The Late Culture Shock I Didn’t See Coming

In the school's parking lot, at the end of the day, Ottawa, October 2016

In the school’s parking lot, at the end of the day, Ottawa, October 2016

I often write about cultural differences because I find the topic fascinating, especially as a multicultural family in an adoptive land. However, I’ve been living in Canada for so long that any true culture shock I faced is now a distant memory.

Or so I thought, until last month.

First, let me explain what a culture shock moment feels like. Imagine that in the course of a conversation with friends, someone shouts ” English, motherfucker, do you speak it?” and that everybody starts laughing. They quoted Pulp Fiction and the line is funny, in context. But you haven’t seen the movie and you’re just puzzled. You don’t get it.

This is me with Mark’s school.

My daily culture shock dose kicks in two blocks from the school or wherever Feng manages to drop us off. At 8:25 a.m., even though many kids take the school bus, it looks like a tailgate party at the start of a big game in the residential streets around the school.

I stop at the gate of the schoolyard. Unlike at daycare, teachers completely ignore parents. My “good morning!” to the staff fall on deaf ears. I get it—the focus is on kids.

The first puzzling school note of the year announced that the following day was “Black Day”. For a minute, I assumed that day was dedicated to Black Canadian culture. “What a weird way to phrase it,” I thought. But I was way off the mark—no pun intended—because it was a day where kids had to wear black clothes. Then, for two weeks, a new colour was featured each day. Red, blue, green, we nailed it. We found a yellow Brazil souvenir t-shirt but we missed purple and brown. “What the hell is a rainbow day?” I muttered one Friday, tired of finding matching clothes. “Does he have to wear all the colours or just any of them?”

I didn’t have much time to analyse this crucial issue because I had to keep up with the school notes piling up like junk mai in the mailbox. Every day, we have to check Mark’s “notes tote”, i.e. the letter-size Ziploc bag stuffed in his backpack—plastic was a good choice, his water bottle always leaks—for pink or yellow sheets of paper with cryptic and puzzling information I have to read and sign.

I diligently signed and acknowledged the bullying policy, the lunch policy, the pickup policy, I swore I had warned Mark about the use of Internet and questionable material at school (??)… I was also asked to make a donation for a Terry Fox Run and there is another pledge form for another charity run on the table. “Don’t solicit door-to-door donations!”, it cheerfully advises. “Just ask friends, relatives, co-workers, neighbours, etc.” The hell? When did I sign up to raise money on behalf of the school?

And of course, we also get emails. Like this one, copied and pasted:

Object: Milk and Pizza Information

Dear Parents,

The Pizza and Milk programs are back!

The Pizza program will run every Wednesday (one slice, $52.5).  The Milk program will run everyday (sic.) ($100). Pepperoni OR cheese, no substitution, cheese by default.

If you wish to pay by cheque, please print out the attached order.  Volunteers for both programs are always needed from 10:20 to 10:45 a.m.

Feng and I had to sit down and analyse the message together. We are both familiar with milk and pizza but:

  1. Milk and pizza together? Meh.
  2. Why do these two foods need a program?
  3. What does it have to do with school?

Two days later, after I signed Mark up because I didn’t want him to feel left out, I found out that it only applies from grade 1 on, not to kindergarten. How was I supposed to know? Meanwhile, in another newsletter, I learned the school was working on an agreement with Subway for “sandwiches delivery on Fridays.” Seriously. What. The. Fuck. What’s next? An agreement with a local weed supplier? Eh, same principle, free market, right?

And this brings us to the topic of lunch boxes. I just… I don’t even know where to start. I will write about it when I finally manage to assess the depth of its stupidity, but in a nutshell…—no, no nuts, allergies!—the daily challenge is to prepare a cold shelve-stable assortment of snacks (since there is no set lunch time) that don’t contain any banned ingredients (nuts, eggs, etc.). Not only it goes against healthy eating habits but it feels like a “Survivor” immunity challenge where you have to make do with limited resources.

By the time I’m done with the day’s lunch box, another email is introducing me to the  “WITS program”. I don’t have to decipher the acronym (phew!): it stands for Walk away, Ignore, Talk it out, and Seek help. I can’t help wondering if American kids are taught the SID program (Shoot and Invade for Democracy) or the French the POS program (Protest Or Strike)—yes, I just made these up.

Am I overreacting? Maybe. But this is what annoys me:

  • The lack of communication/planning on certain matters I find crucial. For instance, we were only given back-to-school info, including the actual start date, at the end of August. There was no clear introduction to much-needed after-school programs (since school is out at 3 p.m.). In September, we learned we should have registered months ago, and that programs are full (and expensive!). There are also monthly “Professional Activity days” where the schools are closed. How do other working parents do?
  • I want Mark to learn social and academic skills but as a parent, I didn’t sign up for a community/political experience. I have zero interest in volunteering, attending board meetings about the future of the school board, helping run school programs or raising money for the school. Sorry, not my job. This is the province’s job. My job is Mark and his education. Stop sending me guilt-tripping emails asking me to volunteer!
  • I don’t necessarily support (or understand) Canadian parenting wisdom and it’s hard for me to reinforce principles or rules I don’t believe in.

Yes, this is a pointless rant. This is the way the system works in Canada and there is no plan B. We are in the minority and we have to fit in. I’m gonna take a chill pill… but I’m still rolling my eyes at the fact the school board makes education so complicated.

“You gotta go to sleep, Mark, tomorrow is Monday.”

“Monday? Monday is school? YAY!”

At least one of us likes it…


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. There are a lot of things I found mysterious about French schools at the start—though I’m talking about college and lycée, not primaire. Information seems so informal here! If I don’t tell the kids that a class is canceled, I think they find out when I’m just not there. If I want to be sure a colleague gets certain information, I have to go find that person (especially if it’s the CPE) rather than relying on any sort of information sharing system. And yet we don’t have our own offices/classrooms to be able to reliably find each other. It seems like a perfect recipe for running around getting nothing done.

    As for the lunch boxes, I think some of it is a question of eating habits… although all the allergy stuff is new since I was a kid. I grew up eating cold cut or PB & J sandwiches so it’s not too hard for me to configure a lunch like that (of course, I’m speaking about myself, not about a child). But I do appreciate having a fridge these days.

    Also I’m sure you’re not alone in in feeling these things. Even my American mother hated all the sollicitations for help raising money for different school programs. And that pizza and milk program letter is inscrutable.

    I’m sure I’ll be in for some educational culture shock once my future kid gets to school here.

    • I agree, French schools can be super complicated as well! Even I find it weird the way we number grades, like 6e, 5e, 4e, etc. Starting from grade 1 makes much more sense! And yes, it can be oddly informal. At the collège/lycée we did have a lot of freedom, it would feel super strange to a North American parent (not to mention the fact that we I graduated, back in 2001, we were still allowed to smoke in the school courtyard!)

      I think I’d be more relaxed with the lunch thing if Mark was older. There is nothing wrong with eating a sandwich at lunch, I mean most people do just that. It’s just the striking switch from “you must breastfeed your kid as long as possible” and then “you must feed your kid super awesome natural homemade food” to “meh, fuck that, let’s snack on anything”. My brain just can’t compute.

  2. I remember those color days at school! Back when I was 1st grade, in Honolulu, we had those, and while it wasn’t obligatory, us students had fun synchronizing things.

    Of course it isn’t fun for the parents. I think it is less fun when the environment makes it more like it’s a required thing, than an optional activity. And speaking of this, I hate it when things are sort of made obligatory, if not explicitly, but implicitly, because it’s a form of social bullying. If I don’t want to wear black on Black Day, don’t make me feel stupid and guilty for it.

    • Eh, welcome back! 🙂 Glad to hear from you 😉

      It sounds petty from me, I mean I get it, it’s a fun activity. It’s just this one added to a bunch of another activities where parents must be involved… at the end of the day, you’re kind of maxed out.

  3. Love your culture shock posts – they are so fascinating to me, to see a life I’ve always known looked at from another angle. In this particular case I have to agree with you, though, on the weird lack of communication from the school for new families. Our school at least had an information day for new kindergarten kids, but I remember when we moved from SK to Grade 1 I had NO idea of anything that was going on. What was the daily schedule? When did they eat, go outside? What was the pick up process going to be? What the heck was this “agenda” book he brought home, and what was I to do with it? Was hot lunch participation mandatory or optional?

    After we finally figured a few things out – like, two months into Grade 1 – I actually went to the trouble to write up a one page FAQ sheet for Kindergarten parents, then in June I went to Kindergarten pickup and handed it around to parents. They loved it, but then the school called me and told me to quit handing it out because only official school communications were allowed to be distributed to parents. GAH.

    • OMG, I would have been so pissed at the school… trust me, as a parent, I would have welcomed your initiative!

      Same here, I have no idea what the schedule is like. The teacher is great, she sends weekly emails, but they are mostly an in-depth explanation of what the kids did, like “we made elephant ears for letter e” and “ask your kid about the magic tree”. Mark isn’t exactly forthcoming so this info is a bit pointless to me. I tend to trust the teacher’s skills and I have a general idea of what kids learn at this age. But I would love school to be more open on the practical aspects of things. Except for asking for volunteers and money, it feels like you’re on your own.

  4. WTF! Like seriously, I totally understand your frustration / interrogation. I’m already worried about what we’ll do if I manage to get pregnant. I mean, school finishes so early here, and a lot of the daycares are not opened at lunch or close at 3pm!
    And I’m not a fan of snacks / cold lunches everyday….

    • It is kind of stressful and frustrating. I really never considered all of this when I was pregnant and the whole daycare/school system is a bit of a disappointment. I mean, it wouldn’t have changed anything in the big picture, this is the country we live in and we wanted a child 🙂 It’s just that… I don’t know. Yes, it’s a culture shock, this is the best way I can put it.

  5. Le pb des lunchboxes est un sujet récurrent, et pas que pour les immigrés comme nous 🙂 Suivant les écoles, il y a une plus ou moins grande tolérance, des instits n’hésitant pas à retirer des boites ce qu’ils jugent NON HEALTHY. Mais je pense que c’est une minorité!!

    Pour notre part on ne vivra pas ça avant deux ans. Je n’ai pas hâte!

    • Pareil ici, je pense que des fois, certains trucs sont enlevés à Mark “au cas où”, genre ils pourraient contenir des ingrédients bannis. J’ai remarqué ça si je lui donne un cookie dans un Tupperware. S’il n’est pas emballé (genre vendu à l’unité), comme par hasard, il revient intact. Genre, je ne vois pas Mark ne pas manger un cookie…

      Là, depuis quelques jours, c’est l’horreur : Mark ne mange RIEN. La boîte revient intact. Il dit qu’il n’a pas le temps, je crois qu’en fait il ne comprend pas quand il doit manger. Quant au paramètre “healthy”, je me suis carrément assise dessus là… déjà que c’est la bataille pour les légumes, je ne vais pas lui donner des branches de céleri crues, ça serait le comble de l’hypocrisie.

      • Peut etre qu’il le mangerait si ces amis le mangent? J’aurais le goût d’en parler à l’instit, du fait qu’il ne mange pas. C’est pas grand chose, juste qu’il lui donne le go 🙂

        • Oui, c,est sur ma liste. Je prenais un peu la température… j’ai pas l’air réactive, mais je suis un peu dépassée avec l’école :-/ Il a deux instits en fait, anglais le matin et français l’aprem, et l’instit de l’aprem vient de se faire remplacer, donc je dois arriver à lui parler. Mais pas facile… c’est la foire quand ils sortent!

  6. I remember being a bit bummed as a kid my mom wasn’t more excited about school fundraisers. I remember having a lot of “jog-a-thon” events where you tried to get sponsored for each lap you would run and my mom only ever donated a flat amount. If I had to do it over again, I’d contact all the politicians who represent the area (city, region, national) and hound them for participation. Because after all, schools only do fundraising because they aren’t getting the budget they need. Or they’re way too fancy. My parents opted out of a lot of that junk and only occasionally volunteered at school, and while sometimes I wished I could be more like everyone else, I eventually saw that they were right and I don’t regret anything.

  7. Revenue Models, when associated to institutions like Education can leave a bitter taste for the consumer.

    Once upon a time, I had felt this bitter taste when I started to have realization of the existence of these revenue models at temples & godly places. That was a good riddance, however how does cope with when it is associated with Education. Tough call.

  8. Je crois que ce qui me choque le plus, c’est les “sponsoring” avec Subways… C’est honteux de voir comment les grandes boites s’immiscent dans les écoles PUBLIQUES pour conditionner les petits dès le plus jeune âge.
    Il y a des polémiques en France, comme certaines mairies qui interdisent les produits bio à la cantine (genre le lobby de Babybel plus fort que celui qui vend du frometon produit dans le coin), mais alors ça a tellement rien à voir. Tout ce qui concerne la bouffe est vraiment sacré pour moi, et je comprends pas comment on peut éduquer les petits à avoir une alimentation bonne, saine et équilibrée (et goûteuse) en leur filant des trucs Subways :(((((

    • Je m’asseois sur tellement de principes que c’est plus un tabouret que j’ai, mais un trône. Quand tu vois le foin que ça fait en France si les gamins ont une fois par an une sortie à McDo (je m’en souviens, ça date de ma primaire!) Je trouve ça aussi très limite de conditionner les gamins à manger des trucs tout prêts et rapidement. Je… je suis en colère.

      • Oui, je comprends que lorsque tu bosses + tu as un enfant qui est dynamique + une maison à faire tourner (+ généralement, une vie à faire tourner), il est vital de s’asseoir sur certains principes pour survivre. Mais y’en a juste certains… (ceux qui s’approchent de près de l’ultra-consumérisme Nord-américain et l’absence de bornes public/privé, du fait que les grands groupes s’immiscent insidieusement dans les questions primaires de santé et d’éducation), bin là, je peux pas.
        DIsons que c’est pas seulement des trucs tout prêts, c’est en plus des trucs Subways… Ca me rend dingue.
        Je comprends ta colère 😀

        • Il y a des principes que j’ai mis au placard parce que c’étaient des principes infondés, des trucs que j’avais en tête mais qui n’ont pas résisté à la pratique. Le genre de trucs que tu te dis “avant d’avoir des enfants”… et désolée d’employer cette phrase qui fait paraître les parents comme des gens supérieurs! Par exemple, je crois qu’on se dit tous que dès qu’on est énervé, il faut discuter avec l’enfant, désamorcer un conflit, etc. Ouais, dans la pratique, on doit être pas mal à l’envoyer se calmer tout seul dans la chambre! Idem pour la télé, on est contre jusqu’au moment où on a juste pas le temps/pas envie d’être la partenaire de jeu 😀 Enfin chez nous, c’est comme ça.

          Là c’est plus pernicieux, je n’ai tout simplement pas prise sur l’école. J’ai pas de plan B. Et c’est une “bonne” école, dans un joli quartier, bref, l’école lambda. Même une amie dont le fils est au lycée français (en primaire, dans une école privée gérée par l’éducation nationale française, donc) se heurte aux mêmes problèmes. Y’a juste aucune solution, sinon l’école à la maison et la vie en marge de la société, en gros.

          • Ah mais c’est clair, y’a aucune solution (bien que je ne pense pas que la scolarisation à domicile soit une vie en marge de la société) 🙂
            Peut être éduquer l’enfant en leur offrant des choses différentes à la maison, en leur offrant cette diversité qu’ils n’auront pas à l’école…
            Je comprends tellement quand tu parles de choc culturel, même en étant canadienne depuis bien longtemps maintenant !
            Je crois que je suis trop d’extrême gauche pour pouvoir réussir à faire des compromis là dessus 😀 (mais c’est aussi pour ça que j’ai décidé de pas rester au Canada, donc bon, je me plains pas).
            En tout cas j’ai hâte de lire la suite des aventures du petit Mark dans cet univers scolaire qui m’est aussi totalement inconnu !

          • J’aurais dû mettre un “ou”, je pensais scolarisation à la maison OU mode ermite en marge de la société 🙂

            J’ai fait tellement de compromis au niveau de mes croyances politiques les plus profondes… paradoxalement, j’arrive à accepter des choses sur lesquelles je crachais avant, peut-être que j’ai “grandi” d’une certaine manière (ça commence à dater mes années au SCALP!). Je trouve une autre façon de me battre contre certains éléments du système qui me restent en travers de la gorge. Faut jamais fermer les yeux ni renoncer… pfiou…

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