My high school years in Taiwan were the most trying years of my life. Like most students in East Asia, my whole existence had one purpose and one purpose only – to get the best grades so I could go to a good college. My fellow students and I didn’t have to do any housework or take any art classes. We studied during gym class instead of playing sports. Our only extracurricular activity was more school. When I was a kid, a typical high school day in Taiwan started at 7:30 and ended at 5:30. After regular school, prep school began. Prep school was basically night school taught by our high school’s star teachers. When I finally got home at 9:30, I ate a quick snack and did homework until midnight.
What made these years so tough wasn’t just the strenuous school work; I was a teenager, in that awkward place between being a girl and a woman, a kid and an adult. Back then, the sky was gray even when it was sunny out. The colors and joys of the world had nothing to do with me, because our text books and papers were printed only in black and white. Still, it was during these trying, formative years when I made the best friends of my life, friends like Jessie and Mao Mao, who went through the same struggles I did.
High-school students in Taiwan were required to have a uniform look in addition to wearing uniforms. Female students had to wear their hair shorter than their earlobes. Skirts had to be at least three centimeters over our knees. All hairpins had to be black so they didn’t stand out. And we had all had to carry the same high school bag: our school’s bag was blue and the name of our school, Ming Sheng High, was emblazoned on the outer flap. All this uniformity saved us time from worrying about our appearance so we could focus on homework. My friends and I were typical rebellious teenagers, so we tried to find creative ways to look different. For instance, as soon as we walked out of the school gate, we rolled up our skirts at the waist and covered the roll with our school belts. We removed our black hairpins and let our hair down. We even knew how to break the rules with our hair. By getting the right haircut, our hair was actually longer than our earlobes, but brushed and pinned the right way, we appeared officially coiffed for school. And instead of wearing our book bags like messenger bags as the school required, we shortened the straps and carried them like hobo bags. Mao Mao and I washed our bags numerous times to try to create a stonewashed look; amazingly, the color of our book bags never faded. We even tried to fray the edges of the front flap so it would appear worn. Little did we know these bags were triple-stitched—we broke our little pocket knife before the canvas was torn.
If my high school career was a cloud, my friends were my silver lining.
Besides their friendship, the only thing I could count on, the only thing that accompanied me every day throughout my entire high school career, was my canvas book bag. This handmade bag helped me carry at least ten pounds of text books to and from school every day. It never broke even when I felt broken.
So you can imagine that when I was touring around Taiwan last year, a critical item on my itinerary was to purchase an original high school book bag. I dragged three friends with me to Kaohsiung City, an industrial city in the southern part of Taiwan, which houses the king supplier of Taiwan’s best high school bags–King of Kaohsiung School Bags. In their factory store, I saw bags from many high schools across Taiwan—each school with its distinct color and logo emblazoned on the front flap. Seeing these bags was like walking down memory lane, and these memories were bittersweet. I could still feel the weight of my school bag digging into my shoulder, reminding me of all the homework I had to do. But I also recalled my good friendships and our foolish attempts at rebellion. My American friends had no memories attached to these bags, but that didn’t stop them from picking up some school bags as souvenirs. Their joy was contagious.
Today, if you ask me which bag I cherish most, it’s my canvas school bag. In fact, even if I owned a Louis Vuitton or Prada, I’d still favor my King of Kaohsiung. Inside its many pockets are the memories of my high school years.