When I first started school, I spoke half English and half Cantonese. I didn’t really understand either language very well. In Kindergarten (English & Chinese school) I basically cried, slept, and peed my pants. After Kindergarten things got better, as I understood more about school life. In the end, school saved me by providing me with the routines and opportunities I needed to succeed in life. I appreciate the music, sports, leadership, and French Immersion programs that were offered to me. I feel fortunate to have had such great teachers in my life, which is why I decided to become a teacher myself.
In Victoria, B.C. French Immersion programs of that time, there were not many visible minorities. My friends were mostly blond-haired and blue-eyed, and I saw myself as a “banana,” yellow on the outside, but white on the inside. I wanted so badly to blend in and be Caucasian like all my friends. I felt that they were better than me and that they looked down on me because of my cultural heritage. There wasn’t much taught about different cultures at school, so I didn’t feel proud of who I was or where I came from.
Today I have two boys, also in French Immersion. They are half Chinese and half Australian. We live on the Saanich Peninsula, where there are even fewer visible minorities. When my older son drew himself as a blond-haired blue-eyed boy (he has brown eyes and dark brown hair), I realized I needed to start teaching more about multiculturalism and diversity.
Today, celebrating multiculturalism is woven into my class, starting with sharing my own cultural heritage. We do a novel study of White Jade Tiger, by Julie Lawson, about Chinese immigrants and the building of the railway. As part of the unit, we go on a wonderful tour of Chinatown that is based on this novel, and eat at a Chinese restaurant there. We also celebrate Chinese New Year, where students learn about traditions such as sweeping the old luck out of their house and letting the new good luck come in. I also let students cut my hair to start the new year off fresh. Students learn how to write the Chinese characters “Gung Hay Fat Choy” (“Wishing you great happiness and prosperity”) and learn how to count to ten in Cantonese. My boys and I make wontons to share with many classes and staff. I’ve noticed that since I have started making Chinese New Year a regular celebration at our school, my boys are prouder of being part Chinese.
This unit includes a project on the students’ own cultural heritage, where they interview their family to learn about where they came from, make poster projects and bring a traditional dish for a potluck. We also invite a parent immigrant panel to come to tell their stories and answer questions.
My school recently held a school-wide multicultural dance performance. There were dances from all around the world, including Israel, China, the Philippines, India, the Caribbean, and more, all woven into a beautiful story. Students helped at recess making the costumes and sets, while parents and I worked nights and weekends, to make the show a success!
Now, we are focusing on integrating Indigenous perspectives and environmental stewardship into our teaching. We make totems, we release salmon, we take nature walks and pull ivy. We also promote environmentally conscious living through recycling, composting, gardening, learning about sustainable energy and using less plastic.
I feel blessed to be able to live in a country with so many different cultures. I am incredibly lucky that my parents chose to come to Canada 50 years ago. I am also happy that I can share my cultural heritage with many youngsters, and that they can share theirs with me. We live in such a rich land with such interesting backgrounds. We can learn so much from each other.
Photo: courtesy Candice Lee
First published in Education Canada, September 2019