Lost in Translation: Why Migrants Should Remain Foreign


Boris Johnson has publicly stated that all migrants in the UK should not only learn English but also “feel” British. He obviously knows nothing of how it feels to be part of two cultures, however similar they are. Whereas the acquisition of your adopted country’s language is paramount, the feeling of citizenship is not. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. My experience from having been raised in two cultures and moving to a third, is that you can love a country without “feeling” its citizenship.


On 23rd January, 2017,the Dutch centre-right prime minister Mark Rutte wrote an open letter which was widely published in the national press. My experience as a non-Dutch national is that complete assimilation in a foreign country poses problems and is not easy. I love the Netherlands and feel at home here. But even after 20 years, I do not “feel” Dutch and, what is more, I don’t think that I want to. My Anglo-French upbringing cannot and should not be translated into Dutch.

The Netherlands is considered by many to be one of the most tolerant countries in the European Union. An everyday example of this is the way Dutch television always inserts subtitles in non-Dutch films and television programmes, and even news items. It seems strange, however, that the Dutch have a specific word to describe immigrants like myself. They use the word “allochtoon” which sounds more like a way of describing bacteria or cell cultures rather than human beings. Be that as it may, that is what they call us.


There is something wrong with our land. – Mark Rutte

The fact that something is wrong in society is not only true of the Netherlands, but can also be said of other countries such as the UK, France and the US. The results of the UK referendum on the EU and the US presidential election reflect a truly deep malfunction in our present-day Western societies. These malfunctions have not only an economical basis but from a moral point of view we are presently at a loss. Our so-called “democratic era” is, in fact, governed by popular individualism inspired by  demagogues. But are foreigners to blame?


Sometimes it seems as though nobody acts normally anymore. – Mark Rutte

What did Rutte mean by “normal”? Did he mean “according to rules” or “not quite OK in your mind?” If normality describes the capacity to comply with housekeeping rules, then the Dutch PM should set these rules out, so that foreigners like myself (and Dutch people too, for that matter) know how to behave in the Netherlands. Non-compliance with these rules should be punished and the government should have the means to enforce the regulations. Wouldn’t it be nice to have street vigils ensuring that no wastepaper is dropped or dog excrement left behind on the pavement, and imposing fines if necessary. But are foreigners to blame?

If normality refers to an individual’s state of mind, then this can be addressed from day 1 of his or her life. For the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, “existence precedes essence”. This basically means that any individual “is what he does”, and not the other way around. A simple example would be that of a spoon whose only goal in life, when made, is to function as a spoon. Humans, on the other hand, can define themselves by the choices they make and the way that they act these choices out. There exists a dynamic interaction between every individual and his environment, and within his environment he is able to act freely. Change the environment, and you have the capability to change the nature of the man.

But how can one change man’s nature, I hear you ask. Well, it’s quite simple. All you have to do is start teaching philosophy and ethics to schoolchildren, and do begin early. France is one of the few countries to include philosophy in the graduation exam (baccalaureate). Unfortunately this comes too late and should have begun way back in primary school. But are foreigners to blame?


If you categorically reject our land, I’d rather you leave. – Mark Rutte

Now, there was I, thinking that Mark Rutte was getting all ethical, reigniting John Major’s “back to basics” ideology in the 90’s. How wrong could I be. This is the real Rutte, the political Rutte, the “real deal”. This letter had, in fact, all the acrid smell associated with xenophobia and discrimination. This is Rutte’s attempt to close the gap on the extreme-right-wing PVV leader Geert Wilders, the man with the golden locks, without anybody noticing. May I introduce to you the newest member of the exclusive “elite demagogues”club: Mark Rutte of the Netherlands. Maybe I’m exaggerating a little but the real problem for me is not what Rutte says, but how anonymous people can interpret his views and eventually act them out. Foreigners are really to blame.


I want everybody who comes here and makes their lives here to be and to feel British, that’s the most important thing, and to learn English. – Boris Johnson



As immigrants, we have a double consciousness


For the American human rights activist and academic William du Bois, author of “The Souls of Black Folk” in 1903, the Afro-Americans had what he described as a “double consciousness”. This state of mind comprises a deep rooted cultural dichotomy that includes dissimilar and competing thoughts, strides and ideals. All of these mental conflicts are permanently present and together make up a permanent form of potentially harmful consciousness.

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, the senses of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of the others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in an amused contempt and pity.  – W.E.B. du Bois, 1903

There will always be a divide based on skin colour, religious beliefs and country of origin. The fate of migrants seems to be forever sealed. Or is it? The only hope is that we all come together, freely admit our mistakes and shortcomings, and work together for a better future.

I’m lucky. My double-consciousness doesn’t seem to cause me problems because I have no internal or external cultural conflicts. However, “feeling” Dutch is, for me, impossible. I speak Dutch with an accent and make mistakes when I write. I’m trying to constantly improve my Dutch but I must admit that I still very much prefer reading English or French. To cap it all, when I went with my Dutch son to Amsterdam to watch a football match between the Netherlands and France, he was supporting “Oranje” (Holland) and I had the audacity to keep on supporting “Les Bleus”. My real problems, of course, begin when England play France.

I do love the Netherlands and Mark Rutte is right when he says that “we have an exceedingly marvellous land“. As migrant I must adapt the best I can to the way of life in the Netherlands, but my original cultural dichotomy is also exceedingly marvellous and one thing is certain, it cannot and must not be translated.