I didn’t grow up in your country

Rendering by Dutch artist MC Escher

Rendering by Dutch artist MC Escher

Sometimes my college students need to set me straight about schooling in North America.

I didn’t grow up in your country, I confess.

Students scratch their heads: how can you be part American Indian and be from somewhere else?

My family moved overseas from California in the 1960s around the time when the Supremes’ Baby Love climbed to the charts and found a berth alongside the Beatles’ I Want to Hold Your Hand and the Beach Boys’ I Get Around.

My four sisters and brother and I attended international (English-speaking) schools in the Middle East, Europe and the United Kingdom, where our classes were filled with students—non-American and American alike—and we studied a range of subjects including languages.

Teachers assumed we would become skilled in languages other than our own, and most of my teachers and friends were multilingual.

I enrolled in French, German and Spanish classes—not necessarily at the same time—and never hesitated to visit cities where I didn’t know the lingua franca.

Limping by, I was usually successful in my stumbles through the foreign tongue, except for the time a cab driver got $50 for a $5 ride in Hong Kong.

I get by even without language skills in Teheran, Bruges, Prague, Istanbul, Amman, Amsterdam, Colombo, Cairo and Barcelona.

Once I woke up in a hospital in Holland to the strange sounds of nurses and patients speaking an odd language: had I died and landed in Dutch heaven? Hell?

The combination of getting my belly sliced open and the infusion of heavy-duty drugs from an emergency appendectomy sidelined me for a week and forced me to attend carefully to speech-patterns in white-on-white surroundings.

The Dutch language, when written, is close enough to German for me to just get by, but the spoken words sound like no other (not counting Flemish and Afrikaans).

The Dutch land hard on their Bs. Words that start with the letter B require your lips to explode around the consonant—like blowing into a tuba.

Other sounds start deep in the throat—not unlike the Arabic and Farsi I heard in my youth.

Their currency at the time—the Guilder—and the seaport Scheveningen require you to hug your throat to pronounce them.

Dutchisms are cute: they call peanut butter peanut cheese, and flavor their licorice with salt rather than sugar.

One rude remark is worth noting.

It’s the Dutch equivalent to nit-picker—someone who carries on about the little stuff, like the character Felix in the play, The Odd Couple.

The slang for a nit-picker is mierenneuker. The American translation rhymes with trucker: ant f…..

Go figure.



About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in american indian, communication, Dutch, family values, Holland, native american, native press, Native Science, writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to I didn’t grow up in your country

  1. Don Beckwith (ASH '70) says:

    Interesting post. I too spent a number of years in the Netherlands. I was there for 8th grade through HS graduation. It was a great experience. Unfortunately, I didn’t become very proficient in Dutch. I learned just enough to get by. I do regret that today. Good luck to you in all your endevours


    • I graduated in 1971 and loved the one-year in Voorschoten and The Hague. When I was working on my grad degree at Wisconsin I attended a conference in Minnesota and guess who was there? Paul Sand. What a sweetheart.


  2. Maria DePriest says:

    Love this post! One thing that my students are surprised by when we read certain authors, especially LeAnne Howe (Choctaw), is the international connectedness.


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