Prior to coming to Canada, most of what Vivian Huang knew about Canada, and how Christmas is celebrated here, came from movies or TV shows.
The exchange student from Taiwan, who is being hosted by the Weyburn Rotary Club for the school year, is having a lot of first-time experiences with Christmas celebrations, and seeing various sights in Canada that have amazed and delighted her.
While staying with host Jill Thorn, Vivian had the opportunity to help her decorate a Christmas tree, the first time she has ever done this.
“I really love decorating the tree. I’ve never done that before,” she said, adding she also tried making gingerbread houses and baking shortbread cookies for the first time. She cut down the amount of sugar in her cookies, because she’s found that treats here in Canada are too sweet for her taste and use a lot of sugar.
A few years ago, her grandmother bought a white Christmas tree that was small, but that was as close to a Christmas tree as her family ever had.
“Christmas in Canada is like our Chinese New Year’s. In Taiwan, if you are Christian, you will go to church and do shopping,” said Vivian, noting that stores have lots of decorations and lights up, but most homes there do not light up for Christmas.
She and her friends will do gift exchanges, but it’s not a family event like it is here in Canada, as there are many Taoist and Buddhist believers in Taiwan, including her grandparents.
The Chinese New Year celebrations, on the other hand, involve the whole family, and there are traditions around that. This year, the Chinese New Year will be on Feb. 4, but as this is based on the lunar calendar, it’s different every year. As a part of the celebrations, school gets off for a whole month to mark the new year, and at the family gathering, parents and grandparents give each child a red envelope with money in it.
Vivian noted that this practice stays in place until a child is married, then they are expected to give a cash gift to their parents and grandparents.
Even the colour red has significance, as at Chinese New Year’s, red is the colour for hope and happiness. A white envelope would denote bad news.
The New Year’s Eve observed by the West, on December 31, is noted in Taiwan, she said, but they don’t do fireworks as in many large cities in North America and Europe, mostly because the air quality is not good in Taiwan.
The music concerts here at Christmas is another new experience for her, and for the first time in school she is a member of a choir, singing with the Comp senior choir.
“In Weyburn, when there’s a concert, everyone wants to go. We don’t have choir in school in Taiwan. I tell my friends at home that I’m in a choir, and they don’t understand,” said Vivian.
Among her experiences here in Canada, she was taken out to a field in September where she saw a herd of moose, and more recently she travelled with other Rotary students up to Churchill, Man., where she saw polar bears.
“I really like travelling, but that’s too far for me,” she said, adding she was amazed to see the polar bears, with one of them very close to their vehicle. “That was an amazing trip.”
While she has been able to get together with other exchange students at various times, she noted that in her district in Taiwan, there are 50 exchange students, and they get many chances to just hang out and be together. An advantage here is she gets the opportunity to be with Canadian friends from school more.
She has enjoyed meeting other exchange students from other countries, as they have a common point of reference in coming to Canada to learn about this culture, while learning also about their cultures.
Vivian is looking forward to graduation from the Comp School, as it will afford her an opportunity to wear a beautiful gown, something that she wouldn’t get to do at home. As she explained, normally a young woman would only wear a fancy gown like that at a wedding, not for school graduation.
As English is not her native tongue, Vivian has encountered some difficulties at school, some due to her age difference and some due to her limitations in English.
“My classes are in Grade 10 for English, art and cosmetology. It’s really hard for me to make friends, as I’m in Grade 12 and I’m already 18. Everyone’s focused in the classroom, so you don’t have time to get to know each other,” she said, noting that some of the students in these classes are 15 or 16. Drama is one of her toughest subjects, because they have to be in a group to improvise a dramatic situation, and sometimes it’s difficult for her to understand what the scene is about.
She has made some friends in spite of the challenges, and said art is her favourite subject currently, which surprises her as she did not enjoy art at her home school in Taiwan. Her mom is a jewelry designer, and tried getting her to do designs, but Vivian didn’t really want to do that.
“I really love it, like the painting. We have a really good teacher,” she added.
Vivian is also part of a cheer squad at the Comp, and she greatly enjoys the practices, with competitions lined up starting on Jan. 12 in Regina.
“Canada is more different than I imagined. I thought Canada was more like the United States, but everything’s different,” said Vivian, noting one of the delights she has seen here was the hoar frost on trees and bushes, which she thought was very beautiful, and she took many photos of it with her phone.
She was able to try out ice-skating, which she found was similar to the roller-skating that she enjoyed doing at home, and most recently she came out with her host parents, Doug and Kathie Loden, to see the CP Holiday Train when it rolled into Weyburn.