Uit de interculturele hoek…
Your First Day in Class at a Dutch University

Vincent MerkYou arrived late in class and although you managed to sneak in via the door at the back, the teacher spotted you and shouted at you “Make sure you are on time, next time” while you were trying to mumble some excuse. As a result, you felt excessively individualized and ashamed, and experienced a loss of face for this unexpected feed-back. Indeed, in your culture you would have been able to enter the classroom unnoticed. Later on, during the class, the teacher stereotyped your culture negatively and again you felt uncomfortable with the looks others gave you. You did survive this first class, though. This somewhat stereotyped attitude of a Dutch teacher may well prove different in Flanders, cultural differences all-over…

Then lunch came. What to do? You hadn’t really prepared anything and had hoped to run into some friends to have lunch together, but unfortunately you were alone. By chance you noticed this long line of students in the middle of the hall. They were mainly Dutch, only a few internationals had taken up the challenge of lining up for a long time to get what proved to be a gratis (yes, you’d already learned that key word) sandwich from the newly opened Subway fast-food stand at the university. So there you were, and luckily you saw a few familiar faces. You felt better and could definitely enjoy the gratis sandwich with them. They, by the way, all said that you had quickly adapted to Dutch standards. That brought a small smile of victory to your face. Yes, you were nearly one of them now!

Then the afternoon with group work came. You noticed that most Dutch students wanted to stick together and not mix with you and other internationals to form groups. That was quite frustrating, as you wanted to do your best to mix with the locals. You ended up in a group of mostly other internationals and a few enlightened Dutch students. A missed opportunity to further integrate into your new community, you thought. Whose fault was it? Difficult to say, as it always takes two to tango in cross-cultural communication. But as many studies show, it is very often the locals who don’t make much effort to open up and integrate within a new shared environment. Dutch universities in general are no exception. Developing cross-cultural skills is a first step in the right direction: making new-comers feel welcome and creating a collective sense of belonging to form a community. Would the situation be different in Flemish institutions, because in Belgium there’s already more (language) diversity to start with?

In the evening you’re at home with your own friends, enjoying your own food, which you cooked together. Back in your comfort zone. What a relief! Tomorrow is another day that will certainly have new challenges. But don’t worry, most people will help you after all and open the door for you, but you will need to enter the room yourself, as the Chinese proverb says. Good luck!

Vincent Merk – v.merk (at) tue (dot) nl,
trainer intercultural communication at University of Technology, Eindhoven