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First Day of School!

We came to Beijing last October to find a school for the girls. We were looking for a "full immersion" experience -- a school that would use Chinese all day, and that would expose our kids to a true Chinese cultural experience. At the same time, we wanted a place that had experience handling foreign children who didn't speak Chinese. Finally, we wanted to make sure there were other foreign children like ours, so making friends would be easier.

Fang Cao Di fit the bill nicely. Founded 30 years ago by Premier Zhou En Lai, the school was the first to welcome foreign children in the country. It's very well known among China's elite as one of the top private schools in the city, like a Dalton or Brearly in NYC. Since China's school system is still segregated (meaning foreign children and local children are not allowed to attend classes together), Fang Cao Di has developed a separate "international section" which teaches 600 international kids in grades 1 - 6. They take classes in a separate building, but share a playground and cafeteria with local kids. As we asked around, we found many parents we liked who had great things to say about the school.

We visited the school, both in October and then in April when we brought the girls. Although it didn't have the gorgeous facilities of Beijing's international schools (which teach in English and are completely closed to local kids), it nevertheless was very nicely appointed, and clean. Even the school's sign (shown here) was a huge step above the normal hand-painted white-on-black sign used by most schools.

During our exploratory visits we had enjoyed our interactions with he principal for the foreign section, Ms. Cui.

We were also intrigued (and reassured) by the school's nice marketing materials, which described how the school "has a complete teaching system, oriented toward the 'complete picture' approach."

The day before school started, we visited for an “orientation session.” This was our first clue that the Chinese school system was radically different from the one in California.

We were used to chirpy teachers handing out nicely prepared folders full of permission slips and explanatory brochures, followed by cookies and juice in the school library. This time, we spent the first 15 minutes trying to figure out where we were supposed to go after entering through the wrong gate into the school complex. It didn't help that Miranda's classroom was not yet labeled. We also didn't realize that we would need to split up, with Sharon accompanying Sami into her second grade class while I sat with Miranda.

The orientation consisted of the teacher repeating the same three bullet points to each parent-child pair: what items needed to be ready by tomorrow morning in the student’s school bag, how much school lunch cost each month, and when the students were expected to be in their seats every morning. The teacher didn't introduce herself, nor make any attempts to introduce the children and parents to each other. She was also quite surprised when I actually started to ask questions at the end of her briefing: how many kids were in the class this year? How many boys and girls? How many kids didn't speak any Chinese yet? Most surprising of all, she didn't know any of these answers. As it turned out, the teachers had not yet been given a class roster, even though school was starting the next day. As she didn't seem to be very concerned about that, I decided I wouldn't be either.

Needless to say Miranda was terrified. The entire briefing was conducted in Chinese, and it was clear that the teacher didn't speak any English. For a kid accustomed to the warm hugs and big smiles of California teachers, it must have seemed to her that she had entered a strange, and thoroughly unpleasant, new reality. The picture didn't improve after we left the classroom and passed by the girls’ bathroom, which was easy to identify by the smell. Miranda wanted to check it out, and emerged with a stricken look to tell me that all of the toilets were "squatters." As we continued to walk down the hall, I noticed that the walls were completely devoid of any decoration -- no colorful collages of student art or photos. This wasn't just because the school year had not yet begun; as we have learned since, such decorations are not allowed. Instead of quelling my fears about the new school, our orientation session left me wondering whether we making a huge mistake…

We all woke up very early the next morning. The girls had backpacks full of nifty new gear: strange lunch boxes for Chinese food, high-tech water bottles, and an assortment of pencils and erasers. Luckily, getting all of this organized into the right places kept us blissfully distracted from the challenges ahead.

To their credit, the girls were full of smiles as they showed off their new gear in front of the entryway to our apartment:

The first day of school is always a nerve-wracking occasion for everyone involved. This year, we were all especially on edge: a new country, a new school, and most of all, a completely new language.

As we walked the five minutes from our house to the front gate of the school, I couldn't help wondering whether we were doing the right thing. After all, the girls loved their idyllic school in Palo Alto, from which we had forcibly torn them, with hope that exposing them to a new language and culture halfway around the world would be a positive, constructive step in their continuing education. Today that theory he would be put to its first big test. Suddenly the great-sounding idea was meeting a very harsh reality.

The walk to school was exciting!

Our normally calm neighborhood had been transformed: the streets were clogged with taxis and buses full of parents and students.

The sidewalks leading up to the school were lined with ceremonial student guards, each wearing a bright red sash.

Inside the gate we saw (and heard) the school band, in full uniform.

We stopped for a quick picture of the girls by the band, along with their two new friends Anya and Maya, who were also brand new students, having just moved to Beijing from Berkeley California. Before we left for Beijing we had gotten the four girls together for a playdate. That early bonding was definitely paying off now, all around!

The expression on each girl's face really tells it all...

Right after I took this shot, we were all shooed out of the school grounds by one of the gate guards. After asking why, I learned that the gate we had been using up until now was actually reserved for students attending the "domestic" section of the school. Our gate, exclusively reserved for students of the "foreign" section, was further up the street, and much more ornate. I couldn't help thinking of the pictures I had seen from the civil rights era that documented the "separate but equal" approach…

As we walked up to the "foreigner's gate", I noticed that none of the parents were going inside with their kids. Strange. I figured it was some kind of local custom.

But then the gate guard said hat we couldn't accompany the kids inside. I thought he was kidding!

After trying to coax the kids to go inside on their own and navigate the halls to their classrooms (imagine a 10-year old girl imitating a puppy who WILL NOT be pulled in a certain direction), I realized that some rules were simply made to be broken.

Forcing a smile, I politely told the guard I needed to take the kids to their classrooms and then turned to enter the school, their hands firmly in mine, before he had time to respond. As we dropped each girl off in her classroom and turned to say goodbye, we were greeted by images no parents can forget -- the pleading look of a terrified child who is not at all convinced that this was, indeed, good for them. Mentally crossing my fingers, I smiled and told them I would see them at the end of the day.

I retreated outside to join a clutch of other parents who were waiting to observe the opening ceremony. Sharon and I circulated around to get as many as possible to sign up for the online group we had formed for parents of kids attending the school. It was an interesting, and very international, crowd. We were the only Caucasian Americans; the other Americans were all of Chinese ancestry. We also had fun chatting with parents from Italy, Poland, Russia, Singapore, and Tajikstan.

After a long wait, the school loudspeakers crackled to life and students started emerging from the various buildings. Each class had been carefully organized into two parallel lines starting with the shortest children and ending with the tallest. The teacher walked alongside like a drill sergeant, directing them to a designated place on the soccer field next to the school. The band provided martial music accompaniment.

The first few student groups were from the domestic section of the school, so I wasn't surprised to see this level of organization. After all, these kids had to wear uniforms and were used to this sort of approach. But what about the international students, of whom 30% were new to the school each year? They didn't have to wear uniforms, and were even unlikely to understand what they were being told to do. To my surprise, they also marched out beautifully organized like the others, taking their place on the field.

Sami was the tallest in her class, so she was at the end of the line. Most shocking of all, she was actually holding the hand of a boy next to her. It was clear from her face that she wanted to be almost anywhere else than she was that day. To her credit, though, she stoically marched along with the others looking straight ahead, jaw locked in place. Miranda was in the middle of her class line, and had already made friends with whom she was amiably chatting away. She seemed oblivious to what was going on around her, which was probably a good thing that day.

After the students were all positioned on the soccer field in straight lines, the guards opened the huge wrought-iron gates so that the parents could come in and watch. We lined up along the back edge of the field in the shade, not knowing what to expect next. Some of the kids quite naturally turned to wave, but were quickly scolded by their teacher and told to look straight ahead at the podium.

We were then treated to 45 minutes of speeches by the principal, various administrators, and certain students. I didn't understand how the students were selected, but it was clear that each had been successfully trained in the Chinese approach to speech-making: capitalize each word in a sentence (“Fellow Students, Today We Begin Our New Semester”) and deliver it at earsplitting volume. At first, I tried to follow the content of the speeches, but quickly realized that they were all the same. The opening exercises were completely ceremonial in the worst sense.

(Our apartment building is the tall red one in the right of the picture. We can literally throw a rock and hit the school).

Just as I was beginning to wonder if I could somehow slink away unnoticed, I noticed three teachers bending down to pick up something heavy and carry it in back out of the crowd of students. It took me a moment to realize that they were struggling to carry a young girl who had fainted from the heat. She was from the international section (I knew that because she wasn't wearing uniform) and for a moment I thought she was perhaps the child of one of our neighbors. At that moment one of the male gym teachers came running from the side of the field to take the girl in his arms before sprinting off the field, presumably to the school infirmary.

Needless to say I was stunned. I wasn't surprised that someone had fainted; after all, I was sweating after sitting in the shade for 20 minutes, while the kids had been standing, at attention, eyes forward, in the hot sun, without hats or water bottles. None of the other parents seemed upset, though, so after looking at each other, Sharon and I decided to simply go with the flow.

It got worse. Over the next 30 minutes we watched 25 more children retreat from the field. Some had fainted, and were rushed off by the male teachers, who would return from the infirmary only to scoop up another child. Other kids wobbled off the field, supported by a teacher, sometimes stopping to throw up. It was almost a child a minute, and it was easy to tell that none of them were faking it as a way to get out of the ceremony, which continued along, totally unperturbed.

That was the most amazing thing of all. If this had been California, the ceremony would have been truncated after the first kid fainted. At the very least, the children would have been able to sit down, and bring a water bottle. Here, all the kids were allowed to do was to step out of the way as a teacher carried a classmate back through the line. As Dorothy said, we were definitely not in Kansas anymore.

The ceremony finally ended. Thank goodness that none of the kids we knew had had to leave the field. Sami marched by, jaw still firmly set, but was able to sneak a little wave as she went by. Even Miranda looked shaken.

Though we were shaking inside, we managed to smile and wave.

There is a phrase in Chinese called “chi ku”, which means to eat bitterness. A more colloquial translation might be “suck it up.” Today we had witnessed an example first hand.

I suspected that it wouldn’t be our last.


On to the next "School" entry, or back to the "School" table of contents



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