“Ready, Nita?” Uncle Nicky asked as he pulled the car into the school parking lot.
It was my first day of Grade Seven in a new country, and he had chosen the closest spot to the front doors of the school, making it near impossible to avoid looking right into the eyes of a poorly painted Harry Potter on the left side window. Harry Potter was not as openly popular in Malaysia. Someone once complained that it was discriminatory towards Muslims and evil because of the sorcery, therefore teaching kids to rebel against authority. Only a few copies were sold in bookstores, and when those were gone it took a long time to get more in stock. So, back in Assunta School, in Petaling Jaya, my friends and I would secretly exchange copies during lunch break. There were so many rules back home, but here, Harry Potter could accompany me on my first day of school.
“Nita, you ready or not ah?” Uncle Nicky said again.
“Ready!” I replied, but I felt like I was going to be sick.
The first thing I can remember about my first day at Maple Grove Elementary was that it was freezing cold. Unlike Malaysia, where kids would yell and fight over who got to sit directly under the ceiling fan because no one liked heading to exercise class already half soaked in sweat, Canadian schools seemed to have the air conditioning on all the time. Uncle Nicky didn’t seem to care about how cold it was though, because he was already fast walking down the hallway, talking loudly on his cell phone. Mom, who couldn’t come because work wouldn’t give her the day off, was just as busy if not more, and during this time I felt like I saw the backs of my uncle and my mom more than I had the chance to talk to them face to face. Everything was moving so fast since the day we arrived in Vancouver.
“This way!” Uncle Nicky yelled, holding his phone away from his face, and gesturing towards a large glass door.
The school’s main office was not very big, unlike the one in Assunta, but the woman at the front desk made up for it.
“You must be Nita Lee,” she said.
“Yes Aunty,” I replied.
The woman stared at me, her eyes widened to twice their normal size.
“Sorry, that is what we say in Malaysia.” Uncle Nicky said, placing his hand on my shoulder. I could feel my face turning red, but I kept my eyes on the floor and tried my best to avoid her stare.
“That’s alright. I was just surprised, that’s all,” she said. Her voice was friendly, but I still felt embarrassed.
“I need to go to work now Nita, can or not ah?” Uncle Nicky said to me.
I nodded slowly, and after he hugged me he was off, his back turned to me once more, another adult thinking that I wouldn’t have any troubles at all getting used to an entirely new life in a foreign place.
“Follow me, dear.”
I followed her down the hallways and up a long staircase. When we got to the top she pointed to a door near the first set of lockers.
“That’s Mrs. Whitelaw’s classroom. She is already expecting you.”
The walk to the classroom was not as bad as I thought, but as soon as I knocked on the door I felt my stomach do a flip.
As soon as I opened the door, the classroom fell silent. All eyes were on me as I stepped into the room, both hands tightly wound around my backpack straps. The backpack calmed me down a bit because it was a gift from my Poh Poh before I left.
“I’d like to introduce you all to our new student Nita Lee. Please introduce yourself to the class, Nita,” the teacher said, focusing her eyes right on me. I looked back at her nervously.
“Uh hello, my name is Nita and I have come here from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.” I said, awkwardly swinging my arms together at my sides.
I could hear whispering and some laughs as I waited for the teacher to say something, but she didn’t. She just stared at me, smiling. I was not sure what else she expected me to say, so I was about to tell them about Assunta School and the hawker stalls by the roadside, when all of a sudden a hand darted up from somewhere in the back of the room.
“Does everyone talk like that there?” a freckled boy said, scrunching up his tiny face. His messy brown hair fell over half of his face, which made him look a bit like a llama.
“You’ve never heard a Malaysian accent before?” I asked, genuinely surprised, and then immediately self-conscious that I had even replied to him.
After that, a whole sea of hands was up and my face was so hot I thought I was going to faint. If the teacher didn’t make a hand motion to the class to put their hands down at that moment, I was going to fake my own death right then and there.
“You can have a seat over there.” Mrs. Whitelaw said, pointing to an empty desk beside a golden-haired girl.
I walked over to the desk, plopping my bag beside my chair and carefully lowering myself into my seat.
“I know you have all just come back from summer break, but let’s wake our brains up with a few math problems.”
The entire class groaned, except for me. Maths was my second strongest subject in Assunta, aside from Bahasa Malayu. It was strange too, hearing the word said without an “s”. In Malaysia everyone called it Maths. Excited, I leaned down to my backpack to get out my notebook and pen. The backpack was new, so the zippers still had clear plastic tape on them, but what really caught my attention was the bulge in the front pocket. I had not noticed it before, but the last time I really saw the backpack was a month ago when mom first unpacked it. Cautiously I unzipped it, feeling the strangely squishy package as I pushed it up and out of the pocket. The smell hit me first, but it was too late. The girl beside me had already spotted it.
“Ahhhhhh! What’s that?!” she screamed, jumping out of her chair dramatically.
“Ugh, it smells so bad!” another kid yelled.
“How come you have smelly cotton balls in your bag?” A kid with large glasses turned around in his chair just so he could ask me.
Everyone had their noses plugged. Even the teacher had her hand up to her face. My Poh Poh must have put mothballs in the backpack to keep any moths from eating the batiq cloth. She was always worried about moths eating up her clothes back home, that she started storing mothballs in all her closets and some hand bags. The only problem was, they smelled like sweaty socks mixed with hot sauce. It was not pleasant.
“These are just mothballs,” I said, scanning the room for any sort of reassurance. I had hoped so badly that at least one other person knew what I was talking about, but no one said anything. The girl beside me moved her desk a few inches away with a loud screech and gave me a disgusted look. Mrs. Whitelaw opened a window and turned back to the chalkboard like nothing had happened. I could hear them all whispering as I retrieved my notebook from my backpack and carefully placed it in the middle of my desk just as I always did back in Assunta.
A cool breeze coming through the open window blew the strong smell of mothballs far away with each passing minute. My Poh Poh’s last gift from home was carried away by the Canadian winds until there was nothing left of it but the dry pieces of fluff, scentless and hard, stuffed into a backpack at the end of my first day of class.
Chloe Kerr is an English Literature major who loves to dabble in the art world whenever she isn’t burrowing her face in a novel or writing a paper. Chloe, who recently completed her undergraduate Bachelor of Arts degree, has taken many creative writing courses, and credits her biracial background (her mother is Chinese and her father is Scottish) for her curiosity and passion for studying and exploring all to do with multiculturalism and immigrant culture.