By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
Women lose weight, buy new clothes, color their hair, and fly across the ocean to seize “the moment” in their lives.
I have to confess that I am one of these vain creatures who invest lots of money — $150 worth of new outfits and shoes plus airfare to fly to Hong Kong — for a unique occasion.
It is not about attracting men. It’s about women impressing other women. We are no longer the girls we used to be, and we have a desire to reconnect with one another after four decades.
There were 54 of us at our high school reunion. A few people had even started kindergarten or first grade with me. We refer to one another as “sister.” This was the first time I had ever attended such an event. I graduated from the Sacred Heart Canossian College (SHCC), an all-girls Catholic school. Coming from Australia, Canada, England, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United States, we joined our sisters in Hong Kong for a three-day adventure.
I may draw criticisms from my classmates who don’t have open minds, but I believe in honesty and giving voice to those who share the same sentiments, especially those that don’t have the courage to speak up.
Now versus then
I was amazed how wonderful my classmates looked. It seemed like just yesterday that some of them graduated from high school. Without the aid of name tags, I first mistook Grace as Millie. When I recognized Dorothy, she said, “I don’t remember you. I had a stroke, so I forget a lot.”
The most intimidating figure at the school was our principal, Mother Ida (a title for nuns). She is now a frail 86-year-old woman sitting in a wheelchair. She is still charming and her genuine smile touched me. She greeted all of us by saying, “Give me a kiss,” which I did.
Initially, it was hard to recognize everyone, not only because their faces have changed, but because I have not dwelled on my old school. I didn’t want to relive the past and didn’t have the desire to step foot on the campus.
The reason I came back was to reconcile with my past. I was happy to see so many old friends. It would have been fun if high school pictures were pasted on each name tag so I could identify folks. Nevertheless, our small group of sisters managed to share information about our families, work, and personal struggles.
Who is the most inspiring?
“What if someone asks, ‘What’s your achievement?’ ” said my sister-in-law in Hong Kong, who skips her class reunions.
Are class reunions meant only for those who have accomplished great things?
“So who’s the most successful among your class?” my husband asked. He seemed to have the same mentality.
Conventional wisdom defines success by the kind of job a person has or the amount of money a person makes. A couple of my high-achieving classmates are now scientists overseas. I always applaud women in male-dominated fields. Some were entrepreneurs, teachers, nurses, financial experts, housewives, and government employees in Canada and Hong Kong. Some are retired.
The truth is that women don’t articulate their contributions as well as men do. None of the sisters liked to talk about their volunteer work. To be able to balance between career and family is an achievement. Having a liberal husband and liberal sons who support female leaders is my legacy.
Raising kids to be decent human beings who pursue their passions in a complicated society is no small feat. I admire my classmate Agnes Yam, who raised her daughter, Margaret Cheung, who is in a non-traditional profession — a Broadway-style actress. What a treat to see Margaret’s smashing performance at the Hong Kong Cultural Arts Center!
The most inspirational stories I heard were not from the rich and famous. Two had cancer and they both beat the odds. They may not be in their best physical shape, but their ability to conquer and stay resilient represent the best of the human spirit.
Smart versus not-so-smart
“I am not smart, rich, famous, or beautiful.”
This is how I have often introduced myself to strangers. This self-deprecating humor began due to my self-image during my high school years.
How did I develop such low self-esteem? My experiences with school and family both contributed to it. The peer pressure in an all-girls high school to excel in academics and extracurricular activities was fierce. If you wanted to be loved by teachers and classmates, you had to earn top grades, especially in math and science. You had to win inter-high school competitions such as debate, choir, and recitation contests.
I rarely got picked to participate in contests because I was dumped in a “D class” for not being the top-scoring 5,000 out of the 30,000 students in the colony-wide high school entrance exam. I scored among the 6,000 group.
Students in the D class were stereotyped as being less intelligent, less outgoing, and less academic-oriented.
The “superior” A and B classes were chosen to represent the school. C class was considered to be slightly better than D class. Being placed in a D class is like telling a student, “Girl, you would never make it.” One teacher actually said this to my face during my senior year.
“Why did Sacred Heart use negative reinforcement instead of positive reinforcement for the students?” one sister asked.
Scolding, ridiculing, and belittling students were frequently employed. We are not allowed to date. Those who had been discovered dating boys secretly were punished harshly by the nuns who ran the school. Those who wore their shirt uniforms too short had to kneel to demonstrate that the shirt length reached the floor.
My parents sided with the school’s practices 100 percent. They were scared that if their daughter did not comply, they would alienate school authority. Also, they saw school as a tool to control rebellious daughters.
In Hong Kong, where you went to school determined your future and fate. You could either conform or risk being kicked out and getting a bad record.
My school’s impact on me
I hate to admit that some of the most remarkable moments in my life happened outside of school. I enjoyed doing volunteer work for the church, like visiting the poor at hospitals and hillside huts, visiting lepers on an island, teaching fishermen’s kids, and singing folk songs at the Caritas Center, a Catholic organization next to the school.
I envied my classmates who left during their junior or senior year to study abroad. They were able to escape the stressful citywide Hong Kong Certification Exam which were taken by more than 35,000 seniors! Passing the exam was not good enough. You need to receive distinctions such as As or Bs in 8 to 10 different subjects. These distinctions was your ticket to universities at home or overseas. It can even mean a good job in the government or private sector.
It was common to read about students committing suicide because they did not pass the public exam.
One classmate, Stella Chui, had to rent a room outside her home to concentrate on her studies.
Home was too small and noisy for many of my classmates, including me. Coming from a low-income family, my mother rented a big house and rented out the other rooms to make extra money during my childhood. I spent many nights studying at the public library and Caritas Center.
I slept with my grandmother on a bunk bed. I didn’t even have my own table at home. The family’s dining table served as my homework corner as well as mom’s mahjong table.
I spent several sleepless nights preparing for my senior exam. Being the eldest child, I had no role models to learn from. No one gave me any guidance or helped me evaluate my options. Unlike the American system, we had no school counselors to consult with and we could not go to principals or teachers for advice.
When people ask me about my most inspiring teacher in high school, the one who touched me the most — I say I didn’t have any. However, I did have an appreciation for our Chinese history teacher, the late Miss Fung. A great storyteller and well organized, she was always fair. The only interaction I had with her was when she invited me to participate in a Chinese calligraphy school contest.
Although I did not win, I was immensely grateful that she gave me a chance. I got an A in Chinese history out of more than 30,000 people who took the public exam.
I also got an A in a subject that a teacher said I would fail at. What did I make of this? I did well in spite of my least favorite teachers. I learned that it was my duty to succeed and make sure my parents would not be disappointed with me, so that my mother would not lose face in front of our relatives. I never studied for the sake of learning though.
I saw it as a path for me to leave the Hong Kong education system. Thank God that my parents granted my wish to go to America for college.
What SHCC taught me
Ironically, my first job after college was teaching the seventh to ninth grade in Seattle. This was during the 1970s, before my career as a newspaper publisher.
I tried hard not to become a typical SHCC teacher who had no personal interest in the students’ wellbeing.
My classmates would argue that comparing the teaching profession in Hong Kong and the United States is not fair.
After all, we are talking about two different eras, cultures, and countries. Hong Kong teachers were likely to have bigger class sizes and workloads. However, American teachers have other kinds of challenges that Hong Kong teachers didn’t have to deal with — discipline and creativity.
A friend warned me about the teaching job because the school had a history of violence. Apparently, a student threw a chair at a teacher and broke his nose. I didn’t listen.
One key difference between my classes and my high school teachers’ was the energy involved. American students would think that the Hong Kong teaching style was “boring.” Though a demanding teacher, I designed my lessons to be interesting and fun to learn.
My students realized that I deeply cared about them.
Years ago, some of my former students, now in their late 40s, approached me to help them with organizing fundraising events for many worthy causes, including relief efforts for Katrina victims, 2004 Tsunami victims, and the Sichuan earthquake victims. Our partnership produced lifelong friendships. It was one of the most satisfying mentoring experiences of my life.
Terry Wong, my high school classmate who now practices law in Florida, credited SHCC with providing us the right “values and discipline” to succeed in life. These are no small gifts. SHCC has ingrained hard work in all of us. Clearly, my competitive nature comes from SHCC. Several classmates from D class had graduated from college in Hong Kong and overseas, a tribute to SHCC for giving each of us a solid foundation.
At the reunion dinner, each table was asked to give SHCC some congratulatory words. My table presented a public relations version. My heart longed for a more meaningful message. Being an educator is one of the most rewarding careers.
The challenge for SHCC is not only to nurture intelligent, model students. They are not the ones who need the most attention. They should support and nourish those who appear to be less than promising. Cultivate young people with the right stimulus and they can develop beautiful minds.
Give them room to make mistakes. Let them explore, experiment, take risks, create, and grow in a nonconforming manner. Fear is not the most effective motivational tool. Learning is not limited to books and classrooms.
With gratitude, long live Sacred Heart. ♦
Assunta Ng can be reached at email@example.com.