Sunday, December 23

Second Thoughts, Part 2

The school I visited, which I’ll call Tai Gui International School, is right across from La-La Land.  La-La Land (which isn’t quite named exactly that), is what its website calls an “integrated complex,” meaning that, if you’re the type who requires a Gap and a Starbucks and a luxury manicurist at your doorstep to survive the rigors of living in Shanghai, and don’t mind living in a mall--surrounded by other like-minded mall-dwellers and their well-heeled offspring--to achieve that goal, then your needs are all integrated in a single fountain-spangled, retail-scented campus. 

There are hundreds (probably thousands) of people, Chinese and ex-pat, who have opted to make La-La land their home.  I have been to La-La Land many times (for birthday parties--they have a party-spot with a set of vertical-drop slides that are thrilling to the point of terrifying, and could not possibly be legal in the U.S.--for ritzy mom-lunches, and, yes, for pedicures). We know people who moved to La-La Land because it was so close to TGIS (The school and the complex itself would be the only reason to move there--as far as I can tell, there is nothing else in walking distance, and you see no one on the sidewalks.  The whole neighborhood looks like a piece of Los Angeles plunked down in China.), and another couple who confessed that, despite having lived there for a year, they’d never used the kitchen in their apartment, preferring to eat at the complex’s brew-pub, or the multi-station Asian-fusion restaurant, where you swipe a magnetic card to order your meals.

It’s not the school’s fault that it’s so close to the LLL-IC, but, unfairly, it suffers in my estimation from the proximity. When I got there, though, it didn’t look too different from the girls’ school--from the outside, at least.  Tall walls, gate with guardhouse, slightly desolate feel.  There is a play structure, but it looks designed for littler kids, and somehow made me more homesick for the girls’ Berkeley school’s jungle-gym than their current school’s complete lack of play structure has. 

I met my friends, and we went in to the chilly lobby area (they apparently heat only the classrooms, not the halls and common areas--a policy TGIS shares with the girls’ current school and one that, no matter how ecologically and fiscally sound it is, I find hard to get accustomed to), where we perched on benches and spoke with a carefully made up Brazilian Chinese American, who presented us each with a string-handled matte paper bag full of glossy brochures, a package whose duplicates I have received at every conference, focus-group, and corporate shin-dig I’ve ever attended.

Ms BCA used her iPad to show us the children’s schedule, which includes weekly library time (!), art, the usual math/science/English/Chinese, and something called ICT, which stands for Information and Communication Technology and takes place, I later learned, in a computer lab rivaling any I saw in my years at a certain Silicon-Valley based university:  20-inch flat-screen monitors in front of each child’s tiny chair, walls hung with perfectly formatted charts of weather trends (done by the children, complete with clip-art of smiling suns in glasses and sad-looking gray clouds).  On the day we were there, a second-grade class of kids were sitting on a carpet in the front of the room, receiving instructions from a kindly-looking Indian woman on how to use a graphic-design program to make holiday cards. 

Before our visit to the computer lab, though, the four of us chatted a bit about the curriculum and educational philosophy at TGIS.  Ms BCA was heavy on enthusiasm and light on specifics, but I did glean from her that: Every class has a Chinese teacher in the room, but no class except Chinese itself is taught 100% in Chinese.  Per Ms BCA, the children simply know that when they are addressing a Chinese teacher, they are to speak in Chinese, and when they speak to a non-Chinese teacher, they are to speak in English. 

Also, there is something called “Golden Time” every Wednesday, a period in which the children are allowed to do whatever they want for 45 minutes or so (a lovely idea that, I happen to know from my younger patients, has a darker flip-side: Golden Time can also be taken away as a punishment, something that wasn’t mentioned by Ms BCA).  When she came to the class called Pastoral Care Assembly, Ms BCA took great pains to assure me that it wasn’t really anything related to Christianity, really. More Moral, she said, than Christian.   “And Morals are important!” 

Dismissal is at 3:15 every day, and there were vague mentions of “a lot” of after school activities, but none were specifically mentioned, highlighted, or acknowledged.

What was specifically highlighted was the mandatory violin training, which takes place twice weekly through third grade, and the cafeteria. For reasons that, when I inspect them, don’t seem particularly rational, I don’t love the thought of the girls and their classmates stuck at their desks for lunch, as they are now--it just seems so dreary.  Never mind the fact that, as a child, I would have KILLED for a chance to just stay at my desk for lunch, rather than brave the malodorous mayhem that is a children’s school cafeteria. 

I have loved the absence of a ban on peanut butter.   Although it feels like there’s not a school left in the U.S. to which you can send anything resembling, born of, having had contact with, or otherwise related to a nut,* the memo doesn’t seem to have made it to the Chinese public schools yet, a fact I’ve been taking full advantage of--the girls have eaten peanut butter with every lunch since they decided to forego the school’s offerings. 

TGIS, however, is very progressive in that regard, and Ms. BCA assured me, as we entered the cafeteria, that theirs is a nut-free campus, which threw me into a momentary panic.**  But then, I saw their salad bar, full of crisp-looking pristine lettuce, and carrot slices, celery sticks, hard-boiled eggs, and cubes of cheese.  And then the buffet, where the kids could choose tiny slices of pizza, noodles, fried rice, chicken, broccoli.  This was as good as the girls’ school in Berkeley--better, even, because unlike the girls’ school in Berkeley, this cafeteria has enormous windows and big French doors opening to the outdoors, no noticeable odor, and comes with--according to Ms BCA--ayis who will heat up food sent from home (after retrieving it from the school refrigerators, of course). 

I was starting to feel an itching in my sign-me-up finger.  Then we went into an art class.  The kids, a 60/40 mix of Asian-looking and Other-looking, were all standing around some structures they’d been working on.  Some of you may remember my dismay during our first weeks in China, when I discovered that the “houses” we helped the girls build out of old oatmeal canisters and yoghurt cups for kindergarten were what the other parents and teachers called “creative,” while their eyes--roving wildly as if seeking to ensure a safe exit should our obvious mental illness manifest itself--telegraphed “outlandish.” 

These kids’ structures would have thrown those folks into conniptions--sprouting antennae, bulbous towers, oddly-shaped windows, and painted in colors from ballet-pink to deepest eggplant, they looked like the original creations of children’s minds. The teacher looked tiredly supportive, and her blonde hair was coming undone the way an art teacher’s should.  I was clearly in an actual Art Class. If we enrolled the kids at TGIS, they wouldn’t be subjected to the cookie-cutter ideals that have made me crazy at their current school.

There was no Chinese teacher in that class, though (it was taught by a friendly looking blonde), and no Chinese teacher in the ICT room, either.  We looked in on a science class, taught by another white woman, where a bored-looking Chinese woman, presumably the other teacher, was doing something at a computer while all the kids clustered around the white woman.  Then we looked in on another class, with another bored-looking Chinese woman answering a child’s question in the corner, while yet another white teacher held forth at the front of the room.

By the time we got to the math classroom, the kids had all left to go meet up at the salad bar, and I was left to peruse the walls of what turned out to be a third-grade math class.***  It was while the math teacher (Haitian? Cuban? African? Mexican? Brownish skin and accented English) was ignoring my claims that my kids could speak, read, and write Chinese at a native level (in favor of explaining to me, twice, that there would be remedial Chinese classes available for them), and I was, in turn, ignoring his assertions that the math might be difficult for our girls (while absorbing the hand-writing on the wall, in the form of corrected test papers, which demonstrated that the math the girls would be doing in his class next year, if we chose TGIS, would be mainly a repeat of what they will have already done this year), that I began to feel the inklings of a decision coming on. 

Then, as I left, Ms BCA--right after explaining to me that no actual Chinese citizen can go to TGIS, since entry into the school requires a foreign passport--insisted that I wait while she ran to “grab a small gift for the girls.”  This gift turned out to be the most genius bit of marketing I’ve ever seen: two small, plush, soft, and irresistible Cutesie-Poos, each wearing a TGIS cap and TGIS shirt. 

What is the opposite of Kryptonite?   If you’re a seven-year-old girl, it’s Stuffed Cutesie-Poos, and sending these toys on the school’s behalf seemed both extremely unfair and wildly irrelevant, like an accountant giving you a tiny dose of really high-quality heroin to advertise his actuarial practice.  I put took them home and put them in an inconspicuous place, planning to dispose of them later.

My children, however, were born equipped with one super-power: they cannot fly, turn into fireballs, or cook soufflĂ©’s with their laser-gaze, but they can sniff out any new stuffed Cutesie-Poos in a 100-yard radius.  After I picked them up from school, we just were through our front door, but the girls did not yet have their shoes off when I turned around to find them delightedly snuggling the SCP’s, crooning and exclaiming. Then the Princess noticed: “Mommy, these Cutesie-Poos go to the same school Angel does!” 

Angel, called that here because she is pretty much the perfect specimen of ex-pat childhood--friendly, confident, open but not cloying, and tri-lingual--made me waver for a moment; as an advertisement for the school, she is a mom’s Cutesie-Poo. 

The girls were too interested in the Cutesie-Poos to ask me much about why I had two of them from Angel’s school, and I changed the subject to snack time.  But a few days later, I was in a taxi with the girls, and the Princess, who always grasps a situation’s essence sooner or later, asked me, out of the blue, “Mommy, why did you have those TGIS Cutesie-Poos?”

I was surprised into telling the truth, and even more surprised by the chorus of dismay from the girls, led by the Princess herself:


“We don’t want to leave Lotus Grove!”

“We’d have to leave our friends!”

“And our teachers!”

“Mommy, PLEAAAAAAAASE don’t make us change schools!”

Now, to be fair, I didn’t tell them about the salad bar, or the art class, or the English-speaking teachers.  But it’s clear to me that the girls love their current school.  And then there’s the incredible education they’re getting (in Chinese, obviously, but also in math--where they’re learning not just division but also the words for “divisor,” “dividend,” and “quotient” in Chinese--and science, a lot of which has been incorporated into their Chinese class recently, with texts about dinosaurs and blood platelets leading, accidentally or not, to the kind of curricular integration that is all the rage now in the enlightened private school circles).  There’s my extreme discomfort with the idea of living in China but sending my kids to a school where actual Chinese teachers appear to be side-lined and actual Chinese kids aren’t even allowed.  Last on the list, but by no means negligible, is the fact that simply to apply to TGIS costs about the same as a semester’s worth of the girls’ current tuition.  Should we decide to send the girls there, the tuition would be seventeen times what we pay now, and that’s not including the salad bar.  Sure, we could afford it, but that kind of difference forces you to think about what, exactly, you’re paying for. 

Lately--after the Princess made “a home for a platelet!” out of clay given to her by a classmate; and the Rooster wrote a 300-word essay in Chinese on how to make a periscope out of cardboard and mirrors, a skill she learned in one of the girls’ after-school activities; and as the girls have shown a willingness to volunteer to go first and demonstrate in their hip-hop and taekwondo classes that I simply cannot imagine being imparted to them by a Western-style school--I have been feeling like whatever it is that you get for the TGIS tuition, it’s not more, or even better, education.

So I was feeling extremely comfortable with my choice to have the girls continue at Lotus Grove for the rest of this year and next year, and to re-evaluate again for their fourth-grade year, after a wider survey of international schools.  In fact, I had already mentally drafted an email to Ms BCA informing her of our decision, but had yet to send it, when I headed out for a coffee-date with a friend from work.  The girls were just getting started with their Chinese lesson and I was putting on my coat, when I heard the Rooster say something in Chinese to me and her Chinese tutor.  She seemed delighted about whatever it was, so I gave her a distracted but happy “Really?!” in Chinese and went on out the door, just catching the teacher’s dismayed look as I left. 

I was late, though, and figured it couldn’t be that big a deal, which is why I was already in the elevator with the first-floor button pushed when the Princess came out to translate for me: “Mommy!” she said, with the glee of a child who knows what she has to say will make an impact.  “Today in school Li Laoshi decided that she was going to hit the kids who were bad! On the hands!”



“Did she actually hit anyone?”

“Yes, I just TOLD you!”

“Did she hit you or the Rooster?”

“No, of course not, we weren’t bad!”

At this point, the elevator doors were closing.  “We’ll talk more about this later,” I called, through the narrowing crack.

As the doors closed and the elevator started to move, I heard the Princess ask, voice fading as the elevator started to move, “Why do we need to talk about it later?  She didn’t hit us….”

And so I was left where I will now leave you, descending, inexorably, back into doubt and confusion.

*At least, not in the types of places where you can get the daily fresh baguettes our family requires for subsistence.

**As an ER doctor, and the friend of several nut-allergic families, I feel it my duty to state that A) I have nothing against nut-free policies and B) to the extent that it is safer to not have nuts in school, such policies are clearly necessary to protect children from lazy moms like myself, who will otherwise not take it on themselves to abstain from nut-sending. 

***They have a slightly different grade numbering system at TGIS, but I’m sticking with the American system to avoid my own confusion.