The calendar is creeping closer to the 25th of December. From carols on the radio to shoppers in crowded malls; from holiday parties to houses lit up red and green, Christmas in Canada is hard to miss.
When my parents and I first immigrated here from China, we didn’t really celebrate Christmas. It felt foreign. We didn’t have any emotional connection with Christmas traditions. How could we when we’ve never experienced any of it before? The stories, the lights, the presents– it belonged to people who grew up here, people who had family and friends to celebrate with, people who were not us. So we observed Christmas from a distance.
As the years passed, Christmas became more familiar, and it seemed like fun! Even if we didn’t believe in Christianity, maybe we could share the holiday spirit. My mom was a big supporter of celebrating Christmas. She bought Christmas decorations, put up a Christmas tree, and gave me Christmas gifts. My dad took a liking to hanging up Christmas lights. Since we didn’t have extended family in Canada, my parents would invite family friends over for a Chinese-style Christmas dinner, many of whom were immigrants like ourselves. One year, we even roasted a turkey.
Looking back, I think part of the reason that my parents (especially my mom) chose to celebrate this holiday was to provide me with a “Canadian” experience of Christmas. Because of these fond memories, I’ve grown to enjoy certain Christmas rituals, like putting up a Christmas tree, and eating delicious Chinese food.
When I was booking my ticket back home this holiday season, my mom confessed that Christmas didn’t mean much to her before, but now it does, because it’s when she would get to see me. I agree– Christmas wouldn’t be meaningful without my family. They gave me a reason to celebrate a strange new holiday when I was growing up, and I’m overjoyed to continue creating and sharing loving memories with them now.
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)
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.
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.
Forgot your notebook at home, ran out of shampoo in your dorm, or wanting some chocolate? Head to the 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Every late afternoon, older men and women would gather in another city square to play Chinese chess, cards, or sometimes perform songs.
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.
The musicians were actually pretty good.
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.
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.