On the eve of sending our two older kids to a Chinese kindergarten with only one hour of English class a day, I find myself looking back on how we came to choose the school we did. It took a lot of research and effort to make the decision, but I credit the initial seed with a NYTimes article I read a year and a half ago by one of the paper’s foreign correspondents, who sent his three children to an experimental full immersion school in Moscow for four years. The kids struggled a lot at first, but all ended up doing extremely well in an academic environment that was remarkably different from their previous experiences of attending elementary school in Brooklyn. The article fascinated me and led me to envision our kids struggling in a foreign school, but blooming in it too. The image appealed to me.
Last winter I read A Foremost Good Fortune, written by Susan Conley, who moved from Maine with her husband and two young boys, ages 4 and 6, to Beijing for 2.5 years (the book is not only about her experience living in China, but also about her struggle with breast cancer, as she was diagnosed with it while living in Beijing). Reading about a family somewhat similar to our own helped me to picture ourselves here. They chose a bilingual school for their boys through a web search, and when I read about the boys’ school experiences at Beijing City International School, I thought it sounded like a feasible school option for us too and I began to think of it as a potential choice.
The heart of our search for a school, though, did not begin until right after last Christmas, only a month before we planned to depart. I gathered the emails we’d received over the previous year from friends and friends of friends, most of whom were doing academic research, who’d lived in Beijing with their children. After looking up a lot of schools on-line and contacting many of them, it became clear very quickly that most, if not all, of the foreign and bilingual schools were not an option for us. With prices ranging from 60,000 RMB/year (about $10,000) to around 225,000 RMB/year (about $38,000) per child, we found that although the school fees may be affordable for families of business executives and embassy staff, for example, who often receive tuition compensation as part of salary packages, it would not be possible for us to send the kids to such schools with Manu’s limited research funding.
Manu then suggested that I homeschool the kids (there is a large community of foreigners who homeschool and it probably wouldn’t be too hard for me to connect with other homeschooling families). I suddenly felt constricted and panicky. While working with Sophia on her first grade coursework would be one thing, the thought of being alone in Beijing, a city of 20 million, with three kids in a small city apartment day in and day out, trying to keep Sophia on a program and a preschooler and toddler stimulated and occupied, seemed like a nightmare. Dylan is a very active, social boy who needs to be in school; six months without any school at all would be very, very hard on us all.
I don’t remember when it occurred to us that we could look for a preschool for Dylan, while I could homeschool Sophia, but that line of thought helped me to relax. Afterwards, we briefly considered sending Sophia to a Chinese primary school, but were recommended not doing this for a single semester, if possible, as not only would the language be a primary challenge, but math in the Chinese system is much more advanced than what she would have encountered in the U.S. (fractions vs. counting cheerios!). Then, while corresponding with another academic contact about where to live in Beijing, the answer suddenly became clear: since many Beijing apartment complexes have a kindergarten (serving kids ages 3-6) within it, we could try to find an apartment and a school for the kids in the same location! (everyone impressed upon us that we should live very close to whatever school the kids would attend and have Manu do any of the necessary commuting). Since Sophia is one of the youngest in her first-grade class (9/22 birthday with a 9/30 cut-off in VA), her going to kindergarten would still be possible in a Beijing setting.
The next contact that came my way was perhaps the most serendipitous of all. A friend whom I’ve known since grade school, and who now is a professor of anthropology at the University of Hong Kong, responded to my holiday letter in which I mentioned our heading to Beijing for the semester. He wrote to me, about two weeks before we were scheduled to leave, asking if I’d like to meet via Facebook a fellow anthropologist friend doing research in Beijing for the year, who has a son around Sophia’s age. Megan proved to be a fantastic resource and prolifically responded to my many questions with the type of detail I love. The most amazing personal details of all were that they also live in Charlottesville (she teaches at James Madison University, while her anthropologist husband currently is doing work via grant money at UVa) and their son, Soren, who’s one month older than Sophia, was in the same class last year as of good friend of ours’ son! Further, Soren has been attending Brown Kindergarten, located right next door to Minzu University, where Manu is carrying out his research! Soon after arriving in Beijing, I visited the school, which has no English presence, so we could not have easily contacted them in advance. When I walked into the school, it felt good to me, which is significant. Further, I found that there was a spot for both Sophia and Dylan, and that the price was right (3000 RMB/month [$500] per child). We limited our apartment search to the same area and were set! (it is amazing that everything is so close, especially when considering that most of Beijing’s bilingual schools are in the predominantly expat area, Chaoyang, which would have meant about three hours of commuting for Manu each day).
During those now-blurry weeks of researching schools and areas to live in Beijing, including pages of questions and correspondence with our various contacts, I don’t know when it was that Manu questioned whether we should send Sophia, who’s older and subsequently has a greater dependence upon language in the classroom, into a full-immersion environment for only a semester. We talked about whether it’d be too much for her. But when we considered our goals for the kids being in school in China – to learn some Mandarin and to make some friends – a Chinese kindergarten definitely met them. Further, since the kids are bilingual in English and Spanish (Manu speaks only in Spanish to them), they both have the experience of not being as fluent in one language as the other and of their Spanish significantly improving every time we’re in Spain or with my in-laws. And that NYTimes article kept coming back to the forefront of my mind: the kids might very well struggle, but the end result of their experience would likely give them confidence within themselves that they could apply to many different struggles they will encounter in life (this is not unlike Amy Chua’s “Tiger Mother” perspective on pushing her girls so that they come to have a self-confidence and self-reliance that can never be taken away). On this eve of sending Sophia and Dylan into an as-of-yet unknown world of Chinese kindergarten, I can only rely on my own confidence that we have made a good decision and hope that our children will find happiness there amidst the challenges of language and cultural differences (hope is one thing and reality may be another, so as the next months unfold, I’ll write about how things are going).