Writer recounts her strict upbringing in Chinese school

Unlike most children’s Saturdays – full of cartoons and breakfast – mine were a blur of intricate characters, schoolmates, poem recitals and eraser marks. Attending Chinese school was a must in my family.

Growing up in an Asian household, I was put through the Chinese school system every Saturday — spending all of my elementary and junior high life learning my native tongue.

Learning it the hard way

At six years old, I sat in my usual space in the kitchen — perched on my mini-red chair with matching red table. My left hand held a sharpened pencil over a pale pink assignment book. To my right sat my mother with a wooden spoon.

Apparently, being born left-handed is the world’s worst curse when it comes to creating nicely shaped, acceptable Chinese characters. Typically the letters are written downwards and to the left — hence writing as a leftie created ugly smudges on any character written.

Chinese school included reading, writing and poem recitals.
Photo Illustration by: April Ip
Messy writing, how could I? Frustration and impatience were my mother’s customary reactions on this topic.

She was convinced that the only way I would excel in Chinese school was for her to teach me to write with my right hand.

On many homework nights, my mother sat with her wooden spoon and a lecture ready. Every stroke I made, every character I wrote shaking, resulted in a slight whipping to the palm of my hand.

Watching TV? Get real. Playing with my sister? In my dreams. Eating was barely tolerated until I became ambidextrous.

Salty tears streamed down my face, as I brushed back strands of loose black hair. Catering to my mother’s demand was gut-wrenchingly difficult. God only knows why I didn’t attempt to run away from home or at least beg my father for some sympathy.

Nevertheless, for two straight weeks I held and re-held pencils – practiced stroke after stroke – erased and rewrote until the paper was no longer white but grey. I was awarded with my choice of candies and TV for my struggles – elation.

The end is near or was it?

On a Saturday morning three weeks later, I found myself in a cramped classroom too small for 20 students. I sat uncomfortably on a brown metal chair, you know, one of those ridiculously small contraptions with the small wooden tables attached to them.

THONK went my heart beat as my teacher annunciated my name in that no-nonsense tone of hers. “April, can I talk to you please.”

I jerked my head up. “Yes.” Next thing I know I’m following her to her office. She sits me down and takes out my pale pink workbook, flipping it to my latest assignment. “April, who wrote this for you?” she asked.

“What do you mean? I did,” I said, my eyes widening.Left, April Ip with her Mother, Flavia Ip. Photo by: Jordan Ip

“These characters are clearly not your writing. If you’re getting another student to write your work, I’ll have to call your parents and there will be consequences.”

My heart was hammering in my chest …”I wrote it,” I said.

“Prove it. Let me see you write the same character on this sheet of paper.”

I oblige, pick up a pencil and do as she says. I glance up. She looks stunned and asks me to write a couple more characters, then silence for several more seconds.

“You’ve greatly improved your form April.”

“Yes, well my family thought it would be better for me to use my right hand…”

She smiles, using 17 muscles instead of the normal 47 she uses to do the opposite. “You’re getting an A on this one.”

Relieved, I breathe again. Perhaps getting a wooden-spoon spanking was worth it …This time.

aip@cjournal.ca