China’s trophy kids
Yolanda is a typical trophy kid. When she was three, she wrote 2,000 Chinese characters, memorized 500 English words and was able to jump 108 times with her jump rope without tripping.
I call her a trophy kid because her parents can proudly show her around like a trophy.
Parents bragging about their children’s accomplishments are a phenomenon I have increasingly observed in China.
Now, Yolanda has grown into an even brighter teenager. In addition to being in an international school, her parents enrolled her in an expensive extracurricular study program that prepares students to pass the entrance exam for top universities in the US.
During the duration of a weekend, I was a teacher for this program. I taught the children new English vocabulary, facilitated debates to let them practice their oral speaking skills, and coached them for the yearly talent show hosted by the organization. The organizer paid me an exorbitant sum of money, and more importantly, the children and I had a great time.
But here’s the catch, I am not at all qualified to prepare Chinese kids for an American college entrance exam. I am neither a teacher nor a native English speaker. To be very honest, it was the first time I had ever taught a class in my life.
I did a good job, probably, but the point is I am not a professional.
Nobody seemed to care. The organizers gave me total freedom in the design of the curriculum, and even though two Chinese assistants attended my class, their purpose was not to help me with teaching but to document everything.
They took pictures of me pointing at a flipchart, of me sitting down with the kids in a circle and reading Disney’s Zootopia, of me sitting through the entire six minutes of “You Raise Me Up” performed by Yolanda (singing is probably the only talent this girl doesn’t have.)
“The parents love you!” the assistants assured me. Since the moms and dads never met me in person, I assumed they loved how I looked: a tall, young, white woman teaching their little emperors. Now, that’s something you can show your acquaintances, your neighbors, and colleagues at work.
I could not repress the suspicion that the organization paid me to give the children’s parents face. English language teaching was of secondary importance.
On Sunday evening, I finally met some moms, dads and grannies in person. I was supposed to inform them about their child’s English language progress.
Yolanda’s mother arrived one hour after all the others had already left. The little girl initially played with the assistant and me while waiting, but after a while, she sat quietly on a chair, checking her phone every minute.
Her mom stormed in with a sheepish smile on her face. While I told her about Yolanda, she scrolled through pictures on her phone.
“Have you heard, mom? The teacher said I was a xueba (a good student)!” Yolanda said.
But her mom was busy showing me a picture of Yolanda winning the last year’s talent show. I applauded, but in my heart, there was just one question: Do you care more about gaining face than your kid’s education?