Reconciling me: a cultural chameleon merges old and new


in American culture,community,culture,identity,multicultural,origin,psychic limbo,self-image

by TJansen


Never mind assimilation. When I moved to the Netherlands, I was all about chameleon-ism. I couldn’t look or act or sound American, or lead anyone to believe that I might be the slightest bit American.

I figured I’d have to blend in to be happy for what might turn out to be the long haul.

For two years I rode my bike loaded down with things that one would never think to transport by bike (unless they’re Dutch), weaving in and out of traffic. I spoke Dutch with a pretty convincing accent. My garb became the local combination of boots, skirts with leggings, numerous layered tops, and a scarf.

I was so busy trying to disappear into the background that I forgot where I came from. I stopped following the news in the US, lost touch with friends and family, buried my American pastimes and hobbies. Eventually, I started to lose and miss the person I had been for more than 25 years.

Time to merge the new and the old me. I’m trying to work out what I want to keep or leave behind, and what I need to see in a different light or do in a new way. But I’m starting to feel more like me than I ever have before.

I still argue it’s best to assimilate, though realize how important it is to hold onto who you were. Now I’m the exotic foreigner who embraces Sinterklaas and Sint Maarten but also celebrates Halloween and Thanksgiving loudly and proudly. Who can mingle with local and expat communities. Who’s happy with who she is no matter where she is.

How have you reconciled the different yous?


Tiffany Jansen lives in Utrecht with her husband and their dog. She chronicles adventures on her blog Clogs and Tulips: An American in Holland, is a freelance writer and runs her own company, Little Broadway.



    Thoughtful (and though-provoking) post. I definitely relate to the idea that you sometimes miss who you were (as much as or more than you actually miss where/how you lived). It’s a delicate balancing act as you change, because how can you not be changed by what you do and how you relate to your surroundings? I wrote an article titled ‘Blending the Old and New into the Now’ – I was talking about rituals but I think it really relates to ourselves, how we feel and view ourselves. In the end, I’d rather risk and indeed embrace change than remain the same, almost stagnant.

    • Anastasia

      Thanks for sharing, Linda. Is there is a link available to your article?


        Tiffany’s article got me thinking that while mine had been about maintaining/adding to rituals to reflect where we’ve been, the same could be said of how our ‘self” changes – blending the old and new into the now. Here’s the link (it was in I Am Expat, Dec. 2010), thanks for asking Anastasia.

  • Catherine Bayar

    Thought-provoking post, Tiffany – thanks. I realize at this point in my life that there have been so many “me’s” over the years, affected not only by where I was living and who I was with but very much by being a designer. That vocation has me seeing the world as “what can I make, how can I change it, wouldn’t it be great to combine these?”…and that perception has applied not just to my work, but to my life. Moving to Turkey was a natural evolution; I needed to redesign myself somewhere that was very different than my native California. Turns out, that like Tara said, the best parts of “me” have emerged since then. It takes time, experience, patience and a healthy sense of humor to reconcile all the various bits, but it’s such a worthwhile endeavor!

  • Anastasia

    Yes ML, it’s intriguing to think about our in-built ability to assimilate (to any culture, in a multitude of areas) and how it affects our choices to do so, the results when we take it to the limit (or past it, as Tiffany writes). I’d think we don’t know how far we can go until we go there and find out what that’s like, or when we witness like you did with the yukata-robe-man how far another person who seems similar has gone…

    • ML Awanohara

      Anastasia, I love the way you can stand back from the particular of these stories and see the big picture. Perhaps you are right: I was living vicariously thru the yukata-robe-man, wondering if I could assimilate to the same or similar point, given half a chance? As it turned out, when given another chance, I went beyond what I thought were my limits, but not as far as he did. Still, a doubt lingers in my mind: was that because of my inability to master Japanese, or did I hold back from learning it as I didn’t want to be swallowed up by such a strange and seductive culture? I suppose I’ll never know…

  • Miss Footloose

    Tiffany, I’m sorry you felt you had to leave your old self behind in the beginning by assimmilating! Some of your old self does disappear by itself to some extend because a new experience of any sort changes a person, and certainly living abroad broadens your views and teaches you new ways.

    I’ve made the trek the other way around. I’m Dutch, married to an American, but because together we also lived in a number of other countries I’ve never had the feeling I needed to be different than what I was. It is true that living in America I have become “more American” than I was, and that I have learned how to live the American way.

    I’m glad you now feel you can happily be American along with fitting in with your new Dutch self.

  • NFAH

    It’s so important not to lose yourself. After a year as an American in England I landed in therapy. I was trying too hard to assimilate and was really losing my identity and personality.

    • Anastasia

      After a week in London I was losing my vowels NFAH. I sympathize! Hope things are evening out…

  • Anastasia

    Thanks for this, Tiffany! I like how your photo can be about baggage transported…a way to take something substantial with you while on the move.

    I can see how assimilating to another culture and pursuing your interests and talents within that new framework brings to light aspects of yourself that never had a chance to be developed.

    Reconciling the different mes, that is the job for a hybrid identity person! What comes to mind are the extreme differences that demand to be reconciled. Being an extroverted introvert (or is it the other way around?) and, how living abroad and traveling as much as I have, and fostering friendships with people of many nationalities and backgrounds is a way to live even larger the person I started out being but I’ve come to accept that I am not a linguist (despite studying 8 languages I am fluent in none of them). That’s a way to reconcile that communicating with others via languages foreign to me is simply not part of who I will ever be. I wrote a bit about this paradox earlier in “Self mute”.

  • Kath Liu

    Interesting post!! I’ve emigrated twice, once as a kid from UK to NZ and now as an adult from NZ to Taiwan after I married a Taiwanese NZer. Assimilating my British, Kiwi and increasingly Taiwanese selves is an interesting job but I like to think I’m becoming a hybrid of sorts. I looooooove Taiwanese food, try my very best to speak as much Mandarin as possible and soak up as much as I can of the local culture and ideas…. but process it through my own belief system and don’t forget things that are important to me. I’m open to ideas and new thoughts but I don’t want to lose myself in the process. It’s more like an evolution of self and one I’m enjoying. Thanks for this post, certainly fun to reflect on these sorts of things!

    • Tiffany Jansen

      I love to hear from people who are so enthusiastic over their host country! Sounds like you’re doing a fabulous job integrating and at the same time holding true to who you are and where you came from. I’m still wo0rking on that :)

  • Anonymous

    Hi Tiffany,
    Coming from the Netherlands I’ve got to give it to you: Good job! From what I read above you’ve bounced back in a positive way, finding yourself along the way.

    My reconciliation with the different me’s shows in my avatar and branding. Dutchess Abroad pretty much says it all. Thanks to my upbringing I was a stranger in my own land, looking at other families as foreign entities. As an artist I’ve always been aware of my own way of seeing reality, that remains the same, no matter where I am.

    • Anonymous

      Judith, I love to tell people that I found myself in Turkey … there were parts of myself I didn’t know existed until I moved here and they began to flourish. I totally know what you mean.

    • Tiffany Jansen

      It certainly is a wonderful country to have to move to! I haven’t quite found myself yet, but I’m slowly but surely getting there. I think that artistic expression helps so much with seeing the world and finding your place in it. I’m glad you’ve found yours!

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