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I am an American who happens to have a Dutch last name. That’s one of the surprising things I’ve learned while living in The Hague this year.

Frankly, I had expected something quite different. I thought I would feel a lot more Dutch. What would you have expected to feel if all your ancestors, going back several centuries, were born in this country?

Certainly not all Reformed Journal readers have Dutch last names, or feel particularly Dutch, but some of them undoubtedly do. And so, some of them may be interested in this unexpected bit of personal struggle. And the rest? I’m guessing that questions about ethnic identity are surprisingly common these days. What is an ethnic identity?

At passport control, soon after getting off my flight from Chicago to Amsterdam in August, I handed my passport to a young Dutch immigration officer who was surrounded on three sides by thick glass panels.

“You have a Dutch last name,” he said, as he paged slowly through my passport. “Do you speak Dutch?”

“No,” I said (in English), “my grandparents immigrated to the United States and did not pass along the language.”

With that, his interest in my ethnic identity seemed to pass, and he asked, “How long will you be staying?”

I told him, and he stamped my passport. “Next!”

That encounter at the airport turned out to be the first of many similar encounters. Initial curiosity about my last name, followed by a rapid change of subject.

As it turns out, approximately one out of every 500 people in the Netherlands shares my last name, but according to my genealogical research I am not related to very many of them.

In August, 1811, Napoleon issued a decree, based on French law, that everyone in what is now Belgium and the Netherlands was required to adopt a surname. And many of them simply took their profession as their new surname—so, farmer (Boer), baker (Bakker), butcher (Slager), and fisher (Visser), to name a few.

According to my last name, I am descended from beer brewers, which sounded funnier when I was a college student than it does today. On the other hand, let me offer a word of thanks to Napoleon. Say what you want about his wars and such, he has been a great blessing to amateur genealogists like me.

I arrived in this country thinking that having grown up among people with Dutch ancestry would be an advantage. For example, most of the people I grew up with had Dutch last names. The phonebook (remember those?) had multiple columns with names beginning van, van der, and van den. “At least I will know how to pronounce everyone’s name correctly!” I thought. “They will be very impressed!” As it turned out, they weren’t.

My church this year

In my first weeks on the job, I went to a rehab center a few miles from The Hague to visit a long-time church member who was recovering from surgery. I went to the front desk, as I would in the U.S., and said, “I would like to see Trudy van der Meulen.” I had memorized the sentence in Dutch just in case and had even checked my grammar with my Dutch teacher. But the person at the desk quickly sized me up as an English speaker and said (in English), “I don’t think we have anyone with that last name.”

“But I know she’s here,” I said.

“Oh,” the person at the desk said, “did you mean Trudy van der Meulen?”

“That’s what I said!” I responded.

“No, you didn’t. We do have a Trudy van der Muelen,” she said, pronouncing the name, as far as I could tell, in exactly the same way I had. And she then provided the room number and directions.

I mention that story because something like it has happened several more times. My Dutch pronunciations, about which I felt so confident, were apparently wrong—and not just wrong, but embarrassingly incorrect. I felt chastened. Which, for what it’s worth, is not a bad thing for many over-confident American tourists to feel. Still, one of the strengths I thought I was bringing to my work had turned out to be a liability. I am taking Dutch lessons, but I am very much a beginner, like everyone else in my class.

Beyond some initial curiosity, no one has cared all that much about where I grew up, either. In defense of my new friends here, some are aware of a settlement of Dutch people in western Michigan, but when they visit the U.S. they typically go to New York City or the west coast. Grand Rapids does not rank high on anyone’s bucket list. Neither does Zeeland, Graafschap, or Drenthe. Hard to believe, I know.

In the church where I am serving as an interim pastor, there are many people who grew up with what I’ll, euphemistically, call “Dutch roots.” Church members from places like Suriname (look it up), Indonesia, and South Africa grew up in countries where the Dutch slave trade once flourished. The Dutch Reformed Church flourished in those places, too, but it was the slave trade (and other economic opportunities) that brought Dutch people from Europe to live and work there.

Over the last century, nearly all these former colonies or protectorates or “special municipalities” received their independence. Indonesia did not receive its independence from the Netherlands without a bloody four-year revolution which occurred after the end of World War II. Suriname did not receive its independence until 1975 (the year I graduated from my Dutch Reformed college). The Dutch West Indies, which includes six special municipalities, are still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Eventually, many people from these former (or current) colonies found their way to the Netherlands, learned to speak Dutch (if they needed to), found work, and stayed. Today some of them are not only members of my church, but unexpectedly (to me) they are more Dutch than I am. We have different skin tones, but I realize that they can claim Dutch roots far more convincingly than I can. I grew up in a community which was assimilating as quickly as possible into American culture, but these church members claim a far different kind of identity than I do. They are Dutch in ways I will never be Dutch.

When I meet them and get to know them and listen (as I have in the last month) to their responses to the Dutch Prime Minister’s recent apology for the Dutch slave trade, I realize that their claim to Dutch heritage is in some ways stronger than my own, even though 100 percent of my genetic inheritance can be traced to two provinces in the northern part of this country.

When I am with them, I feel like a pretender, someone whose sole interest in being here is walking around church cemeteries and looking for a family name—Rinze Davids Brouwer, to be precise. In 1811, at the age of 31, he was the first member of my family tree to adopt the name Brouwer.

For most of my life I treated my Dutch heritage like a hobby. It was something I enjoyed at Christmas because of the special foods. And, like other retirees, I have enjoyed the challenge of constructing my family tree. For my new friends, however, their Dutch heritage is their life.

I remember that in 2015, the King of the Netherlands, Willem-Alexander, made his first visit to Grand Rapids, my hometown. He was accompanied by his wife, Queen Maxima. His mother, Queen Beatrix, and grandmother, Queen Juliana, came to Holland, Michigan, in 1982 and 1952, respectively. I don’t remember either of those visits. But I remember paying attention and watching the local news when Willem-Alexander and Maxima visited Grand Rapids.

A canal on the way to work

It was a five-hour visit, from beginning to end, and it included eight activities, including a visit to Meijer Gardens. Perhaps they can be forgiven for being asked to do so much in such a short period of time, but from video and still photos taken during the visit, I remember a kind of puzzled (or maybe it was bemused) look on their faces: “Who are these people, who seem to be so excited about being Dutch, but who speak hardly a word of the language?”

I am now familiar with that look. I see it often these days.

Last May during Tulip Time in Holland, Michigan, I attended the annual Kinder Parade on Eighth Street. The crowd seemed larger and livelier than usual, and I attributed that to the end of Covid precautions and the first such parade in two years. Beyond that, the day was unseasonably warm for western Michigan, and so there we were, enjoying the afternoon sun and bit of local culture.

What startled me about the parade was seeing Holland public school children with black and brown skin tones, wearing Dutch costumes. I found myself momentarily in tears, realizing for the first time that Dutch heritage and culture are about more than DNA and family ancestries and even last names. A way of life was being celebrated that day, a way of life that everyone in the community had been invited to join and enjoy and celebrate. For me, for someone who has grown up with only one way of being Dutch, it was quite a revelation.

But that revelation was short-lived. Two and half months later I boarded a plane for the Netherlands—and found myself wondering why no one was celebrating my Dutchness in the way I had expected them to.

I am now just over halfway through my employment contract, and I am excited to report that, in addition to vast amounts of Dutch vocabulary and grammar, I am learning many important truths. One of them is what it means to be Dutch. Turns out, I am not as Dutch as I imagined. I am an American with a Dutch last name who enjoys visiting the country where my ancestors once lived.

Am I Dutch? I enjoy telling people I am.

Doug Brouwer

Doug Brouwer is a retired Presbyterian pastor who is spending the 2022-23 school year as the interim minister of the American Protestant Church in The Hague.

13 Comments

  • Elizabeth Estes says:

    Enslavement. Colonizing. Tulips. Dancing. Thanks for re-membering us❣️

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    OK—now someone explain being Fries (can that even be done?)🙃❤️✌️

    • Henry Baron says:

      Sure, Jeff – just ask me.

      • Jeff Carpenter says:

        Greetings! I think I have a book or two of your translation-work of Frisian writing—the novel _The Trap, and some poetry–?
        I heard it said once by an in-law ,”we pray in Fries, but we might curse in Hollands” : )

  • Many thanks, Doug. Your essay brings to mind feelings I have had about my English heritage. I have found, through multiple visits to England, that I am really quite distinct from the people of my ancestry. And they don’t mind telling me how different I am! I recall, after one long visit in England, when it seemed that I was doing something improper at every stop, that I stepped onto the plane headed home, heard country music on the intercom, and had an African American flight attendant welcome me warmly. I was surprised at how much comfort I took in those things. They surely felt like home.

  • Valerie Terpstra Van Kooten says:

    I recently spoke at a conference in Noordeloos, South Holland about the Dutch in Pella today. The conference was being held to remember the 175th anniversary of the settlement of Pella and was looking at the topic from those left behind. What a fascinating thing that was–to go beyond the story of a leader with 800 followers settling an area in Iowa and look at it from the point of view of those who were glad to see the back side of these troublemakers. An education, for sure.

    • Emily Jane VandenBos Style says:

      What a fascinating perspective to explore – “the back side of these troublemakers.” Would love to hear more.

  • Emily Jane VandenBos Style says:

    Thank you for this quilt of re-memberings and revelations. I did not know the 1811 part that Napoleon played in Dutch folk acquiring a perfunctory surname. I’m VandenBos, “from the forest, from the bush.” A book that deepened my awareness of my Dutch Reformed white supremacy roots – beyond the terrain of hobby – is John Carlin’s 2008 Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that made a Nation; it put me in touch with the internalized dominance that created the notion of apartheid. Truth be told, I recognize that impulse in myself and need to, in my view, for becoming wider and deeper in my own practice of humanity. Thank you for all the threads you stitched into this quilt of an article.

    • Emily Jane VandenBos Style says:

      PS: as Black History Month continues to unfold, the science news last week about a new/old COMET reminded me of a stark moment (24 years ago) when I had one of those learning awakenings that revealed how my white unconscious dominance operated; wishing for ongoing white learning for myself and other whites in our country where our white dominance (often unconscious) can be so corrosive for our full humanity and for the inclusive operation of our democracy.

      Comet Lament

      I cheered my heart out for the Comets, unabashed
      give me a C, give me an O, give me an M, an E, a T & an S—
      what does it spell?
      midwestern winter white
      proud group member
      gymnasium joy

      Kalamazoo Christian High School’s championship basketball teams
      made it easy, logical
      and soaringly right—
      our Comet logo
      searing marks
      across God’s own sky

      At a Fetzer gathering in the same Kalamazoo, years later
      I’m excited to hear a small group colleague describe her drawing of
      a comet, of all things—as having something to do with her experience
      of diversity

      Rushing headlong to connect
      I identify myself with her
      who hails from Michigan too
      though she is black and I am white—
      I propose “The Comets” as the perfect name for our small group,
      new and old echoing freely in me
      quick to run with the ball

      A compelling character
      with her own sky rights,
      this colleague gets more graphic

      For her, a comet is
      “a dirty snowball full of pus
      needing to be discharged”

      Abruptly halted I am
      forced to notice difference—
      my cherished logo
      muddied now by coming-to-know (again)
      cultural halo worn by whites
      (me among them) in my hometown
      & wherever in these united states of america
      sunny but blindingly cold winter white exists
      oblivious

      © Emily Jane VandenBos Style, KCHS Class of 1966; written in 1999 at the Fetzer Institute’s Healing the Heart of Diversity, Kalamazoo retreat series

  • Doug says:

    Wish I could have heard that lecture! And yes, I often think that no one here in the old country wept when my ancestors set sail for the new world. They must have been glad to say good-bye.

  • Calvin VanErgens says:

    A friend who has visiting Dutch relatives might have to explain why no one here knows how to pronounce their own name. They might explain how they know 4 guys named Matt De( )J/Yo(u)ng(e) who all might write it differently. de Jonges might be the younger Deyoungs in the new world, but you can’t always tell.

    Huizenga and Huizenga are different. If you’re from Chicago or somewhere, your name may be something like emphysema. If you’re from GR or somewhere, your name is something like eczema. There, Ouwinga, for example, sounds like you hurt yourself. Somewhere else, a flight away, it sounds like it has more to do with birds. So, Huizenga and Huizenga are different. And you can pronounce your oos and oes like oos and oes however you like. All is good, but you can’t goad me—here in America— into that soft G. Hard pass.

    This place is full of folks who call themselves Hollanders (or Frisians or just Dutch)
    who are as American as the hamburgers and apple pie of Russ’ home made goodness.
    Still, they have their own way of gratitude for the common grace of oliebollen and banket
    and the particular providences that placed them and held them in the family of God.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thanks for this, Doug, lots here to enjoy. I have always been amazed at the difficulty of Dutch pronunciation for Dutch descendants. I guess I was lucky that my immigrant grandparents on my mother’s side got me going before I was eight years old. Children mimic sounds like birds, and somehow you are able to place that sound at the right place in your mouth and throat. Acht-en-tachtig-prachtig-kogeltjes. I felt the same feeling, Joel, during a summer-long stay in Groningen for graduate work. I look Dutch, and have a fair accent, and love the food, and the bikes, and the water, and the pipe organs, but one evening on the radio came Willy Nelson singing “White Line Fever,” and I realized I was an American, and happy enough to be one.