北一女 (Taipei First Girls' High School)

A few days ago, I got to take a look inside my mother’s alma mater, Taipei First Girls’ (北一女, běiyī​nǚ​) while preparing an article for the northern California alumni association’s yearbook. Beiyinu is one of the most famous girls’ high schools in Taiwan.

北一女 (Taipei First Girls' High School)

My Mom had suggested that I take a photo in front of the school gates with a couple students. I told her that I didn’t think the students would want to take a photo with me. She said, “Of course they will! Beiyinu students aren’t scaredy-cats!” I replied that it wasn’t about them being scared of me, but of me being scared of them! Seriously! Those green-shirted girls are intense.

北一女 (Taipei First Girls' High School)

But I dutifully headed over to the school, which is right next to the Presidential Office Building (總統府), with my camera in tow. I asked the security guard if I could take a few photos of the campus, and before I knew it, the director of alumni activities, Ms. Liu, was giving me the grand tour.

北一女 (Taipei First Girls' High School)

Taiwanese students face an infamous amount of pressure because the path their education takes is largely dictated by just two exams. Beiyinu students have obviously already passed the first hurtle (the 聯考, lián​kǎo, or high school entrance exam) with flying colors, but they spend their third and fourth years gearing up for their university entrance exam.

Because of that, I expected the atmosphere in Beiyinu to be extremely tense. I found the opposite to be true. Granted, I only spent an hour there and didn’t look into any of the classrooms (Ms. Liu didn’t want to bother the students), but I found a place where adults speak to and joke with students like equals, and students in turn are proud to show off their school to visitors. An art class was dispersed throughout the campus, taking advantage of the nice weather to work on their watercolors outdoors.

北一女 (Taipei First Girls' High School)

Quite a bit has changed since my Mom was a student. School rules were a lot stricter back in the 1970s. For example, students had to wear their skirts below the knee, their socks folded a certain way and their hair cut to just below ear-length. Students are allowed a lot more leeway in how they dress now — they can wear skirts or trousers, decorate their schoolbags with pins and embroidery and choose their own hairstyles. Most of the rooms and buildings, however, are exactly as they were back when my Mom and her friends were teenagers, so I really got a peek of Beiyinu through their eyes. Here’s an excerpt from my essay:

Learning about 北一女:一位美國華裔的經驗

北一女 (Taipei First Girls' High School)

About two years ago, I moved to Taiwan and started a Mandarin course at 師大. One day, our class started talking about Taiwan’s best high schools. One of the students, another Taiwanese American, said that the only girl’s high school in Taipei she had heard of was 北一女.

“Yes, of course,” my teacher said. “北一女 is the best girl’s high school in Taiwan, and the most famous.”

“Hey, that’s where my Mom went!” I started to say… but then I stopped.

I knew my Mom had been a very good student and that she’d gone to a famous high school. She often attends reunions and other alumni activities because many of her old classmates live in northern California, too. But at that moment in my Chinese class, I realized that I didn’t actually know the name of my mother’s high school, in Chinese or even in English. Come to think of it, I didn’t know where my Dad had gone to high school, either.

I felt very silly and embarrassed. How could the daughter of two smart parents not know the name of their high schools?

北一女 (Taipei First Girls' High School)
The head librarian demonstrates the cool wheely bookshelves in the Beiyinu library.

After that conversation in Chinese class, I realized how little I knew of my parents’ lives as teenagers in Taiwan. I wondered how similar and how different their high school careers had been to mine. I became determined to learn more about their schools – in particular, 北一女.

北一女 (Taipei First Girls' High School)
I did some research on the Internet and quickly found out that the young women I had seen walking in pine green shirts and black skirts in the Zhongzheng District were my mother’s school sisters. In fact, I often passed by 北一女 on the 235 bus as I headed over to Ximending.

北一女 (Taipei First Girls' High School)
My mom told me that all middle school students in Taiwan have to pass a test called the 聯考 to get into high school, and a school like 北一女 is reserved for the girls with the highest scores. Every student only has one chance each year to score well on their 聯考. If they are too nervous or get sick on the day of the test and do poorly, they have to wait an entire year before they get a second chance. This is very different from America’s education system. When I was in high school, I was very stressed out before my SAT – but I knew I could take it again if I was not happy with my score and it was not the only deciding factor in the direction my education took. My high school is one of the top high schools in the United States, but I didn’t have to compete to get in. All I needed was to live in the neighborhood.

Because education is greatly valued in Taiwanese society, I quickly found out about the special place that 北一女 holds in Taiwanese culture. 北一女 students refer to themselves as 小草 [little grass], but there is another well-known nickname for them: 小綠綠 [little green green]! One of my friends said, “小綠綠 are very famous in Taiwan!”

Photo from EpochTimes.com

Another clue to the importance of 北一女 in Taiwan’s culture came while I was watching 光陰的故事 [The Story of Time]. One of the main characters, 汪茜茜 (Wang Chianchian), is a 北一女 student. The other characters don’t have to describe how hard-working and intelligent 汪茜茜 is – her pine green shirt is enough to let audiences know that about her.

I even see 小綠綠 in the most unexpected places. One day I was looking at photos by Taiwanese fans of Blythe dolls – and I saw a Blythe doll wearing a miniature 北一女 uniform and book bag her owner had sewn!

北一女 (Taipei First Girls' High School)
Posing with first year students.

My husband once asked me if I ever think about what my life would have been like if I had been born and raised in Taiwan instead of the United States. Of course, I think about it often! I love being an American and I am very lucky to be able to call several cultures my own. But every time I see 北一女 students in their pine green shirts, I want to run up to them and say “my Mom is your 學姐, so that means we are kind of related, too!” Of course, that would only scare them away, but I continue to be curious about the lives of 北一女 students; not only did they go to the same school as my Mom, but in a parallel universe, 北一女 might have been my school and I might have worn the same uniform.

我在美國出生長大, 所以我沒機會在北一女念書。
我的中文並不是很流利,而且我的數學一直都很差!
可是我覺得自己還算是個小草, 因為我的媽媽,其中一個小綠綠 ,就如同她的校友們在無形中將北一女的價值觀與生活態度傳承給她們的子女!