First days in high school 20 years ago

In 1992, my family landed in Vancouver to begin a new chapter in our lives.  I will always remember how overwhelming it was for me to learn about the Canadian way of life as a young immigrant.

We came to Vancouver in the summer, a few months before school started.  I remember visiting the high school I was going to be enrolled in.  I was in shock to find that there are no parameter walls around the school.  So, you’re telling me that you can come and go as you wish?  That’s a concept I did not understand.  In Taiwan, all the schools are inside enclosed walls, and you’re only allowed to go in or out of the school gates during set hours.  If you are ill and must leave the school during school hours, you have to produce to the security guard a slip authorized by your teacher to allow you to leave.  No trust is given to the students in Taiwan.  There is no such thing as walking home for lunch, or going to the corner store for candies in Taiwan from 8 am to 5 pm.

Then, I find out there’s no corpal punishment in the schools.  O.M.G. That blew my mind.  So you’re telling me if I failed a test, I just get to walk free?  There’s no lashing involved?  How do you ever motivate students to do well without corpal punishment?  This country is messed up!

When school started in September, I was even more confused.  Usually, in Taiwan, there’s a “cleaning hour” at the end of the day.  All the students are split into teams to clean various areas of the classrooms and school grounds.  There’s the window cleaning team, the bathroom team, the hallway team, the floor mopping team, the trash duty team, etc.  Here in Canada, there are janitors that clean the schools!  Again, O.M.G. Kids are so spoiled here.  They just get to go home after school, and never lift a finger to clean the school!

In Taiwan, when you are assigned to a class, you stay with the same kids in that class all year long.  There’s no choosing classes you want to take, or which teacher you take it with.  Your curriculum is given to you by the school, and teachers are assigned to your class.  So all day long for the entire year, you sit in the same classroom with the same kids.  Teachers for various subjects come to your classroom to teach the lesson, then they leave. 

Here in Canada, it’s the opposite.  Each teacher has their own classroom, and the students come and go every hour.  So on my first day of grade 11 in this country, I found out where my “home room” is, went there, sat down, thinking that I’ll be with those kids for the rest of the year.  After the home room teacher took attendence and  made some announcements I didn’t understand, the bell rang, and all the kids rushed out to whatever is on their next block.  I was in shock.  Where the heck is everybody going?  Where the heck am I suppose to go?  What is the lady talking about over the PA system?  Within 2 minutes, the hallway was cleared and everyone was in their next class.  I stood in the empty hallway, sucking back the tears, having no clue as to what I am supposed to do.  I wandered in the administration office, asked in my broken English where I should go.  A lady looked at my schedule and told me where my class is.  I eventually found my class, and finally figured out that I’m supposed to go from class to class every hour.

Most of the first classes of the year are just introduction classes.  Everyone goes around and introduce themselves, and maybe say something what they did that summer.  Then the teacher usually asks that you make a “title page” for your binder for that class.  I’ve never heard of a “title page” before.  I knew what “title” meant, and I knew what “page” meant.  But when you put the two words together, it didn’t make any sense.  The dictionary doesn’t explain “title page” either.  Now I’m totally screwed.  I asked a girl beside me in Social Studies what “title page” meant, and she looked at me like I just asked the stupidest question in the world.  She said you can do whatever you want with your title page.  I was thinking, ok, that’s great, you’ve just told me nothing.  But I didn’t know how to ask the question any differently.

During my first few weeks of school, I was constantly in shock by the new culture and new experience.  Apparently in Canada, kids are allowed to raise their hands and ask questions during class.  Even more shocking than that, is that the teachers here don’t mind it.  O.M.G.  We were never allowed to interrupt a teacher in Taiwan.  That would have been considered totally disrespectful.  You simply do not challenge an authority figure in the Taiwan school system by asking a question.  If you don’t understand something, you’d better hope your parents hired a tutor who will help you later.

In Canada, at lunch time, you can eat your lunch wherever you like.  You can sit on the floor by your locker, or in the cafeteria, or go out of the school to eat, or walk home to eat.  In Taiwan, you sit at your own desk in your home room and eat lunch.  Eating in the hallway is simply not acceptable behavior.  And don’t even think about leaving the school grounds to eat out or go home.

Oh, and no uniforms in the public schools!  So you’re telling me I have to figure out what to wear everyday on my own?  Oh boy.

And what?  Girls are allowed to wear make-up and grow their hair long?  There’s no make-up or long hair allowed in Taiwan.  They are considered to be distractions from the devotion to studying.

And I almost fell over when I saw a couple kissing in the hallway.  If you are ever caught kissing another person on school grounds in Taiwan (or even just holding hands), you’re in for so much trouble that it’s just not worth it.  Your parents will be notified of your misbehavior, and you’ll likely have to write a few essays about how sorry you are for not devoting yourself to studying.

My first PE class, we played football.  I’ve never played football before, and have no clue what the rules are.  I stood in the middle of the field, not sure where to go or what to do.  Nobody passed me the ball.  I stood, all alone, for an entire hour, while everyone ran around me having fun.  I felt stupid, embarrased, and worst of all, so lonely.

I can go on and on and on about all the new things I have had to learn.  Needless to say all the things I’ve had to learn completely changed my world.  Everything I have taken for granted was challenged, and everything I’ve believed to be true had to be reconsidered.  I felt like my world was turned upside down, and I had to learn to crawl and walk from scratch.

High school was mostly a negative experience for me.  Despite all the negatives, it is bittersweet for me to think back on those days.  Even though most kids made fun of my English and I really struggled to learn the language, a few people were actually kind to me despite my struggles.  And I still remember those interactions in vivid details to this day.

This month, I quietly celebrated being in Canada for 20 years.  I am grateful for the opportunities given to me by my parents and by this country.  The freedom this country allows is incredible.  I’m allowed to have my own opinion and express it, allowed to learn in a way that works for me, allowed to make my own choices in my life.  These may not seem like a big deal to you, but they are a big deal to me because I never had this freedom before.

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