That Baffling Cultural Mystery I Can’t Crack

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Poster in the school’s hallway on the night of the year-end BBQ party

I don’t want to brag or anything, but I’m pretty good at solving mysteries—and my abilities go beyond finding socks lost between the washing machine and the dryer.

I don’t deal with the kind of whodunnit where you can claim reward money, but I’m a decent cultural mystery expert. I uncovered several of them—try me with strange Chinese parenting techniques, a weird date in the Chilean calendar, curious culinary concoctions, baffling Canadian behaviours, puzzling aspects of life in the USA, Chinese politeness etiquette or Brazilian beach habits.

My approach? Well, if I tell you, I will have to kill you… oh, alright, whatever. It’s a no-brainer, really. Step one, assume you’re the idiot and that you’re wrong. Step two, observe. Step three, ask if anything is still unclear at this point. That’s it.

I found out a long time ago that my Chinese in-laws make a hell of a lot more sense if I think like a Chinese person, for instance. The Brazilian mindset is best appreciated if you make an effort to learn basic Portuguese and go with the flow. In Canada, it took me time to understand the rationale behind garage sales, master small talk and deal with North American supermarkets.

As a traveller and as an immigrant, I have a simple rule of thumb—step back, change your perspective and challenge your beliefs.

And this was my plan with the Canadian education system. Since neither Feng nor I have personal experiences as kindergarten and middle school students in Canada (Feng was already 12 when he came to Canada), we decided to go with the flow and learn as we went. After all, that’s how we kind of cracked parenting, the daycare system and thousands of other topics we were new to at one point.

But I have to admit that after two years, I still don’t understand the Canadian education system.

To me, Mark’s school is some kind of mismanaged charity with inconsistent guidelines where the presence of kids is an inconvenience and volunteers are always needed urgently because made-up reasons.

Case in point, last week’s year-end BBQ. At first glance, this wasn’t a mysterious tradition—people like to celebrate milestones, such as the end of a project or the school year. French schools usually throw a fête de fin d’année as well.

However, in France, the party is for the kids. Students, even kindergarteners, usually perform in front of parents, then are let loose in the playground while parents kind of socialize, eat cake and thank the teachers.

Mark’s school party didn’t feel like a party for the kids but a party/fundraiser for the school. Kids don’t perform or do anything with their group. The entire point of the evening was apparently to sell hot dogs and burgers.

We received about three millions of emails about the event. Apparently, to organize a successful party that absolutely no one asked for and only benefits the school, the school needed volunteers, supplies, food and drinks.

Seriously, at one point I was wondering if kids were even welcome.

These are some of the emails I received over the past weeks, dates and locations redacted (and sic).

Hello Families

It’s hard to believe that the school year is quickly coming to a close.  Which means it’s time for our Annual Year End BBQ!!!!!

Looking forward to having some FUN IN THE SUN with our amazing Families and Staff!

As always, we are looking for volunteers to help make this a successful event.  Please sign up for a volunteer shift at: XXX


Hello Families,

We are in need of cupcakes for the year end BBQ.  There will be some cupcake mixes left at the front round table at the school.  So please grab a box and bake some for the BBQ.  Or if you would like to bake your own cupcakes that works too.

All baked items can be brought in on XXX in the morning.  Please leave all baked cupcakes on the gym stage.

All cupcakes will be iced at the school on XXX. The cupcakes do not need to be iced!

All cupcakes must be nut-free!


Hello Families,

The Year End BBQ is almost here!  If you have not already, please mark your calendars for XXX. The BBQ is a lot of fun and a great way to end the school year!

The flyer is attached for more details.

School Council has been working hard behind the scene to get everything ready.  We need your help!  We are in need of volunteers for a 1/2 hour shift only the day of the BBQ.  Currently, only 37% of the spots have been filled.  We can’t run the BBQ without your support.

You can sign up to volunteer at: XXX

We are also looking for tables, If you are able to lend us a table please contact: XXX


Hello Families,

This is your final reminder that our Annual School BBQ is this XXX. The weather is looking fantastic for Thursday!!!!

Please don’t forget to bring your super soakers, for our annual school wide water fight.  Some lawn chairs or blanket is always a great idea as well.

Some reminders:

Please no water balloons!

We are a nut free school, so if you are bringing your own food please keep that in mind.

All children must be accompanied by an adult.

If you are dropping off a table please drop it off on the stage in the small gym.

If you are dropping off cupcakes they can be left on the stage in the small gym.

We are still in need of volunteers so please sign up at: XXX

For the record, I didn’t volunteer because I’m a terrible person and I didn’t bake cupcakes because I’m scared of food allergies. Our kitchen is definitely not egg-free or nut-free and cross-contact of food allergens could happen.

The forecast didn’t look good for the evening of the party. “Is it still on, you think?” Feng asked me the night before with a hint of hope in his voice. “Oh, trust me, it is. Just got an email about it.”

Hello Families

Despite the cold and dreary day the BBQ will still take place. So dress accordingly!


This is how it went. Despite the weather, the party was held in the schoolyard. Most kids had brought water guns as suggested—is it me or the words “guns” and “school” shouldn’t be in the same sentence?—and everyone was soaked and shivering because it was pouring rain and it was about 15⁰C. We queued to pay for the food and then we queued to get the food—a hot dog and a pack of chips. The only activity for kids was face painting—for a fee, of course.

It was a lame party. It wasn’t even fun for kids who didn’t know what to do—most ended up sticking with their parents and eating their hot dog. But hey, I’m sure I’m going to get an email stressing it was a success and that the school collected $XXX.

I hate the school system. I hate the fact that kids are taught to snack constantly and handle long school years with barely any holidays, as if we were training them to be office workers. I hate the school day schedule, designed for school buses (!). I don’t like the fake cheeriness and political correctness where kids are taught to call other kids “friends” regardless of whether they’re actually friends or not.

As a parent, I care very much about Mark’s classmates, his teachers, classroom dynamics and activities. Unfortunately, I have zero information about that.

As a parent, I don’t give a shit about the charity drive, staff appreciation breakfast, school colour day, jersey day, character day, bake sales and other fundraising activities—especially since Mark is still very young and kindergarten students are often not involved at all—yet this is 99% of the email I receive.

I’m a French parent. I strongly believe the world shouldn’t revolve around our special snowflakes and that kids shouldn’t grow up too sheltered. However, there’s one place that should revolve around kids—the school.

I don’t get it.

It makes me sad because overall, I have good memories of my school experience as a kid. Most of the time, I don’t think Mark understands what’s expected from him and I can’t help because I don’t understand either. Case in point, he can read… and I don’t think anyone noticed.

Oh fuck my life. Just received another email.

Dear Parents,

This is a friendly reminder that we will be having the Staff Appreciation Lunch on XXX.  Please sign up online at XXX to bring, food, drinks, or supplies.  All non perishable items can be left on the stage, all other items can be left the morning before school in the Staff Lounge.

It never ends.


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. I know, right?
    So far I don’t understand why public school run with fundraising and volunteers.
    I don’t get a lot of things. Seems to depend on the school though. Some are more open, and focus a bit more on the kids, but, you still have to volunteer and everything.
    But this is frustrating.
    Thankfully, this is the last week of school.

    • I don’t get the need for fundraising and volunteers either. I would understand for a specific project but I never understand what the money is for. And I’m not being snarky, I truly have no idea.

      • At Y’s they say: be sure the money will be used for useful things.
        They never say what exactly they do with the money and the thing that bothers me is that they do fundraisers for specific projets too, like field trips and things like that.

        Et oui au Québec il y a eu une plainte pour les fournitures scolaires, en principe on ne devrait pas les payer… ou se faire rembourser les années précédentes, j’ai pas bien compris. Il ont mis un mot là dessus à la commission scolaire de Montréal mais bon clairement les fournitures, c’est moins que ce qu’on a eu a payer en dehors.

        • And really, school supplies are pretty cheap these days. I understand it can be a problem for some parents but compared to a winter jacket, winter boots or daycare fees… it’s cheap.

          Oh, I heard the “money will be used for useful stuff” line too!

  2. Martin Penwald on

    > as if we were training them to be office workers.

    Pfffffff… First thing I thought when I saw my cousin 8 years ago in Toronto and we were speaking of her children’s school.
    Comply and Obey…

    • That really bother me! I like the French model better with more frequent holidays. Granted, it would be difficult for parents since they don,t have holiday either.

  3. Pas glop … Je suis française moi aussi, et j’ai un super souvenir des fêtes de fin d’année (à mon époque on disait “kermesse”) de mon école primaire (je suis née en 1970) et un souvenir ému des “pestacles” de mes enfants en maternelle et primaire. Je trouve triste que ton fils en soit privé, car apparemment c’est un tout autre esprit qui règne, le but étant surtout de récolter du fric, si je comprends bien … Vous dit-on au moins à quoi sert l’argent récolté ?

    • “Kermesse”! Merci, c’était le mot que je cherchais hier soir! Je suis née en 1983 et on utilisait aussi ce terme 😉

      Je ne sais absolument pas à quoi sert l’argent. C’est une école publique, donc je ne comprends pas (et je ne fais pas de sous-entendus!) où va l’argent et à quoi il sert. Je crois que je serai plus sensible au besoin de bénévoles et de fonds si c’était à l’échelle de la classe ou du niveau de Mark. Tu me demandes de ramener XX $ pour acheter des fournitures pour un projets pour les petits, aucun souci! Idem si je devais accompagner une sortie, donner des pots de yaourt pour planter des fleurs ou je ne sais quoi. Mais il n’y a aucune sortie et je ne vois pas du tout à quoi servent les sous. On fournit le repas de Mark, y’a pas de services de garde avant ou après l’école.. je ne vois pas.

      • Martin Penwald on

        Tiens, ça me rappelle un truc, mais je n’ai plus les détails en tête. Il y a eu une plainte au Québec de parents qui considéraient que l’éducation étant gratuite, ils ne devraient pas avoir à payer pour quoique ce soit. Donc l’école a dit qu’il n’y aurait plus de sorties.
        Le système est quand même bizarre.

        • Mais on a même pas de sorties! Que dalle. Je ne vois pas du tout où va l’argent. Dans les fournitures? Mais pourquoi ne pas demander aux parents une liste, comme en France?

          • Martin Penwald on

            Ah, oui, il me semble justement que le cas du Québec était à propos des fournitures scolaires.
            Mais en effet, là, il y a un manque flagrant de transparence. J’imagine qu’il est possible de faire une demande d’information.
            Est-ce que tu en as parlé avec d’autres parents ?

          • On n’a aucun contact avec les autres parents. La plupart des enfants viennent en bus et repartent en bus, ou sont dans des programmes de garderie après l’école (ben oui, forcément, quel parent qui travaille peut venir à 15 h…).

  4. I have to say I’m also confused by the Canadian school system, even if I don’t have a kid in it 😉
    And I struggle with their obsession with fund raising for everything all the time and the over-charred burgers and hot dogs that get served every time. Am I right in thinking that you have to volunteer your time, make cupcakes and then pay for the privilege of eating them?!

    • Yeah, I used to find fundraising events in the workplace annoying too. It’s not the money, I’m not being cheap (… at least I don’t think so!), it’s being socially required to support an organization/individual/issue you don’t always care much for.

      At one of my jobs, I remember someone started a fundraising events to sponsor his dog for a race. Eh, if you know the guy and love the dog, why not I guess. But really, should it be an office-wide fundraiser?! A co-worker and I kept on joking we would start a fundraiser to train a goldfish for a race 😆

      • I know, I’d rather chose who I want to give to.
        I should have asked to have Freddie’s amputation sponsored haha
        and now thanks to you I have 2 ear-worms, when I had finally got the first one out of my head after yesterday. So thanks for that haha

        • Frankly, I may have gave money for your fundraising if you would have been a coworker of mine when it happened with Freddie. It qualified as a sudden and urgent event, so in my book, yeah, I can understand the need for funds.

  5. It must really depend on the school. My kids are in a French (catholic) school and so far I’ve been pleased. There was a sale of some tickets at some points but I simply ignored it. And of course later there was a BBQ for which we had to pay for over-priced hot-dogs or hamburgers… but they didn’t ask for any volunteers! Not even for the field trip! Weird. Maybe that’s because it’s a smaller school than your son’s? Maybe I’m just very happy because in comparison to Brazilian schools my kids have actually been learning something this year as opposed to having parties every week for X reason…

    • I’ve heard good things about French catholic schools. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t make sense for us… mostly the “catholic” part 😉 I know, it’s not a requirement, but still!

  6. On commence l’école en septembre. On a juste eu un premier contact – réunion d’informations pour le moment. So far si good. On devrait recevoir bientôt les différentes listes « pas de ceci », « pensez à cela »… j’ai bien hâte !

    • Je pense à toi à chaque fois que je fais une tirade sur l’école! Je ne veux pas te faire peur 😆 En tout cas, Mark ne se plains pas. Moins que moi, c’est sûr!

  7. It sounds bizarre. Does it happen in all kinds of schools?
    This makes me appreciate the Dutch education system where it is so well-funded, including alternative education philosophy such as Montessori, Waldorf, bilingual etc. We do pay high taxes though just like most European countries but hey i can see the difference in our social services.

    • It’s weird to me as well but apparently, this is a constant (the volunteering/fundraising) in most schools around here, including in private school where parents ALREADY pay tuition fees :-/

      I wouldn’t mind higher taxes for better services.

  8. Attends mais c’est un truc de dingue … Vous donnez du fric sans savoir à quoi il sert ? Mais c’est carrément pas normal ! Pourquoi vous ne sollicitez pas une réunion avec la direction de l’école à ce sujet ?

    • Parce que… les écoles ne fonctionnent pas du tout de la même manière qu’en France. Ce n’est pas vraiment une direction, plus un conseil d’administration. Les écoles sont gérées comme des entreprises, finalement. Je suis paumée dans ce système!

      Franchement, l’argent donné, ça ne me fait rien. C’est plutôt l’impression de ne rien comprendre à la logique d’éducation qui me tanne.

  9. Schools should not need extra funding from parents if they are budgeting properly and operating within their budgets. If their needs are not being met they should be asking city council for more money. I remember doing bingos for the local Catholic school in Edmonton in order to buy computers for the classrooms. This should have been an item on their budget submission.

    The strangest request that I had was for bullets and shotgun shells for a hunter safety and survival training weekend for my grade 9 daughter. They had to build their own shelters and survive in the forest for a weekend. The school said that they would supply the guns. I didn’t know that Catholic schools had armouries.

  10. Expatraveler on

    What an observation. I personally would rather work and school in Europe but no choice.. so we stay for now. Sick of the work culture.

    • There are aspects of the Canadian work culture I absolutely love. Other not so much, such as the fact that taking time off is almost taboo. I feel I get the best of both worlds as a freelancer 😉

  11. The survival training was probably no different than what Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts experience. They cut branches to make a bed for their sleeping bags and more branches were used to make a shelter. Wilderness training is good for campers and prospectors. Every year people get attacked by bears because they leave food around the campsite or bring a dog which attracts the bears or they come between bears and their cubs. A geologist friend of mine said that when he was walking along a river bank he always banged two rocks together because you could easily run into a bear around any bend in the river. The noise would warn the bear that you were coming. Unless the bear was really hungry it would leave you alone. Having a gun does not always ensure your survival, you have to have forest smarts too. When I lived in BC I was always careful when I was walking in the woods because a man was killed and eaten by a bear shortly before I arrived. They found his gun nearby where the bear had partially eaten and buried his body. He didn’t have time to fire a shot.

    The kids all had a good time on their weekend in the woods and my daughter came back dirty and smelling of smoke. Her only injury was a sore shoulder from firing the shotgun.

    • I think it’s the firearms part I can’t fathom. Was that a while ago?

      We live in a completely different part of the country and my side of Canada isn’t too “wild”, although we do have big parks. Wildlife and survivals stories usually come from Alberta or BC, rarely from Southern Ontario, which is probbaly why I’ve never given much thought to survival training.

  12. Welcome to public education in Ontario! Trust me, it’s not going to get any better with a Conservative provincial government, when education is always one of the hardest hit services. It doesn’t help that there are four school systems to support (public/catholic English/French). It’s funny that the Catholic schools don’t seem to need to have fundraisers…but it’s mostly because they don’t need as many specialized programs (how many autistic kids do you see in Catholic schools…). Anyway, don’t get me started about the need to get rid of religious-based public education to save the province millions of dollars a year.
    What is Mark doing this summer?

    • I know, I was super disappointed with the latest elections :-/ I need to quiz you two on how to navigate the school system!

      Mark is… very interested in boats. Can we come down and sail with you??? 😆 Alright, camp it is, then!

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