In 1980, my wife, Linda, and I, both American journalists in Beijing, enrolled our 3-year-old son, Peter, in an elite government-run kindergarten. Classroom songs about Chairman Mao had been dropped after the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. A more ancient authority had returned to favor.
"My teacher is like my mother / We need not be afraid of her," Peter sang with nine Chinese children and six other foreigners in his class.
In 2010, Lenora Chu and her husband, Rob Schmitz, both American journalists in Shanghai, enrolled their son, Rainey, 3, in an elite government-run kindergarten. Mao was back. Rainey and his 27 Chinese classmates sang the Cultural Revolution anthem:
"The east is red. The sun is rising. / From China comes Mao Zedong."
That barely begins to reveal the startling changes chronicled in Chu's new book, "Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve." No reporter has gone as deep as she has into what makes Chinese and American schools different today, or given more reasons we should not copy the Chinese. Yet her rollicking account has hope for both cultures, because they share a deep interest in what children learn.
I have written about the frenzied extremes of Chinese high schools and the gaokao annual college entrance exam, and why Chinese education officials are trying — without much success — to put their schools on a more relaxed, American-style path. Chu gets deep into that and adds a crucial new twist — the mind-blowing surge of the Chinese middle class.
The Chinese parents at the Beijing No. 1 Kindergarten my son attended 37 years ago were part of the government elite. But they had nothing close to the money and experience abroad of the parents Chu encountered at her son's school in Shanghai, which she identifies with a pseudonym. I never saw anything like the antics she witnessed.
One well-traveled mother decided to amaze her friends with a piñata at her daughter's birthday party. Instead of taking turns hitting the hanging effigy of Elsa from the film "Frozen," the Chinese children attacked en masse. When the piñata finally broke, they wandered off, bored, because the mother did not know she was supposed to fill it with candy.
Rainey demonstrated his rapid assimilation by saying to Chu, "Mom, I know. But don't say anything, okay?"
Chu likewise held her tongue while exploring the favor-trading habits that have survived the Communist Revolution. She took orders from teachers who wanted her husband, who was visiting the United States, to score some Western swag. One teacher asked for "Qianbi," a brand-name transliteration even the Chinese-speaking Chu did not recognize. The teacher pointed to an ad on her classroom computer. "Clinique!" Chu said.
As Rainey grew older, his parents were torn between pride in his grasp of a foreign language and culture, and disgust with the pounding memorization and reigns of teacher terror even in his upper-crust classroom. The politics were always there, including Mao. The thoughts of the Chairman and Confucius squashed the imaginations that most American teachers encourage.
Chu concludes, "Obstacles to the creative process litter the Chinese education landscape: Domineering teachers who discourage open questioning; exam metrics that keep children studying rather than exploring; social collectivism that promotes conformity."
She rightly gives the Chinese credit for their rigorous early education system, particularly in math, but is too optimistic when she says they will eventually catch up with the soft skills of the West. By that she means independent and creative thinking. How will they do that without massive changes in the political and social system she wisely derides?
Still, Chu proves the great value of her book by making clear that Shanghai's high test scores are an affluent distortion. Chinese schools nationwide remain mediocre and in rural communities are quite awful. She says Rainey will eventually transfer to something more Western.
He is lucky to be able to absorb so much. Our son Peter attended the Beijing school only one year but still likes Chinese pop music. Rainey will have a very interesting life.