Is total immersion in Chinese schools right for your kid?
When Mareno Rathell came to Beijing from the US in 2005, he had big hopes for his kids’ education. He enrolled his youngest son, 9-year-old Zevi, into a local Chinese school in Haidian district, where Zevi was one of the few foreign students. It seemed like an ideal situation – his children had a chance to learn about Chinese culture and develop fluent Mandarin skills, while benefiting from the strong training in subjects such as math and science that Chinese schools are known for.
“I believe that Chinese kids receive an excellent grade and middle school education,” says Rathell, “and my kid could only benefit from studying with them.”
But the reality was far from ideal. In a completely unfamiliar cultural environment, Zevi encountered far greater difficulties than Rathell had expected.
Trouble Out of Class
“Originally I thought that the language barrier might be the only problem,” says Rathell, “but I soon found that to be an easy obstacle for Zevi to overcome.” Rathell’s son had a knack for language learning, and within a few months was able to handle the same level of schoolwork as his Chinese classmates.
But problems arose. Zevi started feeling isolated as his fellow students teased him relentlessly, Rathell recalls. They told him how poor his Chinese was and excluded him from extracurricular activities such as school songs and dances. They made fun of his home country.
“My son was told not to talk with Chinese girls,” says Rathell, “and he would get in trouble anytime Chinese girls looking for English exchange approached him.”
Zevi only stayed in the school for one semester. “I don’t blame the school or the administration because they were more than accommodating,” says Rathell, “but my son just wasn’t ready for that environment.”
Many expat parents in Beijing have faced a similar dilemma. They forgo the international schools, either because of the high tuition fees or because they prefer to immerse their children in the foreign environment while in China. But despite their high hopes, the reality is that they’re usually not prepared for the ramifications of their kids going completely local.
The Middle Way
Fortunately, there’s a middle ground. Some Chinese schools provide a special department for international students – a sort of halfway point between an entirely Chinese education and the Western tradition of international schools. Fangcaodi Primary School, located by Ritan Park, was one of the first Chinese schools in Beijing that was approved to enroll foreign students. Here, expat kids follow a curriculum designed to prepare them for higher education in an international environment.
Bruce Buntain has been teaching at the international department of Fangcaodi for seven years. His students, who hail from all over the world, interact with their Chinese schoolmates during music and physical education classes, and sometimes during lunch breaks. For the most part, however, there’s minimal mixing between the two groups.
“Language barrier is not a big problem since Chinese is the primary language of instruction,” says Buntain, a Canadian, “but cultural differences tend to keep them largely separate.”
Despite the social distance between international and Chinese students, Buntain believes expat kids benefit greatly from attending a Chinese school, especially in improving their language skills. “The international students here can master the Chinese language and absorb some of the Chinese culture more rapidly than is possible at other international schools,” says Buntain.
That is no bluff. American Robert Char would agree. He moved with his family to Beijing from the US 16 years ago and sent his son Kenny to Fangcaodi for grade school and then ISB for high school.
“The Chinese educational system is good for elementary school kids,” says Char. “It tends to emphasize acquiring knowledge when they are young, and this gives them a solid academic foundation.”
Not to mention the fact that Kenny’s Chinese is at the level of a native speaker’s – and certainly much higher than most of his classmates at ISB. His father attributes Kenny’s fluency to his having attended school in a largely Chinese-speaking environment.
Compare and Contrast
But Kenny’s education in the Chinese system wasn’t perfect. Char believes that kids who attend Chinese schools tend to have weaker research and analytical skills. In comparison to his peers at ISB who had been schooled in the international system from the beginning, Kenny felt slightly inadequate when it came to expressing opinions on historical and social events.
“International high school students are more flexible and exploratory when it comes to current affairs,” says Char. “Kids in Chinese schools show less interest in these subjects and can be quite rigid with them.”
As kids learn during adolescence, nothing is perfect – everything comes with pros as well as cons. This is the case with choosing one educational approach over another, and expat parents who intend to send their kids to Chinese schools need to be prepared for the benefits as well as the challenges ahead.
“You can’t have a closed mind about ‘differences.’You must be willing to accept things that may seem unorthodox to you,” says Rathell. And remember, parents have enormous influence over the outcome. Rathell adds, “How you as a parent handle those differences will determine how positive or negative your children’s experience will be.”