26Mar2013

The Best Laid Plans…

Detail of Hans Holbein the Younger's Resting Lamb and the Head of a Lamb, via Wikimedia Commons.

There are still two important projects outstanding from our plan for winter in China.

Project Visa and Project Apartment have been concluded. We have seen the Harbin ice sculptures, and found them wonderful.

Outstanding items? Project School: get Zac into a Chinese school so he can get to a reasonable level of fluency in Chinese. And Project Skiing.

And the sight of a ski slope at the ice sculptures has whetted our appetite for Project Skiing.

Now, there’s not, actually, a lot I can do on Project School, given, thanks to a series of snafus in Project Visa that began on Christmas Day, we’re now in the middle of the school holidays.

Further, Project Money, derailed by the catastrophic spiral that was Project Visa and the sod’s law of freelance writing, only began to show benefits at the start of Chinese New Year, China’s answer to Christmas, so we can’t even do the intensive language work we so desperately need.

Most unreasonably, our Chinese teacher would rather spend her “Christmas” having time with her family than coaxing us through vocab. Strange…

Further, thanks to the climate, Harbin isn’t the easiest place to meet locals.

As in, make friends, rather than smalltalk over chicken feet in our lovely local barbecue. We need conversations that progress beyond, “Hello, where are you from, how old are you, what are you doing in Harbin, where do you live, where is your husband? Oh dear.” Or: “Ah! How cute! How old is he?! Are you TWO? What’s his name? Isn’t he beautiful?”

This instantly punctures my plan for just going with the flow and parking Zac at the local middle school, because . . . well, because it’s going to be hard enough being the only non-Chinese kid in school without getting his head kicked in to boot.

After a series of mental mantras – “It’s not that hard! You can do it! It’s just school! It’ll be fine!” – I begin the school research process.

Our local middle school (no. 60), our landlord’s son and his girlfriend tell us with one voice, is rough, with lots of smoking and fighting.

This instantly punctures my plan for just going with the flow and parking Zac at the local middle school, because…

. . . Well, because it’s going to be hard enough being the only non-Chinese kid in school without getting his head kicked in to boot.

The girlfriend recommends we go for the middle school attached to the teacher training college at Harbin Normal University. This appears to be one of the best schools in Harbin – it even appears on English language search! – but it’s also over 20k from us.

I go back to the drawing board, inhale a couple of packets of Zhong Nan Hai, wonder whether it’s too early to start drinking, conclude “yes”, and begin to research schools attached to universities.

Harbin No. 3 Middle School sounds promising. It’s attached to arguably the best uni in town, it’s one of the best schools in the province and appears to have a campus actually within walking distance of our flat.

But, of course, because it’s the holidays, it has only a caretaker on hand to answer the phones.

I furrow my brow. This is doable. This is totally doable.

Now, in theory, Chinese government schools are compelled to accept the children of foreign residents in China, although foreigners have to pay fees, whereas the Chinese don’t.

As ever in China, however, there’s some, umm, disparity between the theory and the practice, even within the same city, let alone between different cities, let alone between north and south.

I know people who’ve got children into Chinese elementary schools on a tourist visa with absolutely no Chinese (albeit using a translator), I know of some who’ve even got them in without the battery of blood tests for disgusting laowai diseases that is supposedly part of the routine, I’ve met some who have had to bribe teachers, heard of others who have not even paid fees…

I don’t, I realise, with a sinking feeling, know anyone who’s got a middle-school aged kid in anything other than an international school in China. Also, all of the folk above were doing this in the south.

On mature reflection, I figure this school (Ha-San), what with being one of the best schools in Heilongjiang province – that’s a population of 40 million or so, most of them highly focused on bettering their one or two offspring through education – may not be particularly keen to take a foreign language student, what with him undoubtedly dragging their results down and unlikely to have placed very well in a competitive entrance exam.

I furrow my brow.

This is doable. This is totally doable.

This will also enable me to keep an eye on things to see my poor beleaguered spawn isn’t spending his days crying in the bathrooms without being a total helicopter parent. This, I conclude, is a good plan, and I’m pretty happy with it.

And, I figure, it is. Every institution in China with academic aspirations is absolutely desperate for native English speakers – there are over 200 million Chinese aged 0-24, so I’d guess that means at least 100 million Chinese currently learning English, or attempting to.

Serious institutions are also picky about their teachers’ accents – yes, there are Irish teaching English in China, and no, I have not heard the results, but I can’t imagine it being pretty.

Now, my accent is extremely English, and I did actually work as a teacher way back in the dark ages, including doing some TEFL, so I’m figuring there’s going to be some informal way of making this work using guanxi, without trying to negotiate the minefield that is cash guanxi.

As it happens, I also went to Oxford, so I conclude it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of man to persuade the school to take Zac in exchange for an afternoon’s work with their brightest and best, the ones they hope to send to high-falutin’ Anglo universities such as my alma mater.

This will also enable me to keep an eye on things to see my poor beleaguered spawn isn’t spending his days weeping in the bathrooms without being a total helicopter parent.

This, I conclude, is a good plan, and I’m pretty happy with it.

Not exactly relaxed, mark you. China is being bloody difficult this time around.

With hours that run from 7.30-5.30, plus homework, plus being middle school rather than primary school, not to mention the little matter of everything being in Chinese, this is less an adaptation and more of an earthquake.

Zac?

Well, Zac’s becoming progressively less enthusiastic and more nervous about the prospect of Chinese school the closer it comes.

He wants to be able to speak Chinese as an adult. He’s also interested in having the experience of Chinese school, particularly history lessons.

But it’s beginning to dawn on us – despite such wonderful linguistic coups as understanding every single simple, predictable sentence and answering them comprehensibly first time around while completing registration with the police – that neither of us really speak very much Chinese.

Chinese is, as Zac puts it, “A really difficult language if you’re English. Every bit as difficult as English or Arabic is if you’re Chinese.”

Now, Zac is nothing if not adaptable, and over the last three years he’s returned from unschooling to slot comfortably back into the school routine twice, once in Bali, and once in the UK. He’s also determined, resilient and (so shoot me) intellectually extremely able.

But with hours that run from 7.30-5.30, plus homework, plus being middle school rather than primary school, not to mention the little matter of everything being in Chinese, this is less an adaptation and more of an earthquake.

Glimmering darkly in the back of my mind is the suspicion that little Chinese language essays about “My Likes and Dislikes” or “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up” may not quite cut the mustard linguistically, however impressive they look to someone who’s not literate in Chinese, what with all those characters and all.

We are not, you see, looking at some lovely little hippie school in Bali with kids from around the globe playing barefoot amid the rice paddies.

This is not a rural primary in the UK. It’s a bloody enormous, academic Chinese middle school. In China. In Chinese.

So Zac is anxious. He’s anxious about the Chinese language, the hours and the Chinese teaching style – which doesn’t, shall we say, value independent thought.

His last two unschool projects? A shooting script for a sci-fi short, using what he learned visiting a movie set in Jordan, plus an analysis of the film and book Cloud Atlas.

Application in China? Bugger all.

Further, glimmering darkly in the back of my mind is the suspicion that little Chinese language essays about “My Likes and Dislikes” or “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up” may not quite cut the mustard linguistically, however impressive they look to someone who’s not literate in Chinese, what with all those characters and all.

But what I’m most anxious about is the middle school element. These are enormous, 3000-child campuses, full of big kids.

My main memory of transitioning from primary to high school is wandering an enormous, disorienting set of buildings and feeling very lost, never quite sure where my classes were. I can only imagine this being rather worse in Chinese, particularly when you’ve been unschooled for a year.

Zac is twelve. In some ways, he’s extremely mature. In others, he’s still very much a little boy. The thought of him wandering long, echoing corridors, stranded in a linguistic desert, leaves me absolutely heartsick.

I alternate between dishing out tonnes of praise, explaining that the first two weeks are going to be hell and that things will get better after that, and reminding him how proud he’ll be of himself for doing it.

There is, of course, not a lot to be done about any of this. It would be absolutely ridiculous to bail now, and, while Zac whines intermittently, he doesn’t suggest we do so.

I alternate between dishing out tonnes of praise, explaining that the first two weeks are going to be hell and that things will get better after that, and reminding him how proud he’ll be of himself for doing it.

Immersion – backed by language support and some initial study – is the single best way to learn any language, I believe. I speak reasonable French because I’ve used it.

But Zac has barely used any of his Chinese, although he managed some over dinner with our landlords. And he’s quite spectacularly unwilling to speak it.

Further, umm…

Chinese, to a native English speaker, is exponentially more difficult than French or Spanish. (Here’s a good academic overview of why.)

Privately, I decide that if he’s really unhappy after the first two weeks – crying, depressed, not sleeping, high anxiety levels – I’ll pull him out.

I don’t tell him that, of course.

For the meantime…

On the plus side, I manage this in Chinese. On the down side, I still have pretty much no idea of what to expect.

Well, we have funds! Of a sort.

Which means, therefore, we can get on with Project Skiing. We haven’t been skiing since Bansko in Bulgaria, a year ago, and we’re itching for snow, plus I desperately need to sort my turns out.

Our nearest ski resort is Yabuli, which Lonely Planet believes is the best ski resort in China; Zac cites The Beijinger, which says Beidahu; I insist on Yabuli, because it has a dedicated ski train, and I’m a train geek.

In fact, I’m so pathetically panicked about things going wrong that I actually hit a travel agent and book train tickets, accommodation with internet and, at the agent’s recommendation, a “driver” (?!) for the duration (only 200 kuai).

On the plus side, I manage this in Chinese.

On the down side, I still have pretty much no idea of what to expect.

And, as I scrape my spawn out of bed at the ungodly hour of 6am to make our ski train, I am frankly desperate for this to be good.

Because next up comes school. With me adapting to the role of tiger mother, and Zac in the role of dutiful son. Which is going to be, well, interesting.

Really interesting. And also very considerably harder than Everest Base Camp, or, for that matter, the Cho-La Pass.

Ulp.

2 Comments

  1. Enid Lancaster says:

    Hi Theodora
    Saw your article in the Guardian about Harbin. Our younger son went there in 2004 to teach English. We now have a lovely Chinese daughter in law living here, the wedding in Harbin was something to be a part of with all the traditions that went with it. We did not see the ice festival being a summer wedding but your photos are great and perhaps we will see it in the future.

    • Theodora says:

      Harbin is LOVELY in the summer, isn’t it? But you MUST see the ice sculptures. One of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen, honestly.

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