The 10 moments of culture shock of an international UU student

Betti, 25, MA International Relations in a Historical Perspective

Living in a foreign country can be tricky business. No matter how similar you think the two cultures are, adapting to living abroad will require some adjustment. Here’s a list of the top 10 moments that you may experience as culture shock.

1. Your first time seeing a Dutchie’s breakfast.

Hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles) are a nostalgic childhood memory for many Dutch.

We all know that different nations eat different breakfasts: the French indulge in their delicious fluffy croissants; the Americans eat a quick bowl of cereal and milk and so on. A Dutchie’s breakfast, however, is something I’ve never seen before. It’s the sweetest breakfast I have witnessed: buttered bread covered in chocolate or anis-flavoured sugar sprinkles or even tiny cookies. If that’s not enough for a sugar-induced coma, I don’t know what is.

2. How a bike can be a means of public transport.

Commuters in Utrecht approaching the central station.

It’s a well-known stereotype that the Dutch cycle everywhere – but it’s true. Even though I knew this in advance, I was still overwhelmed by the number of bikes in Utrecht. What shocked me even more is that it’s often 2 (or more) people travelling on the same bike, riding shotgun while holding on to the person actually cycling. It’s efficient, it doesn’t pollute the environment and it’s just more fun!

3. Seeing the Dutch attitude towards rain.

As the Dutch say ´you´re not made of sugar´ a little bit of rain won´t hurt!

Of course, we also have the image of the Netherlands as a country where it rains a lot. What I didn’t know was how to process the local’s behaviour when it starts pouring. In most countries (where it doesn’t rain for nearly 200 days a year), people seek shelter or at least try to cover themselves to protect their clothes and face from the rain. In the Netherlands, people carry on walking, cycling or doing sports as if nothing had happened. Crazy, huh?

4. The directness of the Dutch.

In the Netherlands you are expected to communicate clearly and directly, that includes your teachers!

If you come from a country of sugar coating and light implications, you’re in for a treat. Dutchies have no problems with telling you how they really feel about something or someone, even if their opinion is somewhat negative. Don’t worry, it’s nothing personal though – they just like to say what they think. Turn it around and view it as a positive: when a Dutchie compliments you, you know you did something awesome!

5.Your first hospiteeravond.

Dutch student houses tend to be very social and so ensuring a good fit among tenants is important.

Finding accommodation in the Netherlands, especially in the bigger student hubs like Utrecht, is a challenge. You’ll most likely have to go to a so-called hospiteeravond where all the tenants of a house filled with students inspect you, ask you questions while you sneak a peek of your (potential) future home. The whole thing feels a bit like a self-selling auction – but with the current housing shortages, there’s just no other way.

6. Attempting to pronounce a Dutch sentence

Ja graag (Yes please), if you don't get the 'g' right you may be left with a slightly confused Dutchie.

Dutch is one of many Indo-European languages including English and Swedish. While you think your sick German skills will help you to learn Dutch (which is truly the case), you might still have problems with the pronunciation since Dutch has a few unique sounds. Pro tip: to pronounce the ’ch’ or ’g’, imagine you’re coughing at trying not to spit on someone at the same time.

7. Dolling up for a night out in town

Boasting or bragging is a big faux pas in Dutch culture, so feel free to keep it chill and natural when you go partying!

In a lot of countries, going for a night out is a special occasion that requires lengthy preparation and your best looks. For Dutchies, that’s not entirely the case; most women don’t wear heels (since they’re tall enough anyway) and put on minimal make-up. Fast and easy!

8.Visiting the beach in the Netherlands

Don't be fooled by the blue sky, for most of the year a walk on a Dutch beach is a windy and cold experience!

The word ’beach’ may trigger pictures of long sandy coasts, sunshine and palm trees in our minds with children running around with floaties and adults enjoying their iced cocktails. The beach in the Netherlands, however, is not entirely designed for that. While it’s beautiful (must see Scheveningen!), it’s mostly too cold to go for a quick dip so people stay out of the water and are fully clothed because of the wind and rain and clouds. Instead of swimming, eat kibbeling and nieuwe haring!

9. Paying a visit to a Dutch GP

Doctors in the Netherlands are much less likely to hand out pills for minor aches and pains

Doctors in many countries are often too quick to offer you antibiotics or other kinds of medical treatments. Not so the Dutchies! Their philosophy is that small problems heal by themselves and big problems will be around long enough for later treatment, no need to rush into closer inspection.

10. Your first out-of-uni interaction with university staff

It is not uncommon in the Netherlands for professors and students to share a drink at the end of term!

In more hierarchical societies, professors tend to keep safe distance from their students and do not socialise much. Not so in the Netherlands! You can easily catch a teacher of yours in a café or bar or there’s even some outings and trips students and teachers take together, without these diminishing the respect for the said lecturer. That’s what I call an inclusive education!


These were 10 of the most memorable moments of culture shock for me when I arrived in the Netherlands. Sometimes they challenge you, and other times they are great fun! Either way they went a long way to contributing to my overall experience at Utrecht University and I hope you will have similar experiences when you study at UU!

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