The Meaning of the Dutch Word “Sterk”

If you’ve read any of my other blog posts (see Reform Interruptist or United We Stand) it is quite clear that I am passionate and patriotic about the United States.  My ancestors immigrated to the Midwestern heartland beginning in the 1850s, and while European traits survived across the generations, the Bachs and Regans became died in the wool Americans.  I never traveled outside the US growing up, and while I took 5 years of Spanish in middle school and high school, I promptly forgot it when I went away to college.  It wasn’t as if I was an isolationist or jingoist – rather I was just very proud of our country and focused on living that opportunity to the fullest.

As serendipity/fate/God would have it, my life changed fundamentally during my sophomore year in college.  Through a series of seemingly random events, I met the love of my life and my soulmate, Pauline.  This was certainly my most meaningful life event on many fronts and brought with it over thirty years of joy, shared experiences, challenges, and a wonderful family.  It also brought with it a new dimension in my thinking about the world as Pauline was born and raised in the Netherlands.  She carried with her an entire set of cultural experiences, language skills, and social ideas that were new (and yes “foreign”) to me, raising important concepts for me to evaluate and understand.

Historically, the low lands (often mistakenly called “Holland”) were a collection of tribes with Germanic, French, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, and even Spanish influences – in many ways a polyglot of a region with several languages and cultures.  Until the 1400s there was no such thing as a united territory across the region – and the real anchor points of a country did not develop until the seventeenth century.  Even today, there are amazing differences across the land from north to south, including multiple dialects and accents, all in a country that is 1/3 the size of the state of North Carolina (approximately 17 million people).  And yet the Dutch are an amazing people.

Afsluitdijk: the major causeway constructed between 1927 & 1932, spanning 20 miles that dams the North Sea from the Ijseelmeer (now fresh-water)

Afsluitdijk: the major causeway constructed between 1927 & 1932, spanning 20 miles that dams the North Sea from the Ijseelmeer (now fresh-water)

Despite the country’s diminutive size and location amidst the original marshlands of Europe, the Dutch have produced incredible things – literally building their country from the bottom up and pushing the North Sea and a variety of rivers into seeming submission.  They have been world leaders in art, commerce, engineering, linguistics, agriculture, and in many other areas and that legacy of excellence continues.  Go to any city in the world and you will find a strong Dutch community that blends into its transplanted country and yet retains its own cultural traditions.  The Dutch come from a small place and yet are literally and figuratively large, they are open-minded and yet stubborn, they are multi-cultural and yet nationalistic, and they are friendly but brutally honest.

All of which brings me to the Dutch word, “sterk”.  In my 30+ years of experiencing sterk-ness, I’ve struggled to understand it much less appreciate it.  The literal English translation is “strong”, but this radically understates the meaning.  It describes a people that faces adversity, takes on challenges willingly, and believes in new possibilities.  But it also communicates a frame of mind and an attitude that speaks volumes about fortitude, resilience, ingenuity, and liberal thinking.  With all of my patriotic American feelings firmly in hand, I’ve come to respect, appreciate, and love my connection to Nederland, and our family is a testament to the concept that there is “strength” in multiple cultures.  Our children are dual citizens, they understand Dutch, and my son, Phillip now speaks it exceptionally well after living in the Netherlands for three years.  While Pauline is now also an American citizen, we speak a new language in our house which we call FrDEnglish – which is a unique combination of French, Dutch and English and can be quite confusing when exchanging emails and text messages!


President Obama meets with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in front of Rembrandt’s masterpiece the “Night Watch” at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam | March 2014

So why does all of this matter?  Why should anyone care about the Dutch, the etymology of sterk, or my family’s heritage and cultural biases?  The undeniable fact is that the world’s cultures are interacting more on a regular basis than ever before.  Businesses are more global, people are more mobile, and resources are more fluid.  Put differently, while we may think of America as a “melting pot”, the truth of the matter is that the world is increasingly a cultural mélange as well.  And while that mixing has many positives, it is creating great tension both within countries and between countries.  Every nation in Europe, including the Netherlands, is dealing with questions about immigration, language, and cultural identity – and struggling with the issues in real, tangible, and sometimes violent ways.  In the United States, some 50 years after the civil rights movement drove dramatic, positive change in our country, we are still dealing with some of these same issues.

When we encounter another culture, when we meet people who think, act, and speak differently, when we struggle to deal with something or someone that is counter cultural, how do we react?  Do we pull back from the encounter and try to ignore, isolate, or persecute that which is “foreign” to us?  Or will we embrace the spirit of “sterk” by facing the adversity, taking on the challenge willingly, and believing in new possibilities?  Will we have the fortitude, resilience, ingenuity, and liberal mindedness to see the power that comes from diversity?  Will we be sterk enough to enrich and share our culture while allowing others to honor their own?

“Different” IS scary – but it is also beautiful.