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lost in shanghai



From ORIENTAL OUTLOOK (DONGFANG ZHOUKAN) September 21st & 28th 2008 Print Edition

By Mina Tenison


My son Alexander just finished third grade in Shanghai. He attends a local Chinese school just one block away behind our apartment in Xuhui District.

Like most dutiful parents, we’ve been concerned about our child’s education ever since his birth. Six years ago, when Alexander was three and we were living in Los Angeles, we looked at many different preschools in the city before finally enrolling him at our neighborhood pre-school. We compared the tuition and the quality of education to decide the best option. In Los Angeles, the tuition for the best preschools then could easily cost up to $18,000 a year. And many schools already had long waiting lists, which added to our sense of anxiety and competition.

One friend told me about an interview her four-year old had when he had to test for the most elite school in Los Angeles. Her son was asked, “What are your leadership qualities?” I was stunned—leadership skills for a four-year old? I asked her, “What did he say?” She replied: “He told them he told his friends what to do.” Her boy was accepted.

Nonetheless, this particular school was outside our price range so were delighted to find the local Montessori school where the tuition was affordable (about $6,000 per year), which struck a good balance between play and learning. After all, Alexander was only three years old; we were happy to see him spend the day singing songs and tumbling on the floor rather than honing his leadership skills.

But once he turned five, and he was slightly ahead of the rest of the class, we started to worry. He was constantly being flattered by his teacher, who would say offhandedly-- “Alexander is so smart that we’re going to send him to Harvard next year.” Alexander wasn’t stupid, but he was no genius either. Then we caught Alexander bragging to his classmates that he was on reading book 17 while all his classmates were on book 2 or book 3. Furthermore, the local primary school was not challenging enough. So my husband and I looked at each other and thought: What next?

After thinking about it and discussing our options, we made an unusual decision: Go back to China.

At this point, both us were already familiar with China. My husband had already lived in China for over fourteen years and I had lived there for a year. We also agreed on one thing: that we value Asian primary education—he, because he loved the Chinese language and culture, and I, because I had attended primary school in Korea and appreciated the strictness of that education. Secondly, we felt that Chinese language—especially the written characters--was extremely difficult and best mastered in primary school. We figured that losing three, four years of American primary school education was not a big deal. So we packed up and moved back to Shanghai, just in time to enroll Alexander in first grade.

We had already heard from many of our friends in Shanghai, both Chinese and foreign, that primary school in China was going to be challenge. But we figured that a bit of challenge, after being flattered for two years, would be good for Alexander.

And challenging it turned out to be. By the end of the first week of first grade, Alexander returned with at least two hours of homework to do every day. In contrast, his schoolmates in the U.S. had about ten minutes of homework daily. We were pleased that the new Shanghai school was rigorous, and that Alexander was finally with a group of students who were as smart, if not much smarter, and more hardworking than he was. But as the school term proceeded, we started to feel sorry for him. The two hours of homework was in fact two hours in name only; if Alexander got distracted or bored, as would any typical six-year old would get, those two hours could easily balloon into three, four hours. Furthermore, he found himself struggling to stay in just the top half of the class after his effortless reign as the smartest kid at his Los Angeles school.

One particular first-grade homework—tingsuan—nearly destroyed him. Every time he had to do it, he would collapse into tears. Every kid in first grade was issued a taped recording of mathematical sums and subtractions. The homework went like this: the voice would shout out in Chinese ‘Two plus two; nine plus nine; eighteen plus fourteen’ but the sums got faster and faster, and more and more difficult. The kid’s job was to write down the answers and keep up with the speed.

Inevitably, by the second half of the problem set, Alexander just couldn’t keep up. He would start crying or ripping the paper in half. I had to take him aside and say: “If you break down and cry, then you will get everything wrong, so you must control yourself. If you can’t get one sum, you skip to the next one, then you can get at least 70% of it right, rather than 70% of it wrong.” It was the first time he had faced a task where he couldn’t get it all right, no matter how hard he tried: a tough lesson for a six-year old to learn.

After experiencing the trials and tribulations of first-grade with Alexander, I can now spot a Shanghainese first-grader from miles away: his shoulders sag, his eyes look tired, and the accompanying parent looks apologetic as if he or she try to comfort the child through one of the biggest transitions in life—from a life of afternoon naps and nursery songs to a fourteen-hour work-day, including all the homework hours. It’s as if the child’s been signed up for a corporate life overnight.

Initially, I was so stunned by the school workload that I would grab whichever parent to discuss how he or she managed it. They all replied: Yes, it’s hard. Yes, my child has to stay up until 10, 11pm to finish his homework. Yes, he cries every day. But then they all shook their heads and said, “What can we do? It’s a competitive society.”

Ten p.m.? On hearing that, I felt chastened. At least Alexander went to bed by 8:30 p.m. Then I realized--Of course! Alexander doesn’t have to do his English homework! For the other children, that meant that their homework load was even worse. I felt grateful for small mercies.

At the end of Alexander’s first year, the amount of learning that was crammed into his brain was truly remarkable. But the result of the burdensome homework was that after a year in school, Alexander still had no friends. We had initially thought that sending him to a school a block away would mean that he would make dozens of friends who would come over to play every day, but his schoolmates too were overwhelmed by schoolwork. There was no possibility of playing during the school day, not if they were to finish their work by 9 p.m.

And the weekends fared no better because most of Alexander’s classmates went from one lesson to another--piano lessons, English classes, swimming classes, tennis classes, etc. Between all the classes, there was only one or two hours of idle time and it was impossible to organize the get-togethers between the limited time slots. Even now, after three years at this school, Alexander has only one friend, and this is only because his mother and I have made a lot of effort to get the two boys together.

What has been most surprising for me is how demanding the schoolwork is on the parent or the grandparent in charge of the kid’s homework. Without a parent to sit next to the child and push him on, the homework can easily extend into 4-5 hours, rather than the 2-3 hours. So for the guardian/parent, it is either sit and push the homework along or let the child do it himself and be sleep-deprived the next day. Luckily, as the child grows older, the homework load becomes more manageable, simply because he or she has learned to cope with it as efficiently as possible. The child has also understood its reward system: do the homework, get respectable grades; do the extra bits and get excellent grades.

At the end of his first grade, after getting nineties on all his tests, and studying harder than he’s ever studied, Alexander ranked ten in his class of forty. Not bad by our standards, but disappointing for our boy who was used to being at the top of his class in the U.S. without trying.

Once, I described Alexander’s school and homework routine to an English expatriate woman whose children were enrolled in a British international school. She was horrified. She exclaimed, “Are you happy to do that your children?!?” And I simply answered, “It’s a choice. I’ve decided that it’s better to err on the side of over-educating my child than under-educating my child.”

But recently, I’ve started to wonder about my choice. I fear that under the mound of homework, Alexander’s childhood is being lost. I fear that he is not getting enough time to enjoy what he has learned.

Fortunately, the Shanghai education bureau has been slowly reforming the syllabus. We can see that the homework load is getting lighter every year, and on some Fridays now, Alexander is done with his homework after only one hour. We can’t believe it and he can’t either because he asks us: “What should I do now? What should I do now?”

It’s not easy for him to have idle time after spending three years with all his school day hours accounted for from seven in the morning until nine in the evening. Still, once in a while, on one of those terrible days, when he’s on his fourth hour of homework way past his bed time, I think: is it worth it? He’s only eight! Am I doing the right thing?

Both my husband and I understand that academic success means only one thing: academic success. Amongst our own siblings, the most successful ones had been the worst performing students.

Many days, I wish for Alexander the same thing I had when I was young--time to do nothing, just hang around with friends, and find silly ways to amuse oneself. I know that no grades, however spectacular, and no learning, however necessarily, can make up for the wonders of childhood.

My own favorite memory of my childhood is playing by the road, picking up a random piece of natural chalk and finding that I could use them to draw something. Why do I find that memory so poignant? Because it was a moment when I discovered something on my own and had the freedom to explore it in my own way.

And then I think: what memories will Alexander have?

For a complete list of essays by Mina Tenison click HERE