Jean Kwok Reflects on Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden is where Rembrandt was born and the place from which the Pilgrims embarked. Philip Gendreau / Bettmann-Corbis-AP

When I fell in love with a Dutch man and we decided I would move to the city of Leiden in the Netherlands, I was terrified. This would be my second immigration experience. When I was a child, my family emigrated from Hong Kong to New York City, and we found ourselves in the slums of Brooklyn. Even though I was only 5 years old then, I labored in a Chinatown garment factory every day after school, along with the rest of my family. I had no more illusions concerning immigration, and yet I was choosing to be uprooted once again.

I told myself the situation was different this time. After all, I had a degree from Harvard in my suitcase. However, my ability to assimilate was not what I truly feared. I could adapt, but would the Dutch accept me, a five-foot-tall Chinese woman? Leiden seemed to be filled with tall white people. As I walked the banks of the tree-lined canals, I came across herons—herons! I was an urban girl who’d grown up riding the subways. Despite the cruelty and grit of city life, I loved the anonymity of New York, the diversity that thronged its sidewalks. The only animals I knew were pigeons and squirrels.

I perched on the luggage rack of my boyfriend’s secondhand bicycle, bouncing along the cobblestone streets, while he gave me a tour of Leiden. We visited the house where Rembrandt was born, and my boyfriend said, “This is very old.” In the Kloksteeg alley and Pieterskerk, a church the Pilgrims lived near before leaving for America, my boyfriend said, “This is old too.” And indeed, the many museums, the castle De Burcht, the gardens of the Hortus Botanicus, and the city gates were old as well. I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about “old.” But when we turned a corner and I saw one of my favorite E.E. Cummings poems hand-painted upon the façade of a sloping 17th-century house, I felt like I’d come across an old friend. I fell in love with the wall poems of Leiden: poems by writers like Shakespeare, Rilke, and Neruda displayed in all their glory upon houses.

I was fascinated by the snacks the Dutch had in their hands as they strolled down the busy shopping street. Wax-paper cones filled with thick fries (friet or patat) that they dipped in mayonnaise or peanut sauce using tiny forks. Large wafers layered with caramel (stroopwafels) that were freshly made in the open-air market. My favorite were the automat eateries where you could drop a few coins into the slot, open up the glass hatch, and remove hot snacks: thick beef or veal ragout rolled in bread crumbs and then deep-fried (kroket), Dutch sausage (frikandel), and deep-fried cheese pastry (kaassoufflé).

I came to realize that Leiden wasn’t as homogenous as I’d thought, mainly due to the presence of Leiden University, which was founded in 1575 to commemorate the resistance of its townsfolk to the Spanish siege. The internationally diverse student population didn’t seem to clash with the locals, I believe mainly because both groups love to party. On holidays like Oct. 3 and Queen’s Day, young and old alike take to the streets to drink and carouse.

I did feel short, the top of my head barely reaching the bottom edge of mirrors in restrooms. I navigated in a sea of body trunks, only catching an occasional glimpse of heads. However, the moment I stepped onto a bicycle, the Dutch embraced me as one of their own. The Dutch, who frequently hauled groceries, pets, and walking aids on their bikes while munching on apples at the same time, were unable to understand that not everyone had their cycling skills. They would swoop toward me at great speeds, expecting me to dodge as they would. I crashed into everything: buildings, professors, and, once, the shelves of a toy store I’d ridden into by accident. My boyfriend called me the Terror of Leiden.

In the end, Leiden and I accepted each other with grace. It is a city of poetry and beer, grounded by a dogged stubbornness to remember its traditions while reaching into the future. Multiple U.S. presidents were descendants of the Leiden Pilgrims. It was the city where Rembrandt was born and first worked. Perhaps it is fitting that for me, too, Leiden was a city of rebirth.