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That Baffling Cultural Mystery I Can’t Crack

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.

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