As you may know, Tawcan is a word that I invented when I started using the internet back in the mid-90’s. It stands for Taiwanese Canadians. (I realized later that if the word is a combination of Taiwan and Canada it should be “Taican”… I must have misspelled the word. Very ESL ha!)
My family and I immigrated from Taiwan to Canada when I was 13 years old. Having lived in Canada for over 20 years now, I see myself more as a Canadian than a Taiwanese. However, Taiwan will always remain part of who I am as it is my ethical background and my motherland.
Growing up in both Taiwan and Canada has shaped who I am today. The two countries have very different cultures, different languages, different educational systems, different ways of thinking, and different ways of approaching things.
My First Day of Elementary School – The Lack of English.
Before immigrating to Canada, I didn’t know much English. I knew the 26 letters in the English alphabet, I could count to one hundred, and say a few simple phrases like “This is an apple,” “how are you,” and “hi I’m Bob”. I had been to USA and Canada a few times prior to immigrating to Canada, but because I was always with my parents or family friends on those occasions, I got around fine without knowing much English.
Essentially, I moved to Canada without being able to have English conversations with another English-speaking person.
I will always remember the first day when my parents took my brother and I to enroll us in the elementary school. It was around end of October, I was enrolled in grade 7, my brother was enrolled in grade 3. Before I met my teacher for the first time, my dad told me, say: “nice to meet you” when you meet someone. I didn’t even know what that phrase meant. I just blindly followed his instruction.
Growing up in Taiwan, I was usually one of the teacher’s favourite students. I paid attention in class and I wanted to do well. Then, all of a sudden, in a new Canadian elementary school, I could not understand anything. I listened to my new teacher and my new classmates as they spoke in English, and all I could do was give blank looks and smile. I felt so embarrassed to not being able to communicate at all.
On my first day in a Canadian elementary school, every minute felt like an eternity. Coming from being one of teacher’s favourite student and acing almost every single subject, to not understanding anything in class was extremely excruciating, upsetting, embarrassing, and stressful. As a 13-year-old, I was beyond scared. I wanted to hide in the bathroom until the day was over. I thought I knew what it was like to be a new student in a new school, but this was 100 times worse. It felt like being pushed into the pool without knowing how to swim and having everyone looking and laughing at me.
Then lunch time came around… Before coming to the elementary school, my parents told my brother and I that they would bring us food before lunch. When the lunch bell rang, I sat in my chair, wondering where my parents were. All my new classmates were eating their lunches and socializing. Meanwhile, I was sitting by myself, scared, hungry, and no idea what was going on. I looked at my new classmates enjoying their lunches while pretending that I was not hungry at all. To stop any eye contacts, I took out some pieces of paper and started to draw. I was trying to take my mind off lunch time.
Lunch time lasted 15 minutes. Another bell rang and the teacher told everyone to go outside to play. She noticed that I didn’t have lunch yet and asked me a bunch questions. I had no idea what she was saying and just shook my head and shrugged. We ended up communicating using some sign language. She somehow figured that my parents would come with lunch and moved me to the school’s entrance so I could wait by the door.
When I arrived at the school entrance, I saw my brother there. He too, was scared and had no idea what was going on. We both immediately cried when we saw each other. We were both scared and felt helpless the entire morning sitting in our classes.
We waited at the doors for probably 10 or 15 minutes, crying and sobbing the entire time.
Finally, our parents showed up with food from McDonald’s. They were driving around to buy household items all morning because most of our belongings were still on a container ship coming from Taiwan. They went to McDonald’s to get lunch for us but could not find their way back to the school. After all, this morning was their first time going to the elementary school too, and we had just moved to a new city, a suburb about an hour away from Vancouver, a day earlier.
My brother and I chowed down our lunches next to the school entrance and were told to go outside to play…
On my first day of school in Canada, I didn’t understand anything anyone said. The only bright side was math class, because I could correctly answer every single math question very quickly. I was literally a human calculator. The classroom environment was completely different in Canada than in Taiwan.
In my elementary class in Taiwan, we had over 50 students and 1 teacher. Every day we would arrive at school before 8 AM so we could perform our assigned school duties (i.e. dust school pathways, clean bathrooms, take out garbage, clean windows, etc). Every day at 9 AM there would be a general assembly where every student from each class would march into the centre of the school like solders and gather around to sing the Taiwanese national anthem. The principal and teachers would speak on the stage and lecture the students on the various topics. All the students were expected to stand perfectly still, in perfectly aligned lines, while teachers would pace back and forth to inspect us.
Sometimes, because some students were not paying attention, the general assembly would prolong to close to an hour while the principal would continue his lecture. You couldn’t even scratch yourself on the head if you were itchy (the comment from the principal/teacher would be… Did you not take a bath? Are there worms crawling on your head?) We would have a general assembly every single day, rain or shine.
Once we got back to our individual classes, the students were expected to sit upright in his or her chair and listen attentively to the lessons. Teachers hitting students to punish bad behaviours occurred daily. I remember having duct tape over my mouth for almost the entire day, getting hit on the hands by a stick, or holding books above my head for a long period of time, because I was either talking in class or wasn’t paying attention to the lessons. And I was one of the best students! Some of my classmates were way less fortunate than me, getting punished on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day. When we were learning, the lessons were very focused on tests and memorization. To do well, you had to master the art of writing tests. If you were struggling with the lessons, teachers seldom had the time to help you.
On my first day of school in Canada, I immediately noticed this significant difference between the Canadian and the Taiwanese elementary school system. My new Canadian teachers were so helpful and so mindful of me being a new student in a new country, and even though I didn’t understand anything to begin with I still felt welcomed.
When the day was over, I asked my parents to ask my teacher if there was any homework. Back in Taiwan, we had a ton of homework every single day. So when I heard that there was no homework on my very first day of school, I was completely shocked.
New country, new culture, new everything
The first week of school was hard. I did not understand anything and I couldn’t really say anything. Every single day after school, I would ask my parents to check with my teacher whether there was any homework. For some odd reason, my parents would always come back telling me that there was no homework. I was delighted and shocked. I totally thought that either the Canadian kids were the luckiest kids in the world, or the Canadian educational system was geared toward slackers.
Because the elementary school was quite small, ESL classes were taught by the principal. I would only have ESL classes when the principal was not busy. I ended up learning all the same course materials as my classmates. I was even learning some French.
The first time I had PE class, I was very confused about changing into gym clothes. I didn’t realize that there was a separate change room, so I went to the bathroom and changed in one of the bathroom stalls. When we finished the PE class, all the boys, including myself, went into the change room together. At first, I was confused why everyone went into the same room together. Then I saw all the kids taking off their clothes in front of me and I felt really weird. As a very private person, I felt really odd having to take off my gym clothes in front of other kids and putting regular school clothes back on. Somehow, I felt everyone was looking at me, because I was new and different. I tried to change as quickly as I could so I could leave the change room.
Fresh off the airplane…and I am ESL!
For the rest of the school year, my best friend was my English-Chinese dictionary. I was constantly looking up words that I didn’t understand. When someone talked to me, I would often ask him or her to look up the words so I could puzzle together what he or she was talking about.
I should tell you… English is one messed up language. If you are not a native English speaker, some of these common slang/phrases/words/ are extremely confusing… (Urban Dictionary wasn’t around back in the late 90’s!)
- What the heck -> Good luck figuring out what that means in a dictionary!
- What’s up -> Huh? The sky is up?
- How’s it going -> Are you asking me where I am going?
- Sucks/This sucks -> This makes absolutely no sense when looking this up in a dictionary
- Hydro -> why is electricity called hydro? Isn’t hydro water?
English is one messed up language!
My deficiency in English also meant that I was spending a lot of time learning English after school. My parents would teach my brother and I English by reading children’s books. We were building our English vocabulary like little kids, one word at a time. In addition to the confusing phrases, English also many have random rules that make very little sense to someone that is learning the language…
- Ou in couch, enough, though is pronounced differently.
- Gh in cough, bought, and through is pronounced differently.
- Silent letters: you don’t pronounce the “K” in knight, knee, knowledge, and knit. And you don’t pronounce the “P” in psychology and psychiatrist.
- “Big black dog” make perfect sense but “black big dog” sounds weird.
- Some words have the same pronunciation but they have completely different spelling, for examples “wheel, weal, and we’ll”, “sense, cents, and scents,” and “Two, to, and too.”
- Some words are spelled the same but have completely different pronunciation – “read” in present tense vs. “read” in past tense.
- People pronounce words differently depending where they are from. For example, British pronounce aluminum differently than Canadians/Americans.
- And many many more.
It took a lot of hard work to figure out this confusing language called English. In fact, I know I am still learning today.
My lucky break…sort of
Being the only Asian and ESL student in my grade 7 class, I was very fortunate. My classmates were very accepting and were all trying to help me. My teacher was very understanding and always repeated her sentences whenever I gave a puzzled look. Since we were living in the suburb of Vancouver, an area with a very small Chinese/Taiwanese/Cantonese population, there weren’t many Asian kids in my elementary school. Other than my brother and I, there were only 5 other Asian kids. One could not speak any Mandarin, one was a Canadian-born-Chinese descendant that spoke some Mandarin, and three others were recent immigrants from Taiwan just like us, but there were none of these kids in my class. This meant I was forced to learn English as quickly as I could. I was fully immersed in an English-only environment. I could either learn to swim, or I could sink.
Needless to say, I quickly decided that I needed to learn to swim.
The comprehension part came relatively quickly. The toughest part for me was having the courage to speak the language. For some reason, I felt embarrassed speaking English to my classmates. I didn’t have the courage to start having conversations.
That somehow changed after a few months. By then I was having simple conversations with my classmates. I was messing up present tense and past tense regularly, but I was improving my English proficiency very quickly.
Toward the end of the school year, I was participating in all regular classes, including English. When I graduated from elementary school, I got the “Most Improved Student” award. I was very surprised and honored to receive this award. I had no idea such award existed!
Get a life, you are not an ESL student anymore
When I entered grade 8, the high school administration put me in an ESL class. After taking the proficiency exam, I was told I didn’t need ESL sessions anymore. I was kicked out of the ESL class.
Going from barely knowing any English to somewhat proficient in English in about a year. This was a significant accomplishment in my life that I will always remember. It was a big part of my life and it shaped who I am today. Having tackled such a difficult task, whenever I face a confusing or tough subject, I tend to go back to my experience with learning English. I would always tell myself that if I can learn this confusing language in less than a year, I can do anything. I just need to put my mind to it.
The similarities between learning English and personal finance
Looking back, I believe my experience and struggles with learning English has a lot of similarities to learning about personal finance.
I was very fortunate to grow up in a financial savvy household. My parents talked to my brother and I about money openly. They taught us about frugality and how to be responsible with money.
Unfortunately, some people are not as fortunate as us in that sense.
Personal finance topics can be timid, frightening and confusing, especially when you know very little about it. Not everyone is comfortable with topics like eliminating debt, budgeting, investing, growing net worth, and investing.
For some, being constantly in debt is maybe more comfortable because it seems to be the norm. That is what they have been used to their whole life. They simply think that debt is an undeniable part of life. Using credit cards to purchase things, then paying the minimum payments each month. That is how they were raised, so this is what they do when they become adults themselves. They simply do not understand that paying your monthly credit card statements in full is beneficial, because no one ever taught them that.
Some people when they get out of debt, because they are so familiar with being in debt, they would subconsciously sabotage themselves by taking on more debt. Why? Because being in debt is what they know, so getting in debt, getting out of debt, then getting back in debt become a never-ending vicious cycle. Being in debt become a comfort thing, they can get sympathy from others, and they live on the attention they get from other people. Similarly, as an ESL student, I received a lot of attentions from teachers and my fellow classmates. I was different from the rest of my classmates. Therefore, everyone was helping me out and trying to make me feel comfortable at school. It would have been easy to not learn any English so I could continue receiving all the attention from teachers and my classmates, but I chose differently.
Budgeting and the idea of spending less than what you can earn can also be very confusing. If you don’t understand the concept and do not have the desire to learn about it, you never will. This is similar to when I was learning English. If my school had more students that spoke Mandarin, I could have easily just stuck with these Mandarin-speaking students and never learned English. Instead, I was in a situation that I had no choice but to learn English. Similarly, when it comes to budgeting, sometimes people just need to get a kick in rear end to get started.
Things like getting out of debt, budgeting, and spending less than what you can earn are the basics and the foundations of good personal finance. Similarly, the 26 letters of the English alphabet, the basic English vocabulary, and English grammar are the foundations of the English language. Without knowing these, you will never advance to become a better English speaker/writer.
Advancing in personal finance
Once the basics are covered, growing your net worth is just a matter of time. However, learning how to invest is a great tool to fast track the net worth growth process.
Unfortunately, investing can be and is very confusing as there are so many different investing products available on the market – GICs, mutual funds, index funds, individual stocks, options, futures, etc. Learning about your risk tolerance so you can select investment products that work for you is vitally important. This is like taking the next big step in learning English. When I finally started speaking more English and was having simple conversations with my classmates, I began to have more and more interests in the English language. I found myself spending more time reading English books. I started off with easy-to-read children’s English books and eventually advanced to more complex novels.
You cannot go from a beginner English speaker to an English expert right away. There is no magic pill to take. It is all about taking incremental steps and spending time learning. When it comes to investing, if you are more comfortable with index funds, stick with this as your preferred investment mean. If you are more comfortable with self-managing your portfolio, then perhaps go with individual stocks. If you are feeling adventurous and have mastered stocks, maybe options, futures, and other investment derivatives can be your preferred investment means. It is really about always being willing to learn more.
Investing is about finding your area of expertise and never invest in something outside of your investment expertise. Having said that, you can always increase your area of expertise by reading investment related books, taking investment courses, or learning from an expert. See the similarity with investing and learning English? If I don’t know the meaning of an English word, I wouldn’t use it. But as I learned more words and understand the meanings for these words, I began to construct sentences with more complex words.
Learning is a lifelong process
I am fluent in English today. I speak English more than Mandarin nowadays, thanks to marrying my Danish wife (funny thing is that we are both ESL). In fact, when I started speaking Mandarin with my colleagues in China and Taiwan a couple of years ago, they made a few “gee you haven’t spoken Mandarin in a while right?” comments. Although I am fluent in English, I am still learning English every day. I do make grammatical mistakes here and there. For example, Mrs. T always pick on me for messing up my s’s, it is because in Mandarin there’s no plural. I speak English with a slight accent (I think?), so you probably can tell that English isn’t my mother tongue. A few readers have also pointed out some grammatical errors in my blog articles…I am trying my best to be better in English. Learning is a lifelong process. I realize I probably will never become an expert in the English language, but I am motivated to be better in English than I was the day before.
While I may be proficient in some personal finance topics, I am still learning and discovering new things. Meeting people in the FIRE community that are already financially independent or retired early at FinCon17 has allowed me to gain more insight, rather than relying on my personal experience from my dad. There are still a lot of personal finance related knowledge I can learn. I can certainly learn more about stock evaluation and technical analysis, I can learn more on Canadian income tax rules, and I can learn more about early retirement modeling & simulation. The topics I can learn more about are endless. The thing I realize is that, the more I learn about personal finance, the more I realize how little I know. Personal finance, just like English, is becoming a topic for lifelong learning.
This is my challenge and I am taking it on 100%.
Wow, this was a very deep and personal topic that I have no shared with many people before. I have never imagined that I would write a long post and hit the publish button. But the story is part of who I am and I feel it is a very important aspect of my life that I should share with my readers. When it comes to personal finance topics, there is no need to feel ashamed because you don’t know some topics. The important thing is to realize this fact and try to do something about it. Put your mind to the challenge and you will always conquer it.
If you have read the entire post without leaving. Thank you! Now you know even more about me.
I will end this post with a question to my readers…
What are some of the challenges for you and how do you deal with them?