Lisa McClure's China Diary




September 5, 2000

Lara's school started yesterday, officially. She's still going to the pre-school on our University campus, but this fall she's in the oldest kindergarten class, and is treated much more like a real primary school student. (Lara's 5 now.)

I signed her up for optional dance classes, (two afternoons a week, 20 yuan per month) and when Lara mentioned that she wanted to take piano lessons, I inquired about that, and signed her up for those as well. It turns out that the piano room is next door to Lara's classroom, and for an additional 30 yuan per month (about $3.50) she'll get two one-hour private lessons a week.

Lara's piano teacher is one of my favorite student's aunt, and she let me sit in on a mini-lesson with Lara yesterday afternoon. She's really great with kids. (you'd have to kill me before you could get me to teach piano lessons to a five year old!) It was interesting to listen to the lesson given in Chinese. It was a standard piano lesson, but with a definite Chinese twist. She taught Lara the correct posture for her hands, and described them as 'xiao mantou' (little steamed breads) and is of course, teaching her the Chinese terminology for reading music.

She is going to teach Lara two very popular songs for all Chinese children. One is 'Mama Hao' about how mother is the best thing on earth and all children need one. Every child in China can sing this song, and it's designed to bring a tear to every mother's eye, and convince her that she definitely must continue to pay for more piano lessons. The other song that she played, and Lara sang, is the song written for the return of Macau last winter. Again, it's a song that every child can sing, and a good one for a beginning piano player.

Of course, Lara is still excelling in her gymnastics classes every Saturday and Sunday afternoon. (two hours each afternoon for 50 yuan per month) So, even though we're in China, and I'm at a major social disadvantage (not being able to speak Chinese worth a toot) I'm still managing to help Lara become involved in some of the local kid activities.

9/7/00 (continued)
I hauled an English speaking friend along with me to Lara's school yesterday. I really feel like an inferior mother, not really being able to speak with Lara's teachers. We caught Lara in the middle of a dance class. Her very young teacher seems earnest and committed to teaching her students, and I was pleased that Lara seemed attentive and interested.

Lara's piano teacher is really a delight, such a nice woman. She's promised to write notes in Lara's notebook after each class, so I'll know what's going on. Lara enjoys the piano room and is already showing signs of having learned something of the instrument.

Unfortunately, I'm less than satisfied with Lara's homeroom teacher, and a lot of that may be because she's less than satisfied with Lara. When we arrived, we saw a room full of small children, each sitting totally quiet and still in small wooden chairs around two large tables. Each child was either practicing writing the number '1' over and over in a small notebook, or doing nothing at all. The teacher was sitting in her chair, also completely quiet.

Lara's teacher told me that Lara doesn't work in class, but likes to run around and play. She complained that Lara's exercise book is wrinkled and dirty (and it clearly is) whereas the other children's books are neat and tidy. Lara's handwriting exercises were poorly written, and she proudly showed me other children's neat handwriting. She told me that every child in Lara's class can already write their name in Chinese characters, but Lara can't. She told me that she considers Lara to be a cunning child (and when I asked my interpreter whether this was considered a good or a bad word, she confirmed that it wasn't meant as a compliment) She asked me whether Lara passed along her messages to me, and I told her that I heard nothing about school. She then replied that perhaps Lara only told me the good things, and none of the bad things. (In fact, Lara doesn't speak about school at all. Maybe she thinks it's all bad.)

My friend and I were sent out to buy some more small exercise books for Lara, new, unwrinkled ones, and when we returned, we dutifully handed them over, encased in their protective plastic folders, with Lara's name written on the front of each by her very kind piano teacher. (I'm sure that my Chinese handwriting would NOT meet with the homeroom teacher's approval.)

Clearly, the race to a good university has already begun for these 5 year old children, and they are now being taught the necessity of sitting still for uncountable hours of study. I guess the other children have already learned this lesson, but after a year and a half at this school, Lara still resists.

I only wish Lara could take piano and dance lessons all day long, every day. I don't think she's really ready to learn reading and writing, and I hate to sour her on these things by pushing so hard now. But I need to send her to school and I can't imagine that any of the other schools in town are any different, so I guess I'll be in the position of trying to encourage both Lara and her teacher to compromise with each other and get along for the next four months.

About the only favorable thing that the woman told me is that Lara's spoken Chinese is completely fluent and up to the same level as that of the other children. That praise was doled out without any pleasure or satisfaction, as if that monumental success should be taken completely for granted. I kept thinking that the woman had small, piggy eyes.

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