Here in Guangzhou we are living in the residence for international faculty. We also have a fairly strong tie-in to the GZ ex-pat community, comprised of diplomatic service members, business people and their families, etc. I know about loads of playgroups, field trips, women’s circles, etc, all formed by and for ex-pats. Thus far we have greatly enjoyed the opportunities provided by these relationships and organizations. All the same, at this point it seems like we will leave China with more new American friends than Chinese friends and that seems odd to me. Our consistent exposure to other Westerners leads me to consider what I see to be the limits, both of my cultural immersion in China and the maintainance of cultural practices I brought from the States.
Take the childcare situation as an example. The kindergarten on campus, although difficult to get into and graded a first class Guangzhou kindergarten, does not serve any ex-pat children. It is a Chinese kindergarten, pure and simple. The day is highly structured (for example, walking in perfectly straight lines to outdoor play which consists of teacher-led dancing, running, and obstacle courses, and play in the two-year old room where the children are told which toys they will play with and they sit in their chairs while playing). Certainly this isn’t my preferred method of early childhood/preschool education. However, since I don’t think my children’s safety would be compromised, that they would be ruined for schooling, or have their spirits broken by spending 9 months (less about 2 months of breaks and trips all told) having a completely authentic Chinese educational experience (excepting the fact that they will eat breakfast at home, come home for nap, only return in the afternoon if we feel like it, and take at least one day a week off) shouldn’t that be what we give to them?
But it would be so easy to take a different path! There are other kindergartens in the city that are recognized by expats as good ones. They are primarily international schools, British schools or immersion schools. The campus kindergarten does not have a bad reputation. The Westerners have just never heard of it. In deciding to try my kids in the campus kindergarten, I feel myself in uncharted waters because the choice is so outside of the norm for Westerners even though it is exactly what the campus faculty do. In lieu of international school, it would be so easy to skip the choice entirely and use the kids as an excuse to stay home and not do much. Jason and I have usually cared for our children independently by juggling our schedules, trading off days and getting work done in the evenings. Why send the kids to kindergarten at all? On days when I am tired and overwhelmed that feels like a safe choice – all I would have to do is develop a daily routine. While it feels safe, however, it also makes living in China feel pointless – I had a great routine in Montpelier. What is the point of living here if we are not going to try to learn the rhythms of this place?
There are other situations like this – moments in which I feel the choice is between that which is known, comfortable and within the norm on the one hand, and that which is unknown, labor-intensive, and exactly the reason we are here on the other.