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I never really liked that eerie-looking building that always stood towering over me. Its orange walls and antique framework did not give me an comfortable feeling, although my imagination of a 5 year old told me that it did try to present a fai?? ade of spurious geniality with those wide welcoming staircases leading to the front door and the colourful flowers skirting the yard. My inner self sent a shiver down the spine as I reluctantly followed my parents through Hell’s gates. I sincerely believed that the building, which was to be my school for the next six years, was not much better than an internment camp.
So, on the first day of school, I was directed to my cell. The classroom was filled with a group of children of my size sitting on a circular carpet. The sight was peculiar – the collection of boys and girls from all over the world gathered in a room no bigger than my flat back in Hong Kong. It was like a tossed salad, with potatoes from Japan, cabbage from Australia, lettuce from Canada, tomatoes from Europe, and now there’s me – rice from China. I sat on the floor among the other fidgety bodies. In front of us sat a tall woman with blond hair and a pointy nose.
She pointed at a board with apples and numbers on it and asked a question, which I identified because of the raised pitch towards the end of the phrase. Oh no, and then her watery blue eyes smiled at me. She’d chosen me! I could feel heat rushing towards my face and for a moment I thought tears would betray my composure. But I simply stared back at her; looking from the numbered apple to her face, then from her face back to the apple. “What does she want? ” My gaze at her yelled for help, pleading for excuse.
It wasn’t after a few weeks of continuous pointing to a new numbered apple on the board that I realized the whole thing represented a calendar. Then, it made all sense to me. Day school was not the worst part yet, because eventually I learned to speak English fluently with other students. We never had homework to do and the challenge in school was really to have fun. At first I struggled hard, as I lacked the means of communication. But eventually the language was programmed into my head and subconsciously I became a fluent English speaker.
As I have mentioned, there was another part of my childhood which was even gloomier than day school. And that also took place in the very same building that I sensed to become the bane of my young carefree life. Upon arriving in Vancouver for 6 months, my mom introduced me to Chinese school. The idea baffled me. We were black haired people moving to a white skinned territory learning the yellow skinned language. Like many things that were beyond my comprehension and control, I complied with my mom’s decision. For whatever reason I was learning Chinese in Canada, I loathed the idea and did not look forward to the classes.
My instincts did not lie to me. After the first 2 hours of class I was determined that I would never ever spend another minute with that old, squeaky voiced teacher, with that cheesy pictured book, and with those curvy, criss-cross, inscrutable characters. I absolutely despised Chinese. But, with as much conviction a little of girl of my size could hold, I did in the end return to that very intimidating classroom, pick up that very unattractive book, and learned those very perplexing characters. Once a week we would have dictation of the chapter we learned the previous class.
The teacher would simply read out a paragraph while we tried to write down each word perfectly. To put it bluntly, we were to learn the chapter verbatim. As pointless as it may sound, it was not an easy thing for me to do. In fact, it was painful. Absolutely flesh pinching. Each night before the dictation, I’d be sitting at my crowded desk with a lamp shining precisely over my head, and staring at the jumble of words. Sitting there, I would circle all the words that I didn’t know how to write, and copy it over and over again until I could trace the word with my eyes closed.
It was a tedious task for me because the chapter usually ended up with circles around every other word, if not every word. Worse yet, my mom would be sitting right next to me. With each mistake I made, either forgetting a simply word or missing a dot on the line, she would scorn at me. Of course, with that kind of chaperoning, I only became more frustrated and angry – both at myself for being dumb, and my mom for being impatient. Now, looking back I don’t blame her; it took me over one hour to learn one single paragraph.
Dictation was not the toughest part of Chinese class because what I wrote and what mark I received would only remain between the teacher and me. However, reading aloud in class was a different story. It was like stripping in front of the entire class and exposing the most embarrassing flaws of my body to them for scrutiny. Whenever it was reading time, my stomach would lurch, and as each student finished his or her part, my intestines would tie yet another knot – until finally when it was my turn – my body would be so tangled that I could no longer work my diaphragms properly to speak.
I made as little noise as possible, thinking that if I spoke quiet enough the teacher would condone my mistakes and let me pass. However, the teacher was not easily satisfied; she made me read again, this time only louder. Protruding my voice in front of the class was as hard as asking a five year old to lift a 50 pound dumbbell. My hands became clammy and I felt as if a furnace was working inside me. I could imagine other students seeing lucent flames embodying me. Once the teacher asked me to stop, the relief was indescribable – everything seemed to stop, the flames ceased to burn me and nothing else around me mattered anymore.
I was done reading; I was out of the spotlight. My aversion for Chinese school never alleviated. As the paragraphs in the chapters grew longer and the characters more complex, my understanding of the language only became more dubious. I was like a defeated salmon that could not swim against the current and as a result was pushed backwards. But a lucky salmon I was, a savior from my class rescued me. Her name was Katy. Each time we received our dictation marks, I would be grateful if hers was less than 20 marks higher than mine. As the older girl, she was very bossy in front of me.
And I, always been the submissive one, yielded to her, but I did not mind because I thought what I got in return was worth it. Katy helped me with my Chinese homework. She would help me copy those hand killing notes, and during dictation she would peek at what I didn’t get and write the answer on a scrap piece of paper and inconspicuously nudge it over. I was indebted to her. As life in that confinement became easier, an unsettling sense of guilt started to stir inside me. Once every year, the Chinese school principle would organize a dinner party at the school cafeteria.
There were lots of fun at those parties; there was a magician pulling ribbons from hat, gift exchanges between anonymous people, long tables of homemade spaghetti, chicken wings, sausages, cookies, and pudding. However, no matter how hard I tried, I could never fully enjoy myself at the party. Throughout the party I would be worrying about the closing speech that the principle would make. I was tormented by the fear that he might expose my cheating to my fellow classmates and most importantly, to my mom. A part of me really anticipated this humiliation or devastation.
Each time the principle spoke my stomach flinched as a natural reflex, but of course, not once did he mention my name or the notion of cheating on tests. Call me gullible, nai?? ve or whatever you want, but that instinctive feeling of being exposed really haunted me. At the end of the six years spent in Van Horne Elementary School, now head overlooking other heads, voice overcoming other voices, I once again stepped through the gates of Hell. Only this time, I stepped into the blinding sunlight and the honking of cars. I no longer felt the building towering over me.