International Schools: Dulwich College, 2011-2016

From first through fifth grade, I attended Dulwich College Suzhou, a British international school located in Suzhou, China. At a young age, Dulwich taught me that various countries and ethnicities populate our Earth. It taught me the word “diversity” before I learned that “gorgeous” was a fancy way of saying “pretty.” It taught me that in this vast universe, one culture only constitutes 0.5 percent of the existing nations before I learned the area of a circle. Due to these reasons and more, I firmly believed that my school was truly international –– until the Asian American Footsteps Conference hosted by St. Paul’s School a month ago. 

At the conference, I reflected on my childhood experience through a more mature and objective lens. I now hesitate to say that Dulwich –– at least during my years –– truly embraced its diversity, although it accepted many cultures. The diversity we were taught was merely a number, a “nation count” that granted us the capacity to dress up in cultural attire and parade down the corridor every once in a while. 

Growing up, I was quite educated about two cultures: the Chinese and the British. As students studying in China, we all took Chinese language classes. I was placed into the native level which exposed me to a more authentically Chinese curriculum than others. There, I relished Chinese poetry, calligraphy, and little essayettes that served as our textbooks. Additionally, as a school in China, Dulwich organized a week every year where we stayed in a historical spot close to Suzhou and appreciated the city’s origins. Being Chinese myself, I returned every day to the embrace of my grandparents and the local life of Chinese citizens. 

Then there was British culture. With the exception of my Chinese language teachers, the rest of my teachers were all from the United Kingdom due to Dulwich being a British school. They told us about their lives in Europe and showed us video clips of their favorite soccer, or football, players. We were assigned readings through The Oxford Learning Tree, watched English movies, and learned about England’s royal family. My English was always better than my Chinese. 

As for the rest of the cultures, we had no idea. I had peers from South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, South Africa, Turkey, Russia, and more. Yet miraculously, my knowledge of their countries stopped at being able to identify typical foods and their flags –– and if we were good friends, whatever we shared in conversation. 

We were only truly encouraged to celebrate our differences on two formal occasions set aside for that specific purpose. One Thursday every term, we students –– as well as faculty members –– dressed up in the traditional clothing of our cultures. We each took our turns and paraded down the building, class by class, while everyone else clapped and watched as a colorful line of young children and adults moved forward. Then there was “International Day,” a yearly tradition that spanned an entire Saturday. This was one of our biggest celebrations; to say that we were all prepared would be an understatement. Kids and their parents signed up for a booth to represent their country days in advance, and on that day, the whole school would crowd into the gymnasium while we used paper tickets as money to buy goodies from each booth.

Thinking back, I realize that both celebrations served entertainment purposes over serious cultural appreciation. As kids, our eyes were attuned to the most colorful dress, the prettiest hairdo. We formed a line behind the booth that made the fried chicken and milk tea. We went into International Day knowing that we would come out with arms full of food and goods, but not knowledge. On the only two occasions where we could truly embrace our different cultures, we considered it pure amusement, an excuse to self-indulge. And while I acknowledge that given our age, this was inevitable, I wish that the school had provided us with more formal and beneficial venues to learn about a culture beyond its already-known foods and facts. Dulwich is a K-12 school: this could have easily happened early on in our lives. During an assembly where we performed a skit on the Solar System, perhaps we could have talked a little about our roots. In our social sciences classes, perhaps we could have dedicated one day to presenting our backgrounds. Perhaps, on International Day, we could have quieted down before it and let each booth enlighten us with their unique story. 

Historically, international schools followed an imperialistic purpose. They were created to ensure that expatriates and diplomats could secure a Western education for their children. As time progressed, the reason for their existence steered toward promoting diversity. Reflecting critically on my experience with my peers, however, I argue that Dulwich has remained somewhat imperialistic. The British-centric education, the much-too-common temporality of my peers as their families worked as expats in China, and the compounds of industrial Suzhou catered to housing wealthy families from the Western world are just a few examples that illustrate this belief. This highly imperialistic purpose lies under a façade of diversity. I don’t know what Dulwich is like now, but I hope its efforts to honor diversity sincerely have increased. I hope Dulwich has become a truly diverse community, one that serves its modern purpose, connects nationalities and ethnicities across the ocean, and globalizes our world. 

Before I end, I should admit that I loved Dulwich. Despite not embracing diversity as much as they proclaimed to, the school taught me how to be human. I learned about acceptance, empathy, creativity, and other traits at the center of our souls. Dulwich planted these ideologies in its students more than any other school I’ve attended, and I thank it endlessly for its teachings. If I could go back in time, I would change nothing –– except, of course, to truly be international.