Canada, Process of learning, Stories about kids

Cultural Differences

I met my friend one day at the park, near her apartment. Usually, we hang out on Mondays or Wednesdays, as my daughter goes to preschool. It is very expensive here as most places to send your child to either daycare or preschool. Like some parents, my friend decided to stay at home with her children until they start school.

This winter she registered her daughter into Kindergarten. We often talk about her school and the change it will bring to their family life. My friend will separate from her kid for the first time, which is hard for her. She is worried whether her daughter will fit into the new environment. She is an independent and smart kid, but also very shy. What is also challenging is the fact that they only speak Japanese at home.  – Will she be able to find her place in the classroom, will she participate in school activities – these are just some of the questions my friend was asking herself.

I’m interested in everything she is saying because I too will be in her shoes soon. Some things are different with us though. I went through the initial separation from my child, with preschool. Also, the concern of the language barrier as we only spoke Serbian at home. After several weeks in preschool, my daughter began speaking English and now is able to communicate fluently. The biggest novelty for me is the Canadian school system. I’m curious to hear all: will there be any tests for new students, how will the teachers form the classes and work with children who speak another language, which textbooks are they using and so on.

That day we began to chat about the same topic. A few days earlier my friend attended a meeting at the school.  The teachers discussed the best way for parents to prepare their children for the transition to Kindergarten.

My friend realized a lot.

–  Parents are organized differently in Japan – she said and immediately continued. –  One day one parent will take over the obligation to take kids from the same neighborhood to school and back. Next day it will be another parent. They are constantly switching during the weekdays. Here, I will have to rely just on myself –  the impression on her face was telling me that she was still adjusting to the news.

Every parent with two small children knows what she’s thinking about. She is still breastfeeding her son who also sleeps during the day. His needs are affecting all of their daily activities. His older sister has already learned that she has to end her game and hurry home. They need to be on time so that her brother can be changed, fed and put down for his nap. And that is not the end of mom’s duties. She has to cook dinner and finish other things.

The school routine will not only change the schedule but also put more demands on her. Every morning she will have to wake up and ready both of the kids and her son will need to come with her each afternoon.

It was impossible for me to offer the help. We don’t live in the same neighborhood and our daily schedules are different. I told her that I spoke about this issue with other parents. I found out that there are some centers around which are offering a lot of services. Some will, for example, pick up children from school and bring them to one place where the kids will wait for parents. Sometimes they can do their homework there.

– What are the parents doing in Serbia? – she asked. – How did you get to school? Who took you?

I don’t know what it’s like today, I replied, but I remember very well how it was when I was a schoolgirl. My brother and I walked every day together with other kids from our neighborhood. On the way, we would collect our classmates. I don’t remember if we had made any arrangements in advance. Somehow, we all knew the best time to get out of the apartment and wait for others on the sidewalk. The group would become bigger and bigger as we reached the schoolyard.

I remember two neighbors, who were three years older than me had one man who followed them to and from school. That wasn’t common back then. I grew up on the outskirts of the city where the traffic wasn’t that bad. We had to pass only two or three busy roads to get to school.

– Our stories are almost the same – she confirms. – I also walked to school with my friends. But, today traffic in Japan is different and parents need to help out.

And then, suddenly she stopped the conversation. She remembered something she wanted to ask me and began a completely different story.

– Did you know that in Canadian schools they have janitors?! – she said with surprise.

I was also surprised, but with her reaction, so I kept quiet. The janitor is, as far as I know, the person who is responsible for the cleanliness of the schools, hospitals or offices. But, I thought, maybe she thinks for something else because I can’t imagine a school where there were not any cleaners. It must be that the word janitor in English has a different meaning. In colloquial language, a lot of words are used in a new context and I’ve been in situations where I didn’t know that other meaning. Apparently, the word janitor is one of them.

– Okay, you don’t have to say anything. I understand. In Europe, as in Canada, you have janitors in schools – she said. — Ah, you are spoiled! –  she added. We laughed.

The first time I heard her saying this was when we talked about the nearby landmark, Hatley castle. It belonged once to a wealthy and prominent Canadian family but today is one of the buildings of a private university.


(Photo: Natasa)

The castle is located on a beautiful estate near the Pacific Ocean. It has a huge property with a promenade, gardens and a small lake. People love to rent the space for their weddings. Filmmakers have used the grounds to record numerous and internationally renowned films. Over time the property has become a major tourist attraction and my friend loves to take her relatives and visitors there.

Her enthusiasm, though, wasn’t anything like mine.

–  You spoiled Europeans! – she wasn’t jealous when she said that. – You have no idea how blessed you are. You live in the most beautiful place in the world!

I lowered my head and shrugged my shoulders just to let her know that I agree with her. With no doubt, European cities look like museums and open galleries. But, people somehow get used to all the beauty and after some time they don’t appreciate it.

In the meantime, I found a good reason to debate her: Japanese gardens.


(Photo: Tomomi)

I see a Japanese garden the way she sees the European downtown. As soon as I pass through the gate I feel like I am entering a different reality. Every piece – the wood, water, stone, ground, lanterns, bridges and fences – radiates harmony. That is my vision of Eden.  I long to have a Japanese garden in the backyard of my house one day.

– I don’t understand why are you mentioning janitors? – I stopped laughing. – Is it possible that some facilities don’t need maintenance?! I haven’t been in a house that can be clean and neat without any effort – we laugh again.

The schools I attended were impeccable. Classrooms, hallways, bathrooms, dining halls, gymnastic halls, everything was in order. I didn’t even think that anywhere else would be any different. As a student, I wasn’t aware how much these women were actually working. I would see them only when the teacher sent me to replace a log or get some chalk from the teachers’ lounge. I’d skip through wet halls, keeping myself to the edge of the walls trying not to get them dirty.

– We don’t have janitors in schools – she continued.

– Well, who then takes care of the schools in Japan? – I was curious.

– We are cleaning our schools.

– Who? – I wanted an explanation.

– Students. In Japan, from Kindergarten to the end of the high school, students are taking care of their space.

This is exactly the type of situation where it becomes obvious that we have come from different countries. Despite the fact that we are getting along so well, and understand each other, our societies have different regulations and values.

I wanted to hear her story.

In the next half an hour I listened. I found out about all sorts of things. In Japan schools have fields and some have gardens as well. Senior students plant vegetables, which are later used in the preparation of school meals. Every day around noon lunch is delivered to classes. All students eat together with their teacher in the classroom. After lunch, the children are spared from washing dishes and cutlery. But, instead, they clean their classrooms, halls, and bathrooms.

I could see those pictures in my mind like they were on screen. All the time while we are talking we are also looking after our kids. We help them jump on the swing, raise them on monkey bars, explain that they need to wait their turn on a slide. As naptime nears my daughter and I decide to go over to their house for a visit. She, of course, wants to continue playing and I want to hear more details of her story.

I sit drinking green tea in her dining room. The girls are playing in the playroom, her son is sleeping and my friend is on the computer. I thought she was just checking her emails when she asks me to join her. She found on YouTube a video that was an illustration of the things she spoke about.

I watched carefully the school report. I liked the words of the principal, the great organization of the school and the children’s attitude towards school duties.

– I have one more thing to ask you – I often say this sentence. — Do you remember how you felt about these obligations when you were a child?

Kids see things differently than adults.

– It was natural to me. I never asked why we did it. It was like the morning ritual: you get up, brush your teeth and hair, and get dressed. After a while, you don’t consider it as an obligation. That’s the way you behave.

– You’re right. But, many people live differently.

– Everyone has to know how he or she can contribute.

I was nodding.

– Kids gratitude was the thing that grabbed my attention– I reminded her of some examples from the video. – But, you are now mentioning another lesson.

– Responsibility – she said with a specific facial expression and tone of voice. – We were being taught to be responsible. For ourselves, for others, responsible for the space we share.

We talked for fifteen more minutes. When I left her apartment I promised my friend I’d show the video to my daughter.

– She is always asking me about schools for big kids. Now I have an opportunity to show her one from Japan! I wonder what she will say.

– See you next week! – we hugged.

That afternoon my family was having lunch in the dining room.

– Where were you this morning? What did you girls do today? – asked my husband. He had been working on the same project at work for days. Our day-to-day ordinary adventures were his favorite distractions.

– We were in Japan. — I winked at my daughter.

He, then too accompanied us, to the other side of the Pacific.

(The video was recorded, edited and directed by Atsuko Satake Quirk, Cafeteria Culture’s media director. More on

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