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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…

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