I Was the Wounded New Immigrant Kid Starting High School in Vancouver. Here’s What I Learned

August 22, 2019

By The Tyee |

For many young immigrants, rebooting school life in another country comes with a lot of cultural confusion and frustration. But 10 years ago, I desperately needed a reboot.

Before immigrating to Vancouver in 2009, I attended a private all-boys school in Manila. Bullying and harassment were rampant, and for years I endured physical and verbal abuse from my classmates. School staff were either blissfully apathetic or, worse, part of the toxicity.

In an effort to fit in with the school’s culture of cruelty, I did some stupid things that I regret.

Needless to say, when I started at Kitsilano Secondary School in 2009 I was lonely and reclusive. I was also anxious about what high school in Canada would be like, a condition derived largely from my movie expectations. I pictured a cutthroat world of cliques where you were either backstabbed by Mean Girls or shoved into the locker by huge bullies.

I was proven wrong almost immediately.

My new classmates had their differences, and it was clear who were the jocks and who the drama kids. Some weren’t exactly upstanding students, while others hid out in cliques composed of other international students.

Yet remarkably, almost everyone got along with each other. It didn’t matter if that girl wouldn’t shut up about her book dreams, or if that guy wouldn’t stop making the same dildo joke. I felt a sense of elation as part of this camaraderie, and the ease of just getting through each day was a revelation.

In my first year at Kits, I felt a new kind of support. Many people showed genuine interest in explaining this new place and culture to me. A few became close friends. Teachers didn’t hand back my C-minus marks to punch me down; they actually took the time to talk through my worries while we cracked jokes about Canadian history. It wasn’t out of a sense of obligation. They simply gave a shit.

That kind of enthusiasm was infectious. It changed me. I grew my hair much longer. I became overly talkative in class; social awkwardness be damned. I got a huge self-esteem boost from my friends and even asked out a girl for the first time (spoiler alert: it was hilariously embarrassing). I signed up for whatever creative arts classes were available simply because I could. I nerded out over filmmakers with people who knew what I was talking about. And by some miracle, I found P.E. to be kind of fun.

I started thinking outside myself and what I’d previously understood about the world. School was no longer tedious or a matter of survival; there were things worth caring about and people worth caring for. Just as they had approached me with openness and curiosity, my own interest in my fellow students expanded. I savoured every new face and story, whether their family had immigrated from Hong Kong years earlier and opened a bakery, or they had edited the school yearbook for three years straight.

For them it might have been just another school year, but for me, whose adolescence had previously rendered me into mincemeat, it meant the world. I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I found expression. I found myself. I found another home.

But it didn’t stay that easy.

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