“I could feel his eyes telling me that I don’t belong here.”
Within the first few months of moving here, I had the stunning realisation of the manner in which an ethnicity works in different contexts. Growing up in Belgrade, nationalist and neo-Nazi movements had never touched me as deeply as they do now. Their dislike for people belonging to other ethnicities and societal groups was never targeted at me, since I was a native and part of the middle-class in my own country. The ignorant teenager that I was never felt moved enough to deeply think about the subject. At least, not until I moved here, and encountered someone appearing to be part of a far-right movement in Amsterdam. I remember walking down the street when I saw him walking towards me. I had never been so aware of how I looked or who I was up until that moment. Short with dark-brown hair, never in a million years could I pass for what is seen as stereotypically Dutch. I could feel his eyes telling me that I don’t belong here. His body language only enhanced the unsaid societal power-equation imposed on me in that moment. That was when I realised that I did not belong to the majority anymore, and that lead to an enormous shift in my perspective.
When I started studying Sociology in Dutch at the University of Amsterdam, I lost count of how many times I thought about how easy life would be if I was just Dutch. How easy it would be if I did not have my own way of speaking, if my native language never got in the way of learning a new one. If I never had to ask the other person to switch to English in order to continue the conversation, if I could just say and remember all these words and phrases. How easy it would be if my brain never got tired of speaking a language that was not my own!
It was not about being Dutch instead of Serbian; it was just that at times it seemed life would have been better if I had moved to this country as a blank piece of paper, ready to imbibe the Dutch language and culture in its entirety. It was times like this when it felt unfair that the knowledge and capabilities I got from my home country could not be useful in this context. At the end of the day I never wanted to be Dutch, I just wanted everything to be easy.
“Even when I found it easier to be someone other than myself, I couldn’t.”
Where you come from will always form the basis of your personality, and attempting to change that is a pointless thing to do. Even when I found it easier to be someone other than myself, I couldn’t.
What I did not realise when I started having all these new experiences was that this was an important time to build integrity and self-confidence. It would have been very easy to say “Well, if I don’t fit into your world, then you don’t fit into mine either!” as I sailed off into the sunset with my non-Dutch friends, pretending that I did not care. However, it wasn’t the right way to go.
You can argue that it is completely acceptable to stay in your niche. However, what I found to be more constructive – albeit more challenging – is to push your thoughts and ideas forward, and in that way determine what people focus on when it comes to you, instead of letting them choose themselves.
Nevena Vračar is a Bachelor student of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam. Her columns focus on studying abroad.
The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Amsterdammer.