Share This Page



lost in shanghai



From WALL STREET JOURNAL CHINESE May 22nd 2012 Digital Edition
To read the essay in Chinese click HERE

By Mina Choi

My expatriate friends in Shanghai always ask me whey we don’t send our children to the international schools. They ask me: “How about the American School? How about Yew Cheung? How about Dulwich?” And we always shake our heads and say no, no, no.

Why? I would love to give loftier reason, but the number one reason is money. It’s a simple calculation: Local Shanghai public schools are free, and as foreigners officially registered in China, we pay the foreigner’s rate, which is still only a fraction of the fee we would have to pay for the international schools. Of course, money is not the only issue, but in terms of value for money, Shanghai local system, we felt, was the best option that the world currently has to offer.

We had a discussion with an American professor of Chinese literature of ours who had also enrolled her children in a local school and she agreed with us. Her comments were: “It’s not just about the money. I’ve visited some of these other expensive schools and have seen their curriculum. The fee for that school is 25 times more than what I’m paying now for a local school. Still if I really felt that the school was 25 times better, then I would try to raise the money for my children. In fact, even if it was 2 or 3 times better than the local school, then I might still try to raise the money for it. But I didn’t think these expensive schools were that much better than the local school, at least not in terms of curriculum.”

Not only did we agree with her, but we saw more often than not, the international schools offered a less challenging curriculum that taught the students the most rudimentary Chinese that would not pass muster in any local schools. I’ve interviewed some international students who have spent five years in China and have not taken a single year of Chinese. They barely spoke the language and felt so proud that their English was flawless. For me, I see that as a bewildering waste of opportunity. These same schools often make up for that by having a complete range of classes in English, in a much more luxurious campus, so luxurious that my children’s eyes go wide when they enter it.

The number two reason that I decided against the international school is that I simply cannot stand the attitude many of the children who go to international schools. I once sat with one 7-year old European boy at my friend’s house who had assumed that I was an ‘ayi’(the housemaid) just because I looked Chinese. He never took into consideration that I spoke to him in English fo nearly half an hour. As far as he was concerned, all Chinese-looking ladies were there to serve him—a misguided notion hearkening back to the days of the darker colonial past. I didn’t like the idea of my children consorting with children who have an inflated sense of self simply because the larger population of China cannot live on the same economic level that they can. But more than that, many of these students are segregated in an international campus from the local population and they are often out of touch with the reality with the very country that they live in.

I quote yet more words of another friend visiting from the UK who found himself surrounded by expatriate children on the airplane back to Shanghai: “They spent the whole time talking about whether their driver would be arriving to pick them up on time. They were so spoiled and oblivious of the fact that they were in China that they made me sick.”

Thirdly, many of these international schools are a hodge-podge of international residents and teachers who come through the city for a three, four year sojourn. Students come and go, and that is also true for teachers, school masters, and administrators. A revolving door of teaching staff is often not healthy for a school and does not offer consistency for educating children. In addition, the diversity of the international population means that oftentimes, English is rarely spoken at home for many of the international school students. Yes, it does make for a vibrant, diverse population, but the English level of the students and teachers is oftentimes less than desirable, especially when the school is charging more than $20,000 a year.

So at the end of the day, my husband and I do our sums and we ask: what exactly are we paying for? What exactly are we willing to pay for? And the answer for us always remains: no to international schools in Shanghai.


For a complete list of essays by Mina Tenison click HERE