Why my name doesn’t say anything about my cultural identity

Amsterdam, the place where I was born and lived for almost my entire life, has become one of the most culturally diverse cities I know. We have welcomed lots of permanent migrants – and especially in the last decade – a lot of people on temporary working visa. As a voice coach with a bi-lingual website (Dutch and English), I get approached by people from all continents, except Antarctica. I really appreciate the fact that I have the chance to meet so many different cultures, and work with people whow speak various languages. Because your native language usually tells a lot about how you use your voice, language in general, and how you speak English.   

So overall, I’m very happy to work with foreigners. But lately I started questioning why I didn’t get approached by Dutch people so much. Of course, my city is quite international orientated, but Dutch people are still living here, right? Somehow, they hardly ever called or emailed me. And if they did, they were Dutch people with a migrant-ish background. Recently I also got approached by a couple of Dutch people who wrote to me in English. And then it struck me: people must think I’m a foreigner.

So I feel I need to explain something about my background, and how I got my last name ‘Stavinoha’. I am the daughter of a mother whose family was strongly rooted in Amsterdam, and a Czech father. When my father came to live in The Netherlands, he was a refugee from Czechoslovakia, then a communist country. He never imagined that he, me or my brother would ever be able to visit that country. It came as a big surprise when in 1989  the iron curtain came down and Czechia and Slovakia gradually became democratic countries and EU-members.

I think that because of this, my father didn’t raise us with any Czech cultural heritage. The only Czech things I remember from my upbringing, are eating ‘knedlíky’ knödel (which I hated), ‘Oplatky’ (the sugary waffles grandma sent me form Prague) and two bad words. That’s it. So I know just as much about Czech culture as those of you who spent an occasional weekend in Prague.

At the other side, my upbringing wasn’t typically Dutch either. My mother had an internationally orientated career, and my father never really rooted in The Netherlands. As a family we spent a lot of free time in Spain, where my father felt more connection to the culture and the language. I wouldn’t say that this upbringing made me a cosmopolitan, but I’m definitely not brought up in an environment where Dutch culture was the norm. Moreover, it was encouraged to be critical towards Dutch traditions and do things differently.

I think it is because of this that I don’t have a very strong cultural identity. Your cultural identity makes you member of a group. The membership comes with shared traditions, rituals and values, presented to you on a silver platter. It gives you behavioral direction that you don’t have to think about yourself. When I was younger, I experienced the lack of this as a shortage. I wasn’t completely informed about how you should behave without standing out. To give you an idea of what I mean: I remember at a gymnastics camp I was ridiculed because I drank tea with my lunch instead of milk. At birthday parties, I was called impolite or arrogant because I didn’t shake hands with all the other guests and congratulated them with the birthday person.  

Now, more than thirty years later, Amsterdam is so diverse that you can drink a pinot grigio, mint tea, dairy free frappuccino or whatever you wish to accompany your lunch. No one cares anymore. And it goes without saying that I feel very much at home in a community like this, where I easily blend in between a huge variety of people. If you would meet me in person, I would introduce myself with my first name, you will hear me speak Dutch (or English with an undefined accent) fluently, and you will probably assume I was born in The Netherlands.

Only recently I realized how different my first impression on you can be when you meet me online: you don’t hear me speak, so from my accent you can’t define where I’m from. You see my eastern-European surname and my photo, which reveals eastern-European features. On top of that, on social media I communicate mostly in English because of my international network. So of course, most of you would think I’m a foreigner. I can’t blame you for that.

I also realized that when people are looking for a coach in a certain field, they prefer to work with someone they can identify with. Sharing the same cultural identity, or not entirely sharing the cultural identity of the country you both live in, can be a huge (un)conscious factor in the decision-making process. For example: when I was looking for a coach myself, I felt most drawn to work with a half Dutch/half Spanish woman who was approximately my own age. She turned out to be exactly the right choice for me.

At one hand, it’s quite obvious that when it comes down to coaching, where your personal life and your values are at center, people prefer to work with someone who is similar to themselves. At the other hand, I think it is good to become aware that people – including myself – have this tendency to assume that someone who is similar to themselves will have a better understanding of their personal life and values. Because it is not necessarily true, and it can narrow your view on the world.

Whether you are unmistakably Dutch or a foreigner living in the Netherlands, I could be the right coach for you, based on different qualifications. I won’t impose my own traditions, rituals and values on you. Due to my mixed background and my own personal development process, I have attained a certain level of autonomy. I have identified and acknowledged my own values, which are for a great deal culturally independent. I will encourage you to do the same. When you are in a process of personal development, you can look at your cultural identity and decide for yourself which parts of it still resonate with who you are, and which don’t anymore. If this vision appeals to you, chances are my coaching will be a good fit for you.

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  • Laura Stavinoha
  • +31 (0)6 295 416 45
  • laura[at]useyourvoice.nl