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Mums team up to make Holland a happy home far away from home

by Yumi Wijers-Hasegawa

AMSTERDAM — No friends or acquaintances, cold winters, a hard-to-learn language and the depression that comes with all that.

Being a new mum in a foreign country is not easy, but mums and tots at the Chibikko Club (Little Ones’ Club) and the ESCG (English Speaking Contact Group) here in the Netherlands say they manage to keep their heads above water — because they have each other.

Mariko Takeda was very happy when her husband Susumu’s job as a motorcycle designer brought them to Holland in December 2007.

Takeda, 36, had always wanted to live abroad, and it was a great opportunity for her to leave her job in Tokyo that made her work around the clock.

“But when I arrived here, it was cold and dark, and I had no friends. The language was incomprehensible and I thought, ‘Who am I supposed to talk to?’ ” she recalled, adding she felt quite depressed then and often shut herself in her flat with her baby son, Koji.

But when she started to attend the Chibikko Club in Amstelveen, she met other Japanese mums and children the same age as Koji, now 1 — and her life has completely changed.

Amstelveen, a town just south of Amsterdam, has the largest Japanese community in the Netherlands, with almost half of the 6,100 Japanese in the country living there. The Chibikko Club, an open organization with about 20 regular attendees, is run in a Japanese community center there.

“The mums there help each other with everything. We are like a family and we have very strong ties,” Takeda said with a smile. Apart from emotional support, Takeda said that the women help each other with such issues as where to find the best home doctor or how to make baby food using Dutch ingredients.

Chiho Ikegami, who Takeda now regards like her sister, agrees. Being the only working mum in the group, Ikegami also has colleagues to talk to. But she said that the group is “invaluable” for her to enjoy raising her year-old son Shota in Holland.

Sadly, though, depression can afflict some people who undergo sudden changes — and not only Japanese mums.

Sue Foreman, a 42-year-old mother of 3-year-old twin boys, said she became quite depressed after moving to Holland in July 2007 because her husband worked as a pilot for Dutch airline KLM.

She left a huge network of friends in North Yorkshire, northern England, and found the Dutch “quite difficult to break into.”

“All the other mums in the twins’ kindergarten class often got together to have tea, but I was never asked,” she said, adding that she felt “quite low” that summer as she took her boys to a beach and sat there alone.

She is now a member of the ESCG in Haarlem, a city 20 km west of Amsterdam. The group runs an English-language mums-and-tots group, with 55 members from countries including England, Spain, the United States, Canada and New Zealand.

Foreman said that joining the group was “fabulous,” but that there was also a downside to it because her whole social life began to revolve around it.

“I was in a sort of English-group bubble within the Dutch society,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I really belonged here.”

For that reason, Foreman now works a few days a week in a neighborhood cafe. Though the job is not suited to her educational level, she is happy because she now has something concrete in Holland that is not a “bubble.”

But for Katrina Cooper, an ex-American mum who is also an ESCG member, Holland is just great.

Not liking the U.S. political situation, and the country’s education and health-care systems, Cooper, 39, together with her husband Danny, 42, arrived in Holland in 1993 after a careful study of the ideal country for them to move to.

“The situation in the U.S. kept getting worse — consumer oriented, warmongering, narrow minded. We really wanted to make a change,” she explained.

One of the things she likes about Holland is that it is a great place to raise children, she said, citing a recent United Nations survey that found Dutch children were the happiest kids in the developed world.

She is also grateful for the socialized medical-care system, she said, as her son Walter, 4, “would have died in the U.S.” as he was born with a lung defect.

So, despite the fact that the couple were illegal residents for the first seven years — living in a tiny apartment where you could barely move, and sometimes collecting bottles in parks to make money to buy pasta — Cooper said she was very happy and found it “fun” to renounce her U.S. passport when they were finally granted Dutch citizenship in 2004.

The ESCG, she has found, suits her well because she can be conversationally free — “It’s difficult to make jokes in Dutch,” she added wryly.

Meanwhile, there are also mums who are unhappy to have left their homeland and the careers they’d built there. One such is Satoko Hagihara, who is considered “like a mum” to the mothers at the Chibikko Club because of her caring personality.

Hagihara, 35, says she had a serious debate with her husband, Seita, 34, about whether or not to take the step of moving to Holland in April.

Seita works as a manager at Yokogawa Europe B.V., the European headquarters of Tokyo-based Yokogawa Electric Corp., a leading name in industrial automation. The couple have two boys — Yuta, 2, and Kota, 1 — and prior to their move Satoko had a hard-earned position in Tokyo as marketing manager of a major IT company, at one point earning a higher salary than her husband.

“We considered three options: my husband to move alone to Holland, for us to all stay in Japan, or for me to quit my job and follow him,” she said. But for Seita to move alone to Holland would impose a huge sacrifice on the family’s life as a whole. It is also not done to turn down a transfer in a Japanese company.

“Out of the options, I knew that it was my job that had to be sacrificed,” Hagihara said — adding that she was well aware that once she quit, her chances of finding a similar full-time job again would be slim or even nonexistent given the current economic conditions.

Recalling the hard years she worked until she became manager, she said that she felt like she had lost out. But now she sees the move in a more positive light.

“When I think about it, work is just a means for the family to live happily together. I should see this as a great opportunity to live abroad and for the children to be able to see things from a different perspective — meeting peopleof different races and religions, and with different values,” she said.

For some other women, moving abroad was never quite the career-wrench it was for Hagihara — it was quite the opposite, in fact, as they relished the prospect of a period abroad to escape the crazy Japanese work life and enjoy an improved quality of family life, often including a great improvement in their husband’s health.

In fact, many Japanese mothers stressed that the biggest pleasure of living in Holland is that the family can have dinner together, as many husbands can get home much earlier than in Japan.

Back in Tokyo, the motorcycle-design job of Susumu, Mariko Takeda’s husband, kept him in the office until midnight every day, and sometimes until 3 a.m. He was also sent to a factory in Shizuoka Prefecture three days a week, keeping him away from home half the time.

Takeda herself also worked until 1 a.m. every day in a real-estate company in Akasaka, central Tokyo, until she quit to give birth to her son. Her company had a “military-style” work ethic, she said, in that every morning, all five branch offices were wired up for a morning meeting, in which different branches criticized each other about the way they greeted them.

“If the salutation of our branch was not loud enough, the other branches would scold us, saying, ‘louder, Akasaka!,’ ” she explained, laughing. “Moving to Holland gave me an excuse to quit such a job, so I’m happy about that. You know, now we can have dinner together, as early as at9 p.m.!,” she boasted.

All in all, for these expatriate mums in Holland, life may not be entirely a bed of roses (or tulips) — but through their links with the Chibikko Club and the ESCG, they’ve been able to support each other through the inevitable difficulties facing anyone living far from their roots, and so enrich each family’s experience in much wider ways as well.