Deli Pan – known to his Dutch friends as Derek – and Weizhi He – AKA Roy – are both Master's students in environmental science at Wageningen University. They're both a long way from home, but, says Roy, the differences aren't as big as you might imagine.
Want to study in the Netherlands?
Check out our Top 10 Dutch Universities for International Students series of articles and videos.
“Daily life here is not too different from China. You go to work or school, cook your meal, meet with your friends, go to the bank, and fix your bike. The pace of life is the same, but a little slower than in China I think. The most significant difference [in school] is the group work or the assignments you have to do besides your written tasks. The ratio here is remarkably higher than in China. I think that's good. It took me some time to get used to it, especially when you have to deal with cultural differences.”
Derek agrees. “There's more group work. And one interesting thing is the designation for professors. In China you have to say Mr Blablabla. But here you can just call them by their first name; you can just say, "Hi John", "Hi Bob". That's interesting. I like it.”
The Dutch aren’t so different
Both Roy and Derek agree that the Dutch people are very friendly to foreigners and Roy says he's still surprised when drivers stop to wait for him to cross the road on his bike. However, Roy adds, the Dutch often live up to their stereotype of being a little too honest – but that’s not a bad thing.
Derek was surprised how highly the Dutch value individualism and egalitarianism. “People respect your opinions but also strongly defend their ideas. So sometimes it’s difficult to negotiate. And even the Prime Minister of the Netherlands can stand very casually and talk to the people. It really surprised me because it's something you can't imagine in China.”
But, says Derek, in the end, the Dutch aren't so different from the Chinese.
"One year ago, I would have said the Dutch are very nice, perfect, and straight forward. But now if you ask me I think they're not any different from Chinese or any other nationality because you really can't generalize a country's people. There are always some people that can be better. But, up to now, most of the Dutch I have met are very nice."
“It’s my destiny”
Of course, neither Derek nor Roy knew what the Netherlands would be like. So why did they come all the way here to study? For Roy, the decision was simple: “The Environmental Science programme ranks number one in the world. That was my main criteria.”
For Derek, it was fate.
“In brief, I think it's my destiny. In 2009 I was travelling in North China when I met a Dutch guy. He asked me if I knew Wageningen University. I didn't. One month later I did an internship in another province and my supervisor gave me a book - of course mentioning Wageningen University. Two months later I volunteered for a class from Groningen and then they told me even more about the Netherlands. So I think maybe it's my destiny to study here.”
And that wasn't all. When Derek arrived from China, he happened to meet a Dutch student going to, where else, Wageningen University. Maybe it really was meant to be.
Roy also remembers the day he landed in the Netherlands.
"Oh it was really nice, I have to say! On the intercity [train] from Schiphol [airport], the first station after the underground tunnel is Bijlmer Arena, the home of Ajax! And in fact I'm a soccer fan. I have been an Ajax fan since I was 5 or 6. So I was jetlagged and I trying to adjust after the tunnel, 30 seconds of dark, and then: Whoah! The sun comes out and, oh! It's Ajax! My dream destination! It was really wonderful you know. The first sight. You can't imagine it."
So the first impressions were good. But what about the famously bad Dutch weather? Roy says, even though people complain about the rain in the Netherlands, it's even wetter in his home province of Sichuan, so he sometimes finds the Dutch climate too dry! Then again, as Derek points out, the Dutch weather never stays the same for long.
"Time to show off my Dutch. I know this Dutch word. It's called duiveltjes kermis [devil's carnival]. It's the best word to describe the Dutch weather because you can experience all different kinds of weather on the same day!"
Stir-fry versus stew
While Roy admits he misses his family and friends, he says he also misses Mahjong - a traditional Chinese game. Derek, on the other hand, says he misses Chinese food, especially the Cantonese cuisine he grew up with. But he also quite enjoys Dutch cooking.
"I've had some typical Dutch food like erwtensoep (pea soup) because I have dinner with a Dutch family three times a week so I can really integrate into the Dutch culture and cuisine. Pannekoeken (pancakes) as well."
Roy, on the other hand, says Dutch food is just a little too bland for him. "To be honest, from time to time, I will enjoy it, but if you asked me to eat it every day I wouldn't. Because you know, I was born in Sichuan, and even in China it has the spiciest food!"
Both Derek and Roy agree: studying in the Netherlands is much more expensive than studying in China. According to Roy, tuition at one of the top Chinese universities was about 700 euros six years ago – “and the fees can only be increasing”. Roy estimates that accommodation in China would be around 150 euros per year for a room with six to eight people and no toilet.
Compare that to tuition of around 10,000 euros at Wageningen and living expenses of around 500 euros a month (excluding travel or luxury items) and, Roy admits, it’s expensive! But, he says, if he compares it to schools in the UK or USA, it’s still economic – and you get a visa that allows you to travel around the whole of Europe!
Derek agrees. “Considering the cost-investment ratio, I think the Netherlands is quite an ideal option for the international student. It's a kind of investment for the future.” But, he adds, he still doesn’t understand why international students have to pay so much more than the Dutch students. “We're working on it!”
Wageningen University has a very international mix of students – about 20 percent of the students are international and, of those, over 70 percent are Chinese. So Derek and Roy were certainly not alone.
But, interestingly, though both live in student housing provided by the university, Derek and Roy have had quite different experiences when it comes to meeting Dutch people. Where Derek lived on a floor with eight Dutch people and one German, Roy ended up with a much more international mix: five Chinese (including him), one Italian, one Brazilian, two Greeks, and one Indian.
But, as Roy says, people will “at least share a smile with you and I think that is the best thing that you can experience 10,000 miles away from your home.”