11May2013

5.30am Is No Time to Wake Up

Child in scream mask over skeleton in bushes.

For the first week of Chinese school, our routine has been: wake up at 6am, breakfast, dress, and leave the house at 6.40 to make the bus at 7am.

This is a routine that Zac adapts to better than I. He is not a morning person, but he is adaptable.

I am not a morning person, and I am not adaptable. Left to myself, I’d go to sleep around 1 and get up around 8.

Further, I’m physiologically incapable of having an early night.

It’s odd. I don’t get jetlag. I can pull an all-nighter with the best of them, whether for work or pleasure, and function OK the next day.

I can sleep pretty much anywhere – on bare planks, on rocky riverbeds, on a bamboo platform built for smoking deer, in temperatures above 40 and below -15, at altitudes above 5000m and below sealevel, on planes, trains, boats, buses, even sawngthaews. I can pull a shawl over my face and snooze through a desert sunrise, yes, even the attendant flies, or hunker down in a tent in the snow.

I’m not an insomniac. I’m not a light sleeper.

But even as a small child I’d read under the covers with a torch until all the house was asleep.

And I simply can’t go to sleep early, unless I’m physically ill.

I mean, obviously Zac and I will get up when required. A 6am bus, a 2am start to see sunrise from a summit, a 5am start for a Himalayan high pass, an early dive boat? All fine.

Neither our world travel lifestyle nor Zac’s various schools have ever required waking up significantly before 8am on a regular basis. Nor has anything, really, in my life.

I did an arts degree, which meant I only needed to get up for tutorials.

And I’ve worked from home for the vast majority of my adult life, which means that things like meals and showers and shopping and laundry are a way of breaking up your working day, rather than things you have to slot in before or after work.

I’ve never really had to do the commuter routine, where you get up early, eat your breakfast, get dressed and madeup for work and make the Tube, for more than a very few months.

And, oh boy, did I hate that.

I mean, obviously Zac and I will get up when required. A 6am bus, a 2am start to see sunrise from a summit, a 5am start for a Himalayan high pass, an early dive boat? All fine.

Staying out till dawn reviewing bars, grabbing an hour’s sleep then making an 8am flight? Working late then rising early to break the back of a deadline?

All of these things are perfectly doable.

But… 6am wakeups? Five days a week? As a night owl that’s just…. well, inhuman.

By 6, the corner shops are open, the food stalls are up and running, commuters are awaiting their buses to work, and the elderly have completed their tai chi and are now shopping for fruit and veg.

The Chinese, however, are early risers, especially in the north. Get off a Chinese train at 5am, and you’ll have a lot more trouble navigating the heaving taxi rank than you will finding breakfast, while the street markets will be underway well before dawn.

By 6, the corner shops are open, the food stalls are up and running, commuters are awaiting their buses to work, and the elderly have completed their tai chi and are now shopping for fruit and veg.

Further, with the exception of the homeless, everyone is not only up but fully coiffed and groomed, with nary a crease in their clothing nor a hair out of place.

But for the poorest of the rural poor, the Chinese do not do scruffy. Even Chinese punks look neat. It is also very rare to see a Chinese person looking visibly tired.

All the same, when Zac’s class teacher tells me that the bus he needs to take to get to school on time leaves the end of our street at 6.30am, my stomach, quite literally, sinks in a slightly nauseous sense of disbelief.

We are going to need to have a routine. And not just any routine. But a really, really hardcore Chinese routine. 6am was bad enough. But this is going to be worse.

I figure if I get up at 5.30, I can get myself showered, begin the caffeination process and have his breakfast on the table and a smile on my face for 5.45.

“OK,” I say. “How are we going to do this? We’re going to need to leave the house at 6.15, which means I’m going to need to get up at 5.30am.”

While Zac’s going through the epic challenge that is Chinese school, I figure that I need to be not only human but non-shouty in the morning.

He’s under enough pressure navigating his first ever secondary school, an enormous campus and the minutiae of the playground as an ethnic and linguistic minority of one, not to mention coping with A-level maths in Chinese and Chinese language lessons with bright Korean grads, without being yelled at to get his bloody shoes on every morning. (And, yes, the bright Korean grads do make a fuss of him and feed him biscuits, but all the same…)

I figure if I get up at 5.30, I can get myself showered, begin the caffeination process and have his breakfast on the table and a smile on my face for 5.45.

“I’ll get up at 5.30am too,” Zac says.

“I’d have thought you could get away with 5.40,” I say.

I really need those ten minutes as humanising time. It is hard work being “nice mummy”. It doesn’t come naturally to me at that time of day. (My spawn, he tells me later, finds the fixed grin and the mantra “I’m so proud of you, you’re doing really well!” absolutely terrifying.)

“No,” he says. “It’ll be 5.30.”

“So…” I say. “What does that mean for bedtime? 8.30? 9?”

Most Chinese middle-schoolers, whether boarding or at home, go to bed between 11 and midnight, after homework, and get up between 5.30 and 6. I, however, have feeble Western ideas about the amount of sleep that rising teens actually need.

“I suppose we could try for 9,” Zac says. “8.30’s just too early.”

I don’t know how Chinese mothers do it. Every single professional, urban Chinese mother works the sort of hours we associate with junior doctors or highly paid bankers.

There’s a lot of stuff on the internet about living like a local. Our family routine is very much less strenuous than a typical Chinese family routine, but rather closer to living like locals than many visitors come.

And, frankly…. It’s brutal.

I am extremely glad to have the experience, but, in all honesty, I don’t know how Chinese mothers do it.

Every single professional, urban Chinese mother works the sort of hours we associate with junior doctors or highly paid bankers.

The factory workers? They leave what will typically be their only child with their parents, head across the country and work even longer hours, from dormitories.

I suspect Heilongjiang’s rural poor get plenty of downtime in the many long months when snow precludes working in the cornfields, but looking at their tumble-down houses I’d guess shivering features more highly than rest and relaxation.

Because even our truncated hours are brutal.

English children typically study between 4.5 and 5.5 hours out of their 6.5-7 hour school day, meaning that the Chinese school day is, in terms of class time, roughly twice as long as ours.

Zac leaves the house at 6.15ish – we will precision-tune this down to 6.21-6.23am — gets his bus at 6.30 to the second, gets to school at 7.15 on the dot, starts class at 7.25, has lunch, the occasional half-hour playtime, then quiet study with his peers.

And then he walks ten minutes across his enormous campus to start his Chinese as a Foreign Language with the grads and young adults at the uni at 1.20.

Class finishes at 4.30, he’s on the uni bus at 4.40, I collect him from his stop at 5.15, and we’re back home by 5.35. The buses are timed with such precision that I recognise the drivers of three other university buses that pass by our stop at 30 second intervals before Zac’s.

On the days when he stays in middle school, like a Chinese child, he studies until 5.30, catches the bus at 5.50 and is dropped to our door by minibus at 6.30 on the dot, or more than 12 hours after he left the house.

When he does Chinese school hours, he’s in class from 7.25-5.30, with half an hour for lunch, half an hour for playtime on some days, and 5 minute breaks between lessons. That’s at least nine hours of study time, more typically closer to ten.

English children typically study between 4.5 and 5.5 hours out of their 6.5-7 hour school day, meaning that the Chinese school day is, in terms of class time, roughly double ours.

That means, for the avoidance of doubt, that a Chinese kindergartener of five will have done seven 9-hour days back to back. Plus a little homework.

By this stage, an urban Chinese mother will have done at the very least ten hours at work, plus commute, remaining perfectly coiffed throughout.

If she runs a shop, a store or a restaurant, her hours may well be considerably longer: if she works in a bank, she’ll have been in work from 7.30 until 6.

If there is a holiday mid-week, then both parents and children will have worked and gone to school on the Saturday and Sunday to allow them to take the days around the holiday as a block.

That means, for the avoidance of doubt, that a Chinese kindergartener of five will have done seven 9-hour days back to back. Plus a little homework.

You would think, of course, that 6.30pm would be time for downtime. It isn’t.

It’s time for cooking, housework and homework.

Chinese families cook. They cook simply, they may store food, but they cook.

Walk into any small business during lunch-hour – a neighbourhood internet cafe, a corner shop – and folk will be cooking.

And in the home, it is almost always mum who cooks.

And, because we live in a sixth-floor walk-up (our lovely landlord is one of very few in Harbin that will take leases of less than a year, or payments of less than 6-months upfront plus deposit), I’ll do between 24 and 60 flights of stairs in a day, and Zac will do 12 to 48.

Dishwashers, like ovens, are a rarity in China. All but the very poshest of flats will typically have a two ring hob, a sink, a fridge, a washing machine and perhaps a dishdryer and a pressure cooker.

Want roast duck? You go to a roast duck shop.

Cleaners do exist in the People’s Republic, for socialism in the Chinese manner has no aversion to home helps, but we have such a small flat that the notion of hiring a cleaner feels somewhere between pointless, slatternly and decadent, not to mention linguistically incredibly difficult.

For the long periods in Harbin where there’s snow and black ice on the ground, our tiled floors need quite phenomenal amounts of mopping.

And, because we live in a sixth-floor walk-up (our lovely landlord is one of very few in Harbin that will take leases of less than a year, or payments of less than 6-months upfront plus deposit), I’ll do between 24 and 60 flights of stairs in a day, and Zac will do 12 to 48.

Further, because Zac wants home-cooked food when he gets back from school, rather than a trip to the restaurant – child-free Chinese eat out a lot, and every other storefront on our street is a barbecue, hotpottery or noodle joint churning out cheap, delicious, filling food – I need to cook, and then wash up.

In the way we live, cooking has been optional: a pleasant choice, rather than a compulsory activity. I cook if I feel like it, or if Zac wants to eat in but doesn’t want to cook. If neither of us feel like it, we eat out. Here it’s non-optional.

And this needs to be fitted around homework. For, in the second week of his school career, Zac’s teacher has established that his maths is good enough for him to do the same homework as everyone else in the class.

That means, we will rapidly establish, that a leisurely trawl around the supermarket after school to see what we fancy eating that night eats into valuable homework time.

That’s downtime. It’s a hell of a lot more downtime than Chinese children get. Zac gets at least one hour of downtime every day, sometimes more. And he takes breaks between his different homework subjects.

Faced with a choice between 9pm bedtime and an evening devoted exclusively to Chinese vocabulary and Chinese maths homework, Zac extends his bedtime to 9.30.

When he gets in from school, he’ll have a snack and wind down. Most Chinese children have a quick dinner and go straight to homework at this stage, but I’m not enough of a tiger mother to even float this. (Most of Zac’s friends at school “like computer games, but don’t have time to play them”.)

I’ll help out with Chinese vocab learning, provide moral, and, often, Google support as he assails the dreaded maths, and join in on Skpe lessons with our Chinese teacher, most of them, currently pertaining to maths.

Then I’ll cook. And, from 9 to 9.30, or earlier, if we’re lucky, we’ll watch movies or TV shows as we eat our dinner.

That’s downtime. It’s a hell of a lot more downtime than Chinese children get. Zac gets at least one hour of downtime every day, sometimes more. And he takes breaks between his different homework subjects.

Hell, the little slacker even manages to start a Stencil project and check his email once in a while.

By the end of week 2, he’s putting himself to bed at 9.30 precisely, asleep within a second of lights out, and up and perky at 5.30am precisely. At 5.35, when he gets home, he’s still energised and bouncy. At weekends, he sets an alarm for 6.30am so as not to slip out of the routine.

Zac adapts to this routine. He adapts to it incredibly well.

The question of a sneaky day off school never even comes up, because he knows damn well that he’s learning and that if he misses a single day he’ll fall behind and need to make it up (and I suspect he’s actually enjoying the challenge).

By the end of week 2, he’s putting himself to bed at 9.30 precisely, asleep within a second of lights out, and up and perky at 5.30am precisely. At 5.35, when he gets home, he’s still energised and bouncy. At weekends, he sets an alarm for 6.30am so as not to slip out of the routine, but will stay up until 11 or so.

Me?

Oh dear god.

I should point out that I’m not undisciplined.

I’m freelance. I hit deadlines.

But…. 5.30am? That’s just inhuman.

And at 8pm, like clockwork, all exhaustion passes to be replaced by that bane of all night-owls, the dreaded second wind. I could stay up for hours! And hours! And, sickeningly, I know I’m going to.

By 11am, at which point I’ve been up for five and a half hours – yes, FIVE AND A HALF HOURS — I’m flagging, exhausted, eyes sagging, vision blurring, barely capable of functioning, yet far, far far too caffeinated to sleep. I’m not so much working as jabbing pointlessly at buttons and staring at a to-do list.

By 4pm I’m so highly caffeinated I’m twitching like a bunny rabbit while yawning all the same. Around 7pm, a wave of zombie tiredness strikes, but, of course, I can’t sleep, because I need to chat with Zac, cook, clean and help with homework.

And at 8pm, like clockwork, all exhaustion passes to be replaced by that bane of all night-owls, the dreaded second wind. I could stay up for hours! And hours!

And, sickeningly, I know I’m going to.

I CANNOT get to sleep at 9.30, or 10.30 for that matter. I waste hours on the internet – there is no English language reading matter in Harbin, unless I order it from Amazon, and Zac has lost his Kobo — knowing full well that I really should be in bed, feeling physically sick at the prospect of tomorrow’s ungodly start, but still staying up.

Some time between 11pm and midnight, or maybe 12.30, my lids start to droop, I switch the light off and I sleep.

And, without fail, my eyes snap open 30 seconds ahead of my 5.30am alarm. I’m knackered.

But I’m awake.

I try a couple of times to go back to bed after dropping Zac at his bus. I even change into pyjamas. I make great progress on my Game of Thrones book set, but I do not get any sleep.

I will jolt awake at 5:29:30 with a sense of panic, for sure. But then I will drift back to sleep, and nap till the decadently late hour of 7am, 8am, or maybe even 9.

When I whined about this on Twitter, a sleep expert assured me that 6.5 hours sleep was all I needed.

Now, here’s the thing. If you’re a night owl, 6.5 hours sleep from 1.30 to 8am is fine. But no amount of sleep is enough to compensate for the horrors of 5.30am, even if your body won’t let you sleep before 11.30pm.

If it’s 5.30am, it’s not a full night’s sleep.

I measure out my weeks in terms of 5.30am starts left to go. Though Monday dominates Sunday, and, if I’m honest, even Saturday night, it’s actually Tuesday that’s the worst.

On a Wednesday, I realise that simply by managing this wakeup I have broken the back of the week. Thursday? Well, that’s only one more to go until the weekend.

And Friday? That’s just FAB.

Because I know, as I drag my exhausted-but-weirdly-awake frame from bed to bathroom, and get Zac’s breakfast on the table yet again, that tomorrow I can sleep in.

I will jolt awake at 5:29:30 with a sense of panic, for sure. But then I will drift back to sleep, and nap till the decadently late hour of 7am, 8am, or maybe even 9.

Because, unlike Chinese mothers, I don’t have to take Zac to a full morning-to-evening schedule of classes every weekend…

We are really not doing the Chinese school thing right.

As Arnold Schwarzenegger once put it, we lack discipline.

10 Comments

  1. Richard says:

    That is so brutal…I say looking at my 17 scheduled contact hours…I hope you have discovered the joys of Wolfram Alpha for maths.

    • Theodora says:

      Oh yes, Zac has discovered it. I was like “You don’t need Wolfram-Alpha! It’s middle school!” We did need Wolfram-Alpha. As you will learn when we get to algebra…

  2. Catherine Hartmann says:

    As someone who needs a good 8 hours of sleep I am tired just reading this post. 5.30am!!!!!! God! I am just not awake until 8.30am, even if I start work at 8 :-)

    How many more weeks do you have to do this?

    I’m impressed with Zac though, you must be really proud of him.

    • Theodora says:

      I am extremely proud of him. I’m incredibly impressed that he’s coped with the schedule, the content, the social side… The whole thing. I’m a bit behind on my life on this, but we don’t have too much longer to go. If Zac were to get to fluency and reasonable literacy, I think we’d need another year or eighteen months. But he doesn’t want to extend beyond when our lease runs out, and it really is his call. And, to be honest, I think it would knock a lot of individuality out of him if he went the whole distance.

  3. Bethaney says:

    Gosh, that sounds brutal Theodora! I hope you’ve got something relaxing planned post-Chinese school!

    • Theodora says:

      Well, we’re off to Mongolia! Which will be interesting, but not the classical definition of relaxing, Bethaney…

  4. Yvette says:

    Damn! (Though wow Mongolia sounds cool!)

    One thing this brings to mind though- a few days ago I saw an article detailing a study that recently came out saying when it comes to parenting styles everyone in the West assumes “tiger moms” and the like are the best at producing successful people thanks to the various stereotypes, but it turns out it’s actually detrimental compared to other ways (I can dig up the article if you missed it). Any thoughts on that after living in China? Because I do know for example that the suicide rate for children in high-performing Asian countries can be disturbing, but beyond that all I know about how kids cope with such a system is how my Asian-American friends did.

    Granted I realize that’s a bit more a question about parenting styles and less about crazy packed schedules, but I’m sure kids in the system still feel a huge amount of pressure.

    • Theodora says:

      I’d be interested to see that — if you could link me up.

      There’s a great deal of peer pressure, as well as parental pressure, to be dealt with. Failure is not an option.

      A few observations: Zac’s peers seem no more or less depressed or anxious than Western tweens. I haven’t seen an anorexic teen girl in China, ever. They must have anorexia, of course, but it’s nothing like in the West — and it’s not like they don’t have fashion magazines.

      The school system in many areas (not all) actively works against creativity and initiative and original thought. So I don’t think it’s geared to produce innovators.

  5. Yvette says:

    The article on the study I mentioned- http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2013/05/_tiger_mom_study_shows_the_parenting_method_doesn_t_work.html

    Obviously with a Western bent for immigrant families etc, so a touch different, but probably still interesting.

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