I’m not a perfect parent. And I’m not an expert in education. Years ago when I was first divorced and raising my toddler as a single a mother, I didn’t speak Mandarin to him even though he spent his first two years hearing it from his grandparents (for the first year) and his father (until I left him a few months shy of Jake’s second birthday).
I didn’t speak Mandarin to Jake because I was worried he would pick up my American accent, often devoid of tones. As a result, Jake didn’t really learn Mandarin until he started college 16 years after he stopped hearing it on a daily basis.
But I did something else. Starting around the time Jake turned three, I would push him on the swings at a Chicago playground with the Sears Tower looming behind us. And as I pushed him, he would count out loud–in Mandarin. Yi, er, san, si, wu, liu, qi, ba, jiu, shi, shi yi, shi er, and on and on until he got into the hundreds and then thousands. After reading Lenora Chu’s eye-opening book, Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve (Harper, 2017), I realized I hadn’t completely failed as a young mother years ago.
And it’s not that Jake’s ability to count in Mandarin contributed to his later language acquisition. It may have or it may have not. But according to Chu, the act of engaging in some kind of math exercises before children start kindergarten is huge. It may have contributed to what I thought was Jake’s natural ability in math. After reading Little Soldiers, I no longer believe in a natural ability; it was from learning numerical patterns and understanding how to count into the thousands and ten thousands and hundred thousands at an early age–and in another language.
Chu’s son Rainey enters a local kindergarten (which is what we’d call pre-school in the US) at a prestigious school in Shanghai. Chu and her husband are expats in China’s financial hub and do all they can to get Rainey into this sought-after school. But once he begins, Rainey is subjected to some pretty draconian practices like being force fed food he doesn’t eat (Jake cringed when I told him this part; he doesn’t eat eggs either) and being made to conform to the group and not shine as an individual.
But there are also some great advantages to the Chinese educational system and Chu dispels many myths. Chinese students aren’t naturally better in math than American students; they just start at an earlier age (per my example above). And students from the big cities don’t have a much easier time getting into the top universities in China compared to their compatriots in the countryside because the former are smarter and the latter less intelligent. It’s that the universities give more places to city kids than rural ones.
One of the most eye-opening parts of the book was the culture of graft. I feel like I’m pretty generous when it comes to giving teacher gifts in December. I’ve bought European throw blankets and pretty scarves for my kids’ teachers, but never the designer handbags or money envelopes that’s expected in China. I was upset when we had to pass out cigarettes to the police when my ex-husband needed some forms signed at a Hubei government office for his green card application 22 years ago. How in the world would I deal with handing out Tory Burch?
I could go on and on about what I learned in this book, but I don’t want to spoil it. I bought a copy for the principal of my kids’ school (here I go again with gifts to educators, but it’s not Prada!) and when I saw him last week and started to get excited about the book, he said he didn’t want any spoilers either. So please pick up this book if you’re at all interested in education, global affairs, China, or just love to read compelling stories. You’ll love it!