The staff of the Peking No. 1 Kindergarten did not seem happy to see me. Chinese parents do not usually come by and observe during the day in Chinese nursery schools. In fact, most of the Chinese children sleep overnight here and only see their parents on weekends. But I wanted to determine what luck they were having at turning Peter Mathews, age 3, into an obedient Chinese child, at least during the three hours each morning they had him.
For the first two weeks, Peter had cried when we left him off at the school, a collection of tile-roofed, single-story buildings in a walled compound that once served as a Buddhist nunnery. This was not uncommon for new pupils, particularly those who spent all week in the dormitory, which is laid out like a miniature military barracks with sinks scaled to three-year-old size and identical beds lined up headboard to headboard.
The grandmotherly director, Ouyang Man, said: "We can keep the children occupied during the day with play and other activities, but in the first few weeks, many of the cry for their mothers at night. The teachers try to comfort them as best they can."
Lately, however, Peter had been dashing eagerly out the hotel door to get to school on time. In stentorian tones he now cited his laoshi (teacher), a somber but pleasant young woman named Ren Jixin, as the ultimate authority on everything from how he should eat his soup to how he should wear his toy wristwatch.
Chairman Mao might be dead, but for Peter at least, teacher Ren was filling the void. I wondered what was going on.
BUT THE TIME we arrived at 9 a.m., the morning routine was well under way. Peter's live-in schoolmates had done their morning calisthentics, eaten breakfast and brushed their teeth. Nine of the 16 students in his class were Chinese, lucky enough to be admitted into what is a limited number of places because their parents could demonstrate they had no one else to care for them during the day or because they had good connections.
The foreign children, sent to this school because of its good equipment, included two Americans, two Japanese, a Nigerian, a Sudanese, a Moroccan and other scattered Third World children.
Ren told the children to bring over chairs and lined them up for singing. Peter swiftly complied. He sang heartily the Chinese lyrics, but as the songs grew more difficult, he lost interest. A child sitting behind tried to move Peter's chair, and Peter punched him.
PETER HAD BEEN cared for by a Cantonese-speaking amah, Lau Lin, from the time he was born in Hong Kong, but during his months at the school he had begun to switch over to the harsher syllables of northern Chinese. He refused to speak Chinese to a foreigner like me, but he and our driver, Wang Fachen, engaged in dialogues that delighted Wang and indicated how much Peter could soak up from the songs and games at school.
Ren put the pupils through their paces, a series of choreographed dance steps and hand gestures that would become a repertoire unleashed on the next group of official visiting dignitaries. It was not a method encountered often in American nursery schools, but Peter and the others went at it with intense concentration.
He liked to imitate his older brother, and here he watched carefully the moves of the four- and five-year-olds in the class.
"Who needs to urinate?" Ren asked loudly. Peter and other small boys began to line up, each taking a turn at dropping their pants, picking up a bed pan, then putting it down when they finished. This went on in the corner of the classroom, with no attempt at encouraging privacy or shyness.
DRINKS WERE SERVED, each child taking his cup from its appointed hook on the wall and sitting at one of the long, low tables. The Chinese children were dressed so colorfully, in pink dresses and fancy green and white short-and-shirt combinations that for a while I mistook some of them for Japanese. At a time of loosened social restraints, children were again leaders in fashion.
A little Moroccan girl, with earrings and ribbons on her hair, began to cry. She was new, and an assistant teacher picked her up and carried her outside.
To cheer everyone up, the singing resumed. There were no chants about Chairman Mao. An ancient authority had returned to favor as the next song demonstrated: "My teacher is like my mother. We need not be afraid of her. She teaches us to sing and dance. We are always happy. My parents are very statisfied, and my kindergarten is my home."
Two hours had passed. The Chinese pupils, better prepared, continued with orderly songs and games, but discipline among the others began to break down. Peter, the other American boy and the Nigerian boy engaged in a series of skirmishes. Somehow, the class had been equipped with a big-wheeled tricycle, and they battled over it.
AS I HELPED PETER into his sweater for the trip home, Ren assured me that this was not up to her standard of discipline.
"They are too young, so they cannot control themselves," she said.
Toward the end of the three hours, as time approaced for the Chinese children to nap in their well-arranged beds, the noise level and chaos in all parts of the room had increased. Peter gave laoshi a cheery farewell and headed to the car for a chat with Wang.
The ethic that such communal living might impart to the Chinese had not soaked through to him yet. That night he tried out on his brother one of his favorite phrases in Chinese: "Bu shi ni de, she wo de" (That's not yours, it's mine.")!