Rachel Xie had just turned fourteen when she moved from Beijing, a city with more than 21 million people, to Salt Spring Island. All by herself. After four years at GISS as an international student, she reflects on the cultural differences she has experienced while living on our little island.
Rachel’s culture shock started fresh off the ferry, on the bus ride from Long Harbour to her homestay family. “I looked out of the window and all I saw was trees, and more trees”, she says smiling. “I had no idea where we were going. In Beijing, I could find my bearings by counting how many blocks we passed. Even when I was living here for a longer time, I still sometimes had trouble finding my bus stop.”
From the landscape, the language, food, and fashion, to the way people look and interact; everything was different for her. “It was hard in the beginning. I stayed with a host family with another international student from Germany and when we had dinner in the evening, she could easily have a conversation in English, but I couldn’t understand 75 percent of what was said. I think it is easier for students from Europe to find connections as their culture is more similar to the Canadian one. For Asian students, it usually takes a longer time to do the same thing. That has nothing to do with racism, I have never encountered that here, but more with the cultural differences.”
Rachel, whose official Chinese first name is Yutong, was excited to go to high school in Canada. Salt Spring Island was a safe destination for a fourteen-year-old. And a challenging one at the same time as there are not a lot of Chinese students, so she was forced to learn the language quickly. “I wanted to go on an adventure, even though I didn’t know how big the challenge would be.”
Rachel’s parents wanted her to experience a different culture and become fluent in English. Another reason for going to Canada was the education system in China. “The focus in China is mostly on academics,” Rachel looks back. “The school days were long and the pressure was high. School started at 7:10 am and the first thing we did in the morning was running laps.”
Middle school students in China have about eight different classes a day. “Mostly academics,” she continues. “There were few, or no non-academic classes like art, cafeteria or specialist PE classes. School was out at 4 pm, but we were not done yet as we had a lot of homework. On one of my first days at GISS, my teacher handed me one assignment. When I asked when it was due, he said: ‘I don’t know, maybe sometime next week, don’t worry about it.’ Having been used to a greater amount of homework back in China, I was shocked. Back home we were doing at least two pages of homework for each class, which were all almost always due the next day.”
Getting high grades at a young age was important. “At the end of Grade 9, all the students in China have to do a big exam which determines the high school you can go to. The higher the mark, the better the school. Then there is another big exam at the end of high school, which determines the university or college you can go to. The better the school, the better jobs you can get in the future. So a lot depends on these tests. Both my parents and I wanted something different for me, that’s why they supported me to come to high school here.”
In her first year on Salt Spring, Rachel was grateful that she formed a strong bond with a German girl who stayed with the same host family. It wasn’t easy to build friendships with Canadian students since many local students have been going to the same schools together for years before coming to the high school. During the four years, Rachel’s circle of friends consisted mainly of international students.
Rachel faced many challenges during her time here. “I had a great time here, met lots of great people but it wasn’t easy. I had to get used to the different ways people interact with each other. There is more distance between people in Canada. Literally. China has 1.4 billion residents, so physically we are a lot closer to one another. People in China have constant interactions, whether you want it or not. In Canada, people are just simply more spread out.”
Rachel misses her parents, who she hasn’t seen since the pandemic started in 2020, and her parents miss their only child. “I won’t go back this summer because of the complications of travelling back to China. After the summer break, I am going to university here and will possibly stay in Canada afterwards.”
After being immersed in the North American culture for four years, it would have been hard for her to go back to China; to adapt to what she was once used to. “I think the biggest difference between North Americans and people from China, is that in western culture individuality is encouraged. It is good to be unique and to stand out. In China, it is different. Groups often have priority before individuals. Both have advantages and disadvantages. It is hard to say which one is better. But I do like the fact that people are free to express and to be themselves here.”
Now that she is almost graduated, she is getting ready to leave Salt Spring Island. Although she was accepted at McGill University and was looking forward to studying in Montreal, she decided to go to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver this fall. “I was offered an $80,000 scholarship at UBC,” she explains. “It was hard deciding not to go to Montreal, but the UBC scholarship was a huge recognition and I am very happy to go to Vancouver.”
When asked whether she got the scholarship because she is smart, she replied: “I work hard. I want to see how far I can go. My parents have to pay a lot for my education in Canada. I don’t want to take that for granted.”
She will come back to Salt Spring Island where she spent an important part of her childhood, for visits, but Rachel is also looking forward to the next chapter of her life. “It will be a new start for me and I am ready for it.”