Shanghai: Preschool Days and Activities


For 2 months a Shanghai mall hosted this amazing My Little Pony wonderland (amazing for the kids at least; I grew tired of the MLP theme song in Chinese blaring over speakers fairly quickly).

I struggled to come up with just the right title for this blog post.  Shanghai: The Kids Mecca or Parents Empty Your Wallets are both apt descriptions, but were not quite right.  Shanghai is chock full of activities for your progeny.  This is however not about all the kids activities on offer in this city–I am not that kind of blogger.  I expect you probably could find just about anything your kids’ heart desires, but this is, as usual, just about me and C.

I am now the mom of a school-age child.  Well, preschool-aged child, but it is school nonetheless.  Approximately a year before arriving coming to Shanghai, I learned that the State Department does not cover the costs of preschool.  It makes sense–preschool is not free in the United States and therefore it is not free for us overseas–yet it still came as a bit of a surprise.  No worries, I thought, I did not attend preschool and look at me, I became a US diplomat.  Not too shabby, right?  Therefore I figured C would do just fine without.


Just one half of the fabulous Shanghai Centre Kids’ Club. The toys! The colors!  Even I feel happy whenever I bring C here.

But things are different nowadays.  Even in the US, Kindergarten classes are more and more often full day and involve homework.  Preschool is the new Kindergarten.  And I am in Northeast Asia where there can be even more pressure for preschool to provide not only structured children’s recreation but also to prepare kids to excel not just in primary school but even to possibly decide their future university and their entire lives.  Yikes.

As soon as I arrived in Shanghai, I enrolled my daughter in the incredible Kids’ Club in our housing complex.  Besides being a wonderful play space open 7 days a week from 9 am to 6 pm where parents and the ayis (nannies) can bring the kids from 6 months to 6 years to play, they also offer regular story time (in Chinese, English, and Japanese), DVD time, music class, and exercise class but also special activities from Easter parties to Japanese flower arranging and soccer games to cooking classes.  And if you are  a member you can rent the space for birthday parties (no need to supply games!) It is not inexpensive at US$50 a month, but it is well worth it.


This is a stack of 180 one hundred RMB notes. For real.  Yes, I took a picture of the money.  I actually did a whole photo shoot…

Once part of the Kids’ Club there was pressure to enroll C in the preschool.  I was stopped in the supermarket, in the elevator, in parties at the Kids’ Club, with helpful suggestions that C might possibly be ready for school.  She is bright.  She will make friends.  She will learn a lot.  It is not that I disagreed per se, . but preschool, even full day preschool, does not actually last a full day (a full day is only 9 am to 3 pm; oh, how I wish that were my work day).  As a single working mom who had already lucked out in finding a really great ayi (in other words not someone I wanted to lose), I just was not sure it was right for us.  But after a year I came around to the idea C would benefit from some schooling.  So I bit the bullet and signed her up for half day.


Every week the teachers send photos to all the parents via WeChat as no parents are allowed in the classroom.

I did have a bit of sticker shock.  It would cost me 17,000 RMB for half day (9 am to noon), half a year.  Plus a 1,000 RMB one-time registration fee.  That total 18,000 RMB (approx US$2750) would need to be paid in cash on a Monday or Tuesday between 9 and 9:30 am.  That’s right, a full 30 minutes mid-morning.  Hmmmm…  As a working mom I have been part of enough conversations to know I am not the only person to face this kind of situation – where schools still assume a parent (usually the mom) is readily available during the day.  This, I am sure, was just my first such experience.  I do not expect it to be the last.  Luckily my daughter’s preschool committee turned out to be quite flexible — the treasurer (a very pregnant woman about to return to her home country to give birth), armed with an electric bill counter, met me at the Kids’ Club at 8 pm at night to accept my payment.  It felt a bit cloak and dagger, but the payment was made.


C gets her jump on at the brand new NBA Play Zone, another awesome indoor kids play area that will drain your wallet.  (only $36 for one adult with child on the weekend) But you love it.  Draining your wallet, that is.

As preschool tuition costs go, C’s school is an absolute bargain.  According to several online sites, private/international preschool programs in Shanghai cost between 5,000 and 20,000 RMB (US$758 and US$3,030) a month.  One prominent international school costs 204,000 RMB a year with a 2000 RMB registration fee and a 20,000 RMB non-refundable security deposit for a total of 226,000 RMB (US$34,242).   Just take a moment to digest that.  Not quite as much as the current annual tuition at any of the Ivy League universities, but it will set you back a pretty penny and a vacation or two.

My daughter is absolutely loving school.  What’s not to love?  I mean once you get over handing over all that cash (yes, I do think a credit card payment would have felt less painful).  This is a Montessori-based education.  A total of 11 students with 2 teachers and 1 classroom helper.  The student-teacher ratio is fantastic.  Of the three hours, 30 minutes is spent in Chinese class.  One of my previous excuses regarding the preschool was my daughter learns a lot from her ayi every day.  Yet in three weeks of class C’s Chinese level has skyrocketed to include multiple Chinese children’s songs.  Hearing her speak so much Chinese kinda makes me want to stay in China much longer.  Kinda.  Not really.  Well, maybe.  Um, no.


Look at my 4 year old climb this wall! (I know from personal experience I could not do it)

All kidding aside I love my daughter fiercely and I am happy that we have been posted to Shanghai where there are so many activities for her to participate in.  The Chinese culture loves children and the worldly and affluent Shanghaiese make sure the city gives them and their kids options.  My daughter is also enrolled in both private swimming and group ballet classes.  We are lucky that both of these activities are located in our housing complex!  I know.  Be still my tired single mommy heart — a five minute walk to both swimming and dance is ideal.  The swimming is hefty 250 RMB (US$38) per half an hour but I do think back to the mommy and me swimming we took in the US, which were $30 for half an hour with up to five kids and parents, and realize that our private classes are worth it.  Especially as C is really benefiting from the classes.  The dance classes too are extraordinary.  I had some doubts that the teacher — despite her incredible patience with the children — would be able to get 8 four and five year olds to learn a routine and execute it on stage, but she did.  The end of year recital was so sweet to watch.  Lots of proud parents and kids.   The 2,450 RMB (US$374) tuition is for 14 classes, the recital, and the show costume.  I took dance as a child (ballet, tap, and hula/Tahitian) from the ages of 4 to 12, and I thought back to how much I enjoyed it.

As the bidding for my next assignment will begin tomorrow (as soon as I return from vacation), I think again how incredibly fortunate we have been to be posted to Shanghai.  It is a place where kids are treasured and catered to.   There are so many organized activities and places for creative play.  Yes, it will cost you (it has certainly cost me), but it has been worth every penny to provide these kinds of opportunities for my daughter.


C and her Chinese swim instructor cover the basics as Rapunzel (lower right hand corner) looks on



I Love You Backpacking Long Time – Part Ten Still in Bali

I haven’t had a hot shower in over a month. I wear flip flops every single day. I wake up when the roosters start crowing. I have mango or papaya or pineapple or water apples or mangosteens or rambutans or some other exotic fruit every day (though durian, soursops, and snake fruit are not to my liking). I feel fairly busy every day although the next day I couldn’t tell you what I did. It is quite lovely.


A stack of Balinese offerings. I made a whole bunch of these one day. Not great for the allergies, but a great way to feel like one of the women.

The bus dropped me off at Lovina Beach, in the village of Kalibukbuk, a suburb of the town of Singaraja, in the regency of Buleleng, Northern Bali on Christmas Eve. There I met a cute guy and decided to stay a bit longer than a few days. After some more days I moved my departing flight back a week. A week later I moved it back even further, checked out of my guesthouse and moved in with the cute guy and his extended family. It was my Eat, Pray, Love move before there was an Eat, Pray, Love.

When I say his extended family, I really mean just about everyone. He lived in a fairly traditional multi-family compound home. The entrance to the home was to the north, towards the beach. As you enter the gate in the center is an open courtyard. To the right of the courtyard there are three rooms. The first is a roofed area, walled on three sides and completely open on the fourth. It is an all-purpose room, there are simple wood benches, and there is a loom. Later, after I have been here some time, I sat with a group of women here to make hundreds of Balinese flower offerings. The second and third rooms are kitchens. I learn later that it is this way because the cute guy’s mother does not get along with one of her daughter’s in law and they refuse to use the same kitchen.

To the south at the back of the courtyard were two bathrooms. They were two large rooms each with a concrete floor, a squatting toilet, and a large cistern with buckets to use to wash or to flush the toilets.

I have to take a deep breath before I throw a bucket full of cold water on me. Usually a few buckets later and I feel quite nice, but I can never quite get over the shock of that first bucketful. And the toilet paper, or rather the lack of it, is rather a mystery to me. No one else uses it but how they accomplish this feat without soaking themselves is beyond me. I can observe the eating with hands (or rather hand, only the right) and sort of copy it and get some of the food within the range of my mouth. But I cannot exactly observe the mysterious toilet paper-less feats. So every week I buy myself another roll or two and continue to look somewhat like an idiot clutching my paper as I make my way to the bathroom.


Seemed like a good reason to stop traveling for awhile…

The left of the courtyard had the living quarters. The southwest portion housed cute guy’s third oldest brother, his pregnant wife, and their two daughters. From their section, the next room was that for cute guy’s parents. The was then a long open hallway where the family gathered for watching television and eating sitting on the floor; it wrapped around with more hallway and two additional bedrooms, one for cute guy’s second oldest brother, his wife, and their daughter, and then cute guy’s room.

Cute guy is named Kadek. Though I usually try not to give away names, because of Balinese naming convention, this actually gives away little. Names in Bali. You can call me Putu. If I were born in Bali that would be my name as I am the first born. In Bali children are named by their birth order and then given another name. If you are first born then you are called Putu or Wayan. If you are the second child you are Kadek or Made. The third is Komang or Gede. The fourth is Kutut. If you are the firth child, then you are Putu or Wayan again. And so on. The names are for males and females. Kadek is named so because he is the sixth child, but he also has a nickname. However while in school he was called Made because there were already enough Kadeks to go around. His second name is Partama, but until the age of 5 it was something else, until his uncle said it was a stupid name and it was changed. There are no family names. The second name, the given name, is also chosen depending on caste, but it is changing was some children have foreign names. Some people are called by their birth order name, some by their second name, and some by a completely different nickname.


Heading to the temple with the family.

It was amazing to live with this family. I learned a lot about Balinese culture and incredibly was welcomed by and became woven into the lives of the family.

Kadek’s third oldest brother’s wife gave birth to their third child while I lived there. One morning they roared off on the motorcycle to the hospital and a few hours they roared back with a newborn.

Nearly every day for four months I watched Kadek’s second sister-in-law Ngah, from the village of Tenganan famous for its double ikat weaving, sit at her simple wood loom, pumping her legs and snaking her arms in an elaborate and fluid dance until she produced a beautiful piece of finished purple cloth with gold threads. When she, with her sister in law, came to my room to offer me the piece at the family and friends price, I readily accepted it. I felt I belonged.

It took a little time for the children to warm to me, but soon I felt like part of the family. Bodoh tai tunglep, which translates from Balinese to “you are as ugly as chicken shit” is a fond taunt of little children. All the children from three and up regularly call themselves and their friends UACS (ugly as chicken shit). It is a sign of my acceptance by the children that they now fondly call me the same. It is very touching and often brings a tear to my eye to be called ugly as chicken shit, have the child smack me, and run away giggling. Progress it is!


At the community temple wearing the beautifully woven skirt from Ngah.

In my time in northern Bali I had the opportunity to attend a wedding ceremony, a cremation, a tooth filing ceremony, a child’s naming ceremony, and a Balinese wayang kulit (shadow puppet) performance as part of a wedding reception. I also was able to attend important festivals in the Balinese calendar.

Bali is gearing up for the big festival of Galungan, when the deified ancestors return to the family temple and must be entertained with food. This week the family has been busy. Sunday was the day to prepare the bananas. Monday was the day to prepare the caked of rice and today is the day to kill the pig. Ah, nothing like a good animal sacrifice. Okay to be truthful I am not all that comfortable with the animal sacrifice. It unnerves me to hear the squeals of pigs or squawks of chickens in their death throes. It is more unnerving to step outside and see a just roasted pig on a spit leaning up against the kitchen door or to have a chicken with its throat cut trying to make its last getaway throw itself at my feet.

So the deified ancestors are coming and will be around to party for about three days. Three being an auspicious number for the Balinese, as it is for many Asians. I will probably borrow some temple dress from Kadek’s sister-in-law again. Although the last time I was tempted to stuff the top with toilet paper as my bust is a bit smaller than the average Balinese woman’s.

I also experienced the Balinese New Year. This Saturday is New Year’s Eve and Sunday welcomes the New Year 1923. Yesterday there was a procession from the family temple to the community temple and then finally to the beach (or lake in other parts of Bali) to cleanse in preparation for the New Year. I was in my traditional temple clothing, my handmade sarong from Kadek’s sister-in-law. Today people are generally getting the house ready and heading to their home villages if they have not already. Tomorrow there will be a festival of giant monster effigies called Ogoh-ogoh. They were built in competition between villages. They will be paraded through the streets and then burned. Then on Sunday people stay home to welcome the first day of the new year. Traditionally people do not eat, drink, work, smoke, or go outside the home compound, although generally the guidelines are not so strict anymore. Eating and drinking will be practiced in many homes and some people, probably me included, will sneak out for a little while just to see what it is like out on the streets with no one else about. Happy New Year 1923.


An amazing demonstration of a village-made Ogoh-ogoh

It was not all festivals and celebrations of life events. Many of the days there was little to do; it rained every single day in February. But I went on walks, several dolphin sighting trips with snorkeling, I learned to play pool pretty well as that was one of the few pastimes in the local bars and I memorized all the songs to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication because it was the primary soundtrack and go-to playlist for the bars and bands in the area.

Ultimately it did not work out between Kadek and I, though I am very grateful for the time I was able to spend with him and his family and the people I met in Lovina. However, it was time to stop putting off the final legs of my around the world journey.