As we transport ourselves to new places, it can be easy for us to lose sight of our roots. In this story, however, Delft MaMa Maya Levi, originally from Israel, shares with us her journey of reconnecting with her Jewish cultural-religious identity as she settled in the Netherlands. In parallel, Maya describes the Jewish festival of Chanukah as a powerful festival of conscious reconnection with religious roots.
Sine invites me to her house for the interview. When we step in the elevator she tells me many of her neighbours are older people. She loves it, as they are very curious about her son, Arda (4). Just like herself, her husband Faruk also originates from Turkey. When biological grandparents are a plane ride away, living among the elderly is giving their family some invaluable contacts that otherwise might be harder to come by.
It’s the first time I visit Sine in her home. The Sun is shining outside and laying rays on the two yellow armchairs in front of their living room windows. The style of the home is impeccable and it feels welcoming. Sine tells me she could’ve chosen her career path differently and pursue one of her dreams of becoming a designer. She sure has the eye and the taste level for it. However, Sine chose another one of her passions and decided to study English language and literature at the University of Gaziantep in southern Turkey. That is also where she met Faruk.
When I listen to her stories, she comes across like a bit of a nomad. Both of her parents are from Circassian descent, both of whom are born in Turkey. Circassia was a sovereign nation until the mid-19th century on the shore of the Black Sea with its own rich language and cultural heritage. Her name, Sine, is a typical Circassian name, so although born and raised in Turkey, her parents valued their heritage and Sine was already happily living between two worlds.
Her first experience outside Turkey by herself was her three-month trip to Alaska through a work and travel program and afterwards she knew she couldn’t settle in Turkey for good. During their University years Faruk applied U.S. Green Card lottery and asked her to try as well. She calls her last year at the University her “lucky year”, because not only was Sine granted a chance to study in Denmark, but she also won a Green Card. Instead of spending an entire year in Denmark, she spent three months there and then moved to New York with her husband.
The nearly seven years they spent in New York were great but tough. When Arda was born, the grandparents from both sides would fly from Turkey and babysit him one after another. “In New York we had fun, but we did work a lot. When I was studying in Turkey, I was reading about American history and about the American dream, but in New York life was different. You don’t have much time to spend with your family,” Sine points out. When Arda was born, Faruk didn’t get to see him almost at all. Luckily Sine’s work at a non-profit organization was more flexible, but in the long run something needed to change. Out of all places, the family relocated to Oklahoma.
The first three months in Oklahoma were great, but soon enough Sine realized she misses the big international community around her, which she had gotten used to while working in Manhattan. Some years in, Sine realized she wasn’t very happy in Oklahoma. The window of the opportunity to move to another country was closing in, because Arda was getting older and soon they would have to think about settling down for a longer period.
In 2014 the family visited Maastricht during their holiday in Europe. It was then the spark for the Netherlands was ignited. In 2016 Sine’s husband arrived in Delft for a job interview and in September they moved to this picturesque town. It wasn’t a smooth transition, especially with the housing and picking a school, but one of the aspects that made the move easier was a great online community happy and quick to answer Sine’s questions. “I found Delft MaMa when I was searching for how to do something in Delft. Whenever I had questions in my mind I asked them. I joined the group before I came here and they helped me a lot about many questions, and got me socializing quickly”, Sine says. Sine also took part in a DMM organized soft-landing in Delft, or SLiDe program for short, and after seven months of experience on living in Delft she felt confident enough to mentor another Turkish newcomer.
Because of her keen eye, Sine has been volunteering for the DMM even further to help with the 10-year anniversary preparations. “I like doing things like decorating and currently I have enough time to help with these kinds of things. A lot of other organizations in the Netherlands require a lot of Dutch. Delft MaMa is more international”, our mom of the week points out.
People often ask Sine if they moved to the Netherlands, because statistically some of the happiest kids in the world live there, but she tells me it wasn’t the reason. “To me it seems the kids are happy, because from my point of view it’s such a luxurious thing to spend breakfast time with family in the morning, then bring the kids to school that is at a walking or cycling distance, have time to stay at school for a moment, go to work and be back home for dinner.”
In the end, when I ask about Sine’s cultural identity, she says to me she feels more Circassian than Turkish, more American than Turkish, but when she must say where home is, it’s Turkey. “Maybe in 10 years I’ll say I’m more Dutch, who knows. To me, it’s having the best of both worlds. I want my son to grow up in an environment with people from different cultures. We had that in New York and I loved that aspect so much. Delft is no New York, but it has a big international community. I feel so lucky,” Sine says happily.
Congratulations, you’re raising your children to speak two or more languages. Maybe you have questions. For example: “Am I screwing up my kids for life?” or “How on Earth will I ever manage this when parenting is so overwhelming and I have to do it in two languages?”
I’m here to tell you: “Don’t do it.” Your kids will be so confused that they’ll end up not speaking any language properly. They’ll have language delays, no friends and will surely end up in prison.
OK, by now you probably have noticed that I’m joking, right?
So here’s the truth: it will be amazing. Yes, really. I promise. And how do I know that? At almost four, almost six, and seven, my kids are fluid in Polish, German and Dutch. And they surprise me every day with their linguistic abilities. In fact, I’ve never been very confident about my parenting skills, but I knew that I can raise my children to speak three languages. Because to me, it was the most natural thing to do.
I was born in Warsaw, Poland. When I was three years old, we moved Cologne, Germany where we stayed for two years. I attended a German kindergarten and learned to speak the language like a native. After we came back, we still spoke Germany every Sunday, at least until my brother was born. He couldn’t speak German so we stopped. But I kept the knowledge of the language alive, through school and lots of TV.
Moreover, my parents are multilingual themselves. My mom spent a big part of her childhood in the Netherlands (what a coincidence, isn’t it?) She went to the International School of the Hague where she learned to speak English. My father was raised in France. Both of them still speak the languages they learned while abroad. And they also learned other languages along the way.
At home, I grew up in a highly multilingual environment. My parents listened to the BBC in English. They argued in French which I didn’t speak then. At some point, my mom taught me English using “Winnie the Pooh” which I knew by heart in Polish.
And all the time, German has stayed with me: I chose a secondary school with an intensive focus on this language, and then studied it at University. During a student exchange program in Hamburg, I met the man I’d later marry.
When I was pregnant, my mother-in-law asked me “Which language will you speak to your daughter?” It’s funny but that question never even occurred to me. Besides, when there are strollers to be bought, clothes to be picked… and did I mention I was still in Germany at that point but my husband moved to the Netherlands? We had a whole international move to plan on top of that. So please forgive me if simply assumed that I’d just start talking to my daughter when she made her arrival and see what language came out.
But my mother-in-law’s question made consciously decide in favour of Polish. Not because I couldn’t raise my kids in German. It was just that my husband was already the designated German speaker, so I could teach my kids Polish.
The reactions we got from extended families were varied. My parents were happy to have multilingual grandchildren. My in-laws were worried they wouldn’t understand theirs. The joke’s on them though because my kids are fluid in all three languages. And my eldest is learning English at school.
So how are we raising our kids? We’re consistent, but not obsessively so. We show that we respect each other’s languages. My husband even took a Polish class to better understand his children. We’re very confident in our choice to raise the kids with so many languages, even though we’re completely at a loss in other areas of parenting. We’ve gotten some ridiculously ignorant comments, which we were more than happy to ignore.
Since their German and Dutch are being taken care of at school, the whole responsibility for Polish falls on me. To get some help, I hired a private Polish tutor. I teach them reading and writing in this language and I even downloaded a Polish schoolbook for my eldest. Yes, it’s a lot of work. But yes, it’s also worth it because as soon as they can read I can give them Polish books to devour, which will make my workload somewhat easier.
And if I feel overwhelmed by it all, I think of my parents, who raised me with so many languages (I now speak Polish, German, English, French and Dutch) while both of them were working. They used TV as a German-speaking baby sitter, only spoke German with me once a week. They knew nothing about OPOL (One Person One Language) or ml@h (minority language at home) or the time and place method. But they managed to successfully raise my brother and me with multiple languages.
According to many experts, it shouldn’t have been enough. But it was.
So dear parents, if you want to raise multilingual kids, take it someone who’s seen both sides of the equation. Raising multilingual children is hard work. But it shouldn’t drive us insane.
You just had a tough morning, got the fussy kids fed and finally to school, got yourself racing against the clock and made it to your job. And then it happens: not your best pal at work, but some random Dutch co-worker wishes you a good morning in the most charming way: “meid, wat zie jij eruit vandaag”. Which roughly translates “you look like sh*t today”.
There you go, Dutch directness. To some extent, directness can be seen as bluntness or even rudeness. But it can also be seen as being honest, sincere, and not hypocrite. So, what makes the Dutch being seen as (too) direct?
It is actually your perspective on the Dutch culture that makes you categorize it as being too direct or rude. It is your “own culture” that reacts to this approach. We’ve all been raised with values and within visible or non-visible cultural boundaries and faux pas. While growing up you suck up like a sponge the way you should or not behave and react, the way to start or continue a conversation. Your surroundings and education is full of unwritten rules and expectancy rooted in your culture and the society around you. So is the Dutch kid growing up, she absorbs the way to communicate, to bring her message across, to deal with situations and social courtesy.
There’s the thing with Dutch culture and the way the Dutch communicate. World wide you can divide the way people communicate to one another as being “confrontational” or being “avoiding confrontation”. Cultures as the Dutch one (but also the US and German one) are communicating the confrontational way. The message must be simple and clear. Cultures as many Asian ones, but also the French one for example, are avoiding confrontation. Their message is full of nuances and there is lots to read between the lines. So when you come from a confrontation-avoiding society, it is not surprising you find the Dutch at least too direct.
But there is more. Another way to divide societies world wide, is the way a society relates to power; in other words, how hierarchic a society is. As you can expect, the Dutch are one of the less hierarchical societies. And because there is less hierarchy, there is also less of a need for imposed politeness and communication layers. This also means less etiquette, more feeling of equality, and there is a more open, two way communication. This all facilitates a more direct approach to all facades of life.
And there you are at this birthday party, and you find yourself chatting with this Dutch guy. And then he throws at you something like pure statements. This is this, and this is that. And then you block. That is not the way to engage in a conversation, not the way you’ve learned it. But that is the whole funny thing, that is exactly the way a Dutch person wants to fire up a conversation. Talking in statements, for many other cultures a conversation stopper, is the Dutch way to start a debate. It’s not a non-disputable statement, and the Dutch really don’t mean that their statement is the truth. It’s not that black and white. It should be an ice breaker, you are invited to exchange ideas. And you should start telling your point of view. The Dutch are taking pride in the freedom of speech and are very open to debating and making an argument.
As I wrote earlier, it’s most of the time your own cultural background that might make you feel offended by Dutch directness. And it is hard work for your cultural antenna to get the right message. It is hard when you are not so well acquainted with Dutch culture to differentiate between Dutch directness and real Dutch rudeness. Let’s be honest, there is a fine line between funny and sarcastic even in your own culture. But look at the up side of Dutch directness. When someone tells you something straight in your face, you just know where you stand. No false politeness, no pretending. And actually, when your co-worker tells you you look like sh*t, take a few moments to digest and have a good look at the face of your colleague. I am pretty sure that most of the time the non-verbal communication will tell you: “been there, I feel you”.