The past six months or so have been hectic ones as we figured out whether we’d be able to move this year or not. Although we’ve made several trips back and forth to Shanghai I was reluctant to say too much without knowing for sure whether we’d move. But as of now everything is set: we plan to relocate to Shanghai on July 31st.
KC and I took a whirwind trip last week to finalize the apartment and schools. Since I never did write a summary of our April trip, here is what happened in brief:
Aiden tested at 3 schools: SMIC, Pinghe, and JinCai. SMIC is a school originally built for SMIC employees but now open to other students. It has both Chinese and English tracks. Its location is not ideal, kind of in the middle of nowhere. Both Pinghe and JinCai are Chinese private schools with international sections. In the months preceding the testing we thought we would have Aiden try to test into the Chinese tracks of these schools, but after ordering textbooks from Shanghai (you can do many things on the internet) we decided that was crazy and we were stressing Aiden out too much trying to prepare him in 3 languages, especially since he had just begun 2nd grade with a rather difficult and scary teacher here. We shifted to English preparation, which was more difficult than I anticipated. His math ability is above his grade level (he can do long division) but he does math in Korean. I hadn’t thought clearly about how much vocabulary he would have to know just to be able to solve math problems in English: product, sum, difference, greater than, less than, etc. Not to mention having to develop a grasp of non-metric measurements and American money (since they use American textbooks).
Although Aiden’s reading, speaking, and listening levels are all good his writing is not. His spelling is atrocious and he had never written anything close to an essay in English. We did a lot of preparation for that, on top of his school homework. For several months he was doing 2-3 hours of homework a night. It was not easy. (You see why I neglected my blog...)
Since the Korean school year starts in March but the Chinese school year, like the American one, goes September - June, we had to decide whether to put Aiden in 3rd grade (like his peers in the U.S.) or put him into 2nd grade. He will finish out the first half of 2nd grade here before we move. We decided pretty easily to put him into 2nd grade. I'm not in a hurry to advance him and especially with all the languages he's learning I'd rather he have some extra time to get familiar with the material.
Anyway, the tests went really well: he had 1.5 hour tests at SMIC and Pinghe and a long interview at JinCai. I have to say that I was very frustrated by the process because SMIC in particular was so unresponsive: they didn’t respond to emails, didn’t answer phone calls, and didn’t answer my questions, plus they were incredibly rigid about test dates. Since we had to fly from Korea to test I was quite unhappy about that. Micah Sittig, a teacher there and China-blogger, was very generous with help and advice about SMIC. Aiden passed the test there but was wait-listed because they don’t have room for him. While he was testing we looked at apartments in the area. The apartments were fine but we didn’t love the area, and there wasn’t any space in SMIC kindergarten for Max.
Next was Pinghe. I scheduled Aiden’s test for 9am on Friday morning, which was, in retrospect, a lucky thing. Pinghe had been quite responsive via email but told me several times they only had 1-2 spaces available so it was unlikely he would be admitted. Anyway, while Aiden tested we chatted up the Admissions Director who seems quite friendly, efficient, and well-organized, but doesn’t speak any English. My Chinese was put to the test. When she left the room at one point KC said, “Make sure you put on the application form that we both went to Stanford. This is Asia, those things matter.” I did add that information, but I also got to put that information into the conversation since the director mentioned that they had students attending Princeton and Stanford. Who knows if that’s what got him in, but he got in. I must have lived in Asia a long time to be pulling out my Stanford degree as leverage. But by 10:00 there was a line of people out the door waiting to talk to the director and get their kids in the school (the non-international section). In general we were impressed with Pinghe -- the school itself, with its lines of students and atmosphere felt like a Korean school. For someone coming from the States it probably would have felt very foreign but we liked it. We also liked that the international and regular students all take classes on the same campus. We felt that with a small international class Aiden would have a good chance to bond with his classmates but because they are housed in the same location he would also have more opportunity to speak Chinese while playing soccer or swimming (they have a swimming pool, another plus). Plus we liked the location. We looked at a lot of apartments in the area too, and found one we liked.
That afternoon we went to JinCai. The facility is nice and Ellen Huang, the principal, was the most helpful and personable during the whole process. Aiden really took a shine to her. I had been worried that he wouldn’t interview well because he tends to be shy, but he talked to her so much we had to tell him to stop talking so that we could ask her questions. JinCai’s location is the best -- in Lianyang area, which we love, but we didn’t like that the international and regular schools are located on separate campuses, and international program seems like it’s still finding its legs.
In short, we decided to go with Pinghe. Aiden got a great deal of praise and a few presents for his excellent performance during the whole process, which was not just stressful for him but for us as well. We had to have a few Mommy-Daddy conferences in which we rearranged his schedule and tried to find ways to balance out his responsibilities and make enough time for him to play and relax. After testing we have scaled back on a lot of the extra studying -- he’s doing almost no Chinese right now, and very little English. Right now he needs to focus on Korean; the other two he will pick up when we move. That probably sounds a little chaotic and crazy but it is more well thought out then I am capturing here. At least I hope so.
One interesting thing about China is that it seems like it is still primarily a cash society. At least, I had to pay Pinghe in person, in cash, which required another trip -- they don’t accept wire transfer. They were flexible with the dates, which was nice, but carrying a thick wad of RMB across the ocean was a little weird. We took the chance to look at apartments too. After the first day we were ready to sign on a place near Pinghe (5 minute walk) but we were thrown into a panic because we couldn’t find a place for Max. I had had trouble getting ahold of schools by phone and email and by the time we arrived in person most schools were closed for the summer and all the spots were filled. We tried to visit local schools but were informed that not all local schools can take international students -- only the ones given a special fee schedule for foreigners by the government. If we couldn’t find a place for Max we’d have to rethink the move. My dad had come back to help us on this trip, allowing us to use his old driver and his language skills, and that was invaluable. But by Thursday evening we (especially me, since I had dropped the ball on preschools) were feeling awful, wondering if we’d be able to move at all. It was a sleepless night.
Friday morning I had some gotten some responses from the ShanghaiMamas mailing list, giving me some great leads on preschools. I went to pay Pinghe in cash and my Dad again helped a lot with translations about visas, which is going to be a problem because of the recent visa issues with the government. They asked us to open a bank account through which to pay school fees, and again my dad was a big help.
I had heard from one school, a little farther than I had wanted to look, but they had one opening. So after going to Pinghe again to give them my new bank account information I went directly to the school with no appointment. The school, Okiki, has a surprisingly nice facility with indoor and outdoor playgrounds, and I like the bilingual structure of the classes. Like at FYKO, each class has two teachers, one English-speaking and one Chinese. The school day is a little longer than I would like (the kids take a nap there), Max would have to take a bus to school (which he does now, but I was hoping for a walkable distance), and it is not cheap. But I liked the teacher and the administrators and they were very accommodating so I took the spot.
To be continued...