A few weeks ago I witnessed something that warmed the cockles of my typically icy heart.
In China, when one pictures a middle school student, they picture a small child diligently studying behind a great wall of books. Outside of the classroom they are spotted in their uniforms around 5pm being brought back from school for several more hours of homework. These few minutes on the bus in Nanjing were almost always filled with a few rounds of Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds on their smart phones. In rural China, the students were boarded, and so had no chance of furtive gaming between school and study.
In my two years at the hospital, I sat through dozens of chats between co-workers that focused on their children’s progress in school, but I never heard them discuss other aspects of their children’s lives with each other. Questions from them about life in America also focused on the scholarly instead of the fun. This reinforces the stereotype that Asians are more studious than their American counterparts. For me this was confirmed a few weeks ago when I visited the Stanford campus and saw a handful of Chinese tour groups wandering the campus with their toddlers in tow (you can’t plan too far ahead).
For expats living in China, the conversation turns toward a concern over whether or not Chinese children ever actually get to enjoy their childhood. After all when a friend asked his students to recount their happiest memory, he was met with tales of passing tests, dog bites, and child abuse.
So when I saw two boys, about 12 years old, roaring and running about like dinosaurs, I couldn’t have been happier. It was wonderful to see them lost in their own world, completely ignoring the stares of working folks headed home.
It’s important to remember that even after years in China, there are large parts of people’s lives you have simply missed. So much happens within the home or behind the walls of their apartment compound and if you live in the wrong neighborhood you may miss it all.
It reminded me of a story one of my college students told me. He said that one night in the dormitory, when it was too hot to sleep, his roommates and him decided the only way to cool down was to go for a swim. The problem was they couldn’t leave their room. So they came up with a way of converting their tiny bathroom into a pool. All it took were a few towels stuffed into the squat toilet and under the door and their shower turned on full blast for about thirty minutes. Somehow all eight of them fit in there, and splashed away in their “pool.” The student, and his classmates hearing of it for the first time, giggled through the entire story, even though they had nearly destroyed their dorm room.
With what feels like an unending stream of depressing news about China’s human rights, food safety, and environment, it is easier to forget that more often than not it is a place of loving families and enduring friendships.
I just wanted to say that your observations are what I saw while in Tianjin for two years. My wife and Imwere teachers at an International School but we lived in a Chinese neighborhood. Our neighbor often left his front door open along with the yong tai door to create a breeze. We would often see the children playing with each other and family.
There was time for work, school work and play. In China as well as other places in the world, there are families just like American families. Parents want their children to be successful in school, in life, and in their careers and if possible, have a better life then they had as children. The more I travel (8 countries so far the more I see we have much in common)
Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Steve in California
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Forgive me if I sound all smarmy but it is posts like this that remind me why I enjoy your blog, Tom. China is not so foreign and its citizens are like people the rest of the world over. Thanks.