On the flight over for our month long stay in the U.S., I tried to prepare myself mentally for the differences between America and Holland. But as I thought about the differences, only generalities came to mind: the U.S. is a more car-oriented culture; there’s less use of public transportation; there are hardly any bike paths except on university campuses; people are still addicted to big cars; the majority of the architecture is post 1940s.
But when we went through customs, met my brother outside of LAX and hopped into the car to head out of Los Angeles, I didn’t feel any sort of culture shock. Instead, I slipped right back in as if I’d never left. Car oriented culture seemed natural. The dry California landscape was certainly in great contrast to Holland’s rainier and thus greener climate, but it didn’t shock. It is just what I know. I guess a year and a half is not so long of a time to be away after all.
I asked my Dutch friend Marjon, who has lived in California for over a decade, what it is like for her when she goes back to Holland for summer visits. Her experience was very similar to mine. She simply slips back into Holland life and ways as if she had never left. My other Dutch friend Tessa expressed the same experience.
Perhaps this is why the term expat exists, and why expat cultures thrive. We are formed by the culture in which we are born and raised. And even if we spend years abroad, the original culture is imprinted on the foundation of who we are. Once an American, always an American. Once a Dutchie, always a Dutchie. Once a “fill in your nationality of choice,” always so.
Just this morning, after a week back in my homeland, I realized there are things I miss about my fellow Americans, things I had earlier taken for granted. I went for a power walk early this morning through the neighborhoods surrounding my brother and sister-in-law’s home. Everyone else out and about waved to me, gave me a nod or said hello. It didn’t matter if it was a young Latino man jogging on the other side of the street, a black man out walking his dogs, or a white woman opening the blinds to her home; they acknowledged me as another human being in their scope of vision. I haven’t had that experience in The Netherlands. Not even once.
Of course this is a phenomenon mainly experienced in neighborhoods. It happens rarely on busy city streets or major tourist corridors. But I’ve walked in neighborhoods of Holland, and when my eyes meet those of another, I am only met with a stare or a sense that someone is gazing right through me. I think I must have stopped saying hello, or giving that little nod that at least acknowledges another human being.
Thank you stranger Americans for your friendliness. And speaking of friendliness, I have been greeted with a smile in every place of business I have entered in the last week, and I am served with what comes across as genuine friendliness. I believe we are just a friendlier nation.
After a week in California, I’ve transitioned from “yeah, of course. This is just the way things are,” to a sense of appreciation for the little differences between my homeland and my new homeland. Ah, but the vacation is still young! I’m sure some other less impressive American traits may be just around the corner for me to encounter and remember.