Chapter 3: Kindergarten
On the Move: An Immigrant Child's Global Journey
In August 1989, less than five months after I arrived in Switzerland, my parents decided that it was a good idea for me to start attending school. Since my father filed his immigration papers in Fribourg, a town located about 100 kilometers northeast of Geneva, Swiss law mandated that I attend school there. My parents rented the second floor of a house on the outskirts of Fribourg, chosen because it was conveniently within a five-minute walk of an elementary school. Three families lived in that house, but we each had our own residences on separate floors.
Even though the three of us were now in the same country, my family wasn't quite reunited yet. My father lived in Geneva to manage his Chinese restaurant full-time. He only came home on Sundays because he had to work until midnight on Monday through Saturday.
Like many Chinese immigrants, especially married women, my mother prioritized family stability over her individual pursuits of career and happiness. Her professional goal was to start an academic career as a professor in China or even in the United States, but she had to put her ambitions on hold in order to be together with her family in Switzerland. There were no opportunities in Fribourg for her to utilize her recently-earned Ph.D. degree in Sociology, so she found a temporary job as a secretary for a shipping company in order to help support her family.
For the next nine months, my mother cared for me by herself six days each week. We had brief family reunions each Sunday when my father drove back home to rest. I am extremely grateful for all the love and care that my mother provided for me during the evenings; she always tried her best to answer my curious questions and to listen to my often-incoherent ramblings despite being exhausted from long days at work. However, even she could not help me face my toughest challenge to-date: being at school every day amongst kids who had almost nothing in common with me.
My parents enrolled me in kindergarten because it was the appropriate grade for my age. Before I began school, though, they felt that I needed a French name. They predicted that it would be difficult for Swiss people to pronounce Jia, my Chinese first name, so having a French name would make it easier for my teacher and fellow students to interact with me. They rummaged through children's books until they came upon a teddy bear named Philippe. They liked that name because it translated well into English—Philip. My parents were both English majors as undergraduates in China, so they liked how Philippe could be English-French bilingual. At the time, they actually had no idea just how useful this bilingual name would be a year later when we made an unexpected move to America.
Every morning after my mother fixed me breakfast and left to take the bus to work, I walked to school by myself, following the road directly in front of our house, which ran alongside a small neighborhood park. After a few minutes of walking, the park would disappear behind me, leaving in my sight only a barren field with a few dumpsters. I sometimes saw young men with shaved heads and leather jackets hanging around those dumpsters, but I just ignored them and always kept on walking straight along the road. When I told my mother about these men, she cautioned me to stay clear of them, fearing that they might be neo-Nazi skinheads. My elementary school was located right beyond the field. It had the requisite playground, classrooms, offices, and gymnasium. Nothing could be more ordinary-looking to the average European or American observer, but I was no average European or American observer.
On the first day of school, everyone I saw looked nothing like me, but very much like one another, with pale skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes. After coming to America, I realized that white people in this country had greater diversity in their physical appearances than the kids I saw in my kindergarten class, perhaps due to the greater mixing of European blood resulting from centuries of immigration and intermarriage. Americans use the term white to describe people from a wide variety of European ancestries such as Germanic, Scandinavian, or Mediterranean. White people in America do not have one distinct look; they may have fair skin or dark skin, brown eyes or blue eyes, brown, red, or blonde hair, thick jaws or pointy jaws. However, as a five-year-old boy who had never seen a non-Chinese kid before, I didn't know that there were so many different kinds of white people; my classmates all looked like they came from nearly identical local Swiss roots.
I still have my kindergarten class photo in my childhood album. The photo shows my teacher and 20 kindergarteners gathered around a slide in the school playground. Amidst the sea of blonde hair, blue eyes, and grinning fair-skinned faces, there I stood: black hair, brown eyes, with a big frown across my tanned face. I was the only one who did not look like anybody else, and also the only one who was not smiling.
I was beyond confused during my first few weeks of school, mainly due to the language barrier. Everyone spoke French except for me. Switzerland has four national languages—German, French, Italian, and Romansh—and the region where one lives determines one's native language. Half the people in Fribourg spoke French while the other half spoke German, and my school happened to be in the French-speaking part. If I had some clue as to what everyone kept saying to me, then at least I could try to figure out the words that I could not understand and ask for clarifications. But I had absolutely no idea what anybody said, so it was difficult for me to establish a starting point for learning French.
I felt like a monkey at the zoo: All the kids tried to talk to me, but I could only respond with primitive groans and head nods. I don't remember exactly what my classmates said to me during those first few weeks, but I do remember that they asked me many questions since I recognized the inquisitive tones in their voices and the brief pauses that ensued while they looked at me and awaited my reply. Unsurprisingly, the first two words of French that I learned were oui and non, corresponding to yes and no in English, respectively. I started by randomly alternating my answers between oui and non, subconsciously gauging my classmates' reactions to my utterances. I could not understand what they were asking me, but those two words seemed to provide satisfactory answers most of the time. Even if they were actually asking what my name was, where I lived, or where my parents came from, all that I said back to them were oui and non. They probably thought I was pretty dumb.
My teacher, a kind young woman in her mid 20's, understood my situation and made sure to tell the other kids certain things about me, like to call me "Philippe Jia" (a combination of my French and Chinese names) and the fact that I was from "la Chine," the country of China. One of the earliest French phrases that I learned to recognize was my own name, "Philippe Jia," as my classmates said it in the classroom, during recess, and most notably, in the gymnasium during physical education class. I vividly remember playing some sort of ball game in the gymnasium, with the squeaky sounds of sneakers running across the floor and the echoes of foreign voices off of the walls. Maybe that location remained clear in my memory because people tended to yell out names often while playing ball games. I would hear "Philippe Jia" whenever somebody threw a ball towards me or signaled me to throw the ball to them.
I learned through quiet observation, the only method available to me at the time. My speaking was far worse than my listening comprehension, so I was afraid to ask the teacher questions. Fortunately, we spent most of the days making watercolor drawings, crafts projects out of cardboard and glue, running around in the playground, and other non-academic activities (rather than learning math and science like I had done in preschool back in China). I wouldn't have stood a chance if the teacher expected me to read textbooks and do homework problems; my mother barely understood French so she wouldn't have been able to help me, and I only saw my father once a week. However, it was far easier for me to become proficient at physical activities since I could observe and imitate what other kids did. Whenever my teacher gave directions on how to assemble an arts and crafts project, I could not understand exactly what she was saying, so I often glanced over at the kids next to me. I tried to play it cool, blending in as much as possible with my classmates and pretending that I could understand the directions as well as they could. I mimicked what they did while applying my own common sense and ingenuity. It wasn't too difficult to brush off my mistakes since other students made errors as well; I looked just as clumsy as the other slow learners in the classroom.
I remained silent most of the time because I was trying to pay careful attention to what the other kids said and then what actions they subsequently performed, subconsciously making connections in my mind between words and actions. Gradually, I began to recognize patterns in other students' behaviors associated with certain words and phrases, and my brain started to figure out the French language bit by bit. I never remembered waking up one morning and suddenly being able to understand everyone, so it must have been a gradual learning process. Within a month, I could comfortably understand much of what my teacher and classmates said to me. I wasn't able to read or write fluently, and I couldn't speak well either, but at least I could understand French well enough to make it through the school days.
Even though I quickly learned to comprehend simple conversational French, there was this one phrase that my teacher would occasionally tell the class, but I could never pick up on what it meant until it was too late. One day, she suddenly hustled the entire class into several vans parked in the front of the school. I did not ride in the same van as my teacher, so the only adult in my van was the driver. As it pulled away from the school, I was a bit worried that we were being kidnapped. However, I noticed that the other students were talkative, excited, and most importantly, cooperative, so I just followed along and hoped for the best (I really had no other choice). I sat in the back of the van, my head resting up against the rear window, in one of those seats that could be removed to provide extra trunk room.
I looked out the window and saw that we were driving on a road that wrapped around the side of a mountain, our van ascending with every loop, headed towards some unknown destination. My fellow classmates were all so excited about something, but I didn't know what it was. I couldn't speak French well enough to formulate the proper question—Where the heck are we going?
In one of my few lucid flashes of memory from that year, I remember a girl sitting right in front of me in that van, and I recall that she was quite pretty. She sat in one of those backwards-facing seats, so we were face-to-face like how people face one another while sitting in a booth on a train. Out of nowhere, she suddenly leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek. It was such an innocent and friendly physical act; for a split second, the language barrier was gone, and I felt like I belonged. I never figured out her intentions, though. Most likely, she was acting out of simple childhood curiosity, or maybe other kids challenged her with something like, "I dare you to kiss that foreign-looking boy because he probably has alien cooties!"
However, that feeling of comfort quickly faded. What started to worry me even more than the fear of abduction was that everybody carried a little bag with them, but I didn't have anything with me. When we arrived at our destination, I noticed that it was a huge unmarked building. I thought to myself: Hmmm, looks like a good warehouse for keeping child hostages. Oh well, even if we were going to be kidnapped, at least I had gotten a kiss. The other vans arrived a few minutes later, and to my relief, I saw my teacher again. She led the entire class inside the building, and there I saw a huge Olympic-sized indoor swimming pool.
Now things started making sense. The bags that the other students carried? Swimsuits and towels inside. Their excitement? The first swimming day of the year. I immediately panicked when I thought about how I was going to go swimming without a swimsuit. I nervously followed the other boys into the men's locker room as our teacher led the girls into the women's room. As everybody around me unpacked their bags and changed into their swimsuits, I tried to look as though I had things under control. I took several quick glances around the locker room, desperately trying to find another boy who had also forgotten his swimsuit, but I was the only one. It was the most nerve-wracking moment of my life up to that point.
I fiddled around with the door to the locker that was right in front of me, squeakily opening and closing it a few times to pretend like I was busy with something (like unpacking my non-existent little bag). When I sensed that nobody else was watching, I quickly took off my shirt and shorts and just stood there wearing nothing but tiny white briefs. I didn't want to look around to see the responses from the other boys, but then I thought more clearly: What did I have to lose? In their eyes, I was already different, and nobody had ever given me any trouble before for my foreignness. As far as they knew, Chinese kids all swam in their briefs. I tried to reassure myself by thinking that the other kids were all wearing tight Speedo-like swimsuits, which showed just as much skin as my briefs, so what was the big deal? We were all wearing almost exactly the same thing: tiny pieces of fabric that only covered up our butt cheeks and willies. Maybe this wasn't going to be so bad.
As the boys marched out to greet our teacher and the girls at the pool, I started to feel much more nervous and self-conscious at the thought of the opposite sex seeing my white briefs, which I knew would become almost-transparent as soon as they got wet. Oh well, I figured that once we all went into the water, nobody would see my tighty whiteys anyways. But luck was definitely not on my side that day. The teacher lined us up along the diving board located right above water level, and we had to practice jumping into the water. I didn't mind jumping in, but diving practice required me to get out of the water every time after I jumped in, walk around the side of the pool, and wait in line to jump again. It wasn't a fun time standing in line in my soaked underwear. I don't remember anyone laughing out loud, but people must have talked and snickered when they saw that I wasn't actually wearing a bathing suit.
For what seemed like an eternity, I waited in line with a soaking wet, almost-transparent piece of cotton wrapped around my crotch, jumped into the water when it was my turn, doggie paddled to the side of the pool, walked back out, and got back in line. When it came time for supervised free swimming time, I just stayed by myself in one corner of the pool, making sure to submerge nearly my entire body so that nobody could see my underwear. I was probably the only kid who was not smiling that day. Everyone else was giggling and laughing, talking amongst themselves in a language I barely understood.
Once we finished swimming for the day, it was time to return to the locker room to change back into our regular clothes. Again, luck was not on my side. At that moment, I realized that everybody else had brought towels, but all I could use to dry myself off were my shirt and shorts. Once again, I played it cool and tried to appear like I knew what I was doing. I opened my locker, took my clothes out, and nervously alternated between shaking myself dry and using my clothes as makeshift towels. Eventually, I managed to put my damp shirt and shorts back on and boarded the van for the ride back to school.
On the way back, I was cold, tired, and embarrassed beyond belief. I tried to hold myself together and not to cry in front of everyone in the van. Some kids asked me questions as usual, and although I did not understand most of what they were saying, I could still recognize the inflections in their voices and the expressions on their faces. Their tone was not demeaning, just simply curious. They probably wanted to know why I did not bring a swimsuit and towel, but I simply nodded, shook my head, and repeated oui oui and non non in my usual semi-random manner. I tried to stare out the window or down at people's feet so that I wouldn't have to see anybody face-to-face. I even tried to pretend like there was water in my ears so I couldn't hear them, tilting my head to the side and jerking it up and down, showing them that I was trying to expel the imaginary water. I cursed myself inside for my ineptitude while fiddling with my wet clothing, wishing I were somewhere else.
I was fine at school for most of the year, surviving well as a silent observer, but once every few weeks or so, when I least expected it, a fleet of vans would pull up in front of the school, and I knew that we were headed to the pool. The French phrase that my teacher would tell the class the preceding day went something like, "Okay kids, we're going swimming tomorrow, so don't forget to bring your swimsuits and towels!" Since there were so many phrases I couldn't understand, I never learned to recognize that announcement, so I was totally unprepared every time we went swimming. If I were smarter, I would've brought a swimsuit and towel to class every day.
Every time it was a surprise swimming day (which was only a surprise for me), I simply went into the locker room, took off my clothes, walked out, and jumped into the pool wearing nothing but my white briefs. When we were finished swimming, I wiped myself off with my clothes and then put them on again. I think the other kids came to expect that behavior from me, so it would have been weird if I had shown up one day carrying a towel and wearing brand new Speedos. After the first few times, I stopped growing embarrassed because it became normal for me—the kid who was different—to swim in my underwear. My French was never good enough to tell anybody that I had simply forgotten my swimsuit and towel, so I bet that my teacher and the other students eventually concluded that it was some kind of traditional Chinese custom to swim in underwear and not to use a towel.
After school ended for the year, my parents informed me that we were moving once again, this time to the United States of America. My first thought was that I would have to start all over, going to a new school and learning a new language. It turned out that this year in Switzerland was just a warm-up for the most difficult period of my childhood: my first year in America.
Copyright © 2007 Philip Guo