Where I’m From

Above is a photo I took a few days ago of my first home, 523 Finch Avenue West. From the outside, it hasn’t changed much. What a cockroach infested, dark, health-and-safety-code-breaking, stench-filled place it was. I loved it. Notice the little black stains that come down around the edges of the windows? As a child, I always thought they were tears.

It was the late seventies, what I call the golden era of Toronto immigration. My parents were like thousands of others that came both literally and figuratively barefoot. Our building of six floors almost resembled a refugee camp of sorts, but when I was a kid I thought it was the greatest place on earth.

I was fascinated by the terrifyingly dark and stinky garbage chutes. The ominous stairs compelled and horrified me. Our elevator always threatened imprisonment. The barrier free windows invited us as toddlers and preschoolers to test gravity.

The cultural make-up of our big brown home was as diverse as you could get, and it featured a significant Korean community. Many of us who live amongst Korean émigrés nowadays think of the upwardly mobile, highly educated; not so then. This might explain why newly arrived Koreans look at me like I’m speaking a pigeon brand of the language when I use it nowadays. Awkward, clumpy, and somewhat crass.

One of my favourite memories is of the Korean veggie truck that used to drop by once a week. You’d know the man had arrived because you’d suddenly hear the echoed call of ajimas (ladies) reverberating through the building. Soon, every Korean mother would be outside, cash in hand, ready to stock up for the week on various turnips, chives, and cabbages.

There were a lot of different immigrants in the building, and plenty of apparent racism. We used every slur in the book to describe each other. And then we would babysit each other’s kids and go to one another’s birthday parties. We would fight for each other, literally. A strange brand of conflict and love. All fiery, lots of passion.

We had our little world and it was special.

School was our internet, really. It was the place to go to expand oneself, to legitimize or devalue one’s cultural capital, to literally learn stuff that was foreign to us. I loved it. My kindergarten teachers were a step above Jesus for me. They taught me to read, sing, smile, share, and not be ashamed when I pissed my pants on the classroom mat (basically everything you need for success the world no?) In my memories, I envision those ladies as 8 foot tall superhuman entities. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t have trusted them with.

Most or many of us have kids like me in our classes. We make a monstrous difference.



  1. I’ve been engaging in useless debates this week with some fairly ideological un-schoolers, alt-schoolers and un-schoolers. I tried to fight with logic. This post reminds me that ultimately minds are changed by stories. Good stories. True stories. Beautiful stories.

    This is one of the best narratives I’ve read in months (blogs or not). Thanks for sharing.

  2. What a beautifully written story! Your prose sings the value of what we do every day and I am reminded me of Clark Mollenhoff’s (somewhat over-used) 1957 poem “Teachers.” This resonated in me as much as “Teachers” did the first time I heard it. Thank you for telling your story.

  3. That story has a lot to do with how good you are at what you do. It’s why we need to help students find and tell their own stories. Thanks for the inspiration!

  4. Thanks for the reminder that kids all come from different places and spaces. It’s so important that we love them all while we help them learn. Great read.

  5. Royan, I really appreciate this post. I lived in Korea (downtown Seoul) for the last two years, so your story of the ajima’s takes me right back to my apartment near Noksapyeong station. I love how you tied everything together at the end and how poignantly you remind us of our student’s varying background.

    Thanks again.

  6. What an amazing post, Royan! I can definitely relate as an immigrant in the late 1970’s having to live in similar conditions. But it was also the culture shock that faced me at school ‘back in the day.’ I was the only one like me back then, ethnoculturally speaking, that is. If it weren’t for the kindness of a couple of teachers, man it would have been so much worse, can’t imagine. I could write a book on my experiences that year!!! Thanks, Royan, for reminding us all at this time of year how much power we have as teachers to make a difference in the lives of students.

  7. I wonder if it’s just one of the gifts of childhood: to be able to see things clearly, for what they really are, and still love them with all your heart?
    I was so touched by this post, so beautifully written, so genuine, poetic, stark in its truthfulness. Now, I’m transported into my own childhood neighbourhood in Montreal, which was similar in some ways.

  8. Mr. Lee, I am an elementary education teacher at the University of South Alabama. I am following your blog as an assignment for my EDM310 class. I will be commenting on your blog and then writing a summary of your posts. I was going to comment on your most recent blog post, but instead I really just had to comment on this one. What you have written is a really beautiful reminder of the power of teaching. I hope that throughout my career I never forget the ability that I have as a teacher to touch a child’s life, to help shape how they see themselves and the world. I hope that I have the vision that you do.

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