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Mina Choi Tenison

Children Without Social Lives

Must going to school in China be so lonely?

My friends all over the world ask me, "what is noticeably different about sending children to local Chinese schools?" They are jealous that my children are learning Chinese, right here on the ground, whereas some of them have struggled to find bilingual classes in the U.S. and even in Europe. Many of them say that Chinese is the language of the future and aren’t we so lucky; our children can communicate with 1.3 billion people! They already know about the demanding school work. I’ve told them about the volume of homework that our children are expected to do, and how my 10-year old sometimes has to stay up until 10pm to finish.

But one very pronounced thing I’ve noticed during our five years here is the lack of social life amongst children. We live one block away from the school; when we enrolled our son into the school five years ago, we thought that we would see children coming over to play for an hour or even thirty minutes almost every day – this is how my husband and I grew up. However, this simply did not happen. We then encouraged classmates to come over to our house and play on Fridays—at least on Fridays, we thought, they have a whole weekend to complete their burdensome homework. But this also did not happen.

Instead, day after day, our children come home with their knapsacks on their shoulders, eat a snack, then start their homework by themselves. Very likely, this is probably what most of their schoolmates do. We used to invite children to come and play over the weekend, but after one too many no’s telling us that the child in question had to go to extra English class, or a piano class, or a drawing class, we simply stopped asking. When a few parents did say yes, it became too difficult to juggle their busy schedules and our schedule and find the time for the children to play.

Most Chinese school children I see go to school week after week, taking classes with other children, but never playing with them outside the classroom. This situation is even more pronounced because most of the students are only children. Recently, we had a party where we invited some of our children’s classmates, and two of them took out their Playstations to play by themselves, something that they were obviously used to doing at home. I was surprised. I asked them: don’t you want to play with the other children? Run around downstairs in the garden? Once we took away the electronic toys and forced them to engage with the others, they did—and had fun. But it was clear that these two boys rarely had the opportunity to play with other children.

Once I was invited to attend a parent-teacher meeting at the school. I used the opportunity to vent: “My child has no friends from school—at least no friends he wants to invite to play. Where is the sense of society here?”

This is also a common complaint among some of foreign friends who have also enrolled their children in local schools. They often ask me: do your children have friends from school? Do the friends come over to play? Why is it so difficult for them to make friends here? And I simply answer: as far as I know, going to school in China is lonely.

Some unexpected solutions have emerged for us: Our older son now loves to go to after-school sessions with a tutor because there are other children there. The children can gossip, trade notes, and help each other in a relaxed environment, AND finish their homework. My children also love going to tennis, not because they love the game, but because there are other children there playing.

Yet, in our five years here, we’ve changed too. We’ve had to adapt to the demands of the school curriculum and our children’s need to keep up academically. Once in a while, we get a glimpse of how “local” we’ve become when friends whose children go to international schools invite our children for a sleepover or an all-day party. We often have to decline by saying, “they can’t because they have to go the extra class on Sunday morning” or “they have tutoring on Saturday afternoons.” When I tell them this, I can almost see my friends shaking their heads and thinking what I often think: how sad that these children have no time to play with their friends.

ORIENTAL OUTLOOK (DONGFANG ZHOUKAN) January 6th 2010 Print Edition

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