Prompted by something that I recently read, I thought about my complete reluctance to learn the language of the country where I currently live, which is The Netherlands. Some would say – to my shame I have been living here for 11 years and I know only a small amount more of the Dutch language than when I arrived. Fortunately (for me) living in Amsterdam which is truly a multi-cultural city, you can use English to achieve pretty much everything.
However, I have realised something very important this week. By being a foreigner and not speaking the language you are essentially free. Let me explain. When you understand the language where you live, you are constantly immersed in ‘noise’. You listen (unintentionally) to conversations all around you, being in the workplace, on the street, out to dinner, shopping – wherever. You tend to flick through the local newspapers that are delivered, unrequested, through your mailbox. You ‘listen’ to radio and you will sometimes be drawn into something on TV. You are constantly immersed in others ‘noise’, where there is no escape. This impacts everyone and not necessarily in the right way. I listen to the comments and observations our friends who are Dutch. A reasonable amount of their thoughts are devoted to ‘what is wrong’ or ‘what is going wrong’ around them and I have realised that in many ways, they have little choice.
I am free of all of this. I don’t read the local newspapers, I don’t watch TV at all, I have absolutely zero interest in politics and ‘status’ is irrelevant. I have no interest whatsoever about a Dutch persons ‘perceived’ status in the Dutch scheme of things and they certainly have no interest in mine, because to them I am irrelevant. I cannot help them increase their ‘status’ in any way and correspondingly they cannot help me. This is important because most societies people’s relevant status is important to themselves and those around them. People inadvertently show reverence to those they perceive are above them and indifference to those they think are below them. A lot of unconscious time is given to reference checking where you are within your culture, which is always reinforced in so many subtle ways via the media. You can see this with the amount of air time and hype given to Dutch ‘celebrities’ who are mostly a media creation because they have little real talent and are only relevant to the domestic Dutch. However, if you are not part of the cultural it is irrelevant. Another important benefit of this is that it allows you to not be too concerned about being seen to do “the right thing”, whatever that may be, because you are largely forgiven everything because you are the “foreigner who doesn’t understand”.
So last Friday evening, I was sitting in bed on the 7th floor of our building, looking out over the lights of Amsterdam, realising that I am completely free from all of this. I am allowed to live my life in the way that I want to, I don’t have to “care” about the constant nuanced messages of Dutch society and I personally feel both privileged and lucky, because to be free of the external ‘noise’ in your mind is a gift that most do not have the luxury of experiencing.