When we were looking into moving to Beijing almost three years ago, it never occurred to me to search out a school beyond the main international options. As a newbie expat, I didn’t really even know there were other choices, and we gladly signed up at the school where colleagues sent their kids.
I don’t have any major regrets and I’m glad that we ended up in a British school rather than a more American institution, because at least my kids know they are somewhere distinctly different from New Jersey. But I cringe whenever I hear my kids speak Chinese – or more to the point, not speak Chinese. Their lack of language skills is really a sore spot for me.
It gives me great respect for the small but growing number of expat parents who make a very different choice – sending their kids to local schools. Most who do so are here long-term and want their kids fully immersed both culturally and linguistically. And most of them are ‘halfpats’ who have come here on their own, so they are not blessed with the incentives-laden expat packages that generally pay for education.
“International schools really cost too much for people like us here on their own,” says Gordon J. Gray, an American entrepreneur whose two daughters have attended Chinese schools since arriving here five years ago. But Mr. Gray’s objections run well beyond the price.
“We wanted the girls to have full immersion, which is part of the reason we moved here,” he says. “We know people whose kids go to expat schools and not one of them has learned Chinese properly. We want our kids to be fully bicultural, which we think will be invaluable because the world is heading in a broader direction, where success is not going to be so Western-oriented.”
Gray’s daughters have certainly integrated well into Chinese culture; both are fast becoming well-known singers here. Meilin, 18, is a freshman studying performing arts at Tianjin Normal University, the sole foreigner there not studying the Chinese language. She was recently selected by Disney to sing the lead part in the promotional song for the soon-to-be-released Mandarin version of Beauty and the Beast. Her 11-year-old sister Suelin is a member of a 30-child group of young performers sponsored by CCTV. They recently toured the US.
Still, many Westerners fear the Chinese school system because it is considered overly rigid, with strict discipline and an emphasis on rote memorization over creativity or critical thinking. Primary students can have hours of homework a night.
“I think kids should have time to play,” says Canadian Laura Johnson-Hill, whose 7-year-old daughter is enrolled at the French school (a more affordable international option) after attending Chinese preschool.
Most expats who start out in Chinese schools eventually transfer to a Western option, which the kids almost always find much easier. My son Jacob has a good friend who transferred to his school last year after attending a Chinese school through second grade. He considers the nightly hour of homework that drives Jacob to distraction a breeze, often finishing the entire week’s assignment on Monday night.
His experience isn’t unique. Angus Ning, 15, attended kindergarten through fourth grade at a neighborhood Chinese school and is now a sophomore at ISB. Ning, an American citizen, says that he doesn’t do as much homework now as he had in third and fourth grade.
“Back then, I was often up until 10 or 11pm finishing my work,” he says. “My first impression of my school was that it was like prison because you couldn’t move at all during class, even in first grade. I didn’t know there were different ways, though, and I got used to it.”
Even Gray, as dedicated as he is to seeing his kids receive a Chinese education, thinks he may want to move Suelin to an international school when she approaches middle school. “We may have to go to an expat school to reintegrate her into an English language environment,” he says.
After all, the goal is to create a fully bilingual, bicultural person and, as Mr. Gray notes, by then Suelin will be more Chinese than American.