By Yaxue Cao
Earlier last week, I was on the phone with an artist friend of mine in Beijing. We talked about the documentary he was making, my ideas about a story, and we chitchatted a little about our children. He too has two children and the older girl was a fourth grader, a couple of years younger than my daughter. The next day I received the following email from W:
“I attended the Reading Festival performance of my daughter’s school this morning. I sat through the hour-long event horrified. The entire show had nothing to do with kids or reading, nor did the children look innocent and lovely. Instead, I watched Party’s propaganda, shrill patriotism, and twisted rendition of history. The fawning on teachers gave me goose bumps. What a jumble of collective mindset and bad taste. Several times I wanted to rush onto the stage to stop them. I trembled at such shamelessness, and I am still trembling.”
I checked the time when he had sent the email: 4pm. At 4pm, he was still trembling.
He went on, “As soon as the show was over, I went to see the teacher. She was a little embarrassed, and asked me to talk to the Director of Academic Affairs. I am going to tomorrow morning.”
I read his message and hit the reply button. But for a long while, I didn’t know what to say. I knew all too well what he was talking about, I felt his pain, but I didn’t know what to say to him.
It’s like watching your child being poisoned but unable to stop it.
I have always wondered what parents in China, parents who are acutely aware of these things and pained by them, do to “detoxicate” their children. For example, what does my friend W do to undo what the school is instilling in his daughter? What does he say to her every day? I would very much like to know.
Every time I talk to my daughter, I also wonder how a parent in China would talk about the same thing. For example, now and then I would say to my sixth grader: “Treat your work with respect. Treat your teachers’ work with respect. Always give your best. It is from such respect and dedication that you learn to be a just, responsible and trustworthy person.”
More than anything else, I want her to grow up to be a good, solid human being. I tell her that she must not be afraid to take a clear moral stand. “If you see someone is being bullied,” I said, “speak up for that person.”
“Be the keeper of the good.”
Chinese parents would have to think twice, three times, or even lose sleep, if they are to instill these values in their children, because these qualities won’t serve them very well in the Chinese society.
When I was a child, there were two things that my mother warned me, and reinforced in me, tirelessly:
- Don’t speak your mind—calamities come out of your mouth (祸从口出);
- Beware of people—you never know what a complicated web exists among people and what trap you might step into (人际关系太复杂了).
When I was eleven or twelve, I once made a comment about the party secretary of my father’s work unit as I overheard my parents’ conversation about some unpleasant entanglement at work. All of a sudden, my mother turned around and dealt such a blow on my face that the lymph on one side of my chin swelled badly and hurt for days. Ever since, it has always been prone to swollenness whenever I am tired or not feeling well, and every time I am reminded of that blow against speaking my mind freely. Not even at home.
And that was the only time my mother had ever struck me.
I fidgeted and measured my words writing a reply to my friend. “Please don’t get into an argument,” I began. “I’m so afraid that they will mistreat your child in school as a result.”
I was angered by the fact that I was giving my friend this piece of advice. But in my mind, I can just see what some of my teachers would have done to her. She will be marked and excluded from a lot of things, to say the least, and she won’t fully understand why.
What will I do if I were W? I will tell you right here: Until I know how to protect my children from that system, I will have to swallow my rage and pain and everything else for their sake. If it’s too much for me to swallow, I will dice it up and wash it down with wine, curses and tears, one piece a time.
On Twitter, I heard some parents talking about homeschooling their children to avoid the churning of the system. If they do, a commitment logistically unthinkable for most, they will have to keep reminding themselves that to reject the system is to prepare their children to be outcasts.
In China, to be good is to be the other. (Of course my good is not their good, and vice versa.) And if you’re a parent deeply concerned about the upbringing of your children, you will find yourself in a hard-to-negotiate spot.
While a lot remains the same in China, obviously it is a very different country from the one I grew up in. Despite the system, there will be more and more “outcasts” by choice. The more the better.
My friend didn’t write back to tell me whether he went to see the Director of Academic Affairs or not, and if he did, how it went.