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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 July 2006, 10:52 GMT 11:52 UK
Back to school... in China
By Carrie Gracie
BBC News, China

The BBC's former Beijing correspondent, whose husband is Chinese, follows her children's progress as they spend a term in a Beijing primary school.

Children in Beijing practise a dance for International Children's Day
Exercise is an important part of the learning process in Chinese schools

Teacher Song is built like a battleship.

On the first day of term, she looked down from a great height, held out two broad brown hands and swept my children down the school corridor.

"Lai xiao pengyou! Come little friends!"

The little friends were pale with anxiety and sleep deprivation. Rachel, aged nine, had been first to wake in fear in the middle of the night before:

"I'm afraid I'll have no friends and I'll do something silly and everyone will laugh at me."

Seven year old Daniel was not far behind: "Mummy, I'm having bad thoughts!"

The bad thoughts turned out to be a dream in which a squirrel fell out of a tree and tumbled towards the water's edge. In the water was something unseen but threatening.

Daniel looked like that squirrel now rolling towards the unknown.

But I knew my job was to look calm and encouraging.

Morning school sounds surged in through the window. Not the hymns Rachel and Daniel sing in their catholic primary in south west London, but the Chinese national anthem, every child in the school saluting as the red flag snapped its way up the flagpole.

Memories

The scene took me back to all the other schools I have visited in China over the years. The same green tracksuits, the same flag, the same physical exercises...yi, er, san... one, two, three.

For Rachel and Daniel, three months in a Chinese primary school never got as traumatic as their dad's experience of 40 years ago
From frozen north to tropical south, from rich seaboard to drought cursed hinterland, tens of millions of children all moving as one.

Watching that formidable regimentation is one kind of experience when you are a reporter and quite another when you are committing your own children to it.

"And every pupil must bring their own toilet paper." The deputy head was coming to the end of her lecture for new parents as we arrived at the door of the class.

The daughter I know as Rachel Gracie Cheng was introducing herself as "Cheng Rui".

Rui, auspicious, happy.

Daniel followed.

"Cheng Dan." Bright red. China's favourite colour of celebration.

Surrounded by strangers, they were not quite living up to their names. But when the 25 pairs of brown eyes turned to stare at Jin and me in the doorway, they broke into smiles and waves. Perhaps it was not going to be so bad after all.

Cultural Revolution

Rachel's nightmare did come to pass on day two though.

She had to stand up and admit that she could not understand the question she was being asked let alone answer it.

Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Square holds many memories of the Revolution
Rachel and Daniel speak domestic Chinese at home in London, a vocabulary confined to food, sport and cartoons. The text about a great classical Chinese calligrapher was way above her head.

"The other children laughed behind their hands," she wept that afternoon when she got home.

When we had dried the tears, I told her the true story of her dad, Jin, aged eight.

The Cultural Revolution had just begun. Chairman Mao was worshipped as a jealous god. Jin's grandfathers had both been imprisoned because they had suspect foreign connections and too much education.

His grandmothers were beaten and his parents sent to the countryside to be re-educated. A story just like millions of others. But Jin made matters worse for himself by suggesting that as everyone could make mistakes, Chairman Mao might make mistakes too.

He was paraded in front of the school with the head teacher explaining that only a child from a very bad family background could make such wicked comments.

I explained to Rachel that her dad had chosen not to feel humiliated, that even at eight, life had become so surreal, so paradoxical it had forced him to separate his own judgment of himself from that of the world around him.

I did not tell her that her great grandmother had beaten Jin when he got home for bringing more shame on the family. But the story was already compelling enough to stop her crying. And when we caught up with Jin later, he had a practical suggestion.

If it happens again, you turn to your class and you say: "Little friends, if I spoke perfect Chinese I would not need to come all the way from London to learn. I hope you'll all help correct me when I make mistakes rather than laugh at me."

Exotic pets

For Rachel and Daniel, three months in a Chinese primary school never got as traumatic as their dad's experience of 40 years ago.

They stopped being treated like exotic pets and got told off themselves
In fact it never got any worse than Rachel's moment of shame.

Now they both write Chinese characters and chant Tang dynasty poems. They have won red scarves and red stars for effort.

They got used to seeing teacher Song throwing books at their classmates. And they stopped being treated like exotic pets and got told off themselves. They learned to expect an uplifting moral at the end of every lesson. By the end of term, they belonged.

In fact the only grumble Rachel and Daniel have about school in China is the very same as the grumble they have about school in London.

And that is not enough to do at playtime.

Safety worries mean no climbing frames, and in the Beijing school no football even.

And what is the point of being seven and nine, after all, if you cannot hang upside down on the monkey bars or kick a ball around with friends?

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 29 July, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
China children outgrow old rules
02 Jun 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Seven-year-olds learning Chinese
23 May 06 |  Education
Eyewitness: Cultural Revolution
16 May 06 |  Asia-Pacific

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