If you thought this was about a girl, I apologize. Because my first love was a children’s story called “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”.
Charlie was to me the hero who lived my life before I did. Lonely and penniless, Charlie was an outsider in his own town. At an age when indulgence in chocolate was encouraged, Charlie’s parents could hardly afford a warm home. His life did not lack warmth because there was plenty of it from his grandparents and parents who lived in the same wooden cabin. But, he could not venture far outside of it. I also know what it feels like to be an outsider.
I was five when my family packed up our belongings and moved to Germany. One day, I found myself holding my father’s hand and collecting my water bottle on the shelf by the classroom as he talked with my nursery teacher. The next thing I remember is boarding a plane full of quiet, serious Germans. With a one-year old bawling toddler in one hand and a five year old child in the other, my parents had quite a challenge on their hands when they arrived in Frankfurt. And it didn’t help that I could not speak English except for a a very practical “Madam, may I go to the toilet please?”. To call it culture shock is an understatement.
The feeling of being an outsider is universal to expatriates. And most take the challenge of assimilating into a new culture and learning a new language in their stride. But at five, I was overwhelmed. I was so stricken by fear that on my first day on the way to my new school, I sat quietly in the school bus, squarely facing the window, all by myself on the seat. Silence though on a school bus is like shouting in an exam hall. It just doesn’t happen. A slightly older girl noticed me and introduced herself. She said, “Hi”, but I didn’t respond. I was too scared. She asked, “Why don’t you speak?” What could have I said? At that age, I could understand English when it was spoken, but could not muster a single line of self provoked thought. I didn’t realize how hard I was trying to avoid her until she asked, “Are you kissing the window?”
My attempts to learn English were no less successful. I remember my first snowfall and the bewilderment it brought to me. Our kindergarten teacher was a lovely lady, perhaps a little culturally challenged, but only a little. She asked us to draw snowmen, but I had never seen a snowman. Yet, art is often divorced from reality, so it probably did not matter. The real fun started when she asked us to label our drawings. Now, I could not spell “snow” for the life of me, let alone “snowman”. So I did what seemed to me was the next best thing. I looked at my closest neighbour’s drawing and copied him. But, unlike high school where copying a word here or there may seem pretty quick and easy to do, my writing skills at five could not have matched a snail’s pace for all the practice in the world. So, my pride at discovering a shortcut was short-lived and I got quite an earful from my teacher when she discovered my tiny, ever so innocent, sin. I absorbed a valuable lesson then and there: as an outsider, you have to hold yourself by your bootstraps.
It’s hard to tell, but I may have continued feeling that way all through my life had I not come across Charlie in my school’s Scholastic Book catalogue. I’m not sure what drew me to the book, but I insisted on placing an order for it. The day it came, I picked it up and did not put it down until I finished reading it. And by the time I did, Charlie had given me a new lease on life.
Many folks I run into grew up reading up Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl fans are hard to find among them. Maybe it’s because Blyton’s books are reassuringly full of families, friends and stories placed in domestic settings. There is nothing outlandish about them. Dahl’s heroes on the other hand were almost exclusively individuals fighting their alienation. Matilda, the precocious girl who takes on a strict disciplinarian of a principal and an insensitive family. BFG, the giant who refuses to eat people unlike other giants. Mr. Fox, the father who saves his family from a bunch of farmers bent on uprooting his home from under a tree. And lastly, Dahl himself, in the autobiographical story of his childhood, Boy. I recognized all of them. They shared my growing pains, my culture shock and my place as an outsider. And yet, none of it would have mattered had they not faced those problems. In the end, they worked out their own place in life. That held out hope for me. That meant a world of difference for me.