When children learn their first words of English, it’s usually a garble of something cute and barely comprehensible. However, as an overgrown baby, my first recollections of this cherished moment were bitter and indignant, as I recalled a time when I furiously dissected the word “washroom”.
I was always a sheltered child. Not in the sense that I was oblivious to the “birds and the bees” or that I swore to never swear. This sudden enlightenment to my ignorance was certainly not a memory filled with mirth or accompanied by a pleasant explanation. Instead, this rude awakening came on my first first day of school when I realized I was different. Different from the people I thought were like me. Different from the people I thought spoke the same language as I did; although I understood Mandarin, what came out of my mouth was a dialect that sounded nothing like it.
At five and a half years and not a drop of English, I was absolutely clueless about Canada. All I had were faint inklings of what school resembled in China. Sleeping on the wooden desk and waking up to the teacher handing out plantain chips, slouching so I wouldn’t get picked to be the “special helper”, and most fondly, making the class laugh by tugging on someone’s earlobe. When I came here, I discovered the concepts of paying attention, ‘voluntelling’, and most importantly, the holy grail of personal space.
My first day of Senior Kindergarten did not start with a peck on the cheek and a confident stride into class. Instead, a looming mountain of a secretary heaved towards me as my mom greeted her.
“She’ll take you to class,” my mom explained to me as if my uninitiated Chinese brain could understand every single word.
As the secretary, a thin smile on her face, made a deliberate motion to grab me, I cleverly ran circles around my mom. However, I was slain by my own sword; my mom slid away and I ran right into the brute’s open arms. As I was dragged into the darkness, my mom’s parting words did little to console me.
“Your teacher knows how to speak Chinese,” she reassured in my native tongue.
I writhed and squirmed, lubricating my face with tears and snot, intending to drown my tormentor in rue and disgust. Looking up at the ceiling, my tears blurred the evenly spaced yellow bulbs that lit the hallways in a harrowing tone. As the corridors closed around me, I painfully swallowed my fate. When we stopped, I wiped off my mask of tears and saw my teacher for the first time.
She had a sprawl of salt and pepper hair and wore large spectacles. Although liver spots dotted her smile, her back never hunched and her hands never shook. She sat me down on a green bench until I calmed down.
As I came to my senses, I slowly and cautiously joined the class. Just when things had begun looking bright, a shiver ran down my spine. I had to pee.
Alone against the world with nothing to say and nothing to know, I once again sprouted tears. Staring through my foggy and teary filled lens, I spied my teacher quickly coming to my aid, wondering what had happened this time.
“Whats wrong?,” she asked softly, speaking in perfect Mandarin.
When I desperately croaked to her in Chinese, she could only stare in confusion, adopting the same blank face I had to English.
That’s when I realized I was different, shame creeping up my heart and warmth seeping down my pants.