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I have signed up for Dutch classes designed for foreigners like myself who have a child attending a Dutch school. The course if offered for free to the mother’s of children at the school who need to learn Dutch. There was no mention of fathers. Only mothers. And, there are only mothers in my class.

If you envision a racially diverse school in the U.S,  you may picture a mixture of Caucasion, African American and Latino kids with perhaps a sprinkling of Asian nationalities. At Ezra’s school, there are over 40 nationalities, perhaps 41 with Ezra now attending.

Last time I took a Dutch course in Holland, the class was filled with English speaking foreigners from America, England and Australia. When I attended my first Dutch class week before last, I realized within a few moments that I was the only Westerner. All of the women looked exotically foreign to me–as I probably did to them. Half of them wore hoofddoekjes (headscarves). Some smelled different to me–strong scents I didn’t recognize–perhaps incense, perhaps smells from the kitchen. Since I was the newest student, the teacher took a few minutes from the lesson to have everyone introduce themselves in Dutch and tell a little about themselves. The first woman named Halima, reported that she was from Afghanistan, had one daughter, and had lived in Holland for 10 years. Another woman named Khaddouj was from Morrocco, had 4 children and had lived in Holland for 13 years. The country list included Iraq, Syria, Iran, Eritrea, Peru, Chile and the good ol US of A (moi).

There were no switches into English. All Dutch all the time. Dutch with nine different accents. Dutch spoken in choppy, telegraph style tap tap taps, Dutch spoken in the sing songy tones of Peru, Dutch spoken loudly, accompanied by Moroccan style hand gesticulations. Yet, we were all able to understand each other.

In my last class, we sat a comfortable, Western distance from one another. In this class, we crowded in, our elbows almost touching, our books and papers overlapping around a small table. We spoke about things like understanding prescriptions, how to communicate with the doctor, flatulence, with cross cultural smirks and laughs, daily life matters. On another day, we read an article about a government program for assistance paying rent, dilemnas of finding work, salaries, unemployment–topics my English Native class would have bristled at discussing. Here, the women spoke openly about the fact that they might qualify for such assistance.

We took a break for tea, and all the women started talking, mostly in Dutch, but then the language would switch quickly to Arabic–a startling language to my ears–so quick, so indecipherable. I saw a Dutch/Arabic dictionary open on the table and it suddenly made sense to me why my Dutch accent was already the best in the class. The majority of my classmates do not share a common alphabet or phonetic system. Dutch was as foreign to them as the calligraphic curls and squiggly symbols of the Arabic language were to me. In addition, I have the extreme advantage of being married to a native speaker, with a network of Dutch friends and family. Their exposure to native speakers is quite often limited to public outings, which I imagine do not happen very often. And, as I had already learned, rudimentary Dutch can get you through most simple, daily transactions such as a trip to the grocery store or post office, ordering a cup of tea in a cafe or asking for the check.

Within a few minutes, a French Morrocon woman of 28 years named Fatima told me in Dutch that they were having a big party that weekend for her 2 year old son’s circumsicion. Don’t ask me how I understood, but I did. Family was coming from afar for the event. I said in Dutch that your son will probably be crying and not enjoy the party much, and she agreed.

I quickly connected with the woman from Eritrea, as she spoke more English than most of my classmates. There was also something visually familiar about her features. It then struck me that somewhere in her high cheekbones I recognized a bit of my friend Ali Reja from Ethiopia. Perhaps these overlapping characteristics endeared her to me. She was also friendly and helpful.

Am I learning Dutch? Yes. But, bovendien, I am learning about true diversity and how far I still need to go in expanding my view of what that means.

Coming up next: A simple meditation from The Art of Living smacks me upside the head.

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