Assimilating in Amsterdam: Finding A Cultural Home in a Cultural Cavern
The phenomenon of cultural assimilation describes the process of leaving your native culture and adopting the norms and values of your new, cultural environment/setting. I did not think much about it when encountering it in high school psychology class – but as I came to Amsterdam, this process became all too familiar.
Despite Amsterdam being a diverse, liberal, and welcoming city, it can be described by some people as strangely alienating.
As soon as I started living here, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable. Everything was different and unfamiliar to what I was used to, having lived in Indonesia for twenty years. The food was different, the interactions between people were different, and the weather was far from what I was accustomed to. Yet, I was hopeful. In the Albert Heijn supermarket near my street, I could always hear a plethora of different languages and cultural exchanges. Surely, I could come to feel some sort of comfort here.
Instead, as the time went by, I felt more unfamiliarity, more distance between Amsterdam, my birth country and myself. When telling people in the city where I was from, they would rush to ask me questions about Indonesia. It felt like I had suddenly become a representative, a qualified expert, on Indonesian culture. It was a strange feeling. As someone who did not grow up in a strictly Indonesian household, I felt rather unqualified in giving this information.
I found myself rethinking and reflecting on my previous experiences. In comparison to Indonesia, Amsterdam is -among other things- more open to people from different backgrounds and sexualities, to conversations about sex. I felt that I shared more values with this city than with Indonesia - but how could I possibly feel more comfortable in Amsterdam than in my home? And what was the best way for me to appreciate my surroundings without devaluing my previous environment?
Coming from an interracial family of Dutch Indonesians, this was made all the more difficult by my lack of understanding of the culture of my birth-country. It felt like being stuck in the “exotic” area of the supermarket, or the bonus section. Unsure whether I belong amongst the variety of Asian spices or in the aisle of European breads. So what is home to a “culturally challenged” person? Why does this question feel much more loaded when I’m in Amsterdam? More importantly, how do other newcomers feel about ‘home’ and ‘Amsterdam’? What are their answers to all the questions I have?
In exploring the topic of cultural assimilation and integration, I was able to share my experience with several other people coming from a similar background as mine. One such person came from Wareong Adji, an Indonesian restaurant located in Amsterdam West. I stumbled upon the place one day whilst exploring my neighbourhood. Something about seeing words from my home country in another country gave me a sense of comfort, tainted with a slight confusion, due to the restaurant’s peculiar spelling (in Indonesia the word ‘waroeng’ is usually spelt with a ‘u’ instead of ‘oe’). It seemed like the perfect place to find someone with a similar experience, so I took a last breath of fresh air and walked inside.
Within the colourful walls of Waroeng Adji I met Rizal Adji, son of the restaurant keeper. One of the first things I mentioned to him was my confusion regarding the spelling of the restaurant’s name. “It’s on purpose!” he answered, “we had to adjust the spelling so that Dutch people don’t get confused with pronunciation.” There and then the thought crossed my mind that maybe, just like the spelling of the restaurant, I too should adjust small parts of myself to make my surroundings feel more comfortable.
In talking to Rizal, I found that we shared many of the same internal conflicts related to culture and perceptions of home. The difference, however, was that he was much more comfortable with his situation and his surroundings than I was, and his explanation was simple: don’t overthink it, just appreciate everything and everyone. Or in other words: go with the flow. According to him, over-thinking where you are will always place you in a situation of uncertainty, and it’s okay to adjust yourself to other environments even if it means being a little “untrue” to yourself, to your heritage.
And, apparently, I wasn’t the only one experiencing such feelings amongst the Indonesian community. Indeed, Rizal told me about Sunday programs organized by the Indonesian groups of Persatuan Pemuda Musliam Se-Eropa (PPME) and Persatuan Pelajar Indonesia (PPI), meant for young Indonesians like ourselves, living in the Netherlands.
Instead of living his situation in ‘black or white’ -instead of trying to place himself in the box of either Indonesian or Dutch norms, ideas and values- Rizal allowed himself to appreciate a bit of everything. He maintained a positive relationship and a genuine enthusiasm for Indonesian culture, while also allowing himself to enjoy and adjust to that of Amsterdam, seeing no contradiction in this approach. He became the shade of grey that best suited him.
I do believe that, among the reasons Rizal had little difficulty with his cultural identity, was his ability to continue nourishing strong ties to his Indonesian culture (for example by attending the Sunday programs) while simultaneously allowing himself to adjust to the one of Amsterdam. In comparison, my overthinking of the situation was leading me towards ‘assimilating’ -towards fully adopting Dutch norms and sacrificing those of my home country- and feeling guilty about it. Ultimately, I was just separating myself from both cultures, falling in the void between them.
I remember once mentioning my internal struggles to a teacher, and his answer at the time now resonates powerfully in my mind. In me are two whole identities, he told me, not two half ones - “you are not a half and half, you are a double. Wholly Indonesian and wholly Dutch”.