Recently, a high school acquaintance of mine passed away in a motorcycle accident. I had a few classes with him in high school but I didn’t know him too well to make a post. I saw a lot of my high school friends posting on his Facebook wall about the good times, how amazing he was as a person, or old photos of him popping up on my feed. It’s strange how that event brought a number of my high school acquaintances and friends together (or at least the illusion of it). I guess Facebook is good at prioritizing these sorts of stories. It made me think - some of us separated in our own ways, others still regularly see each other. It brought back old memories about my life as a Kitchener kid now that I’ve been living back at home for the past few weeks.
My years growing up in Kitchener are easy to dismiss because in all of my co-op terms, I have lived in fairly large cities. It’s also easy to bundle Kitchener with Waterloo because now that tech is a booming industry, many people know about Waterloo but not Kitchener. I think I have always belonged in a large city because even in my early childhood in Taiwan, I lived in the capital city Taipei. I was used to crowded and convenient cities.
After immigrating from Taiwan at age 6, I lived in Kitchener from elementary through to high school. To be blunt, Kitchener’s racial demographic is mostly white, and mostly middle or lower middle class. There are some sketchy areas in Kitchener but in comparison to any American town, it’s very safe. The multiculturalism comes in with Turkish, Afghani, Vietnamese, and Indian immigrant families. Most of the European-rooted kids were becoming 2nd or 3rd generation by the time I immigrated, so I don’t consider them adding to the multiculturalism as much. Only recently (at least in my neighborhood), have there been an increase in Chinese immigrants. It’s tough to associate and befriend those coming from cultures or homes raised differently because of different family values.
This problem is not as noticeable in a city like Toronto, where it is extremely multicultural, even moreso than any North American city I have been to. Kitchener is a small town. There is not a lot to do within the city, everyone drives all the time because that’s the only decent method to get places (there is never traffic anyway). That’s suburbian life.
The activities that Kitchener kids would get involved in were sports teams, shopping at the mall, walks in the small parks available, and visiting each other’s houses. There was not much more than that at the time. The schools I went to were not known for enriched academic programs, so we had very average kids going to average schools (although thinking back, I had some really great teachers).
Elementary school was strange. I learned English very quickly, and made a couple of friends here and there. I was at the age where any two people could be friends with each other, despite language barriers. I think the only social struggle I had was that gym class and track & field day were the highest awesomeness indicators at that age, and I wasn’t exactly the fittest person. As I grew older, I became confused at my identity. An ignorant kid would insult the Chinese race during our studies of Ancient societies in 5th grade and direct it at me. I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to defend myself.
When I did return to Taiwan for the first time after 6th grade though, I found my identity again and started feeling stronger about my culture. It’s hard when you don’t have a large group to share culture with - my immediate family was all back in Taiwan so I never had a strong foundation to reach out to during my younger years. My mom doesn’t like to have visitors over too much so I never brought in many friends to come appreciate my culture. To top it off, I’m an only child.
I did attend Chinese school every Saturday from 1st until 11th grade, which was a nice way to fill in the void. It was also a way for my parents to be associated with the Chinese people in the area, though most of the Chinese immigrants are from the mainland or Hong Kong, there are very few Taiwanese immigrants in Kitchener-Waterloo.
As a Kitchener kid going to an average Kitchener school, I found myself avoiding participation in nerdy activities because I didn’t want to be labelled as “nerdy". Popularity and being liked as a person seemed like really important things because it’d determine if you were having a good or bad time that week, especially during middle school.
At the time, my mother would nag me to study and do homework daily but one day she was frustrated at my resistance and stopped helping out. I think letting me be independent on how I used my time was a great lesson and made me work hard when I needed to. I’d go to Kumon after school and get ahead on my Math & Reading skills, though not telling anyone that really needed to know except to my closest friends. Later on I realized Kumon was quite useless beyond level H or so because it becomes irrelevant to the Ontario curriculum. Then again it is based on very traditional curriculums that don’t involve calculators so I don’t blame the company.
High school was a bit better because in Ontario, classes are split into Academic and Applied, University-bound vs College-bound, etc. I didn’t have to deal with people who had little interest in doing well or at least passing their classes. Students were very laid back when it came to high school in the first few years. It was a fairly safe school in a safe neighborhood. A bomb threat happened on a day I wasn’t present, but nothing crazier than that. Academics-wise, I was more and more focused on doing well. I became a perfectionist, amongst a few other students in my chem and physics classes who were also looking to get into good programs at good universities.
Parents tend to settle down once their kids get into high school, so the friends I were close with stopped moving away (it happened from time to time to me in elementary school). I had been with the same classmates and familiar faces since first grade. If I didn’t talk to them, I at least knew their name and a bit about them through other friends. Everyone started growing up and finding their friend groups, who they associated most with.
I found a belonging with a group with a mix of Asian and white people, some I knew for a long time, others came from different middle schools. We enjoyed going to the downtown AYCE sushi place every weekend or so (this was around the time when AYCE became a fad), and doing typical high school kid things. Although most of them did not take school as seriously, I felt that I was accepted by them and I could have fun times after school and on weekends with, but never any super close friendships. We were a diverse group of people that shared some of the same interests, for the most part had no drama between, which I appreciated. High school was a fun time of my life because succeeding wasn't too hard as long as you tried a little.
By the end of high school, I had gone on a number of summer retreats (thanks to my parents who are always looking out for these fun and enriching opportunities) - whether it was the Chinese cultural summer camp I went to pre-9th grade, giving me my first taste into GTA and Markham Asian teens and what it was like to be surrounded by all Asians in a dorm like setting; whether it was Shad Valley after 10th grade, and meeting a bunch of really smart and keen, but fun people in a well enriched setting; whether it was DEEP at UofT St George and having my first taste at living in a large city with a roommate as well as my first time meeting Korean Canadians that were fun to be with; whether it was the OCAC program when I went back to Taiwan a second time, adding to my Chinese school education and my love for Taiwanese pop culture… it all shaped me and prepare me for my next challenge of university.
Friendship was a bit different in elementary thru high school in comparison to university, because I always had a chance to see those people at school, church, or wherever I went regularly for at least 9 months in a calendar year. In university, it because tough to keep up even the friendships I just created a couple months ago due to Waterloo’s co-op system.
I went on to university about a 20-min drive from my house. Despite this fact, my parents let me live away from home. I think I really benefited from the freedom, staying up into the wee hours of the night with classmates on assignments and the spontaneous get-togethers would have been impossible if I lived at home. Being away on co-op all the time made me value family a lot more and I visited home more often during my last few university years.
As I started my university career, I began seeing Asian faces pretty much daily. University of Waterloo’s math, science, engineering, and accounting programs attract hardworking and stable-career-desiring Asian Canadians from across the country, as well as the internationals. I loved it because it was a home base that I could feel completely comfortable in. I could very easily relate to someone’s pushy immigrant parents, I could celebrate Chinese New Year’s or Mid-Autumn Festival in friend groups, it was an environment that I thrived in without realizing it too much.
A common misconception that people started having of me: Because I was already into Korean, Japanese and Chinese pop culture, I dressed in a way that made people think I was from Markham or the GTA. Plus it was a pretty reasonable assumption for UW students - if you’re Asian and you’re going home for the weekend, it probably meant Toronto or the surrounding areas.
When I did pre-IB for a single semester in 9th grade, I was mostly surrounded by arrogant closed-minded “smart" kids, and I hated it. But when I started university, I was surrounded by smart students that were willing to meet new people, share resources, etc.
I was actually a bit competitive in first and second year (a mentality I gained in my final years of high school). If I found that a person seemed lazy, thought attending class and taking notes as a very minor priority, and was still somehow getting the same grades as me, then I avoided sharing resources. I did this for awhile in first year because studying independently is what I was used to, but when second year came with CS 245, the dreaded class when taught by certain horrible professors, I gave up on that ideology. Sharing was the most important way to survive that course at that time. Thinking back now, I was very petty about it, and I’m glad that the open-source ideology is strong within my program and faculty.
I enjoyed being associated as a Waterloo local, rather than a Kitchener kid. Sometimes my high school friends would bring up that I ditched Kitchener, and I wouldn’t know how to respond to that. I don’t think I was ready to think long and hard about those sorts of things just yet.
Students around me would complain about Waterloo being a small town with nothing to do. If you are reading this now, don’t ever claim that there is nothing to do until you have lived in Kitchener-Waterloo for more than a few years and have at least tried to enjoy the place. There is a lot that the university has to offer, too, and I don’t see why anyone can claim it’s horrible place to have a social life if they haven’t even tried looking properly. /end-rant
The KW area has gotten a lot better at festivals and events that Toronto has had for years. I was very surprised by the size and value of the multicultural festival that happened a couple weeks ago. Food truck festivals are a thing in Kitchener now, too.
I kept in close touch with my HS friends throughout first year university. But as co-op started to separate me from Kitchener-Waterloo-Toronto, and with me not actually living at home, I saw them less often.
SF Bay Area
Being in the Bay Area for the first time far away from everyone I knew except 2 classmates was tough. It was the first time I felt really lonely. My workplace had some awesome people but I was too shy and unassertive to take advantage of that. The age difference and being under 21 was also tough as you couldn’t freely go anywhere with those over 21. There were simply not a lot of people in my age group and it wasn’t common yet for Waterloo interns to be down there at the time.
Also, San Francisco is not a family city - the majority of people you see on the streets are tech workers in their mid to late twenties, and the hobos. People in the Bay Area have different mentalities and personalities and interests than what I was used to, as well. It was like an East Coaster meeting West Coasters for the first time.
I think the whole experience was a huge turning point for me because I felt lonelier, more nervous, and far away from people I could regularly hanged out with. It made me look at the notion of happiness differently, and it made me start to dislike the co-op system a bit. I started posting on people’s FB walls less.
I know this because Facebook has started sending me On This Day notifications, containing tons of strange and silly conversations I used to have wall-to-wall with people (close friends or not), as well as statuses I used to post, all of which halted by this particular co-op term. I was indeed an over-sharer. This change may have also been affected by me learning about other social media outlets like Foursquare, Path, and Twitter during that co-op term. Learning about their usages made me feel that FB should only really be used for posting accomplishments or positive new events in my life instead of the smaller, trivial, possibly negative things in my life that I can share to other places.
So where does this place me now? I learned to appreciate the fun quirks of the Bay Area and meet some amazing people through work after a couple more co-op terms down there. I recently graduated and travelled Europe. I just came back from my first Caribbean vacation for a friend’s wedding in Mexico. Co-op and travelling has allowed me to appreciate the world, and become more open-minded and aware of what’s out there. I have a few weeks left in Kitchener-Waterloo-Toronto to spend with my family and friends that I won’t see for a long time. I haven’t had a break longer than 3 weeks since 2010 so reviving some old hobbies like gaming, writing, and reading novels has helped me feel more productive.
I am still a bit skeptical on returning to the Bay Area because I have really enjoyed being away from the technology bubble these past few months. But it’s happening, and I’m going to make the best of my knowledge and past experiences.
Thanks to everyone who has ever given me advice or opinions. I may not have shown it, but I appreciated it. Props to those who actually read this ridiculously long post and apologies if I may have seemed a bit blunt on certain topics. I have always wanted to write a proper and truer biography about my roots and my past social struggles and this seemed like the best way to talk about it. You can’t succeed without having some ups and downs in life.
PS. I fixed the security certificate issue some people were facing with my website. it looks like I was hard linking https links this whole time and believe it or not, Postach.io does not use https. I’m still reconsidering switching to a different platform for next year.