My Chinese neighbours in Beijing enthused about how lucky I was to get my 8-year-old into the primary school up the road, for which parents who didn’t have the right hukou had to pay through the nose.
“The teaching level is far higher than in your country, especially math,” I was told. “The respect for teachers is paramount here.”
My son Oscar was born in Beijing, went to a Chinese kindergarten, and followed it up with one year at a Chinese primary school. His spoken Mandarin was completely native and, allowing my Tiger Mother tendencies to come to the fore, I had decided to send him to Chinese school.
It wasn’t just that I couldn’t afford the foreign schools. I’d also heard they only taught Chinese as a second language. As my son was already bilingual, I thought it would be great to get him educated in Chinese for a while. Surely, at least for the first couple of years, it wouldn’t be as bad as I’d heard. After all, his kindergarten had been fabulous, really bright, cheerful, and full of fun.
But while I hadn’t really contemplated moving back to the
motherland (England) any time in the near future, it was this one year at a Chinese primary school that made me decide to leave the dear old Jing for good.
Oscar had always seemed quite happy at the school itself, where he was the first and only non-Chinese student. He liked most of his teachers and his friends, and he never complained about going to school.
He didn’t seem to mind the fact that everyone – from his peers in Year 1 to the teenagers in Year 6 – knew his name or called him Xiao Laowai (The Little Foreigner). He also didn’t seem to mind that his was the only Caucasian face among more than 1,000 young Chinese all being schooled in the importance of learning his mother tongue.
Homework was an issue, however, and it was a chore forcing him to do it every evening. Sometimes it took more than an hour, and sometimes he refused to do it at all (though rarely). But we lived with it and turned in the work.
All his classmates were taking after-school lessons in maths and English, and going to classes for at least one day every weekend.
In the two-week lead-up to exams, the children were given mock exam papers all day, every day, and brought them home every evening to correct their mistakes. I’m not used to this pressure being piled on children of 6, so I stopped him doing it. The teachers, worried about their statistics, probably marked him down as an aberration. I don’t know whether they included his marks in the averages.
But it wasn’t the homework and the exams that clinched my decision to move back to the UK. There were two reasons: (1) the children sat by themselves at their individual desks eating lunch; and (2) they only got free play time outside once a week for ten minutes. Once a week.
I just couldn’t do this to him any more, so within three months we had packed up, found a house to rent in England on the south coast, and signed him up at a primary school that had a grand total of 240 children.
For his first day, I dressed Oscar in his smart grey trousers and navy blue V neck jumper, and left him sitting down on the carpet for story time next to children he didn’t know. He hugged his knees and looked down. Tears welled up in my eyes as I walked out; I felt guilty and sick all day.
When I picked him up with a churning stomach at 3.15pm, he came bounding out the door with his new friend Ollie. His teacher mouthed “He’s been brilliant!” Oscar couldn’t stop talking the whole way home:
“Mummy, we played outside three times today!”
“We sat on the floor and had stories!”
“We’re allowed to chat as we eat lunch!”
“We can go to the toilet whenever we want!”
“The teachers smile and tell jokes!”
The relief that washes over a parent is a wonderful thing.
A couple of months later, the school held a Victorian fair in which all the children dressed up as rich ladies and gentlemen or paupers. They all fashioned crafts just like the ones that would have been made in those days, and sold them at little stalls that they ran themselves.
Oscar learned about revolutionary heroes in the texts that were used to teach reading, but the students at his former school in China never re-enacted history, had dress-up days, or put on shows. At Oscar’s first school Nativity play at the local church hall, I cried like a child. I’m not even religious.
Not long after he started school, I checked up on Oscar’s progress with his teacher, Miss Gibson.
“Bit of a shaky start but he got there,” she said. A shaky start? Had he been playing up, being rude or – worst of all – bullying anyone?
“Oh no, nothing like that,” she replied. “It was him getting over the culture shock.”
In the first few weeks, she said it was like welcoming in a child from another planet. When first told he could go out to play, Oscar froze to the spot with a blank stare. “He didn’t know what to do,” said Miss Gibson. “He was waiting to be told how to play.”
Oscar was shown to a table where he would sit with his classmates during lessons. In China, the desks were set in rows and any slight turn of the head to one’s neighbour was punished.
“He sat there goggle-eyed and didn’t seem to understand what he was doing there,” continued Miss Gibson. “When the children were asked to draw a picture, he asked what they were meant to copy and didn’t realize that they were allowed to use their imagination.”
At home in China, Oscar had used up entire forests of paper with his drawings, but at school he had always drawn to specific demands. In England, the line between school and home was now blurred; one could play at school, too.
The children were nice to him but it took a few days for Oscar to blend in. “He didn’t know how to interact with them,” said Miss Gibson. “He didn’t know any of the games they played or how to have a laugh with them.”
“It was as if they were speaking a different language. It didn’t last long because he’s young enough to adapt to new environments quickly. But we’d never seen anything like it before.”
We visited Beijing at the end of the summer and saw some of his old classmates. They were jubilant about the new rule that has eliminated homework for students in Grades 1 to 3 – but they still only play outside once a week.
Oscar moved up to middle school in September with a full set of friends and a ton of fun stuff on the agenda: football, keyboard, rugby, choir, gymnastics, and more. At reading time, they read My Dad Bought an Alligator and Killer Mushrooms Ate My Gran, not the stories of Lei Feng and Deng Xiaoping.
His math isn’t great, but it’s good enough. And at least he is still very polite to his teachers.
Debbie Mason is a freelance journalist with 15 years of experience. In the past, she has worked for China Daily, South China Morning Post, expat magazines, British newspapers, and radio. After several years in Beijing, she moved back to the UK last year with her son Oscar.
Photo by Courtesy of Debbie Mason
This article originally appeared on p52-53 of the beijingkids November 2013 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com