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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.