“No internationals”, it reads on the housing ads she is scrolling through. My friend’s sublet ends in two weeks, and she becomes increasingly desperate in her quest to find a new room. She went on an open viewing earlier that day to make a good impression on the potential roommates.
One of them did not feel so comfortable speaking in English though. My friend showed off the best version of her broken Dutch, but they weren’t easily impressed: The rejection message said that things would probably be too difficult in matters of common humor.
Universities are the primary contact point of internationals with the Netherlands. Yet, international and Dutch students largely remain amongst themselves. Except for a few Dutch friend groups here and there with a token international friend or the other way around, there are few signs of mingling. Without it, the Dutch government’s efforts to make internationals stay in the Netherlands after finishing their degree will only result in Amsterdam becoming a city divided into internationals and non-internationals.
I can relate to the roommates in question and their choice to keep the apartment Dutch. If my friends were all to live in the same apartment, it would be an English speaking one (and also quite tight). When I moved here, I had to adjust to a whole new country. That is on top of starting university, finding a room in the midst of a housing crisis, and then also affording to live in it. With so many of us coming at once, it is easier to bond over the feeling of being foreign than make an effort to integrate. My friends and I ended up circulating in networks of internationals; it was never a conscious decision, but we also did not actively counter it.
A few months into my life in Amsterdam, I started reading Het Parool with the Google Translate function on. I felt guilty about the fact that I almost only had international friends and that my Dutch was still practically nonexistent. Suddenly, that was not just my personal life anymore, but the reality of de buitenlanders in Amsterdam.
The Dutch government is now engaging in efforts to make more internationals stay here after they finish studying. To this end, education minister Robbert Dijkgraaf would like to introduce requirements for international students to learn Dutch. But I don’t think that alone is going to lead to the desired result.
Many of my friends have tried to learn Dutch. But for what use is it if they realize after six months of Duolingo that they are never going to use it anyway? And that our humor is apparently not advanced enough to become friends with each other? A language is not a skill that can be plucked from a tree. Realistically, students will not be completely fluent in Dutch while completing their studies. But it is more likely to happen when they actually use it in their daily lives.
It will take a little more effort from both international and Dutch students to engage with each other and show some signs of friendship. This was never an active war, but a committed act of staying away from each other. We should let that go a little and bond over the many things we have in common. I would argue that it is just as easy to migrate for friendship as it is for love.
What is going to happen to the quantity of new international students coming to Amsterdam is hard to predict. But once they are here, it would become more natural for them to stay. Then, we have time to learn Dutch for the rest of our lives. And Amsterdam does not need to become a city divided between international and Dutch people, but one of many, many UvA graduates.
This column was read aloud by Céline Zahno at the Folia anniversary party on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023. This is Céline's last column for Folia.