My daughter, who is just shy of three years old, goes to a pre school here in suburban Shanghai near where we live. It’s part of a school, grades pre k through 12, affiliated with a local university and as such it’s a thoroughly Chinese institution: this is not a place where ex pats send their toddlers to be minded for $10,000 or more per year. In the pre k classes there’s only one other “foreign” kid—the son of a Swedish businessman whose wife, like mine, is Chinese.
The school is first rate; in my daughter’s class there are two teachers for every ten children; the classrooms are large and well appointed with toys and plastic slides, a television and video equipment, and the outside grounds are pretty close to lavish—there’s a good sized playground for the kids as well as a regulation sized soccer field with well tended grass—a rarity in Shanghai, believe me—a 400 meter tartan surfaced track as well tennis and basketball courts. There’s even a shuttle bus that picks up and drops my daughter, Abby, back home every day. All this for a price that’s so low I’m embarrassed to reveal it for fear of depressing many of my ex pat friends in town who have kids (not to mention the bean counters at the companies they work for, who witlessly get extorted by the “international school” racket wherever ex pats congregate around the globe…)
It was on the soccer field that we found ourselves last Friday, for the annual “sports day’’ for the younger kids at the school and their parents. The pre-k through second graders paraded with their teachers onto the field at 9 am sharp—ok, the pre-k kids didn’t really march so much as spill out onto the field; for the teachers it was definitely like herding cats—but the older kids kept in line and managed to stand still as the P.A. system played the Chinese national anthem.
Then, on a sunny and unusually warm morning, the games began, a mix of relay races and obstacle courses for the kids, and for the adults the serious business of basketball, soccer and even a push up competition. Now I won’t, as we journalists like to say, bury the lede here: In a possible sign that the United States will reclaim its birthright at the top of international hoops at next year’s Beijing Olympics, I actually managed to win the basketball shooting contest. However my wife, daughter and I managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in a relay race when Abby, our two year old, veered disastrously off course in the final leg, laughing hysterically as she meandered aimlessly around the soccer field. ( After this debacle I refrained from making her run “suicides” as punishment…but I thought about it.)
At noon when the games were done we accompanied the kids back to their classroom, where they had lunch and we parents watched a video tape of a typical day in class. It’s pretty much like pre-k anywhere: they play some games insde, sing some songs, go outside to the playground on a nice day. Nothing out of the ordinary. My wife and I were particularly interested to see the part where a foreign instructor—a nice young Canadian guy– comes for a daily English lesson. One of Abby’s teachers had told us that the English instructor tries to draw Abby out during the lessons, trying to show her peers that little people like them can actually speak English. But the teacher told us that Abby seemed reluctant, and was usually very quiet when the foreign teacher tried to engage her. This news annoyed me a bit; it’s one thing for my kid not to be a particularly good athlete, but to be rude? Don’t want that.
The tape proved a bit of a relief. Watching it, my wife and I both realized instantly that Abby wasn’t being rude. She was just bored to tears during the English class, which, had we thought about for more than a second and a half, of course made sense. You could see her sitting in her little seat as the Canadian guy bounces a tennis ball and says over and over, “one…ball, one…ball.” And we’re pretty certain our little daughter is thinking to herself, `what’s with the baby talk? Where have I seen and heard this before? Oh, right, it’s what Dad was saying to me the day after I was born…’
The day ended, for me anyway, with a little bit of a surprise—albeit a pleasant one. Outside Abby’s classroom, down at the end of the hall, was a bulletin board typical of a school anywhere: some pictures of the students, some drawings and other artwork they had done and, and interspersed among it all, were three words, in English, written in large green letters so no one could miss them.
Two of the words were unsurprising: “equality” and “harmony.” From age two to 82, those are pretty much the buzzwords in Hu Jintao’s China. The “harmonious” society, China’s leaders tell its citizens, is what everyone should strive for; and everyone, of course, is equal (even if very few actually believe that.) But the last word on the board startled me a bit. As a somewhat jaded journalist, I admit I would not have predicted that this word would appear in the hallway of a Chinese school these days. I am not sure why it is there, but on the off chance that teachers discuss with the older students what it means, am sort of glad it is. In any event, I think I’ll ask Abby’s teacher about it at the next parents’ day.