“So what say we get fit this year? There’s a Pilates class at the new yoga studio. We can join toget…” My new (and rare) English-speaking acquaintance in the town where I currently reside let her suggestion trail off when she saw my left eyebrow inch up with every syllable she uttered after the word “Pilates”. I gulped down the rest of my hot chocolate and tried to think of a way to turn down her suggestion politely.
I had met Irina by chance at a now-defunct café. It was New Year’s and my husband and I had popped into the only decent spot in town open on a public holiday “to take a coffee” as they say in Belgian-English. The normally sleepy place was filled near to the brim on this day and we were almost ready to give up finding a seat (two seats!), when an elderly couple stood up and pulled their coats on. Putting my Singapore-honed chope skills to good use, I swooped to stand next to the seats at the counter along the large window, looking out on the street even before the space was cleared of the used crockery, much to the tut-tutting of my husband who is more used to the slower and less kalang kabut (chaotic) pace of things in Europe. We sat down and ordered our drinks – a cappuccino (not with whipped cream as the Belgians have it, but the original Italian-way with steamed milk foam) for me, and what is known as an espresso here (again, not the tiny shot of caffeine that is widely-accepted as an espresso, but a larger cup of brew that is more akin to an Americano in other countries, or a kopi-o in Singapore).
The now-closed café where I’d met Irina
As we sat waiting for our drinks to be delivered, I heard a soft English-speaking voice cut through the Dutch and French cacophony and I started wriggling in my seat, looking every which way for the speaker – it is not common to hear English being spoken in town, and my Anglophile-biased ears perked up. I finally managed to locate the source – it was three seats down from where we were seated and the producer of said language was a robust, dark-haired and green-eyed lady. Next to her was a long-haired man and she was talking to him about the recent party they had attended. Excited, I squealed “They speak English!” and my husband let escape a hushed groan… for he knew what was coming next.
I stood up, barely avoiding a collision with the waitress who had chosen that same moment to bring our drinks over, and stepped over to where the green-eyed lady and long-haired man were seated. I must have looked either super-excited or super-scary (Irina tells me today that she’d thought I had taken a wrong turn towards the washroom which was in the opposite direction) for the couple paused and turned to look at me. I smiled and announced to them what they already knew – “You are speaking English!” – and just barely managed to stop myself from clapping my hands in glee.
As you read this, you are probably amused or perplexed by what seems like an over-reaction to hearing someone speak in one of our four official languages from back home. If you spend a day with me in the town where I now reside, you may begin to understand my fascination at having bumped into someone who speaks English with such ease and fluency, and more importantly, who lives where I live - in a non-cosmopolitan town that is not the country’s capital.
Growing up, English was the treasured lingua franca in my family and I was fed regular doses of English literature, leading to me becoming firm friends with Enid Blyton’s Noddy and taking off on faraway adventures at the top of a tree with curious inhabitants, to even spending a good few months imagining myself as the wild and fearless, curly-haired tomboy Lotta from Mr Galliano’s Circus who would ride away on her horse, Black Beauty. My friendship with the English-speaking chaps and lassies grew as I graduated to reading about the shenanigans they got up to at Mallory Towers and I went on sleuthing experiences with Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy, as well as Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, et al. I was a voracious reader with an overactive imagination who constantly had my nose buried between pages instead of running around with other kids my age. I was often lost in the English-speaking world of my tomes, wondering what a rhododendron looked like and squirming at the thought of eating a toad-in-the-hole (these were pre-Google and Facebook days).
A second-hand English book sale that takes place annually is one of the things I look forward to in Belgium
Having opted to have me offer Malay as a second language – a language to which we had no cultural or linguistic ties apart from that my maternal grandparents lived in a kampung where many of the other inhabitants spoke it and also that it was the only other language that my parents had in common – the then-active Speak Mandarin campaign had no overt impact on my life. I was however, like many Singaporeans, exposed to a daily dose of whatever Mandarin-language drama series was being telecast on Ch 8 at that time (Chen Liping uttering “aiyoyo” in ‘Good Morning Sir!’, anyone?) as our daily post-dinner companion, which meant that I did pick up a few stray words in Mandarin. But the only way I was able to follow the twists of “why is she crying?”, “why did she slap him?” or “oooh he shouldn’t have said that!” was with the aid of English subtitles. And although I was learning Malay as a second language, the weekly Sandiwara offering was also only eyed with interest as there were English subtitles. And the only thing that would entice me to watch any 3-hour long Tamil movie instead of running away with my fictional English friends, was if (you guessed it) there were English subtitles. Funnily enough, the English-language programmes on television then were subtitled in Malay, and while this may have subliminally helped me pass my GCE AO Levels, it was not something that I consciously paid attention to.
I have since moved away from the island to a country where, much to my woe, English is not an official language. It is however a business language and many corporations require that you speak it alongside the country’s official languages of Dutch and French. And speak it, most Belgians do. But it is very rare indeed that you would find Belgians socialising in English. This is a situation that is not unique to Belgium on mainland Europe – unlike in Singapore where English was chosen as the unifying medium of instruction at school, in Europe all European languages matter and are equal, and English is just another European language, on par with French, German, Spanish, Italian etc., and lessons are usually given in the native tongue of said European country or region.
I am into my second decade of having landed in Belgium, and have worked here for about half that time. I have since lost count of the number of occasions I have had to establish that I am really and truly from Singapore, which is a sovereign country that is not part of India or China, and so are my parents. If the person I’m speaking to continues to enquire as to where my ancestors are from, my standard reply has become “amoeba”. While not totally scientifically accurate, this does pause the barrage of history questions. For about two seconds. Then comes the inevitable “So what is your native language? Singaporeanish? Singaporeish?”. And thus will begin Intro to the Island #587 and an introspection into why I am the way I am.
After nearly 15 years away from Singapore, it is still a near-everyday query: who exactly am I? Is it the girl with the untameable mop of curls hiding in corners with imaginary English friends speaking to me from within the pages of the book I was holding? Or is it the girl with dark skin who would discuss the previous night’s Good Morning Sir! with her fairer-skinned classmates and at a later stage, swooning over how dishy Tony Leung looked?
Perhaps it’s really the slightly older gung-ho TV producer who took off to far-flung corners of the world on a moment’s notice and was eager for every different experience, whether it was sharing a meal of camel meat with locals in the desert or clambering onto a helicopter in the wee hours of the morning to land on a vessel in the middle of the Red Sea? Or is it the person who unnoticeably has, over the years, somewhat adopted the local habits of Belgium, opting for a beer (amber or dark ale, please) instead of a glass of wine, and who unthinkingly reaches for the pepper and salt to strew on her buttered dinner rolls before taking a bite? The one who has ceased to bat an eyelid at men and women of all ages and shapes appearing in the buff at spas? That said, I have yet to start eating my spaghetti Bolognese or rice and curry with a fork and knife…
Being able to jump into a new experience as a TV producer, often at a moment’s notice, has also helped shape my identity
One of my favourite authors, Chilean Isabel Allende, sums up my search for a tribe to belong to, somewhat succinctly in her book ‘My Invented Country’, where she compares the daily living experience of her American husband who has stayed in one country with hers:
"He never has any doubt about himself or his circumstances. He has always lived in the same country, he knows how to order from a catalogue, vote by mail, open a bottle of aspirin, and where to call when the
kitchen floods. I envy his certainty. He feels totally at home in his body, in his language, in his country, in his life. There's a certain freshness and innocence in people who have always lived in one place and can count on witnesses to their passage through the world. In contrast, those of us who have moved on many times develop tough skin out of necessity... I have absolutely no sense of certainty."
Sitting down opposite my freshly-minted acquaintance today, even as my search for a community where I am fully comfortable continues, along with my pursuit of an armadillo-like protective shell, the only thing I know with certainty is that first, I am going to order a chocolate mousse with whipped cream on top, just like the Belgians would. Then, I am going to explain to Irina that I am more of a misfit than a Ms Fit.
There is no such thing as too much whipped cream in Belgium