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A Fish out of Water: Coping with Cultural Heterogeneity in Amsterdam

November 23, 2018






When I was 21 years old, I decided to leave Canada and move to Amsterdam for an exchange semester abroad.


I didn’t speak Dutch. I have never been to Europe. I didn’t know anyone.


I felt like a fish out of water. Through this experience, I will be drawing upon how I coped with cultural heterogeneity in a global context. To organize my examples, I will be using Hamelink’s skills for intercultural communication along with other scholarly models in the field that explore culture shock coping mechanisms.


First off, culture is a complex concept that constitutes an essential part of ones identity. It involves a ‘cumulative deposit of knowledge, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired… in the course of generations”(Hoftede, 2007).


And let me tell you, Dutch culture vs. Canadian culture was way more different than I initially anticipated. Which lead me into a lot of awkward situations that I'd rather not recall...


 - Literally every Dutch person I met when I said, did, or didn't do something culturally abiding. 



Through the growth of international trade, tourism, migration, and the emergence of diaspora communities, more people are exposed to novel and unfamiliar cultural environments. As a result of these globalization processes, culture becomes a dynamic phenomenon since it is constantly evolving. With the wide array of cultural diversity present in the world, culture shock is a common phenomenon that many experience as they leave abroad. In order for effective intercultural communication to occur, Chen and Starostastate that one must have, “the ability to negotiate cultural meanings and to execute appropriately effective communication behaviours that recognize the interactants’ multiple identities in a specific environment” (1996).

To deal with this global influx of culture shock, the first coping skill Hamelink outlined was to: "Accept the multiple identities you play and to have the capacity to recognize your own internal dialogues" (2015). In this case, I was born in Canada, ethnically Chinese, and an undergrad exchange student at UVA.

Once I stepped out of my comfort zone and into the unfamiliar European culture, I needed to be open to the existence of foreign identities. It was fairly difficult to open up my uncertainties to others and I constantly found myself asking, “How do I see myself vs. How do others see me?” Which brings me to Hamelink’s second skill, where I needed to be aware of my own cultural identity, cultural biases, values and practices. 



According to Hamelink, cultural identity can be defined as:


Cultural Identity:  Informing individuals and social groups about their past, defines their position in the present, and proposes expectations about their future -Hamelink, 2015


Being an Asian-Canadian, I had my peers ask me a lot of questions regarding my culture during our exchange orientation day. Such questions involved,


“Are all Canadians nice and say sorry all the time?” or

“Do you end all your sentences with ‘Eh?

"Where are your parents from then...?"


Although awkward and discomforting at times, it ended up being a rather reflective experience. I had to re-define what being Canadian meant to me and how I could effectively communicate this to my peers. This also opened up a space where we can share our cultural perceptions of each other.

Thirdly, Hamelink suggests that social skills such as friendliness and openness to others are crucial to successful intercultural communication. When interacting with strangers, ‘the only bases we have is their group memberships and our stereotypes about the group … we need to understand which social identities are influencing strangers’ behaviours and how they define themselves with respect to these identities" (Baraldo, 2006). Referring to the previous example, I was faced with Canadian stereotypes and I had to monitor how I would respond to them.


By remaining open, friendly, and showcasing my sense of humour to their preconceived notions, we were able communicate which aspects of Canadian culture I personally identify with.


Yes, I love Tim Hortons. Yes, poutine is one of Canada's greatest culinary creations. No, I do not ride a polar bear to school. Maybe, I say eh and sorry too much ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 


In addition to accepting my multiple identities, being self-aware of my own culture, and using my social skills to communicate, I needed to recognize cultural differences through others perspectives to manage the cultural heterogeneity I was experiencing.




As time passed, I found myself voluntarily immersing myself in the European and Dutch culture by going to local events and public spaces to socialize. By learning more about our cultural differences and understanding their values, I found myself progressively abandoning preconceived and ethnocentric ideas. This made me more capable of eliciting a higher degree of trust and sensitivity to others.


Lastly, Hamelink states that it is important to recognize our own cultural luggage. Just like a luggage, we carry a suitcase filled our culture’s values, history, religious beliefs, biases, and stereotypes. We take this culturally filled luggage with us everywhere as we travel so we can have a bit of home with us abroad. Inevitably, we bring our own understanding of the world onto others and the unfamiliar. I can admit to doing this when trying to communicate with other students during my exchange at the University of Amsterdam. Everyone packs his or her cultural luggage differently. My definition of Canadian culture may vary due to my past experiences. Pearce (1994) observed that, “any communication is intercultural as each individual is culturally different from any other”. From this perspective, we can be empowered by personal diversity as we strive towards cultural diversity.


By recognizing our own cultural luggage and learning about the impressions we leave, others can gain insight into what we as individuals value. Evidently, all of these skills are helpful coping mechanisms when dealing with cultural heterogeneity in a global context. Adjusting to know what words, gestures, or customs to abide can be an emotional roller coaster. But, learning more about other cultures can result in adopting more sustainable practices. These cross cultural experiences can help increase greater tolerance for uncertainty and enhance cultural diversity in a local society. After this experience studying abroad, I can say that I will continue to feel like a fish out of water. But now, someone that is comfortable perpetually seeking discomfort in new environments.


bloop bloop.

- Till next time, you'll be hearing from Andrea again

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