Why Discomfort is a Gift You Give to Your Future Self
I went to three different schools in my first three years in Canada after immigrating from China at age 11. Those first days at a new school and the vivid feelings of discomfort still stay with me to this day. The knowledge that I was able to conquer things that at one point seemed so daunting and overwhelming gives me the confidence that whatever current feeling of discomfort I’m having can also be overcome.
When I first arrived in Canada, Vancouver to be specific, my English skills were next to none. I knew phrases like “this is a car”. Nothing of use in day to day life. So for my first school I was placed in an English as a Second Language (ESL) class. There I would ramp up my English skills so that I could eventually transfer to a regular class. My class had other children who were also new arrivals to Canada from all over the world. There were other Chinese kids as well, from Hong Kong and Taiwan, who immediately caught my interest. These kids look like me! Can we be friends? It was 1989, years before China emerged as an economic super power to rival the likes of the United States. The Taiwanese generally hated Mainland China, whose Communist Party sees Taiwan as a rogue state. Hong Kong, at the time still a British colony, was already bracing for its imminent return to the control of China in 1997. Hong Kong residents came to Vancouver in droves in the late 80’s, parking their money in real estate and establishing their exit strategy in case of instability after the handover. Very quickly, even to my 11 year old eyes, the division was clear. The Taiwanese and Hong Kong kids didn’t see me as one of them because I was from the Mainland. Fine, I thought. Forget these Chinese kids who clearly think they’re better than me. I’m going to do everything I can to become Canadian. I knew I had to learn English, fast. I soaked up the culture and language from watching TV. I watched shows like the Price is Right and Full House. I still remember learning the word “microwave” from watching an episode of the Cosby Show.
After less than 1 year in ESL, my English was just good enough for me to switch to a regular class at the school near my house to start the last year of elementary school, grade 7. Now I was in a class with regular, local Canadian kids. My English was barely passable. I remember there was an assignment in class where we had to write a sentence about the environment. All I could muster was “I like to swim”. The teacher said, I guess it counts because you might be swimming in the ocean. I became friends with a CBC (Canadian Born Chinese) girl in my class, who didn’t have the prejudices against the Mainland Chinese that the ESL Chinese kids did. Even though she was Chinese we only spoke English to each other since we didn’t speak the same Chinese dialect. My native tongue is Shanghainese, a distinct dialect spoken by people from Shanghai, the most populous city in China with a population of 26 million as of 2021 (compared to 37 million in all of Canada). I also spoke Mandarin, because that is the official and common language of China. However, my new friend spoke the Hong Kong dialect, Cantonese, at home. The two dialects are probably as similar as English and French. You might be able to make out a word here and there, but you can’t really speak or understand the other language. In hindsight this dialect barrier was a huge blessing in disguise. I didn’t have a crutch to fall back on and I only spoke English with my friend. So by the end of my second school year I was finally feeling pretty comfortable with my English.
My parents are the classic Chinese parents who prioritized education for me above all other things like sports, music and social life. I was about to start grade 8, the first year of high school. We lived in a modest house in a part of the city where the neighborhood high school didn’t have a good reputation for its academics. That was not going to be acceptable to my parents who gave up their life back in China so that I, their only child, could have opportunities they didn’t. At the time, my father was tutoring a Chinese high school kid who lived in a well to do neighborhood of the city. His family was one of those that parked their money in prime real estate on the westside of Vancouver. They agreed to let us “borrow” their address, i.e. claim that I lived at their address so I could go to the high school in his neighborhood which was well known for academics. This practice was against the rules of course, but the schools weren’t so vigilant about checking proof of residence back then. Going to this high school with a borrowed address meant that 1) I had to take 2 buses for a total of 40 minutes to get to school each way and 2) I would be going to a different school than all of my current classmates in grade 7.
So there I was, 13 years old, starting the first day of high school at a school where I knew literally no one else. Many of the kids in the school had known each other since kindergarten. I was all alone. I had images of eating my lunch in the bathroom stall like you’d see in teen movies, but it actually wasn’t that bad. I distinctly remembered the very first friend I made. It was science class and we were assigned lab partners. My partner was the girl who happened to sit next to me. She was nice enough to take me in, and from there, I met her friends and quickly I was no longer alone. This girl and I are still friends to this day.
Now, 30 years later, these memories are still so vivid in my mind. Switching schools for a child is like changing their entire world and daily life, and I did it 3 times in 3 years at an age when I was not only learning to be an adolescent but also finding my way in a new country. So now, whenever I find myself in a new situation that makes me feel uncomfortable, for example starting a new job or navigating buying a house, I would reach back to those old memories of discomfort. If my adolescent self could rise up to the occasion, certainly my adult self can do just as well. And each time I overcome a new feeling of discomfort, like when my family and I moved from the United States to Switzerland, I know that my future self will reflect on this as well to find strength to conquer the next challenge.