Archive for April, 2009

Open Day Last Fall

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009


At this particularly painful session in cross-cultural immersion all the parents were invited to school to learn a Chinese song. Ours was a schmaltzy number (which I later found out was popular commemorative tune written for last year’s earthquake). Each parent was handed a sheet with the printed words, (which I couldn’t read). Then the teacher – along with a recorded edition – led us in the song 4 or 5 times. The only lyric I could make out was bu zhidao 不知道 (I don’t know) which seemed highly appropriate. (more…)

More for the archive

Sunday, April 12th, 2009

Ann Hulbert’s Re-education (New York Times Magazine), and Leslie Chang’s Gilded Age, Gilded Cage (National Geographic) are both fascinating articles and crucial to the exploration of Chinese education.

If anyone can add to the resource list please write.

Pick up

Sunday, April 12th, 2009

My only complaint about the school is the guard. He is sullen, rough and slightly scary. I have never seen him smile at, talk to, or engage with a child in any way. He smokes constantly and the sidewalk outside the gate is littered with his butts.

Though the realm of his power is limited, he rules over his small domain with a fierce militancy. We all have keys for the magnetic gate, but we only dare enter with the guard’s approval.

At the appointed hour he skulks towards the door, claps his hands twice and waves us in. Ayis, parents, grandparents all crush forward. The guard then stands outside the gate, smoking and looking shady.

The only time I have seen him diverge from this routine was when one dad – desperate for an early pick up – bribed him with a smoke.

How he managed to get –or keep – his job is a mystery.

I have heard that in Shanghai the lesser branches of public security –crossing guards and security guards – are positions reserved for history’s rejects: laid off employees of SOE’s that can not find work elsewhere, or – a more ominous and intriguing possibility – former Red Guards. I do not know if these rumors are true, but, if they are, it explains a lot.

Crazy English

Saturday, April 11th, 2009

In what I think is his first ‘Letter from China‘ Evan Osnos gives a wonderful account of one of China’s most eccentric teaching methods.

Learning English

Saturday, April 11th, 2009

It is a sign of our school’s sophistication that English classes start as early as age 2. Every week I get handouts with simple phrases printed out in English and Chinese: Hello Teacher, Sit, Stand, Goodbye.

Mostly the class consists of singing, but the songs are unfamiliar. In content, theme and pragmatic intent, the latest seems suspiciously Chinese.

It goes like this: “I like noodles, I like rice, I like tomatoes, I like tofu. I love food”


Tuesday, April 7th, 2009


Zhang Laoshi teaches Max wushu (kung fu). He is a fantastic teacher, with strictness and kindness in just the right mix.

The methods he uses to teach foreign kids, however, are far different from the ones his own teachers used.

Chinese parents, he told me, want their kids to win competitions. Foreign parents just want their kids to have fun. Different goals call for different methods – one far more brutal than the other.

His own training, he recalls, involved constant beatings. “If I didn’t come home black and blue my mother would think I hadn’t been to class.” When the teachers would help the kids stretch – to increase flexibility – 9 out of 10 kids would cry.

Zhang Laoshi seems to have been converted to the Western approach– his own daughter attends Max’s class, where the stretches are gentle and the harshest punishment is standing in the corner.

Nevertheless, he is a little uncomfortable with the frivolous attitude of some parents. Fun is not the sole purpose of his class.

The Chinese have a saying, he told me, without suffering you cannot learn.

吃一堑, 长一智: No wisdom without suffering

Monday, April 6th, 2009

To practice Mandarin Nick (my husband) and I have been studying idioms, a crucial element of Chinese speech. We have only gotten through a dozen or so but already it is clear that many express a common sentiment: 吃一堑, 长一智  (chi yi qian, zhang yi zhi), is a typical example. Translated loosely –  No wisdom without suffering.


Saturday, April 4th, 2009

Since we are suddenly without ayi, Zoe – my two and a half year old daughter will have to start school. Thankfully the wonderful principal at Max’s kindergarten has found a place for her starting next week. So, as of now, this blog is dedicated to tracking her journey as well.



Saturday, April 4th, 2009


Yesterday our ayi disappeared. Complex personal circumstances, which language and culture make it difficult for me to understand made her leave suddenly for her hometown. I do not know if we will see her again.

For four years, since Max was born, she was – outside family – the most important person in my life. In some profoundly crucial ways we were as intimate as husband and wife. Since our days were spent together raising my kids.

My ayi and I were both born in the year of the dog. And though we are from different worlds, I often felt that we were, in some strange way, the same – that but for the randomness of circumstance, we – tai-tai and ayi – could have easily switched place.

As she spoon fed my son, changed a dirty diaper or rocked my wailing daughter to sleep I – grateful for a moment of escape – would wonder what karmic debt she was repaying or – more likely – which I was building up…..

In any case for 4 years at least the love, hardships and minutiae of parenting kept our fates radically intertwined. In case our paths are now no longer joined, I wanted, somehow, to say goodbye.


Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

Author Amy Chua begins her book Day of Empire talking about her immigrant father. This is the anecdote that sticks:

Every evening when my father came home from work, I took off his shoes and brought him his slippers. Our report cards had to be perfect; while our friends were rewarded for B’s, for us getting an A-minus was unthinkable. In eighth grade, I won second place in a history contest and took my family to the awards ceremony. Somebody else had won the Kiwanis prize for best all round student. Afterward, my father said to me: “Never, never disgrace me like that again.”

Chua insists her childhood wasn’t horrible. Instead, she writes, her family gave her “strength and confidence.”

For more tales of the positive results of terrifying pressure check out this account of Top of the Class: How Asian Parents Raise High Achievers – and How You Can Too