our GPS. Can I just say that our onboard navigation system has not only enabled me to brave driving in a new city, but has gotten us into downtown Berlin, Copenhagen and Antwerp, where I’m pretty sure we’d still be without her assistance. We’ve dubbed the GPS Lola, short for Dolores Umbridge, because she has such a bossy tone about her.
While I’ve never been anti-immigrant, maybe because I’m one myself and I believe that the awesomeness of the United States arises from the contributions of so many different nationalities, I know that I’ve wondered how someone who has lived in our country for years hasn’t mastered the language, or clings to the ways of the “old country.”
If nothing else comes out of our experience from living in the Netherlands, it will be the full understanding—not just the intellectual bit—but the visceral ability to get what it is like to be an immigrant. To not read, speak or even understand the rules of the country you make your home, whether for a year or twenty. To have to wait, and wait some more for things that citizens take for granted. Want to sign up for a cell phone? No problem. A bank account? Your parents probably helped you with that one? Rent a place? Money helps, but you probably know what steps to take to find one. Everything is slower for an immigrant. Mind you, we’ve had the help of Andy’s company getting us appointments to the Expat center, hiring lawyers to deal with our paperwork, calling relocation specialists to assist in our home search and even having a Dutch woman who has lived and traveled extensively overseas take us down to the City Hall so that we can change our address.
Even with her help, we get overwhelmed with the cultural differences. One of the mistakes we made was thinking because most of the Dutch speak excellent English (the few who don’t are over the age of 60 or very low skilled workers) and since there is a terrific infrastructure, that we’d be moving to the Euro Disney version of America. An, “awww, aren’t those differences cute, now let’s go get Starbucks!” kind of place. And color me stupid, but I didn’t realize that in order to stay in the country for more than 3 months we’d not be traveling Americans with nothing but our passports to guide us, but full-on Dutch residents. Residents who will pay the taxes, but not necessarily get the benefits. Wait, no paid vacation from the government, but we do get to visit the community pool!
I’m learning from this experience one very huge thing about myself. I make a much better traveler than expat—may be some commitment issues there—but there are some very big differences between the two. So with my humble pie, I’m being also served a healthy dose of the immigrant experience and finding they’re dishes difficult to swallow.