Newsweek examines the phenomenon of American parents immersing their kids in Mandarin in order to improve the little ones’ prospects as 21st Century global citizens. The data provided on US youngsters’ low international exposure look bad, with less than 2% of college students spending any undergraduate time abroad, and fewer and fewer high schools teaching any foreign language other than Spanish. (To put this in perspective, the last American school I set foot in – Robert E Lee High in a desirable middle-class bit of Springfield, Virginia a couple of years back – had a 50% Kenyan/Thai/Honduran/etc student body.)
It is easy to see the Mandarin immersion as absurd, pretentious or perverse: “One mom in San Francisco laughs when she recalls that her daughter learned about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott in Chinese.” The article features one of the best-known of these Orientalist parents, investment guru-star Jim Rogers, whose eight-year-old daughter Happy attends the “elite, bilingual” Nanyang Primary School in Singapore.
Rogers’ choice of education for Happy is obviously connected to his world view, which is (more or less) that the US and the West are in eclipse and the future is Asia. Whole books, indeed shelves of them, have been written on this contentious subject. India and China are emerging as economic giants. But where have they been with half the planet’s population for the last 500 years? Are their demographics and resource-hungry growth models sustainable? The West is aging and bankrupt. But it has, in the last half-millennium, carved out a position where it effectively makes the rules in politics, economics and technology. (Today’s South China Morning Post has a feature on Confucianism - arguably no more than a semi-philosophy of etiquette and decorum – as a sort of last resort in an attempt to create a home-grown ethical system.)
Chances are that the world of the future will simply be increasingly integrated; it is not a question of East versus West, but a continuing merging and blurring of them – which is the sort of world implicitly anticipated by the Newsweek article. Parents like Rogers are not preparing their kids to thrive under Chinese global hegemony, but in a world where no-one is top dog, and you can make more friends if you can switch between forks and chopsticks without thinking.
Is this the right way to go about it?
“In the Rogers family’s five-bedroom bungalow, there is no TV. Instead, there are more than a dozen globes to look at and maps to ponder, a nanny and a maid who speak only Mandarin to the kids, bicycles to ride, and a new karaoke machine so the girls can learn Chinese songs.”
Maps to ponder and bicycles to ride never did me any harm, but the Sino-centrism seems a bit contrived. It is hard to think of Rogers without thinking of an image-building showman, so it could well be that, when Newsweek isn’t looking, Happy is not in fact being brainwashed into a de-anglicized, non-American, ‘white Asian’ circus freak, destined to be shunned by westerners and easterners alike – a sort of wealthy version of the despised black Vietnamese orphans left by US troops in the 70s. She might even know Rosa Parks’ name, in English.
One indication of who really comes where in the order of things surely lies in the numbers. My favourite gauge of whether Hong Kong is being ‘overtaken by Shanghai’ is to apply the hooker test. How many Shanghai prostitutes come to work in the Big Lychee versus the number of Hong Kong hookers who go in the opposite direction? Similarly, how many Chinese people will pay middlemen to smuggle them into the US in containers versus the number of Americans who will pay to get into China the same way?
For every Western family wanting to bring their kid up to speak Mandarin, how many Chinese parents will stop at nothing to get their offspring into English-medium schools?
Hong Kong’s former Home Affairs Secretary Patrick Ho addresses the subject in today’s China Daily. He carefully avoids the tricky question of how the Hong Kong government should resolve its schizophrenic stance on English-language schools, and he descends into politically correct blather about how English-medium classes are neither desirable nor necessary (without mentioning where he sent any kids of his own). But he is plain about one thing: Hong Kong (and many Mainland Chinese) parents are adamant that no English-medium education equals no international university and no high-flying career for their little princes and princesses. They know it’s true because they see it with their own eyes. The last time I checked, failure to get Western kids into a Mandarin-speaking school did not condemn them to a second-class life.