Dutch Culture for Dummies

Why do some of the Dutch call the Netherlands Holland and sing about being German and supporting the king of Spain? asks Greg Shapiro in his new book.

If you fly to the Netherlands on KLM and read about the Dutch in The Holland Herald, you may not realise that Holland is not the name of the country.

You may be similarly confused by the Foreign Ministry (‘Holland’ logo) or the viral ad campaign ‘Holland, the Original Cool.’ In fact, there are 12 provinces here, and ten don’t have Holland in the title. This gets pointed out within 1.5 seconds, when you say ‘Hello, Holland’ in, say, Brabant. It’s understandable that most Dutch don’t want to be called ‘Holland.’ Hol translates to hollow. And while Americans can be shallow, at least we’re not hollow.

The name Holland also seems confusing to certain Dutch people, for example the Dutch national football team. Every two years, the stadiums are full of orange fans, yelling ‘Hol-land! Hol-land!’

But that only really refers to two provinces: Noord-Holland and Zuid-Holland. What about the players from the other ten provinces? What if they pass the ball to the guy from Friesland? He thinks, ‘I’m not from either Holland’ and misses. It must be so frustrating they feel like kicking some Spanish player in the chest.

National anthem

In the assimilation course, we also got to learn the Dutch national anthem: ‘Het Wilhelmus.’ It starts: ‘Wilhelmus van Nassouwe, ben ik van Duitsen bloed…

I was the one in class raising my hand after the first line: ‘I’m translating on the fly here, but is the opening line to your national anthem “I’m William, Founder of your country, and by the way I’m German?”’

And then came my follow-up question: ‘Are there any other countries that start their national anthem by name checking another country?’

Not that we could think of. Can you imagine if America would do that?

‘O say can you see – our British history? And Canada’s nice. And a shout out to Mexico.’

And the Dutch anthem gets weirder. The end of the first stanza is basically: ‘My allegiance for all time I pledge to the King of Spain.’

The anthem starts out by naming two other countries: Germany and Spain. And these are not just any two countries. As we learn in the assimilation course, these are countries that have invaded and occupied the Netherlands. Hence, the question: ‘What kind of self-hating country has this as a national anthem?’

And don’t forget, Oranje is Orange, which is in France. They might as well write, ‘And don’t forget Napoleon – he kicked our ass too.’


And no wonder the Netherlands don’t do very well in the World Cup. How do they start off every international match? They sing ‘Wilhelmus van Nassouwe…’ Just when they should be trying to psych themselves up, they’re thinking: ‘We’re going to win today! …Unless it’s Germany or Spain.’ That helps explain World Cup 1974 and 2010.

The Dutch Olympic team also seems affected by the odd Dutch anthem. Personally, I quite enjoyed the Dutch men’s gymnastics champion Epke Zonderland.

I happened to be watching the 2012 games with some people from the US and the UK. And – as there were no Dutch people around – I was happy to represent Nederland. After Zonderland won the gold, they asked me, ‘Zonderland. What does that mean?’

And I told them: ‘Well… zonder means without. And land is land.’ So Mr. Zonderland accepted the award for Nederland. But his name was saying, ‘I’m not with them.’

The A word

As an American, I’m technically allochtoon. So are my kids. Then again, I realize the term allochtoon wasn’t invented for people like me. Because we’re ‘Western.’ And, I’m writing this in English. In fact, my third generation Moroccan neighbor speaks better Dutch than I do. But she gets called allochtoon and I don’t. What are they really getting at?

As I understand it, ‘allochtoon’ is a word Dutch people made up so that – if you can’t pronounce it correctly – they know you’re probably not one of them. I was introduced to the term allochtoon by a Dutch person, who explained, ‘It’s the opposite of autochtoon.’

What’s autochtoon? (and why would you choose to call yourself that?)

Autochtoon is someone born in the Netherlands.’

So it’s like America and the way we use the word foreigner. As in: ‘I don’t trust them dang FERners.’

Allochtoon is a word that stays with you. If you’re allochtoon, you can learn the language, assimilate, and even marry a Dutch person. Then after you have kids… they’ll still be allochtoon. But THEIR kids… will still be allochtoon. After the fourth generation, well, maybe then they can be Dutch.


For a country based on tolerance and individual freedoms, it’s odd the way the Dutch love pointing out people who are different.

The Amsterdam City Council has now placed a ban on the term in official business. According to the Amsterdam Integration Chairwoman Andrée van Es: ‘Amsterdam will no longer be using the term allochtoon. We are all Amsterdammers, and from now on we will talk about Moroccan Amsterdammers or Turkish Amsterdammers.’

This is not the first time the Dutch have tried to replace the term allochtoon. Last time they tried ‘Nieuwe Nederlander.’ It didn’t catch on. Why? If you ask me; too many syllables. Now Amsterdam wants to change it to something largely unpronounceable, which will probably result in everyone still saying allochtoon.

Why not call people what they call themselves? In Amsterdam, I’ve heard Dutch Moroccans call themselves Mocros. I’ve heard Dutch Turks call themselves Turks. And if Dutch people call me a Yank, I won’t be offended. In fact, legend has it that Yankees comes from the term Jan-Kees, so I’m half-Dutch already.


The Inburgeringscursus is an assimilation course designed to teach things about Dutch culture that most Dutch people don’t know.

This assimilation course is very informative. Soon I was learning how to play ‘Stump the Dutchie.’ Why was the Treaty of Westphalia so important to the Dutch? My wife wasn’t sure. Who was Johan Thorbecke? (Most Dutch people near Rembrandtplein think he’s the patron saint of acute alcohol poisoning.) What’s the most densely populated country in Europe? (It’s not Nederland.)

I was the only tall, white male in my assimilation class. I was surrounded by people from Turkey, from Morocco, from Africa, Russia, Poland, and Romania. They were, according to a friend of mine, ‘a United Nations of countries the Dutch don’t want here.’


One of the biggest lessons I learned in the assimilation course wasn’t about Dutch culture. It was about the other cultures. Every week, we’d find a partner and talk in Dutch about where we were from. I learned that the women in headscarves from Turkey had been to university in Istanbul and came over together to look for work / further their studies.

I learned that the guy from Africa wanted to study water engineering here and return home to teach. I learned that the Moroccan woman wanted to start up a club for other Moroccan women to do fitness together. Most of them had already heard about the Dutch history of tolerance and immigration. In fact, that’s why many of us moved here.

Our instructor was teaching us about the all-important Western values, such as the Freedom of Religion. We then learned that the headscarf is a symbol of oppression. We learned this while I was sitting next to six different women in headscarves. Awkward.

One of the women raised her hand and said, ‘Excuse, please. But – so you know – where I grew up, in Turkey, it was very secular society. Government rules were very strict. No headscarf allowed. So – for me – to move to the Netherlands and wear my headscarf, that is actually a symbol of liberation.’

The response: ‘Sorry, but in this class that would be incorrect. If they ask you in the exam, just say it’s a symbol of oppression.’

The most difficult part of the assimilation course was that I was being introduced to two different cultures at the same time: the Dutch culture of the textbooks; and the everyday Dutch culture I was seeing on TV.

Textbook: ‘Tolerance is the foundation of Dutch identity.’

TV: ‘Election Results Favor Right Wing. The Death of Tolerance.’

Textbook: ‘Nederland is a country built upon consensus and the Polder Model.’

TV: ‘Polder Agreement Rejected. The Polder Model is History.’

Textbook: ‘Immigration has contributed to a rich and dynamic Dutch society.’

TV: ‘Full is full!’

I was left to wonder, ‘How do you teach about the Dutch identity when the Dutch are having an identity crisis?’


Reprinted with kind permission of Xpat Media. Greg Shapiro’s book How to be Orange is now available in bookshops or order line from Holland Books.

Cartoon by Floor de Goede

Thank you for donating to DutchNews.nl.

We could not provide the Dutch News service, and keep it free of charge, without the generous support of our readers. Your donations allow us to report on issues you tell us matter, and provide you with a summary of the most important Dutch news each day.

Make a donation