Even though I didn’t feel Dutch on a 2001 trip to the Netherlands, finding my maiden name, Hoitenga, on tombstones in a Witmarsum cemetery brought me to tears and made my Dutch roots feel real for the first time.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago in Aruba. My husband and I briefly met a couple from Amsterdam, now living in the States, at the Dutch Pannekoekhuis restaurant in Oranjestad.
The next day, I happened upon this couple sitting under a hut on the beach front of our hotel. I stopped and introduced myself. And here’s the story of what happened:
He (in Dutch brogue): “Yah, I was wondering yesterday if you had any Dutch connections yourself.”
Me (happily): “Oh yes, my great grandparents immigrated from Witmarsum. In Friesland.”
He (chuckling): “Yah, so you’re not really Dutch after all, you’re Frisian.”
Me (taken aback): “What do you mean?”
She (smiling, as if to soften the blow): “Well, Frisians have their own ways, their own culture, even their own language.”
How could this be? I’d finally come to terms with being Dutch and now was being told I wasn’t. “Maybe that explains the street names,” I said, trying to keep some sense of my identity. I told them my story of how we’d gone to Witmarsum to look up my family home and how the old address I’d had didn’t exist.
The man launched into a lengthy explanation about the Dutch, in their attempt to Dutchify the Frisian towns, had changed the addresses to be Dutch rather than Frisian names. Thus “wegs” became “straats.”
My head was too busy trying to absorb the fact that I was no longer Dutch to follow his words, but I thanked them for the information and bid them good day. Finding my husband on a beach chair, I announced, “I met those Dutch people from yesterday. We are not Dutch. We’re Frisian.” His roots were in Friesland too. You can imagine his ”now what” look and the conversation that followed.
An article in the paper* later that week made me doubt my Dutch identity again. The columnist was describing Dutch cuisine as presented on www.dutchgrub.com. He describes a typical menu of fried catfish with ravigote, sweet and sour cabbage, croquettes of goat cheese, potato, and hazelnut with carrot coleslaw, spinach and beet root.
So, I thought, that settles that. I’ve never had those foods. They simply did not jive with the supposedly Dutch foods of my childhood: pot roast, mashed potatoes, green beans. And apple pie. So, I wondered, were those foods holdovers from my Frisian ancestors? Who knows?
When I got back home, it was comforting to read recent notes I’d taken in an Aristotle’s Politics class I’m taking in the University of Chicago’s Basic Program: Most of us are children of immigrants. We don’t consider ourselves to be immigrants now. We are Americans. Minority immigrants of today will, in the future, be so shaped that they will not consider themselves immigrants either, just like us.
So that’s the final episode of my identity search. I am American, and I don’t have to worry about my ethnicity, except to be thankful for the work and faith ethic passed down to me and to support other people who, like my ancestors, would like the opportunity to reach for the American dream.
A thought for the day: How do you define your ethnicity? And how does your ethnicity influence your life?
*Segal, D. (2013, January 18). Returning the flair to Dutch cuisine. Aruba Today, The New York Times, p. 32.