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The Gardener and the Tree

October, 2010
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One thing that I’ve often wondered as a student from an international school is how different life would be if I were a normal student in public school. Of course, there are the obvious differences, such as being able to mingle with students in a multi-cultural society, different syllabuses, examinations and languages of instruction. Yet beyond the superficial differences, are there other experiences exclusive to one group or the other?

Now, I’ve been in international schools all my life, and almost all of it in the same one (YCIS), so I can’t claim to be the best judge as to what life in international student communities are like. However, I can share my own. Malaysian by birth, I was brought to China after only about a month after birth and live here to this day. As far as I know, most international schools in China usually make a point of only admitting expat children from other countries, so most students are able to relate to one another in a way that few can. We discuss the idiosyncrasies and foibles of the culture we are immersed in just as we marvel at it. Yet there is a curious sense of shared detachment that we international students feel as we look at the world around us, as though we were a bastion of normalcy in a foreign, alien land. This detachment is rarely addressed directly among ourselves, for there may be this strange compulsion that shames us for not becoming naturalized.

Despite having been raised in China my entire life, I often find myself almost shamefully ignorant of the people and culture around me. Sure, we took classes in Chinese Culture in primary school, but the lessons that we learnt in childhood faded away to leave vague impressions that elude our efforts to recall. I can only speak for myself, but I found myself to have more of a ‘Western’ mindset in terms of values and culture while being learning in a multicultural environment. Despite my fluency in spoken Chinese, I still have a strong distaste for it in a written form that I suspect is not limited to me. In fact, others have been more vocal in their dislike of the language, though most of them were also raised with a heavier Western touch. There is naturally a need to be multi-lingual in an increasingly interconnected society, but there are times when one must wonder whether this emphasis on cultural immersion has been brought to the point of excess. For example, I have a friend in Nanjing International School, a school that perhaps epitomizes this modern dilemma. The school itself has a traditionally red colour scheme, which is quite understandable up to the point where the main building wouldn’t look out of place in the Forbidden City. More to the point, the school offers a plethora of Chinese culture ASAPs (After school activities), from Ancient Chinese calligraphy to mask painting to dough sculptures to gourd painting, which just seems a tad much for a school of only around 400 pupils. (It is not my intention to impugn the good name of NIS, only to use it as a convenient example of how international students may feel stifled by the bombardment of Chinese culture.) I am all for promoting tolerance and experiencing multiple cultures, yet it would be prudent not to press it to the point of excess lest a backlash occur as a consequence.

Earlier I spoke of the strong sense of community that we international students feel, and now I feel that I must talk about this at more length. At least in Yew Chung, we are a tightly-knit community of great vitality and looks after our own. We do not tolerate bullying or inappropriate behaviour in our midst, and we students as well as staff collectively make that clear. Our community is something that each of us hold close to us, though we may not always be aware of that. We find comfort, security and friendship in the little island that is our school, without which we would be lost.

Another matter which I am usually loath to bring up is how those who join us often leave us. As one who stays overseas in an international school, one must be resigned to the regrettable reality that friendships and homes often prove to be but transient dreams. A student may finally begin to settle down and bond with others, and then suddenly find themselves torn from their newfound home due to their parents’ job insecurities or contract expirations. A new year may signify the turning over of a new leaf, or you may discover that you have been turning over the same leaf all along. A bleak prospect, but hardly unusual. In fact, public school students who transfer to other schools in their own country also experience very much the same thing. Yet consider the student facing the opposite dilemma: one who stays. I must confess that the subject of that scenario would have to be myself, for I have been at the same school for almost 12 years. In the course of those 12 years, I have seen many students arrive. Each time was a new friend made, and another lost. Of course, as children, we weren’t all too aware of how the world worked. I suppose ignorance gave us that reprieve, to not have every friendship tainted by knowing that each moment was fleeting. And even still, as the winds of time inexorably gust them away, I remain. Such are the prices that must be paid for such a life.

Of course, I’m likely to be overdramatizing everything, and despite everything, being a student in an international community is truly an amazing and valuable experience. Only…I think of a tree that is lovingly tended by its gardener each day till the death of its caretaker, only to be replaced by another. Then I wonder: does the tree rejoice for each spring’s bloom, or does it weep in sorrow? And who do we mourn: the gardener or the tree?


By Xing Jun Ng,

Y12, Yew Chung International School of Shanghai

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