Being Dutch in Nieuw Zeeland: Character, customs and fitting in

by Yvonne van Dongen / 24 June, 2018

Leaving Rotterdam, on the Sibajak, 1953: The writer’s mother, Truus Moot, is fourth from the left, leaning on the rail and gloveless. Her sister, Bep, is behind her to the left and sister Aty to her right, with her husband, Martin Monteba.

RelatedArticlesModule - Migrant

Fitting in and getting on was the ever-practical Dutch migrants’ response to their new country’s post-war assimilation policies. But how much of their Dutchness survived? Yvonne van Dongen, a first-generation New Zealander, taps into the character and customs of our most chameleon-like immigrants.

If perceptions are correct, writing about being Dutch will be like trying to harness fog. That’s because, more often than not, Dutch migrants are described as invisible. The wretched folk are so damn adaptable that seconds after arriving, they’ve blended into the masses and then, before you know it, poof, they’re gone, indistinguishable from the rest of us – us being, of course, Pākehā New Zealanders. 

It doesn’t help that those in the first wave of Dutch migration in the 1950s and 60s were actively encouraged to fit in by the assimilation policies of the time, but I suspect they would have done so anyway. Fitting in is part of getting on, and the Dutch have always been keen to get on. So they became “The Invisible Migrants”, the title of a story I wrote on the Dutch in New Zealand 25 years ago, and a moniker also used in studies here and overseas.

So invisible were they that eventually even some of the chameleon-like Dutch got annoyed. After more than 65 years of steady migration to New Zealand, they decided it was high time their story was told and their achievements recognised in their new homeland, so they set about creating Oranjehof, a museum at Foxton, which opened late last year.

Oranjehof showcases and celebrates the Dutch contribution to New Zealand and is also a place where Dutch and non-Dutch can come together and connect with the Netherlands, past, present and future. There, Dutchness is illustrated with reminders that 350 years ago Abel Tasman had contact with Māori in Golden Bay, that the Dutch love a gezellig (poorly translated as “cosy”, but more on that later) home, that the food is different, the language unpronounceable, and they are pretty nifty when it comes to art and design. In a way, the Dutch are finally trying to be seen.

But what does that actually mean? That is, what does it mean to be Dutch to the migrants themselves, to their children and to the New Zealanders who encounter them? Do the Dutch of today resemble the migrants of the 50s? Are there characteristics that define or describe the Dutch, then and now? Or has everything been lost in the great migrant melting pot?

Left: The writer’s parents, newly-weds Truus and Jan van Dongen, relaxing at home in their Christchurch flat. Doesn’t everyone play the mandolin for fun? Right: Yvonne van Dongen (left) and her cousin Marianne Moot, both aged five, with Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) in Burwood, Christchurch, 1962.

As the child of post-war migrants who arrived in the early 50s, I was thrilled to be given the task of finding out by this magazine. I already subscribe to the website Stuff Dutch People Like, which covers kitsch things like chocolate letters, being tall (the Dutch are the tallest people in the world), and a fondness for home births, salted liquorice and all things dairy.

The internet is also rife with lists that describe the Dutch character, detailing such charming qualities as not being surprised or offended when small children tell you off (because they’re encouraged to be opinionated from an early age), being prone to complaining, never wearing a bicycle helmet, leaving your curtains open and, when it’s your boyfriend’s birthday, congratulating his parents. All true.

And yes, of course all of these are cultural constructs and not applicable to everyone, but these broad-brush observations have their genesis in experience. Suffice to say, the gist of these lists is always immediately familiar.

Unlike most of their generation, my parents swam against the assimilation tide by continuing to speak Dutch at home, so it was my first language. Perhaps that makes me more Dutch than usual; it’s hard for me to say. Sometimes it’s easier for other people to make those judgments. So, I began by asking a friend whether she thought I was particularly Dutch.

“Oh, yes,” she laughed. “Very. When I first met you I was quite taken aback by how forthright and direct you were. It almost took my breath away.”

“Really?”

“Oh, it’s just that I wasn’t used to it,” she said, back-tracking slightly. “It was refreshing in a way. So now people who know you just say Dutch. It’s a kind of shorthand.”

“For rude?” I ventured.

“Well,” she laughed, embarrassed now. “In a way.”

And there it is. That’s it right there. The main difference as I see it between the Dutch and Pākehā New Zealanders. Not just this perception of my bluntness, but also her meandering explanation. I mean, why beat around the bush? Why didn’t she just say rude in the first place? I wouldn’t mind.

If anecdotal reports are right, Dutch directness is still a thing. In 2010, Dutch speed skater Sven Kramer’s response to an American reporter upon being asked to state his name, country and what he’d just won was, “Are you stupid? Hell no, I’m not going to do that.”

At any rate, subsequent inquiries with other friends and acquaintances elicited a similar response about my so-called Dutchness. The more charitable said, “But at least we know where you stand.”

That cuts both ways. A text message to RNZ in response to an on-air interview last December bemoaned Kiwis’ passive-aggressive way of communicating. The texter said she was from the Netherlands, had been in the country for eight years and this indirectness was what she struggled with most.

Writer Colleen Geske, in her website and book Stuff Dutch People Like, notes the Dutch are proud of their directness and consider Anglo-Saxon politeness a sign of weakness, often reeking of insincerity and hypocrisy, two traits the Dutch despise.

My cousin, Derrick Moot, lectures in plant science at Lincoln University and he reckons what others perceive as blunt is simply a pragmatic way of arriving at a result. “It’s not that I lack empathy, but sometimes there’s no point having it. I am outcome-driven.”

Not bad for someone who is only half-Dutch; his mother was a Kiwi. “Mum was sometimes embarrassed that my father would tell the waiter the meal was no good. He still does. It’s not malicious, just matter-of-fact. Usually the waiter has asked if you enjoyed the meal, anyway. Really, it’s just a shortcut to the outcome.”

The moral of the story is never ask a Dutch person a question if you’re not prepared for an honest, potentially bruising, answer.

Of course, some of that culture clash is simply a misunderstanding. Says Auckland artist Miriam van Wezel, “Humour in the Dutch language is how you say things. There are little words, diminutives that soften everything, but you can’t translate that in English and it all comes out quite blunt.”

Not all Dutchies are so frank, however. Physiotherapist Tejo van Schie arrived in the 80s with his partner, fashion designer Doris de Pont, who’s Dutch but New Zealand-born. “The New Zealand Immigration service gave me a brochure and in it were stories about the Dutch arriving in the 50s. What made a big impression is they were often not liked, because they were too direct. I was very aware of that danger so I self-censored. I was very keen not to be one of those Dutch people.”

Van Schie also gravitated to Māori culture while working at Middlemore Hospital. “The atmosphere there was nicer than Auckland Hospital. It had that sociability, laughing, giggling and noisiness that is part of Dutch culture, which English New Zealanders don’t have, being more polite and restrained. I’ve continued to do Māori language courses and my children were part of the Cook Island Māori unit at school. I’ve always felt a strong affinity to those elements I miss in Dutch culture, such as teasing and gezelligheid.”

De Pont agrees, but adds a rider. “Teasing is huge in Dutch culture. But it can have nasty undercurrents, too, which I don’t like.”

As for gezelligheid (essentially, gezellig-ness), the word gezellig is usually translated as cosy, but that conjures up images of snug interiors, when in fact a market can be gezellig, a day at the beach can be gezellig and a party can be gezellig. It’s not a look but a feeling of sociability and warmth, and the highest compliment you can pay a Dutch person.

It speaks to the findings of Relinde Tap’s 2007 PhD on the difference between middle-class Pākehā and Dutch childhoods. The difference is essentially nature versus relationships. Nature is the way Pākehā New Zealanders remind themselves what the country is really like and who they really are, whereas Dutch parental narratives are more focused on relationships. Tap observes that living in one of the most densely populated places in the world has led the Dutch to develop a concept of self that makes this density a plus, hence gezelligheid. But those who don’t participate are perceived negatively as ongezellig.

De Pont would say our affiliation with nature carries over into fashion as well. “New Zealanders dress as if they’d rather be at the beach, even when they’re at a formal event. The Dutch are casual, but even in their casualness they’re more formal than Kiwis.”

Oranjehof, a museum celebrating the Dutch contribution to New Zealand, opened in Foxton late last year, next to the town’s replica windmill.

If Dutch humour and honesty is simply misunderstood pragmatism, the same can be said for their much-vaunted qualities of tolerance and flexibility. Forget the moral high ground. Tolerance and flexibility are good for business, and business to a tiny trading nation is everything. Why do you think they’re so adept at languages? And don’t let their willingness to embrace euthanasia, nudity, prostitutes displaying themselves in windows, and drug cafes lead you to believe they’re progressive. Dutch families are still surprisingly traditional. Men work full time and develop their career, while most women work part-time. Careers are not a priority. Recent studies showed only 4% of part-timers wish they worked full-time. Incentives to nudge Dutch women into full-time work have consistently failed, and that’s not just women with children. Many part-timers have no children at home.

It’s tempting, too, to think the people who brought us Lockwood Homes, Vogel’s bread and Rembrandt Suits and who, in the Netherlands, have created cycle highways, rent-free accommodation in nursing homes for students, and plan to build the world’s largest wind farm are more innovative and advanced than we Kiwis, but Dutch migrant Henk Berkman, a professor of finance at Auckland University, doubts that.

“They’ve been around longer and have been forced to tackle some of their most pressing problems, like battling the sea,” he says. “Though there is a difference in the business culture. The Dutch are more likely to be direct and explicit, which may create irritation and conflict but ensures things get talked about. On the other hand, modern management techniques are so international now and dominated by the Anglo-Saxon perspective that there’s less of a difference than there used to be.”

They’re not even keen migrants, really. Despite their maritime heritage and the fact Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand estimates 100,000 New Zealanders have Dutch blood in their veins, the Dutch do not have a tradition of migrating in great numbers. Emigrant numbers peaked between 1951 and 1954 at 10,583, but fell as soon as the Dutch economy improved. These days, the numbers of Dutch who settle in New Zealand are relatively small and those who do come are better educated, often migrate for ideological reasons and know they can go back if it doesn’t work out. They’re not really immigrating, grumble older migrants, they’re just shifting.

It’s fair to say that without the impetus of World War II, my family would not have washed up here. My mother didn’t want to emigrate but, as the oldest girl of 13, she was expected to accompany her mother and younger siblings while my father sought work.

Cousin Derrick says he’s glad the Moot family came – for many reasons. At 185cm, he jokes he’d be short in the Netherlands. Besides, there are too many people: 17 million squished into a country no bigger than Canterbury. I’m just glad my family continued to speak Dutch at home and cook Dutch food (though I’d never have said that at the time); also that the wider family kept up with Dutch traditions such as Sinterklaas (a Santa Claus festival) on December 5.

At a recent Moot gathering in Christchurch to welcome a visiting Dutch cousin and his brood, it was easy to pick the newbies. The FOBs looked distinctly glossy and apple-cheeked and oh, so casually well-dressed. The cut of that jacket, the freshly ironed shirt, the sleeves turned back! So subtle, so stylish. I fancied I was almost a match for them in my Doris de Pont dress until a mouthful of Dutch sausage sent a jet of watery fat coursing down my front.

But Dutch families are strong and, albeit often argumentative, united in their love of hearty (and massively uncool) Dutch food, so we spent the evening tucking happily into mountains of stamppot (mashed vegetables and potatoes) with jus, mounds of mayonnaisy meat and fish salad, generous slabs of hard cheese, platters of cold meat, rookworst (smoked Dutch sausage, served hot) and croquettes, followed by poffertjes (small fluffy pancakes), oliebollen (sweet dumplings) and coffee, all prepared by Dutch caterers (probably the only ones in the country).

The food wouldn’t be to everyone’s tastes but, thanks to historic memory or simply childhood nostalgia, we loved it. The oldies will never retire to Ons Dorp (a Dutch retirement village in Henderson) and later generations are unlikely to subscribe to Dutch television or radio. Most will never even speak Dutch. But there are some things you never lose the taste for.

This was published in the April 2018 issue of North & South.

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