Everyday is F***ing Day

What if I told you that was part of a class shirt along with “F***★THAT★ALL”, “f***ing & funny”, and “just do it”?

Welcome to Dong Sheng Second High School.

The story began when I expressed interest in experiencing a day in the life of a Chinese high school student. Luckily, one of my cousins is in her last year of high school, and her teacher agreed for me to sit in on her classes.

A bit of background about education in China: students usually go through 6 years of elementary school, in their last year, theres an exam that determines which middle school they will attend. After 3 years of middle school, there’s an exam that determines which high school they will attend. After 3 years of high school, there’s yet another exam that determines which university they will attend. This last exam (or rather series of exams) is known as gao kao (高考). Getting a high score in this exam is necessary to get into a good university, getting into a good university is usually the first step to getting a good job, and getting a good job is what everyone wants. I could go on about the politics, the cultural attitudes, the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the Chinese education system, but there are other people who are far more informed than myself writing about those topics (an example comparing Eastern vs. Western attitudes here). So instead, I’ll focus on what I experienced.

School starts for senior high school students 6 weeks earlier than other high school students. This is to help them better prepare for gao kao. So even though it was only Aug 5, my cousin had been attending classes for almost a month already.

My day went a little something like this:

5:33 am – 6:00 am- Wake up, get ready, walk to school

6:00 am- 6:20 am- arrive in class, group run (800m)

Morning jog
Morning jog in sync with your ~50 other classmates.

This was really interesting, it was quite an experience to be running while packed in an an invisible sardine can. I think I had to do this once upon a time in elementary school too. Periodically, the student head of the class would start a chant and the class would yell while running. It’s a good thing it’s not too hot in Dong Sheng!

6:30 am – 6:40 am- reading English out loud

A student stands at the front of class, reads a sentence of a passage, and the rest of the class follows along.

6:40 am – 7:20 am- morning self study (Math)

This consisted of students finishing off any unfinished homework, or working on problems quietly.

7:20 am – 7:50 am- breakfast break

During the breakfast break, my cousin gave me a tour of the place. We walked past the student dormitories where out of town students stayed. There’s one building each for boys and girls, and rooms are shared between 6, 4, or 2 students.

Student dormitories
Student dormitories
Students in cafeteria
Students in cafeteria during breakfast break.

No time for breakfast before running off to class at 5 am? No worries! The school cafeteria offers congee, fried rice, noodles, and other delicious breakfast options.

Students lining up at the cafeteria
Students lining up at the cafeteria

Forgot your notebook at home, ran out of shampoo in your dorm, or wanting some chocolate? Head to the convenience store!

School-run convenience store
School-run convenience store

7:50 am – 8:35 am- class (Math)

Needing to catch up on sleep? Class is the perfect time! Just kidding… (sort of). Math class is not the best time to sleep, mostly because the teacher is (apparently) scary. He’s also the head teacher for the class, so don’t get on his bad side!

He mostly reviewed answers from problems assigned previously. I didn’t understand much of what he was talking about. This was mostly because I didn’t learn their grade 12 math in 1st year university math, partially because I’m not good at math, and at least a little because I don’t understand Chinese math terms.

8:35 am – 8:45 am- break

I went to the washroom, walked around the school. Not sure if I was feeling more awake or more tired.

8:45 am – 9:30 am- class (Math)

They seemed to be doing proofs. One of the smarter students in the class corrects a mistake the teacher made after he continued on for a few more steps and wondered what went wrong. The teacher told the class to tell him earlier when they notice a mistake.

9:30 am – 10:00 am- flag raising ceremony (Mondays only)

Normally, the national anthem plays and students assemble outside for announcements. But since only grade 12 students were in class, this was another break time. The boys went outside to play basketball, and I took a nap.

Flag pole and courtyard
Flag pole and courtyard

10:00 am – 10:45 am- class (Chinese)

The teacher was very young and probably no more than 5 feet and 100 lbs. She was reviewing grammar exercises with the students. Unfortunately for her, the students were really disruptive. After 20 minutes of trying to correct the homework, she told a historical Chinese story to get the class’s attention. It was truly a struggle for her to maintain the attention of the students. She ended up confiscating a few copies of students’ English homeworks and a cellphone.

10:45 am- 2:00 pm (approx.)- lunch and nap break

Napping is customary in China. Workplaces and schools usually have a 2 hour lunch break so everyone can take a nap after lunch. My cousin and I went back home for lunch, where my aunt had prepared rice and stir-fries for us to eat.

I did not attend school in the afternoon, my cousin caught me nodding off in the morning and suggested that I stay home instead. I kind of regret not attending, I was looking forward to sitting in on their English class.

For the rest of the day, students attend class until approximately 5 pm, they have another break for dinner, then there’s evening self-study in school until 11 pm.

Overall it was definitely an interesting experience. Compared with my high school in Canada, there is much more structured studying time built into the day. This is perhaps part of the reason why parents in China feel like their children have no “real life” experience coming out of high school. There was barely any time left over after studying, sleeping, and eating. While the total time for classes were approximately the same, the content for math was significantly more advanced. I wonder if the great emphasis placed on mathematics in China is why some immigrant parents have high expectations for their children in math in particular.

Personally, I am more than grateful that I got to experience all the things outside of class during my high school, and that’s something no amount of extra book knowledge can change.


Life in a Square

One of the biggest differences between China and Canada is how life happens in the public squares and parks.

In Canada, activities in parks or public spaces are mostly limited to a small number of people who know each other. One exception would be New Year’s Eve parties or protests.

In Dong Sheng, I had a completely different experience. Every evening, a group of people would gather in the public square, turn on loudspeakers, put in an instructional recording, and start doing light aerobics.

Public Square in Dong Sheng
Public Square in Dong Sheng

Professionals in uniform are joined by people from the city in plain clothes. The speakers blared popular music (mostly Chinese songs, but I did hear Gangnam Style) and a voice announced the name of the move everyone was supposed to be performing.

Professional Aerobic Performers
Professional Aerobic Dance Performers

The result? Hundreds of people form a long line that wrapped around the perimeter of the square. They’re all performing the same move while slowly marching forward to the beat of the song. When I saw this for the first time, I thought it was the funniest thing. It was like a Chinese Zumba class. What made this even funnier? The names of the aerobics moves included softening the arteries, improving memory, invigorating circulation, and helping kidney function. Hmm… I wonder how this messaging plays into the participants’ perceptions of their health and how likely they are to continue these exercises.

I’m not quite sure what cultural things can be extrapolated from this aerobic dance. I have several hypotheses: people are more attracted to collective activities in China; people have no choice but to participate in free collective activities due to population pressures and higher cost of living (relative to earning). This was probably partially intended as a preventative approach to public health, I wonder how effective a similar approach would work in an urban centre in North America?

Recreational aerobic dancers in public square in Dong Sheng, China
Recreational aerobic dancers in public square in Dong Sheng, China

I went with my aunt a few times, and eventually I stopped laughing hysterically and taking photos every five minutes. Its novelty wore off and I accepted it as part of my daily life as well.

In Dong Sheng, dancers, singers, martial arts performers, and walkers would all gather in a large park in the city centre in the morning. It was pretty cool to watch them practice.

Dancers practicing in a park in Dong Sheng, China
Dancers practicing in a park in Dong Sheng, China

Every late afternoon, older men and women would gather in another city square to play Chinese chess, cards, or sometimes perform songs.

Chinese chess players and onlookers
Chinese chess players and onlookers. Paternal grandfather (L).

For chess and cards, it’s not uncommon to have a group of strangers play together. After a while, the strangers become friends. There’s usually a large number of onlookers, especially for chess. This is another thing that never happens in Canada. I’m not sure if this is because Canadians are more reserved in this sense, or because there aren’t enough people to get a good game going, or because there are fewer public places where chess playing is commonplace. Culture is everywhere and impacted by everything.

Musicians at the Square
Musicians at the Square

The musicians were actually pretty good.

Singers @ the Square
Singers at the Square

I couldn’t understand anything they were singing. But they weren’t bad either. People took up the mic as they pleased. There were usually quite a few patients from a nearby hospital there as well.

Exercising at the Square in Tian Jin
Exercising at the Square in Tian Jin

Moving a few hundred kilometers southeast, we leave Dong Sheng and arrive in Tian Jin. I lived not near the city centre, but in a suburb. Although there was a large square there as well, activities were decidedly less exciting. They did not have any organized aerobic exercises, perhaps because mosquitoes become problematic once the sun starts setting, or because it’s perpetually hot and muggy during the summer. There were a lot of people in the morning exercising in the square though. I remember rollerblading there as a kid, and I was happy to see many other kids continuing to do so.

My grandma's awesome
My maternal grandma’s awesome

Airports, Hotel, and First Impressions of Malaysia

Before I launch into my journey, here’s one last reminder of Vancouver.

Diver in aquarium at YVR Airport
Diver in aquarium at YVR Airport

After a very long plane ride with my friend, I arrived in Guanzhou BaiYun International airport for my overnight layover.

My friend and I in the plane
Plane buddies!

Thankfully, the airline provided a free hotel stay for us along with free shuttle buses to and from the hotel.

Free Hotel at GuanZhou
Free Hotel at GuanZhou

Arriving in Guanzhou, I started chatting with another traveller, Simon. He told me he was also heading to Malaysia. It was very interesting to chat with Simon because I was struck by how unburdened he was by the monotony of everyday life, and things like education, career, and money. It’s not everyday that I get a chance to meet someone with such a different perspective about life.

Simon + I on shuttle bus to airport
Simon and I on the shuttle bus to the airport

We were treated to a beautiful plane ride to Malaysia. We flew over rivers, islands, and fields of palm trees before landing in Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).

Mystery Island on the way to Malaysia
Mystery Island on the way to Malaysia

From KLIA, Simon and I took the express train to Kuala Lumpur Sentral Station, which is a large train and bus station in the capital of Malaysia. Here, I met up with Elwin from the local AIESEC committee in Taylor’s University. Simon and I parted ways, he left in search for a hostel and I remained at the train station to wait for the other exchange participants.

After a couple of hours, Valentin and Dominika arrived in at the station as well. It was very exciting to meet them for the first time. After learning how to buy tokens and take the subway/ train system, we piled into Elwin’s car along with all our luggage and drove to our home for the next few weeks in the suburban city Subang Jaya.

Here, we met Laura, another intern from Germany. That very evening, we went to a birthday celebration for Kelly and Jia Hui, a couple of AIESECers from Taylor’s University.

Exchange Party Welcome Party May 31
Exchange Party Welcome Party May 31. Left to Right: Cathy, Dominika, Kelly, Elwin, Laura, Valentin.

There were a lot of people from AIESEC TU, it was interesting to meet the Malaysian students. They were very curious about us and our lives in our respective countries. I noticed that most people we met were of Chinese descent, and many of them spoke several languages/ dialects. I feel that because of the large number of Chinese speaking people in large cities such as Subang Jaya, it’s much more important to maintain the Chinese language through the generations. This is very different from my personal experiences in Canada. Although some families do place emphasis on speaking Chinese, many Canadian children of Chinese descent do not learn the language.

After we got back, Dominika, Laura, and I chatted in our bedroom about pretty much everything from the role of women in the family, to our expectations for this project, to our past travel experiences. It was really nice to get to know some of the girls early on.

On the second day, I woke up in the morning and almost screamed in surprise when I discovered Ralph in our apartment. He arrived in the morning from Lebanon. Later, he met Laura and Dominika as well. That morning, the 5 of us went to the university for a lazy brunch. June 1st is actually Malaysia King’s birthday, so a lot of shops were closed and the public transportation system was not running. So we mostly hung around the university campus during the day.

Taylor's University
Taylor’s University

The campus of Taylor’s University is very beautiful. The centre features a lake, where ducks and swans can sometimes be seen. Surrounding are 3 buildings. There are residences, lecture halls, a main library, and surprisingly, a hotel run by students in the hospitality and hotel management program. Today, I learned that there is also a cinema in the library, which plays a different movie each week. Apparently it’s a favourite spot for students to nap.

Shops inside Taylor's University
Shops inside Taylor’s University

Other similarities with UBC include:

  • Lots of Asian students
  • SUB-like food court (theirs is nicer)
  • Large fountain near the front of the University (ours is bigger)
  • Random bazaar with booths selling clothing, jewelry, and students asking for donations for charity

Our first project meeting is starting in 5 minutes, so I shall sign off for today!