Tuesday, December 11

Second thoughts, Part 1

The other day, Thanksgiving Day, to be exact, I found myself trying to convince some friends that they should consider sending their son to a local school for first grade.

“Absolutely not!” said the Dad, a Jewish American from an area in the U.S. known for…rich Jewish Americans. 

I like this guy.  He is friendly, smart, and generous.  Since he has married a Chinese woman, lives in China, and is one of the few expats I’ve met who has taken the trouble to learn to speak Chinese really well, I was surprised at his vehemence.  He and his family live in the same compound we do, so their son attending the girls’ school would be as convenient for them as it is for us, geographically.  And linguistically and culturally--well, let’s just say that to finish writing this sentence I had to tear myself out of a glorious daydream wherein me, MTH, my mom, and the girls were all fluent in Chinese, and two of us had actually gone to school in this country.

There are a number of kids in the girls’ class who have Chinese moms and American or European fathers.  This combination seems to work, since it is--generally speaking, I guess--the moms who help with the homework.  As far as I know, I am one of only four families with non-Chinese-speaking moms at the school: in addition to me, there’s Ms. Eastern European (who says she and her family are mainly here because the public education available to her kids in Shanghai is better than that in her home-country), and the two Ms. Headscarves, one Caribbean-ish*, one South Asia-ish.  I exchange nods with them all, and the occasional few sentences with Ms Eastern Euro, who has been around long enough to allow for accumulation of the thousand nods I seem to require before I can work up the courage to actually speak to someone. 

These days, adding to my general fear of idle school-gate chit-chat (already augmented by the fact that, when I do engage, my interlocutors are, necessarily, the type of people who don’t bring something to read while waiting, a breed I will never understand, language-barrier or no), is the dread of learning information I’d be better off without. During my last exchange with Ms EE, she imparted that, although she has been thrilled with the experience her two older kids have had at our school, she’s run into problems with her youngest’s first-grade teacher.  Per Ms EE, this teacher has divided the class into two groups, one comprising those whose parents have paid an “extra fee” levied by the teacher herself, who are lavished with attention and given padded test scores; the other comprising those whose parents haven’t, and who therefore aren’t.

I have no way of verifying Ms EE’s story, or none that my language skills would render appropriately discreet (“I HEAR TEACHER ASKS YOUR MONEY, IF YOU DON’T MONEY, SHE TO YOUR CHILD NOT GOOD!”), but her tale (which, true or not, adds to the uncomfortable haze that my thoughts about the school float in); the increasing burden of homework this year (the time we spend is about the same, since we no longer need to check the dictionary every five seconds, but the stress is greater and the fortifying novelty is waning); and the fact that the only non-Chinese-speaking moms I’ve met who send their kids to local school do so for financial reasons; were all in the background when Thanksgiving Dad made it so clear that he would never, ever consider making the choice we have made. 

The whole scene at that dinner--TD’s sureness in the face of my own confusion; the simultaneous presence at our table of a friend I had hitherto seen just once since we were performers in the New York Renaissance Faire (I dressed as a beekeeper, and we spent our time shirking our improv duties to sneak into the woods for anachronistic cigarettes, a period I am sad to say was the pinnacle of my acting career); all of us gathered around a turkey I’d bought in China at a place called Bubba’s Texas Barbecue, served in metal bowls won at a Shanghai furniture mall’s lucky draw and laid on a table made of wood reclaimed from houses razed to make way for the new, neon-gasma-tastic Shanghai--was so surreal that it forced me to ask the question that has been lurking around the edges of my consciousness since the girls started second grade: Am I crazy?

When I was young(er) and had the kind of college professors who smoked their own cigarettes in class, theirs accumulating trembling columns of ash while they berated us about our inhibited pelvises and hollered their assertions that  “general enthusiasm is the CHEAPEST COMMODITY ON THE STAGE!” I was also taught that, while madness itself is not interesting theater, a character’s descent into madness is, if done right, captivating--witness Ophelia, Woyzeck, Britney.  I think we can all agree that when I first decided to send the girls to a local school, I was ignorant, but not crazy.  But then, as I find myself trying to explain to the girls why their scores in the Chinese English class are so low (“Well, you seem to have gotten marked off here for having incorrectly memorized whether this picture of a sun low in the sky refers to ‘morning’ or ‘evening.’”), or screaming, literally screaming, at my children to “color faster, GODDAMMIT!” so that they can move on to the next exercise and hopefully get to bed before 10pm, I start to feel the cuckoos springing out of my ears while my eyeballs twirl.  To the extent that people have found this account of the girls’ schooling interesting, is it possible that that interest is really just some form of “How low can she go?” 

And if such a concern seems overly dramatic, given your likely conviction that what I’ve described sounds more funny and strange than horrifying--how do you know that I haven’t been keeping the really bad stuff to my self out of shame?  And even if you think that unlikely (since who with any real sense of shame would acknowledge their Renaissance Faire past), how do I know that the girls are telling me everything?  Lately the Rooster has been saying to me “Mommy, there are some things that I sooooooo know what they mean in Chinese, but I don’t know how to say them in English!”  What could these things be?  When she starts to sob because she thinks she’s forgotten her math book (an easily rectifiable problem, since we have twins and a copier), am I supposed to believe that this a normal level of despair for a forgetful seven-year old?  Or is something being said at school that she can’t translate because it makes connections--an inverse relationship between forgetfulness and your worth as a person, for instance--that she’s never heard in English?  Dwell too much on these questions and you’ll start beating your heart and singing about cockle hats.

When we first came here, I thought it was only for a year, and figured not much damage could be done.  But now (as Thanksgiving Dad was assuring me that his own son--who, in my experience, is a lovely, verbal, friendly, but not exactly retiring child--was “too sensitive” for a local school, and I was trying simultaneously to not feel insulted by the implication that mine aren’t and to quash a memory of the girls’ report that their after-school dance teacher had told them they were all brainless) I had to wonder when  I should end this--even the choice of words is fraught with implications.  Grind? Experiment? Adventure? Catastrophe? 

I am also acutely aware that, should it turn out that the girls remember their days in the Chinese elementary school with horror, they might raise some uncomfortable questions about my motives when they discover that I used their experience here as writing material.  My only comfort is that, since they know me well, they will probably find my true drivers--a love of convenience bordering on laziness and a lack of foresight bordering on idiocy--imminently believable. 

All of which is a long lead-up to what happened right after TD finished his list of reasons why public school in Shanghai is a no-go for them (including his disinclination to expose his son to the enforced political education he assumes is part-and-parcel of the experience, an assumption I can’t really refute since the girls still haven’t given me a great account of what goes on in their “society” class), which is that his wife revealed that she’d made an appointment to go see one of the international schools in Shanghai, a school as well-known for its emphasis on Chinese language as it is for its astronomical tuition.  She, clearly sensing my wavering, kindly invited me to go along.   To agree, and thank her for the opportunity, seemed the only sane thing to do. Stay tuned.

*Maybe.  I frankly have no idea and just made that up completely.  Also, MTH tells me he’s never seen her wearing a headscarf.  But I swear she does.  Or did.  At least once.