Five years ago, on the 4th of September 2014, I loaded my dad’s car with pretty much everything I owned and drove to Manchester. I was 18 years old, spoke broken English with a thick accent and dreamed of studying English and Creative Writing at university. I can’t believe that I’ve been able to call Manchester my home for half a decade today! Trading my little countryside hometown for a big metropolitan city in a foreign country was a bumpy, but awesome ride. It’s opened so many doors for me, it introduced me to some of the best people I know and it has allowed me to grow into a person that I like a whole lot better than 18-year-old Nele. So, I thought it was time to write a little reflection of those last five years.
Five years in the UK
Oh man, that first year! I lived in a small student flat, with no windows in the kitchen and a non-existent living room. As I couldn’t get straight into university, I was following an Access to HE course at Stockport College. It took me 20 minutes by train to get there from Manchester city centre and the few friends I had at college didn’t live near me. I got a job at McDonald’s and spent my weekends frying chicken in their kitchen. One of my roommates really helped me through that year – shoutout to you, Kevin! It was great to have a friend there, but he moved back to France after that first year.
I don’t like the admit this, but I probably came across a bit intense when I first moved to Manchester. Not that I intended to be rude, but my Dutch Directness didn’t work in my favour when it came to making friends. Saying thank you and please in every. single. sentence. isn’t something we do in the Netherlands. We’re very straight to the point. Something that’s not always appreciated in England. I had no idea, though! I never meant to come across like that. But thinking back, I had a lot of learning and adjusting to do…
Basic things like opening a bank account or getting a mobile phone were huge challenges. Having freshly moved abroad, there was so much to sort out and I wasn’t used to having to deal with all of that on my own. I remember writing a huge post about it on my former blog, which was more an online journal keeping track of my everyday life. Moving was a huge change. I missed my family, my friends and I often felt very lonely. Especially during that first year. I’ve been super lucky to have Richard and his family here, who have always been a huge support to me and I couldn’t be more grateful.
Things started to look up when I started university. Going to university in a foreign country to study literature and creative writing alongside native speakers did intimidate me. I’d never been taught English literature before. My English classes were filled with grammar and vocabulary (something I wasn’t even that good at!). Who was I to think that I could just join people at university level when I’d never even read Shakespeare! My Access to HE course definitely helped me prepare for university. But I’ve also learned that with the right determination and ambition, even the impossible can be made possible.
During university, I met some of the most amazing people. Those three years have truly made me blossom into a brand new person. I feel so much more comfortable in my own skin, confident in my abilities and loved by so many people around me. I’ve transformed into a more sociable, friendly and happier person that fits so much better into my ideal self.
My time at university has probably been the best three years of my life (so far). Being able to study something that I am so passionate about was amazing. Surrounding myself with people who are also passionate about creativity and language was another thing that made me feel like I finally fitted in somewhere. It’s something that I really missed out on during high school, where I always felt like the weird outsider. That feeling of purpose helped me find the light at the end of the tunnel that I could never find during my high school years. It melted away a lot of the bitterness I held inside, which my depression caused me to feel. I’m so grateful that I feel like a brighter person now.
Having chosen Manchester as my new home has probably saved me from a lot of unnecessary xenophobia. Manchester is a welcoming and loving city that’s very accepting of different people and cultures. And 99% of the time, I felt welcomed! I am, of course, lucky that looks-wise I could pass as an English woman any day. My accent isn’t as foreign as it used to be, and many confuse me for Irish or Canadian – which also helps a lot! But, I still don’t sound British and my name is also foreign. There are always going to be people that have a problem with that. I’m not ashamed of being an immigrant anymore.
Especially after the Brexit vote, things got quite bad. I was shouted at in a shop after speaking on the phone with someone. “Didn’t you see the news, you’re not welcome here!” – which wasn’t fun. I’m sure I’ve been denied job interviews. Even though I studied English & Creative Writing, my CV says I’m Dutch and with a name like mine, people don’t always assume my English is as good as it is.
Even when I did get the job, working in hospitality wasn’t always the most welcoming atmosphere either. At McDonald’s, a customer told me he didn’t want to be served by a “foreigner” and when I worked as a cocktail waitress in a fancy hotel bar, I was told to “go back to where I came from if I can’t speak the language properly”. At university, some lecturers tried to be encouraging but got the opposite effect. I was asked if I needed any extra help during one of my first classes. Even though I know she didn’t mean any harm by asking, it made me feel like I wasn’t good enough. Reading the line “Don’t worry, Nele. Your English is great!” under an essay I got a 1:1 for in my second year, did kinda hurt. I know my English is great. That’s why I’m studying literature at an English university in England alongside tons of native speakers!
But I’ve learned to grow a thicker skin to those things. People often don’t mean it in a bad way. And if they do, I’d rather not hang out with them anyway! I’m not going to change my accent or my passport just to be liked. I’m a Dutch girl with a Dutch name and an accent that falls somewhere between Irish, Canadian and European (if that’s even a thing!). I think that the way I felt about those types of comments also reflects on my insecurities more than what those people actually said. Growing my confidence has helped so much with that.
I honestly can’t say that I’ve suffered a lot because of xenophobia. I could pass for an English person by looks and that has probably saved me from many shitty comments. Surrounding myself with people that are very accepting and encouraging has also made a huge difference. They don’t treat me differently just because I sound a bit different. I’m part of the group, and I don’t feel like an outsider.
Work, work, work(aholic)
Because of my Dutch passport, I didn’t qualify for a maintenance loan. With some help of my parents, some freelance gigs and a lot of part-time jobs, I made it work. In the last five years I’ve been part of the kitchen staff at McDonald’s, cocktail waitress at a luxury hotel bar, barista at a terrible independent coffee shop and later at Starbucks, copywriter at a kick-scooter company and I even briefly worked at an American Diner that (I’m pretty sure) was used as a money-laundering business. Working 20+ hours weekly on top of doing a degree in your second language wasn’t always easy. I tried to fit in time with Richard, my friends, time to work on my blog and… time to relax (what’s that?!).
Even though I thought I managed it pretty well, in my third year at university, I fainted a few times due to overworking myself. When I want to do something, I give it my everything. And I don’t stop until I’m there. Trying to work on my final piece for university, working 25 hours a week, blogging, seeing friends, seeing Richard and going to my seminars became too much.
The tenaciousness of my personality definitely comes from wanting to prove people wrong (totally not problematic…). It may not even be other people, but I wanted to prove it to myself. Even though it may not sound like the healthiest thing, it’s given me good work ethics and a very driven personality. My workaholic tendencies are, on the other side, something I need to keep an eye on – for my physical and mental health’s sake. But I’m getting better at taking time to relax and de-stress!
Growing & Opening my mind
Having to deal with everything life throws at you in a foreign country definitely makes you grow up a bit quicker. Last year, I wrote about 10 things I learned since moving abroad. Most of them focus on the value of friendship (both in England and in Holland) and learning how to get sh*t done quickly and independently.
One major thing that I’ve noticed most about how I’ve changed over the last 5 years is that I’ve been able to open myself up to new people, new opinions and learn from them. Having grown up in a little bubble that was my hometown countryside village in the Netherlands, I never really thought about a lot of issues this world faces. I was never exposed to things like sexism, LGTBQ+ discrimination, racism, homelessness and poverty. Therefore I found it very difficult to have an opinion about those things. And when I did have an opinion, it was from a very privileged point of view. Moving to a diverse city like Manchester and meeting tons of different people really opened my mind. Especially the first couple of years in the UK, I was very closed-minded, judgemental and ignorant. But luckily, the people that I’ve met along the way have taught me to be way more accepting, learn about these issues, stay informed and form my own opinion about them by considering multiple points of view.
I’m not proud of having been so ignorant about these important values and problems in the past, but I am also very grateful that I’ve been able to open up my mind about them. I’m not the same person I was five years ago, and I’m working hard on improving this every day.
My Dutch vs my English personality
You might have heard that bilingual people feel like they have more than one personality. One for each language they speak. And it’s true. I think one of the main reasons I feel so comfortable speaking English is that I much prefer my English-self over my Dutch-self. Whether that is because I feel that my Dutch-personality hasn’t had much time and attention to grow out of her 18-year-old persona (a girl that was so lost in life, couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel which caused her to act out towards the people who cared about her), or if that’s because I got the chance to build myself up from the ground when I moved to the UK, I’m not sure. But I do know that it’s been a journey filled with a lot of self-reflection, looking at the things I disliked about myself and trying to adjust them. English allows me to express myself in a way that’s much more accurate to the way I feel inside. That alone has helped me find a lot of peace inside. I’m no longer ranging with confusing thoughts and feelings that don’t have a proper name any longer. I definitely think that that was a huge part of where my depression came from.
Speaking in Dutch makes me feel a bit uncomfortable now. My Dutch language skills definitely haven’t benefitted from speaking English almost 24/7 for five years. I forget words, my intonation has completely changed and my sentence structure is far from perfect. It’s been more than a few times where one of my Dutch friends messages me, “Nele… that’s NOT how you’d say that!”. It’s funny, but it’s also kind of embarrassing! Who’d forget their own language?
Speaking Dutch also puts me back into that personality that I’m not quite such a big fan of. It puts up that mirror in front of me that shows me all those personality traits that I don’t really like about myself and amplifies them. I think that might be because my “Dutch personality” hasn’t had time to grow, or maybe it’s because it’s just not me anymore and I struggle to find the right language to express what I really feel inside. I feel so lost in it. Because Dutch lacks the vocubulary I need to properly express myself. It’s like a language prison. But that’s an entire blog post on its own! There is a lot of reading I need to do about this topic because I’m sure I’m not the only one feeling this way!
Hitting that five-year mark is quite something else. I didn’t have a big plan when I moved to the UK. I just wanted to study English and Creative Writing, live closer to Richard and figure the rest out as I went along. But with everything that happened in politics (the chaos that is called Brexit…), hitting the five-year mark means something a bit more significant. It means that I can finally apply for settled status. The fact that I’ll finally be able to get more security about my future here is going to lift a huge weight off my shoulders. I’ve thought about getting dual citizenship. Unfortunately, that’s not possible with a Dutch passport. To become (part) English, I’d have to give up being Dutch. That’s not something that’s ever going to happen.
Manchester has become my home. I’m definitely planning on staying here for many more years. I’ve created a life here that I’m very happy about. I’ve got a support system that I can rely on. And because I’m now self-employed, I’m also able to fly back to the Netherlands as often as I like.
I’m very lucky. I’m a girl with two countries, two places to call home, two groups of people that I can fall back onto and I’ve been able to find the right means to grow into a better person every day.
Moving abroad at the age of 18 wasn’t easy, but it has been the best decision I’ve ever made in my entire life. Here’s to the next five!