Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a voracious reader. My parents, in their zeal to ensure that my English language skills were top-class so that I could keep my options as wide open as possible, kept me supplied with English books from a culture which was completely alien to me. Growing up in what passed for the countryside in then-Singapore, I had no idea what a rhododendron looked like or what a toad-in-the-hole could possibly taste like. All that reading these books did was to fuel my curiosity about the world off the island.
As I grew older and added non-fiction tomes based on true accounts to my library, I was drawn to picking up books about exotic, far-flung locales. The further away and the more difficult to pronounce the name was, the more fascinated I was. I remember one of the first places that captured my wandering, imagining mind at the age of nine was a book on Zimbabwe with its populous capital of Harare. Everything that I read in the book was beyond anything I had experienced first-hand up till then and I craved the opportunity to find out more about different cultures. From the language to the ethnic dress, from the cuisine to the dances – everything that was different piqued my interest. It was a genuine case of “The Other” as Antonin Artaud, the 20th century French dramatist, experienced when he saw Balinese theatre in 1931.
I have since moved away from the island to Belgium, 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 at school are usually given in the native tongue of said European country or region.
What this has necessitated is me having to learn languages from scratch all over again. Apart from English, growing up I was never exposed to another European language. I don’t have the experience of juggling conjugation rules with ease or enough vocabulary to opt for one word over another. Imagine my frustration then when I want to participate in all that is happening around me and jump in with just the right quip but find that my language skills are just not quite there yet. So often, I find myself smiling and listening intently even though I can’t quite fully participate. Yet.
In the meantime, I take heart that Isabel Allende, the Chilean author and one of my favourites, also faced adversity in her bid to fit into a new culture. In her book ‘My Invented Country’, 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.”
It’s certainly never easy to step out of one’s comfort zone. In fact, it’s downright scary. But when we choose to leave our comfort zone behind and explore new areas, we experience and learn amazing new things – both about ourselves and the world around us. When we expose ourselves to different languages, sights, smells, sounds, and people, what we are doing is choosing to step into a whole new world to experience a new culture and to gain an insight that we will never forget.
Hi, I am Monica Devi Lim, and I am originally from Singapore. I started my career in the television industry where I got to travel to a different country every few months, and then moved on to aviation in search of more of the world. During my free time, I love cooking exotic dishes and also reading for further travel inspiration. I speak several languages and now live between Belgium and Spain with my husband of Danish descent.