What it means to be Dutch

A pastor compares his Dutch roots to those of church members from Suriname and South Africa.

I am an American who happens to have a Dutch last name. That’s one of the surprising things I’ve learned while living in The Hague this year.

Frankly, I had expected something quite different. I thought I would feel a lot more Dutch. What would you have expected to feel if all your ancestors, going back several centuries, were born in this country?

Certainly not all Christian Courier readers have Dutch last names, or feel particularly Dutch, but some of them undoubtedly do. And so, some of them may be interested in this unexpected bit of personal struggle. And the rest? I’m guessing that questions about ethnic identity are surprisingly common these days. What is an ethnic identity?

At passport control, soon after getting off my flight from Chicago to Amsterdam, I handed my passport to a young Dutch immigration officer who was surrounded on three sides by thick glass panels.

“You have a Dutch last name,” he said, as he paged slowly through my passport. “Do you speak Dutch?”

“No,” I said (in English), “my grandparents immigrated to the United States and did not pass along the language.”

With that, his interest in my ethnic identity seemed to pass, and he asked, “How long will you be staying?”

I told him, and he stamped my passport. “Next!”

That encounter at the airport turned out to be the first of many similar encounters. Initial curiosity about my last name, followed by a rapid change of subject.

As it turns out, approximately one out of every 500 people in the Netherlands shares my last name, but according to my genealogical research I am not related to very many of them.

A windmill in Leiden, NL.
The author’s place of work.

Trudy who?

In 1811, Napoleon issued a decree, based on French law, that everyone in what is now Belgium and the Netherlands was required to adopt a surname. And many of them simply took their profession as their new surname – so, farmer (Boer), baker (Bakker), butcher (Slager), and fisher (Visser), to name a few.

According to my last name, I am descended from beer brewers, which sounded funnier when I was a college student than it does today. On the other hand, let me offer a word of thanks to Napoleon. Say what you want about his wars and such, he has been a great blessing to amateur genealogists like me.

I arrived in this country thinking that having grown up among people with Dutch ancestry would be an advantage. For example, most of the people I grew up with had Dutch last names. The phonebook (remember those?) had multiple columns with names beginning van, van der, and van den. “At least I will know how to pronounce everyone’s name correctly!” I thought. “They will be very impressed!” As it turned out, they weren’t.

In my first weeks on the job, I went to a rehab center a few miles from The Hague to visit a long-time church member who was recovering from surgery. I went to the front desk, as I would in the U.S., and said, “I would like to see Trudy van der Meulen.” I had memorized the sentence in Dutch just in case and had even checked my grammar with my Dutch teacher. But the person at the desk quickly sized me up as an English speaker and said (in English), “I don’t think we have anyone with that last name.”

“But I know she’s here,” I said.

“Oh,” the person at the desk said, “did you mean Trudy van der Meulen?”

“That’s what I said!” I responded.

“No, you didn’t. We do have a Trudy van der Muelen,” she said, pronouncing the name, as far as I could tell, in exactly the same way I had. And she then provided the room number and directions.

I mention that story because something like it has happened several more times. My Dutch pronunciations, about which I felt so confident, were apparently wrong – and not just wrong, but embarrassingly incorrect. I felt chastened. Which, for what it’s worth, is not a bad thing for many over-confident American tourists to feel. Still, one of the strengths I thought I was bringing to my work had turned out to be a liability. I am taking Dutch lessons, but I am very much a beginner, like everyone else in my class.

Groningen Good Friday Bloemenmarkt market.
Amsterdam decked out in orange for the annual Koningsdag festivities.

Heritage or hobby?

In the church where I am serving as an interim pastor, there are many people who grew up with what I’ll, euphemistically, call “Dutch roots.” Church members from places like Suriname (look it up), Indonesia and South Africa grew up in countries where the Dutch slave trade once flourished. The Dutch Reformed Church flourished in those places, too, but it was the slave trade (and other economic opportunities) that brought Dutch people from Europe to live and work there.

Over the last century, nearly all these former colonies received their independence. Suriname did not receive its independence until 1975 (the year I graduated from my Dutch Reformed college). The Dutch West Indies, which includes six special municipalities, are still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Eventually, many people from these former (or current) colonies found their way to the Netherlands, learned to speak Dutch (if they needed to), found work, and stayed. Today some of them are not only members of my church, but unexpectedly (to me) they are more Dutch than I am. We have different skin tones, but I realize that they can claim Dutch roots far more convincingly than I can. I grew up in a community which was assimilating as quickly as possible into American culture, but these church members claim a far different kind of identity than I do.

They are Dutch in ways I will never be Dutch.

When I meet them and get to know them and listen (as I have in the last month) to their responses to the Dutch Prime Minister’s recent apology for the Dutch slave trade, I realize that their claim to Dutch heritage is in some ways stronger than my own, even though 100 percent of my genetic inheritance can be traced to two provinces in the northern part of this country.

When I am with them, I feel like a pretender, someone whose sole interest in being here is walking around church cemeteries and looking for a family name – Rinze Davids Brouwer, to be precise. In 1811, at the age of 31, he was the first member of my family tree to adopt the name Brouwer.

For most of my life I treated my Dutch heritage like a hobby. It was something I enjoyed at Christmas because of the special foods. And, like other retirees, I have enjoyed the challenge of constructing my family tree. For my new friends, however, their Dutch heritage is their life.

I am now just over halfway through my employment contract, and I am excited to report that, in addition to vast amounts of Dutch vocabulary and grammar, I am learning many important truths. One of them is what it means to be Dutch. Turns out, I am not as Dutch as I imagined. I am an American with a Dutch last name who enjoys visiting the country where my ancestors once lived.

Am I Dutch? I enjoy telling people I am.


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