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In China, some want to go the US way

When I was little, my mum let me go to piano class. But after two lessons I felt like the teacher was strict and really not nice to students so I quit.

world Updated: Feb 05, 2011 23:35 IST
Reshma Patil

When I was little, my mum let me go to piano class. But after two lessons I felt like the teacher was strict and really not nice to students so I quit. My mum said she understood. But I always regret that I failed to learn the piano and sometimes I even blame my mum. She should be a little bit tiger (/sic/).”

I received this email from a 25-year-old Beijinger studying in Sweden, who wrote that today’s typical Chinese parent is not an Amy Chua demanding endless piano practice and straight As. While Americans worry about 15-year-olds in Shanghai surpassing their math and science scores, the Chinese worry that the rote learning central to their schooling dulls the creativity essential to competing globally and winning a mainland Chinese the first science Nobel prize.

The average Chinese student grinds through high school, preparing for the make or break national college entrance examination called gaokao — tall test — under greater pressure than Indians cramming for board examinations. Last year, 9.5 million students competed for 6.5 million seats.

A January survey estimated that half of Beijing’s school students sleep less than eight hours. A 2010 survey estimated that Chinese primary school students sleep 45 minutes less than their western counterparts. But unlike the Chua, who would think of these statistics as a virtue, many Beijing parents wish things were different. Their ultimate dream is to give their child a future outside China, preferably in the US. Last year, the number of Chinese students reportedly surpassed Indians in US universities; the daughter of Xi Jinping, China’s next likely president, enrolled in Harvard.

Towards that goal, nearly all students under 10 years at a government school in Beijing are out of the house from 8 am to 8 pm on weekdays, a teacher told HT, requesting anonymity because she is not authorised to speak to media. Today’s Chinese students attend extra English tuitions and yes, play at least the piano or violin. “Parents don’t want to overburden their child but feel they have no choice,” said the teacher. “They don’t want their child losing out to students taking private classes.”

So Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a memoir of an authoritarian Chinese American mother, will be sold in China as Being An American Mom. The red cover will be replaced in the Mandarin version with stars and stripes. The new title “appeals to Chinese sensibilities,” a publisher told Xinhua. Unlike Chua, who has two daughters, most urban Han Chinese have only one child. The post-80s one-child generation is called China’s generation of “little emperors and empresses” raised by the first rich generation.

Far from starving their children for piano practice, indulgent Chinese mothers feeding their offspring fast food are today increasingly being blamed for the country’s rising childhood obesity levels.

Outside Beijing, one often sees grandparents taking over parenting duties. Migrant working mothers are leaving their babies in the care of their own parents in the villages and hometowns, returning to see their children only once a year.