Thor's China Diary

The Boarding Kindergarten

@16 April 2000

go to end / go to China Index

 The idea startled me. It seemed somehow, well, unnatural. But then tea without sugar once seemed unnatural too. Maybe the "boarding kindergarten" has something going for it. My guide was very rational in her arguments. China's new generation of "little emperors" were hopelessly spoiled at home, she said, pampered, selfish, incapable of helping themselves. That or they became key-latch children, neglected by parents of the rising middle classes who (both) rushed off to work, and later wanted to rush off to play.

You can't rush off and leave a two to five year-old child, and fewer grandparents were living with nuclear families. So enter the boarding kindergarten. For 400 to 700 yuan a month these places would let you push the kid in their gate on Monday morning, and pick it up on Friday afternoon. The yuppie lifestyle could get on with swinging. Mm. It still sounded slightly Orwellian. Recollections of collectivization, when the Maoist fervour was at fever pitch, when the family unit was an enemy of the State, and squadrons of tots were collected in huge nurseries to sing The East is Red, while their mums & dads went off to make China great ...

No, no, no my hostess insisted. This was altogether different. Now infant care was guaranteed by the lofty, impartial hand of market capitalism. There were dozens of boarding kindergartens in Wuhan. They were springing up like mushrooms. The parents were educated and picky; the sub-standard places would quickly fold.. And the State did set some standards, including a ceiling on fees. The size of these places, she said varied greatly, from the very small to the mayhem of 1000 plus. Some were run by State owned enterprises, by city authorities, even by universities for their staff. Others were unencumbered business operations. The profit margins were not huge, she added wistfully, but the staff mostly had some kind of qualifications for the job, and the whole industry was pretty well 100% female.

We had quite a long way to go, an area to the west of Wuhan, on the southern side of the Yangtze river. Bus 405 ground and juddered its way through the unlovely landscape of dusty concrete, past Wuhan's replica of the Golden Gate, the unromantically named Number Two Bridge across the Yangtze. We were headed for Qing Shan, an industrial heartland of steel works, so scenic attractions were not to be expected. But as we crossed a storm water creek and entered the shire area of Qing Shan the road was suddenly lined with shady trees. We got off at a small collection of shops, and looked around for a mamu -- the local name for bright red three wheeled motor bikes with flimsy blue passenger boxes bolted on the back end. Downmarket sedan chairs. Two people can just squeeze into one of these closed boxes, and thereafter you are in the hands of Saint Mao, because it's mercifully impossible to see the careening dump trucks and buses that come within millimeters... Our trip though was into some quieter back streets.

I looked sideways at HJB. Early thirties, immaculately dressed. I felt shabby. Her childhood, she remembered, was a time when clothes had to be bought with ration tickets. Tickets for everything, food, travel.. But people could feel happy about very small things, treats. Now they were envious of television worlds, discontent. She was one of my Masters students, but rather apart from the rest. She had been around, had a child, lived alone .. was quietly determined to become an expert, perhaps a professor, in early child care. The universities in Wuhan couldn't give her the skills she needed, but she'd find a way. For now she had this special relationship with one of the better private boarding kindergartens in the city, a business that already had three branches.

The mamu edged through a gateway that seem narrow even for a human, and puttered around some men mixing concrete on the path. We were in a housing estate, meaning grey huddles of eight story flats with just a footpath between them. Smack in the middle was a three story confection, plastered in peaches and cream colours, somehow not yet draped in the filmy dust that envelops everything here. An old man swung back a big black gate of steel bars, and we were among bobbing bundles of little bodies. They studied me solemnly. I waved,  hellooo. Ah, funny man, friendly though. A tiny, chubby girl detached herself from the crowd, and sidled over to take me by the hand. She had some terribly important question to ask, over and over. She wants to know where you come from, a teacher murmured. Oh, right, wo shi Adalia ren.. Satisfied, she toddled  off.

For me, the kindergarten was another story in the life of China, another way to understand. But to my hosts I came heralded as an "expert" on language. They were eager to learn. Here, it was for me to do most of the learning. This centre had about 170 tots, in three grades: 2 to 3 years old, 3 to 4 years old, 4 to 5 years old. They played games, learned to sing, say rhymes, draw, do exercises, learn co-ordination. But no writing. An energetic young lady with the English name of Teresa was introduced as their English teacher. How, I wondered, do you teach English to a bouncing flock of twenty or thirty 4 year olds? Well you don't really, not much anyway. Their attention span is figured at about 15 minutes maximum, and that's what they got, fifteen minutes of English a day.

Teresa had been on the job for only a couple of months, and seemed to be working hard to give it everything she could. She'd managed to lay hands on a book by Alan Maley (a superb writer on ESL), and had picked up on the idea of TPR (a teaching method called "Total Physical Response"). It made a lot of sense with kids like this. So I tried to look like a tot (and cover my ears, put my hands on my head ...) while she got them all going in more or less the same direction for fifteen minutes. She also had some home made flash cards to teach them "father", "mother" ... The parents wanted to know they were getting value for money, and were apparently impressed when their weekend child could suddenly say "father" in English. As far as learning a language was concerned, the odd isolated noun wasn't going to help them much, and would be forgotten. Later I gave her a couple of ideas about putting words into simple situations. Kids learning a second language like this often find "chunks" (formulaic phrases for particular tasks) much more useful and memorable. Sorting out the words comes later..

The more I looked at this boarding kindergarten, the more surreal it seemed. The public areas I could see were uncluttered, tastefully furnished and painted (a stunning contrast to the grubby, urine smelling, chalk dust smeared, crumbling teaching buildings of the universities..). The entrance and walls of the wide stairway were painted with bright murals of storybook scenes, all spotless. The place was in every sense a showcase, and someone later told me that it had been featured on TV (the ultimate accolade of the electronic age). It was purpose built recently by the Qing Shan city administration, then offered out for tender to selected private bidders. Well, let's say a Chinese tender. Meaning that as usual guanxi -- connections -- finally decided the winning bid, but certain standards had to be met.

We sat on heavy varnished chairs in the owner's office, mandarins, disposable cups of jasmine tea on a glass topped coffee table. Teresa quizzed me for advice. My rapid English brought a protest from HJB. It was too hard to translate. Gosh, I hadn't noticed. The owner, a heavier woman in her forties, expensively dressed and coiffured, was watching me with bright eyes. She spoke no English, but wasn't going to miss a thing. Somehow we seemed to have a lot to talk about. Someone arrived with lunch, three plastic bowls apiece from a vendor: rice, spicy slivers of bean curd, some stir fried green stuff and a hint of meat. Later, clear soup with egg floating on top ..

How on earth was I going to know the minds of these babes? What sort of big human animals would they turn into? Were these the most fortunate of children, or victims of upwardly mobile abandonment, or both? Were the other tots in those dozens of mushrooming boarding kindergartens living as luxuriously as these appeared to be? What was the balance of merit between a parent's love, and a busy, bubbly early childhood with lots of friends and trained adults? I dunno'. I can't even guess. Two days later the lady with the bright eyes and no English sent a message. She was impressed about something. Wants me to go back to do some "demonstration teaching". Good grief.

"The Boarding Kindergarten" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved
go to top
  • return to Thor's China Diary index
  • Links to China-related Sites
  • go to top
  • To e-mail the editor, Thor May: press here