New immigrant students face culture shock

From left, Christina Yin, 14, who just arrived in Canada a month ago, and two-year Burnaby school district veteran Evan Li, 16, discuss the coming school year with settlement worker Gillian Chan after an orientation session for new immigrant students at Burnaby North on Thursday. - Wanda Chow/NewsLeader
From left, Christina Yin, 14, who just arrived in Canada a month ago, and two-year Burnaby school district veteran Evan Li, 16, discuss the coming school year with settlement worker Gillian Chan after an orientation session for new immigrant students at Burnaby North on Thursday.
— image credit: Wanda Chow/NewsLeader

Gillian Chan called a parent identifying herself as a settlement worker at Burnaby North secondary.

The parent hung up.

Chan looked up the student's file, figured out the parents spoke Mandarin, and called back.

This time, in Mandarin, the first thing she said was, "Your kid is not in trouble."

The parent's initial reaction is not uncommon for new immigrants from China, where school principals are very authoritative and parents are typically intimidated by administrators, Chan said.

Dealing with this and other differences is all part of the culture shock new immigrants face when entering the Canadian school system. Settlement workers like Chan aim to ease the often-significant transition, and were hosting orientation sessions for such students last week.

While refugee students often have the added challenge of coping with traumas faced before escaping their home countries amidst civil war, regular run-of-the-mill new immigrants have no shortage of adjustments to make.

More than 600 students who registered in Burnaby school district last school year were newly arrived in Canada and spoke English as a second language. They were assisted by 11 district settlement workers.

At North, Chan helps many students who have just moved here from China, but also from the Philippines, Russia, Turkey, Iran, Mexico and other countries.

Differences start off with the functional—in many countries students stay in home rooms while teachers move from one class to the next. Here, it's the opposite, leaving many students concerned they won't get to their next class on time.

North, the largest high school in the province with about 2,400 students, is suitably expansive. "Sometimes you have to run," Chan said with a laugh.

Perhaps the biggest cultural difference is in expectations placed on students.

Many immigrants, no matter where they're from, are used to a system where the teacher dictates everything they do.

"In China, if you don't submit an assignment, your parents will know before you get home," Chan said.

Not so here. "The teacher will tell you, you need to do it. If you don't do it, no one is going to go after you."

Which inevitably leads to students distraught over receiving marks of "incomplete" in their report cards.

Grade 12 North student Evan Li, 16, arrived in Canada over two years ago after attending public school in Beijing and recalled the stark contrasts in educational systems.

"In China, we study from the sun is not yet come out to 10 at night." That studying is largely memorization of what they've been told by the teacher and in books.

Science lessons here, meanwhile, involve a more hands-on approach with experiments. "We learn things by ourselves, not by the teacher telling us."

Also new for them is the need for dozens of hours of work experience before they can graduate, and planning classes to teach students how to look for a job and to plan their future careers.

And in classes like physical education, here students are marked partly for effort. Back in China, it's a source of great anxiety as students are required to meet a certain set standard, be it their speed on the track or how high they can jump, before they can pass, Li said.

He appreciates the greater freedom he has here, where leisure time is an important aspect of his weekends and holidays. "People need a break."

Students from China have also been used to a system where only exams, not assignments, count. Final exams start in Grade 1 and those with the best exam marks get to attend the best middle schools, high schools and universities.

From Grade 9 to 12, the push to get into university typically means no breaks from studying, not even on weekends or in the summer, Li said.

That's a common issue Chan deals with.

In China, if they don't make the cut for universities after their Grade 12 exams, there is no second chance. They simply don't go to university or deal with the heavy stigma of attending a college instead.

It often takes several months for Chan to convince students that it doesn't work that way here, that they can attend college and work their way up to a university degree, even take another year in high school after Grade 12 if they feel they're not ready to move on.

After months of denial, one such student responded with visible relief when she finally understood. Things are different here.

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