Don't Lose On The Starting Line

by Yafei Zhu, October 10, 2018 

A lot has changed in China since I first went there in 1994. My last trip was in 2007, and many people, including my wife, Yafei, have been telling me that much of the country is unrecognizable as so much has changed.  It’s hard to imagine this, but these changes hit home during the first week of the girls’ extended trip to Nanjing.  Yafei enrolled our daughter, Xaria, into a local kindergarten and the vast contrast between now and then is plain to see.

My brother, Andrew, taught English in China throughout most of the nineties.  The last school he was at was a private school in Changzhou, which is a short train ride from Nanjing.  Without a doubt, the school was the best in the city at that time and far superior to any of the government-operated facilities.  I visited him on two occasions.  I wrote about his apartment at his school, “The starkness of the flat makes an immediate impression, and I wonder what possessed me to come to this country.  I was not expecting a palace, just something homelier.  The flat consists of four rooms, the largest of which will be my bedroom.  It measures perhaps ten feet by eight.  The furniture consists of a bed, an old leatherette armchair, a coffee table, and a bookcase.  He’s using the second room, some eight feet by six, as his bedroom.  It’s furnished only with a snug fitting bed, chair and wardrobe - realistically what else could fit into such a restricted space?  The other two rooms serve as a kitchen and bathroom.  The kitchen has a two-ring gas hob, a stained enamel sink, and an antiquated fridge. The bathroom has a Western-style toilet (a prayer is silently spoken), shower and washbasin - facilities which I believe are quite good for this area.  All the rooms have tiled floors, and this tiling extends up the walls to around head height. The windows are aluminum framed; there are no curtains and trickles of condensation run down the glass.  Everything is cold; there is nothing to add warmth to this place.” Relating to the nearby classrooms, I noted, “The lifeless school buildings are all reinforced concrete structures.  We enter one of the teaching blocks and peer through a classroom window.  The forty or so desks are cramped and regimented; no decorations adorn these walls, everything is bare and spartan.  It’s all very different from a Western primary school.”

The contrast between the school my brother taught at to this modern kindergarten could not be greater.  Education is now in the forefront of parent’s minds as demonstrated by the new Chinese saying, “Don't lose on the starting line.”  And, I’ve learned from being married to a Chinese girl for eighteen years, if the Chinese have a saying for something then it’s meant to be observed!  Parents are willing to pay big bucks to get their children into good schools.  This bright, modern, well-staffed kindergarten is 2,400 yuan/month, which is approximately $350. They also have an English teacher from overseas.

Highlights from the Yueya Lake Kindergarten

Entrance to the Yueya Lake Kindergarten, Nanjing, China

Entrance to the Yueya Lake Kindergarten - Xaria Getting Shown Around!

Xaria Excited to be in School at the Yueya Lake Kindergarten

Xaria Excited to be in School at the Yueya Lake Kindergarten

Colorful Classrooms at the Yueya Lake Kindergarten

Colorful Classrooms at the Yueya Lake Kindergarten

The Children's Sleeping Area at the Yueya Lake Kindergarten

The Children's Sleeping Area at the Yueya Lake Kindergarten

Tiny Toilets at a Chinese Kindergarten, Nanjing, China

Xaria Likes the Chinese Variety!

More Pictures from the Yueya Lake Kindergarten


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My book, Changing China, Changing Life, provides a vivid portrait of life in China in 1994.


  • Hi Jackie, You’re not the first person I’ve heard from expressing this sentiment about Chinese schools. Edward on Facebook commented to my post, “My kids went to kindergarten in China for a few months. They quite enjoyed it. I didn’t like what I saw. Very little learning, very little play. Lots of sitting quietly. Most teachers in early twenties on their mobiles doing their best to ignore kids.” I’m sure some schools are not great, but rightly or wrongly this is not the impression we get about this particular school. Xaria seems excited to go every day. She also likes the afternoon nap – which is long I must admit. In fact, it was only when she said to three teachers Yafei was talking to that, “I don’t understand why I have to go home for a nap” did the school allow her to stay for nap time. Sorry, Elizabeth’s experience was not better.

    Gary Hawkins
  • This resonates everything my daughter going through at the age of 5. Being a mixed child of “big nose” and “Chinese girl”, she was placed into a Kindergarten in Beijing with exact settings, tender and nurturing teachers including a native English caucasian “Stinking Fred”! He is from either America or Canada and has the cheerful personality that suits him most with the kids. Now my daughter is 14 and has vivid memory of her days at that kindergarten. “Mom, my worst days were there.” Oh, well, we thought those days were the best; but it turned out to be the opposite. “Everyday, I had to stare at the ceiling for two hours when the other kids took the two-hour nap (after lunch)”. “The teachers are nice to me. But I hate to sit in that little chair!” … Yeh, my American girl does not like the structure put onto her early on. Her creativity and seriousness in learning are better served throughout a private elementary and middle school in Jersey. And she speaks fluently Chinese even today. Aren’t we all nature of free? Cheers!

    Jacqueline Ma

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