24Apr2013

We Find a Chinese School

Chinese school in Harbin -- kids shovelling snow.

A bit of English language Googling around bilingual schools in Harbin finds a site for teachers of English as a foreign language, and a job advertised at a bilingual school.

I Google around the school’s name in English, plough through a lot of investment sites, and eventually dig up the Chinese language site for the school. Or, rather, the school group, which seems enormous.

According to Google Maps, never reliable in China, it’s about 7k from here, which is further than I’d like, but still doable. And, since it looks like local options aren’t going to work out, this sounds like our best, if not our only, bet for Chinese school in Harbin.

My plan C? Walk around the university area until we hit an affiliated school that wants some English teaching and will take Zac in exchange for that.

But this one looks good, if huge. From what I can tell, they get kids into Beijing Tsinghua and Shanghai Jiaotong universities, which has to be a good thing, right?

I show Zac the website. He thinks it looks OK.

And I pick up the phone.

“Hello!” I say. “I’m English. My Chinese is not so good. We live in Harbin and I want my son to study at this school. He is 12 years old. Do you speak English? Or can I speak to an English teacher?”

She doesn’t. But there’s someone who does! RESULT!

It’s a Chinese-style bilingual school, which is to say that kids have lots of English lessons, and that English teaching is done in English, not Chinese. Everything else, she explains, is in Chinese.

Would we like to come and see the school? Well, d’oh, yeah! I Skype the Chinese address to my phone, we trot down six flights of stairs, out into the snow, and grab a taxi.

It’s enormous. A decent-sized university campus, in fact, with its own roads, still deep in snow. The blocks seem to stretch back miles.

Like almost every other school I’ve come across on my explorations in Harbin, this one seems to have moved to a gigantic campus out of town.

It takes us almost half an hour to get out of the city centre and onto Haping Lu, a long, fast road that runs through apartment blocks into an expanse of huge sites stranded amid snow and larches, our driver pulling over every so often to try and locate a block number, or ask directions.

There are factories. A university. An institute. More factories. What looks like a disused ski slope. A school – no, not that school! We want THIS school! – and then we’re at some lights, and turning, into something that describes itself as an “Institute”.

It’s enormous. A decent-sized university campus, in fact, with its own roads, still deep in snow. The blocks seem to stretch back miles.

“Sorry about this, Zac,” I say. “I think I’ve got the head office address by mistake. Let’s just go in and find out.”

It seems…. so big! We head through the insulation curtains, past gaggles of students loitering at the cashpoint, to reception.

“Hello!” I say. “I’m looking for the middle school.”

The lady thinks I want to study at the institute. No, I don’t want to study at the institute. I want my son to go to the middle school, but I think the middle school is not here.

Oh! The middle school is here!

We need to go to the fourth floor, room 404. That way.

I cast a wary eye over Zac. He seems less intimidated by this place than by the last school. That’s good.

Zac can study at the language institute. “No!” I say. “He’s 12 years old! Too little! I want him to study at middle school! With the 12 year olds! With his friends! In Grade 1.”

Mrs He, who seems to look after foreigners, is an assertive lady of rising 60, with the classic English approach to people who do not speak her language, which is to say she says everything very loudly and clearly in Chinese several times over until you understand.

It doesn’t, in fact, work badly. It gives me a headache, but I get everything she says.

Zac can study at the language institute.

“No!” I say. “He’s 12 years old! Too little! I want him to study at middle school! With the 12 year olds! With his friends! In Grade 1.”

Can he speak Chinese?

“Yes,” I say. “He understands more than I do but he doesn’t like to speak it.”

Mrs He asks Zac a couple of baby questions – his name, his age, how long he’s been studying Chinese – which he answers in a tiny voice to her satisfaction. Can he write Chinese?

“He knows about 300 characters,” I say. “But he writes on the computer.”

Mrs He shakes her head and purses her lips. Writing Chinese on the computer is not the same as writing Chinese.

Did he go to school in Kunming? No, we had private lessons, with a teacher. We were only there a month.

“But,” I say, in words that will come back to haunt me. “He’s able to do the maths. He’s very good at maths.”

She calls the middle school. A flood of rapid Chinese directions – a building with a red something, over there, to the right, behind something. And a number to call when we get there.

And off we trot, down the side of the campus, down a road lined with little shops, restaurants, even a coffee shop with smart green chairs, trying not to go arse over tit on the black ice.

“What was it she was saying about your jeans?” I ask Zac.

“She was saying they’re too thin,” he says. “I need to wear more layers.” Say what you like about the Chinese, they’re never backwards in coming forwards.

Do they have other foreigners? I ask, rowing rapidly back from my initial enthusiasm for complete immersion in an all-Chinese environment. “Oh yes, yes,” she says. “Lots of foreigners! Korean! Russian! Lots of foreigners!”

It’s about a ten minute walk from the university end of the campus to the middle school, a collection of substantial five-storey buildings with a snow-covered playing field.

It’s the tail end of playtime – they have playtime! Wow! That is, I’ve heard, unusual for China – and a couple of littlies are playing tag beneath the basketball frame, while big boys in green tracksuits shovel snow.

Zac’s face lights up at the sight of the kids playing tag.

OK, I think. This could actually work.

In we go, to an echoing, enormous hallway, and down a corridor to the head’s office.

She’s a lovely, warm woman, who seems genuinely pleased at the prospect of having Zac in her school. Do they have other foreigners? I ask, rowing rapidly back from my initial enthusiasm for complete immersion in an all-Chinese environment.

“Oh yes, yes,” she says. “Lots of foreigners! Korean! Russian! Lots of foreigners!”

She gives us a tour of the school. Line after line of labs – chemistry labs, biology labs, physics labs, computer labs. A library. A quiet reading area. A piano. Classroom after classroom of kids sitting neatly in their tracksuits, studying quietly.

Class sizes seem small for China – there are 40-something kids to a class, rather than the standard 60. Though, if there are any Koreans and Russians in the school, they don’t look anything other than Manchurian.

The heads still snap round at the unkempt white child, and his unkempt white mother, but Zac seems to feel it less this second time around.

What time does school start? 7.20! JESUS. And it finishes at 5.40pm. That’s over 50 hours a week. The commute’s going to add another hour or so to every day, and then there will be homework.

And… We’re done. What do we think?

It’s a no-brainer. Not only because the head seems actively keen to have the laowai in her school – for, I suspect, a combination of curiosity, Chinese hospitality and sound commercial reasons — but because to request time to think would probably cause offence.

He’ll start… I consider “tomorrow”, then bottle it… on Monday.

The head seems disappointed when I call Huaze to clarify a few things, not least because I could probably clarify them in Chinese, but speaking Chinese for more than a minute or so gives me a headache, and I’ve spoken a tonne of the bloody language today already. It doesn’t, it seems, give Zac a headache.

The uniform? His class teacher will arrange that. Yes, they can assign a child to keep an eye on him while he settles in, and they’ll try and find one who speaks some English. Yes, I can have his timetable. He’ll need a card for his lunch money. His teacher will arrange that. She’ll also arrange the books.

What time does school start? 7.20! JESUS. And it finishes at 5.40pm. That’s over 50 hours a week. The commute’s going to add another hour or so to every day, and then there will be homework. In the European Union, adults aren’t supposed to work more than 48 hours per week.

So… Back we go to Mrs He.

Mrs He enquires whether Zac will be boarding. We don’t even need to look at each other to answer that one. Hell to the no!

Mrs He enquires whether Zac will be boarding. We don’t even need to look at each other to answer that one. Hell to the no!

Through high-volume repetition, Mrs He teaches me the words for school fees, registration deposit, book fees, uniform fees and bus fee. The deposit is 1000 kuai, the fee for a term is 5500 kuai, uniform and books will run me maybe 1000 kuai, and the bus fee another 1000 kuai. Oh, and he’ll need money for his lunch card.

I don’t have the cash on me, I don’t have a Chinese bank account from which to transfer money, and, unlike most Chinese bank accounts, which will typically allow withdrawals of thousands of kuai daily, my English card will only let me take out 2500 kuai per day. I explain all this. Can I pay the deposit now and bring the rest when I come next week?

Yes. Do I have a car?

No, I don’t have a car. I could bring him in a taxi?

No, a taxi won’t work. He’ll need to take the bus. Some complicated question about a specific type of bus. I don’t know which bus. I don’t know all these bus words! Why not the public bus?

No, no, the public bus won’t do. The university bus?

We resolve to leave the bus issue until next week – it’s clearly a cause of great concern for Mrs He, for some reason. I also need to bring photos when we come next week.

Ah! Forms! Oh god! Chinese forms.

I am actually putting a child into Chinese middle school – not primary school, but MIDDLE SCHOOL — when he cannot even write his name.

With a sick and sinking feeling, I realise that, though both of us can say, read and type our newly-acquired Chinese names, neither of us can write them.

I am actually putting a child into Chinese middle school – not primary school, but MIDDLE SCHOOL — when he cannot even write his name.

I can’t write any but the most moron-level Chinese characters. Zac, who has been learning characters by writing them, although writing connected prose only on the computer, can. So it’s up to him to do the form, as the girls in the office input our details into the computer.

Mother’s name. Shan Ting (山婷) – “Mountain like in high mountain, Graceful as in…. Graceful, yes, that’s right”.

I know my first name has 女 as its left radical, and that the second character has a lid, a box, a stalk and some lines, but that’s not going to help me write it. I find a text with my Chinese name in it, and hand the phone to Zac so he can copy it, but Mrs He has already written it for him in beautiful, looping cursive.

Child’s name. Shan Zhansheng (山战胜) – Battle Victory Mountain. Oh! He can remember it. He’s just not sure which way the sail of the yacht-shaped radical in the second character (战) should face or what radical goes with 生 in the second one (胜).

At least both of us can write our surname – 山。That would have been highly embarrassing.

Mrs He corrects him on the second character in Chinese. “Month like in month!”

“The month-side,” I say, helpfully, naming the character as it is called when it’s a part of another character.

Sex – male. He copies this (very basic) character. Nationality – English. He knows that one. Date of birth – easy enough. It’s remarkable how fast his writing speed comes on with a terrifying Chinese teacher standing over him.

Interests? Skiing, I say.

“You just told her ‘chemistry’,” Zac says, accusingly. (Both “skiing” and “chemistry” are transliterated huaxue, and I’m still not at all sure of the tones on “chemistry”, despite the fact I’ve heard the word several times today.)

“Playing the computer,” he adds, in Chinese. This goes down like a cup of cold sick.

We are to come back on Monday, at 9am, with the money. And then all will be arranged.

If we’re going to do more Chinese skiing, it needs to be now. Because, it is slowly dawning on me, while Zac’s in Chinese school, we’re going to be doing very little else but school.

4 Comments

  1. Yvette says:

    “But,” I say, in words that will come back to haunt me. “He’s able to do the maths. He’s very good at maths.”

    *cue evil maniacal laughter*

    Seeing as I probably know more about the details around this than others, I’ve been waiting for a post on maths for awhile now. ;)

    • Theodora says:

      Yes, I’m trying to work on how I do the school thing, given I’m SO far behind on our lives due to, well, school.

      He’s on top of his vocab again this week, which is bloody great….

  2. I can’t wait to read Zac’s thoughts on going to a Chinese school!

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