On our first day of orientation, a guest speaker named Dionijs de Hoog gave us a brief history of the Netherlands in order to give us some background for the rest of the semester. But before he began his lecture, he provided us with a somewhat puzzling question—he asked us where we told our friends and family we were studying abroad.
The question seemed strange since we all were sitting in the same room together in the same place, but surprisingly the answers varied. Some responded with The Netherlands, the country hosting our group for the next four weeks, while others replied with Holland. These names are often used interchangeably, but Holland really only refers to a portion of the country. This becomes more confusing due to the fact that the Dutch use the terms interchangeably as well. Other students, like myself, simply told their loved ones at home they were off to Amsterdam.
Our lecturer then pointed out that the reactions from family and friends might be quite different based on what term you used to describe where we were studying. When you refer to The Netherlands, most people don’t know where on earth you are talking about. When you say Holland, most people imagine an idyllic land of wooden shoes and tulip flowers. Amsterdam, on the other hand, often draws to mind skewed images of the Red Light District and coffee shops.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t run into these stereotypes when explaining the location for my summer adventure. After spending even a few days in the city, however, you realize Amsterdam is so much more than wooden shoes or coffee shops or any combination of the two. I also learned during my first few days that the Dutch have some stereotypes for Americans as well.
My sister, my mom, and I all stayed with my Dutch relatives for the first few days we were in the Netherlands. After I left for my program, my relatives were approached by their surprised next door neighbors who were shocked that my family and I were not “fat.” We all had a good laugh about this, but I truly believe their neighbors were sincere in their assumption that Americans are overweight.
Another example emerged when I was waiting in line to speak with a representative for the University of Amsterdam’s version of UITS. There was a small group of us IU students hoping for help with our wireless internet connection. While he was configuring one of our iPhones, we started making small talk about the fact that we were a group from America. During our conversation, our slow-moving IT expert said that Americans were always in such a hurry and very impatient. I scoffed at his observation, but then found myself minutes later begging him to hurry because I didn’t want to be late for lunch.
Stereotypes are unavoidable. Some of them are true and others could not be farther from it. The worst thing we can do is believe any assumption about any group of people without trying to discover the reality for ourselves. As a representative from Indiana University, I do my best to make the best impression I can to the people of the Netherlands/Holland/Amsterdam/wherever I am.