Science - April 14, 2005

The Dutch experience / Peter Twumasi

How did you end up here? Culture shock is part and parcel of spending time in a foreign country. And of course you have to deal with the inhabitants, in this case the Dutch. In the first of a series about the expectations and experiences of international students Wb interviewed Peter Twumasi (30) from Ghana, an AIO at the Horticultural production chains group.

Peter Twumasi learned about Holland in his geography lessons at school. ‘The Dutch also have a history in my country. They built forts for the slave trade.’ He had also heard that the Dutch were the tallest people in the world. ‘I imagined I’d have to stand on a chair to talk to my supervisor,’ jokes Peter, who is on the small side.

He felt lost after his arrival in 2001 to start a masters. ‘I come from an interactive society, and I grew up with several brothers and sisters, and here it was so quiet. In my corridor everyone said hi, but then went to their own room.’ He soon found out though that if you ask, people are willing to help. ‘The Dutch are reserved and guard their privacy. They seem hesitant to get to know you better, but that doesn’t mean they don’t like you,’ he recalls his experience.

Gifts
Peter was not happy with the advice to buy a bike in the beginning. ‘I’m from Kumasi. Only in the north of the country do people use bikes; we look down on them. We use taxis and minibuses, tro-tros. I only used a bike for sports, to use one as a means of transport would be really going down in the world. There was no way I could take a photo of me on a bike and send it home.’

It was a shock to learn that when you’re invited for a drink, you’re expected to pay yourself. ‘And once when I bought someone a birthday present I was told it was too expensive. Maybe the person felt he would have to do the same in return. We give from the heart and the size is not important. But the little the Dutch give comes from their heart too,’ he acknowledges.

Sons
After graduation Peter went home to Ghana, to his wife and son, who had been born during his absence. A few months later he got a PhD position in Wageningen and returned. ‘Academically Wageningen is a good place.’ But sometimes he regrets his decision to return. His family has still not been able to join him, and his second son was born in November. Peter becomes more sombre, and points to a file with a label ‘legal issues’. ‘The visa application has been going on for more than eighteen months now. There are problems with marriage and birth certificates. If I’d known this beforehand I wouldn’t have come,’ Peter says.

‘In my culture, family comes first. If you meet someone you always ask how their family is doing. Happily my supervisors show interest. The university should realise that the performance of international PhD students would be enhanced if they could live with their families. Perhaps they can set up a support unit for them. If my child is sick and is rushed to hospital I’m distracted all week because I don’t know how he’s doing.’ The bureaucracy annoys him. ‘We also have bureaucracy in Ghana, but here you just have to wait. The system is untouchable. My eldest son just turned three, but he hardly knows me because I’ve only spent seven months with him.’

T-shirt
Peter has picked up some Dutch habits though: ‘When I was home I was about to go out somewhere in a T-shirt. My wife stopped me: ‘you’re not going out like that, are you?’ she said. I’ve also started saying ‘ja, ja’. But in my country that sounds like I’m not interested, I’ve already heard that story,’ he grins. / YdH

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