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.
A dozen globes? Sounds like he has a globe fetish.
A Western kid with a name like Happy? She’ll commit suicide at 15. There’s possibly a cheap joke to be made out of that, but I will forebear.
My dearly departed Daddy advised me to “Never trust a man who wears a bow tie by day”
I see rah rah China Jim Rogers joins Sir Donald Tsang as untrustable, in my eyes.
My kids switch between a mix of English, Mandarin and Cantonese with ease and having been schooled at the ESF. They picked up the Mandarin and Cantonese by default – and I suppose that’s the point … Kids will adapt and the educators and school only play a peripheral role.
I think there should be a law requiring a declaration of interest when govt policy makers make policy
If you notice : Jake van der Kamp always prefaces a comment he makes with a declaration of interest before mentioning any company in which he holds shares. Very right and proper of him to do so
So surely Michael Suen should publically declare what schools his children attend, so should any and every govt official like Patrick Ho before they pronounce opinions on what should or should not be done re HK’s schools.
If only Anthony Leung had had the sense to make such a declaration before he increased car taxes ( e.g. ” I have just bought a new Lexus van for my pregnant wife and if Legco agrees my budget proposal to increase car tax I will pay the extra tax as if I had bought my new van after the tax rise” ) he would not have had to resign. As it was I think he paid 10 x ( ? ) the tax difference to the Community Chest voluntarily AND still resigned as a matter of honor.
Betcha Mr Suen’s kids were educated abroad at govt expense, likewise Mr P. Ho’s kids.
Some really good points.
The only rebuttal I can think of is that since these kids are young and being educated, the parents aren’t preparing them for the world of right now, but the world 10 or more years from now. I certainly don’t see English speaking universities being eclipsed by their Mandarin counterparts in such a short time, but as you’ve stated, being able to switch between forks and chopsticks will likely be a useful skill sometime in their life time.
On the other hand, if they weren’t pushing their kids into this, they’d just pick some other fixation to pour every dollar and moment into, probably something involving computers.
What’s a guy his age doing with such small kids? Perverse. Did he mess up his first lot?
After 3 years of bilingual immersion, Chinese / English I’d say he’s vastly under-estimating what cultural immersion truly means, and just how much the structure of the brain changes by immersion in another language. Language and cultural immersion is not “pick ‘n’ mix” at the supermarket.
On our move to Singapore we could have gone for the “exclusive” Nanyang … but after I visited their website and chatted to people and understood what their style of “education” entailed, I demurred, even at the cost of losing out on the mandarin western kid rat race.
I wonder how “happy” little Happy will be later when she tries to stay as thin as her class mates but is battling western american genes? I wonder how her mum feels about the hours and hours of homework and responds to a child who is taught to calculate her worth in terms of her (publicly available) position in class ranking. Funny how mum wasn’t mentioned in the article.
Early days Mr. Rogers. Early days. Talk to me in 5 years time.
When I was at school — a long time ago — there was a fad for learning Russian because America had been beaten into space.
But let’s be clear what it means to learn a language well enough to compete with the native speakers. In the case of Chinese, it involves learning the written form — and absorbing the culture, which will probably conflict with the native one. Most of these articles seem to skip over such details as the quality of the child’s calligraphy, whether they’re also learning classical Chinese, the number of characters they know or what view they hold of the renegade bandits in Taiwan.
I’m waiting for the day when “foreigners” can, and are allowed to, write books in Chinese on and in China.
There are few hookers from Shanghai in HK… there aren’t even many from Shanghai in Shanghai.
There are plenty of hookers from SH in HK. But they are male hookers , very expensive, and some of them enjoy good wine.
And they all work for the government.
They ARE the government
Gives a whole new meaning to the term ” left hook”
See Tom Holland today ( friday ) in the SCMP for another view