The flame and the tongue
On Thursday, Jan. 16, I close the first chapter of learning Dutch with a week of exams that aim to test my listening, speaking, and writing capacity. The weeks have come to pass so quickly. I have enough words and sentences to tease out meanings and sensations from the mundanity of everyday life. The simple pleasure of doing groceries becomes elevated to a kind of nirvana, when suddenly the names of things are revealed. I no longer have to lose myself in the complex array of items in the store or in the terrible confusion of buying fabric softener when what I actually need is soap.
In the train station, my ears are now attuned to the announcements of times and platforms, easing the anxiety that makes my heart palpitate. Rather than fearing missed trains and connections, I feel connected and at ease, able to reserve the excitement of heartbeats for when it counts. Language is a fire that keeps one warm in winter. It’s the light and the heat. Once the first flame is lit, it’s hard to see a place the same way again.
As I navigate this new tongue, becoming able to make out signs and meanings, the treachery of the fates is not lost on me. I never dreamed of learning Dutch before, and the sound of the language hardly appealed to me. It didn’t have the personality of Italian, the richness of the French, the melody of the Spanish. Heck, it didn’t even have the appeal of German philosophy or poetry, despite it being a Germanic language. In school, I had somehow deduced that in order to touch base with my Belgian roots and branch out in the world, the languages to learn were either French or Spanish. However, like some cosmic joke, it dawned on me only after I had already studied French that my Flemish ancestors shared only the proud “F” with the French and not much else.
In the city where I live, everyone speaks English. I should not feel like an outsider, but the moment I speak in my Filipinized English I sense a suspicion around my origins. I would call it curiosity if it didn’t feel so hostile. It comes as no surprise in a town where the far-right pushes ultra-nationalist agendas that include making it harder for immigrants to assimilate and integrate. Here, what saves me is a fair complexion and a Flemish last name that I am only now learning how to pronounce. But at my core, the woman of color is incensed by the micro-aggressions I have witnessed against other Belgians who happen to be black, brown, Muslim, or Asian. Their Dutch is flawless, of course, because they were born here and have lived here all their lives. And yet, they still don’t belong because of skin color, religion, and some other category silly humans invent when they attempt to play God or practice superiority over their own kind.
The difference is eliminated in the classroom when I acquire this new skill alongside Romanian, Polish, Indian, East Timorese, Bulgarian, and Nigerian classmates. We all struggle to pronounce words and sounds unpracticed in our mother tongues, and during breaks and before classes we exchange stories, desires, anecdotes from work and home. I tell them I am here as a student, waiting on permits and applying for higher education, while they explain the rigors of their own work. We are all relatively fresh off the boat and seemingly on the same boat, in this new country we are trying to make a home in. It feels less lonely to stumble through conjugations and sentence structures with other stragglers. I imagine us moored in an island carrying old lamps that must now be lit by the new light of this language. It is dark, damp, and cold when we begin. There’s a flicker of old flames reflecting in the pools that gather in our eyes, and for a moment we remember all that we already know and are. The course begins, the fire is lit, and as in the myth, we are filled with awe over this blaze. We are Prometheus stealing the fire from the gods who hid it from humankind. Through it, we share the warmth, the knowing and the sense of being kindred with one another.
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Nash Tysmans is a writer, teacher, and community worker. She lives and studies in Belgium while yearning for the tropics. She is at home in the world.
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