Culture shock: The sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation. 

To say that I experienced culture shock when I first stepped into Dunman High would be the understatement of the century. With both my non-Chinese-speaking parents hailing from Indonesia, even though I am Indonesian-Chinese, I was never really in touch with my Chinese roots. Chinese New Year celebrations were limited to lo hei and angbaos. Festivals like 冬至 (the Winter Solstice Festival) and 中秋节 (Mid-Autumn Festival) were neglected until school-organised celebrations. Ancient Chinese history detailing the Journey to the West or the adventures of Zhuge Liang remained forgotten. My ethnicity was not something I identified strongly with.

Then secondary school came along, and suddenly I was immersed in Chinese culture. From the Chinese school values to the life-sized Kongzi statue right smack in the middle of our campus, it’s obvious from first glance that Dunman High is a SAP school.

A photo of the Kongzi Statue in Dunman High.

SAP schools are Special Assistance Plan schools that were established to preserve the traditional Chinese school environment. Set up in 1979 when enrolment for Chinese-medium schools fell, SAP schools stand out in today’s globalised era, where youths rarely come into contact with their ethnic heritage, and seldom speak in our mother tongue (Singlish doesn’t count!). Erosion of our cultural identity is a growing problem, and with China on the rise, we need SAP schools now more than ever to nurture students that are not only effectively bilingual in Chinese and English, but also have a deep appreciation for Chinese culture. 

However, like many of my peers at first, I was initially hesitant to join a SAP school, worried that the Chinese culture would be “too strong” for me to handle. I’ve been in Dunman High for 4 years now, and with my personal SAP experience, I am here to debunk a few of the myths surrounding the SAP programme!


Myth #1: Everyone talks in Chinese most of the time.

Fact: English is still the popular speaking language.

A photograph of two students talking to each other, with question marks between them.

A common misunderstanding that I often hear from parents and peers alike is that we mainly use Mandarin to communicate here in Dunman High. Contrary to popular belief, this is not true! While we do speak in Mandarin rather frequently, with many teachers switching between English and Chinese when giving assembly talks, most of our conversations take place in English.


Myth #2: You have to excel in Chinese to make it into Dunman High.

Fact: The teachers are always here to help!


While there is an emphasis on bilingual education here, not everyone who comes into Dunman High is of Higher Chinese background, or is a Chinese expert! We are still learning after all, and the Chinese teachers are always happy to help if your foundation in Mandarin is lacking.

Once you’ve enrolled in Dunman High, you will receive a Higher Chinese education by default and will have to take the Higher Chinese O Levels once you’ve reached Year 4. Students that score a D7 and above for this assessment then no longer have to continue taking Higher Chinese/Chinese as a subject in Years 5 and 6. 

However, if along the way you do find yourself struggling to cope, the option to take the Normal Chinese language is always available (though highly discouraged), with students who opt for Normal Chinese having to take Chinese O Levels in Year 4, and continue taking H1 Chinese in Senior High.

While Higher Chinese was not a subject that I struggled with from the Years 1 to 3, my grades took a sudden turn in Year 4, dropping from an A to a C+ within the first term. I remember freaking out as it was my O Level year, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to pull my grades back up to the way it was before. Thankfully, the school has a variety of supplementary/remedial lessons ready to help students that require extra practise and tutelage in this area. Our Chinese teachers also dedicated themselves to providing extra lessons and practices on top of those already in the school curriculum to ensure that we were as prepared as can be for the coming exams. 

A photo of my schoolmates and I with our Higher Chinese teacher, taken during one of the Higher Chinese lectures we had before Higher Chinese O Levels.

With the school’s help, plenty of my classmates and I made great strides in our Higher Chinese. So there really is no need to worry! As long as you complete your work diligently and pay attention to your teachers in class, your Chinese will improve, and you will be more than ready to conquer Higher Chinese O Levels!


Myth #3: Appreciation of Chinese Culture is boring.

Fact: It’s only boring if you make it out to be!


Every Dunmanian has to sit through Appreciation of Chinese Culture (ACC) lessons in their first two years of school. To be very frank, when I first heard that these lessons were mandatory to take, I dreaded them with every inch of my being. ACC lessons don’t sound very interesting to me. Thankfully, the school makes lessons as hands-on as possible to engage us! Lessons on Chinese tea appreciation were taught in the Bilingual Studies Room, where we got to try tea-brewing techniques firsthand, serve the tea to our classmates, and drink our own tea! 

I would encourage anyone who is currently in a SAP school or planning to enter a SAP school to just give ACC lessons a chance. I honestly enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would! Even though Ancient Chinese history or traditions is not exactly something that I am naturally excited about, but as lessons progressed, I found myself grateful for the opportunity to learn more about my heritage, because I definitely would not have ventured into it on my own. 

And who knows? Maybe you’ll accidentally stumble upon something that fascinates you! For me, that accident was Chinese poetry. Never did I expect myself to actually enjoy reading the works of great Chinese poets like 李白 (Libai) and 徐志摩 (Xu Zhimo), people who I didn’t even know existed until ACC lessons.. The SAP journey is truly one of self-discovery!

Other than SAP lessons, my cohort also embarked on an overseas learning journey to China! My class went to Nanjing, Suzhou, and Shanghai.

A photograph of my friends and I at Tongli Ancient Town in Suzhou.

It was honestly the highlight of my last year in junior high. I mean, going on an overseas trip with your friends will always be thrilling! But more than fun, it was in China that we really experienced Chinese culture on a deeper level. Be it visiting the local heritage sites, pigging out over traditional Chinese dishes, or just interacting with the locals, this trip really brought us back to our roots. It prompted me to reflect on my own ethnic identity: Do I identify more as a Singaporean Chinese or a Chinese Singaporean? Why? What are the differences in lifestyle or behaviour between the two? These are questions that I have never really given much thought to until this trip, and it’s safe to say that I came back with a better understanding of myself and my heritage.


It really is a privilege to study in a SAP school, because not everyone has the same opportunities to immerse themselves in Chinese culture that we receive. I’m proud to call myself a SAP student, and really cherish the unique bilingual and cultural learning experiences afforded to me. 

If you’re still worried about joining a SAP school because it’s “too Chinese” for you, then fret not! I promise you, you won’t regret it.


Did you know?


There are many co-operatives in the world that make the preservation of local heritage their social mission! Take Koperattiva Rurali Manikata (KRM) for instance! KRM is a multipurpose co-operative that aims to safeguard local traditions, as well as help Maltese people learn more about their local history. It was founded in 2007 by local farmers and residents in Manikata, a small village in the North-Western part of Malta.

A photo of the writer, Caitlin Hayley Susanto

This article was brought to you by Caitlin Hayley Susanto who was an intern at SNCF during the month of January 2020. A gigantic bookworm and history enthusiast, she is currently studying in Dunman High.