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Follow the expat experiences of columnist Alan Paul and his family, who joined the growing ranks of Americans overseas when they moved from New Jersey to China for his wife’s job. Alan writes about the challenges and rewards of moving across the globe and taking care of their three children in a different culture. As a senior editor at Guitar World for nearly 15 years, Alan has profiled musicians ranging from B.B. King to Metallica. The Pittsburgh native is also a senior writer at basketball magazine Slam.

Choosing a Truly Chinese Education
September 28, 2007

Any expat moving to a foreign country with kids in tow has to decide what sort of education they are going to pursue. The options at either extreme are trying to replicate the schooling the kids would receive in their home country as closely as possible or shoving them into the deep end of their new home, with full immersion into a local school.

In Beijing there are a host of international schools catering to foreigners. Though there are many languages represented, the three biggest are all English language institutions boasting a veritable United Nations of students. Most expats, including us, chose to educate their children in a Western setting.

A small but growing number of expat parents in China make a very different choice, however, sending their kids to local schools. There are a couple of reasons that expats opt for local education. Most who do so are here long-term and want their kids fully immersed both culturally and linguistically. And most of them are “halfpats” — people who have come here on their own, meaning they are not blessed with the incentives-laden expat packages that generally pay for education. Most international schools cost about $20,000 per year.

Local Chinese schools, which are akin to American public schools, are not free but they can cost as little as $135, and are always under $1,000. Even higher end private boarding schools are under $5,000. Bilingual institutions seem to max out at about $12,000; these schools cater both to locals who want their kids to be familiar with foreigners and the English language — the government forbids them from attending international schools — and expats seeking full Chinese fluency.



Would you send your kids to a local school or an international school? Discuss the pros and cons with Alan Paul in an online forum.

“They really cost too much for people like us here on their own,” says Gordon J. Gray, an American entrepreneur whose two daughters have attended Chinese schools since arriving here five years ago. But Mr. Gray’s objections run well beyond the price.

“We wanted the girls to have full immersion, which is part of the reason we moved here,” he says. “We know people whose kids go to expat schools and not one of them has learned Chinese properly.”

Taiwanese American Su Cheng has a similar passion for her child mastering Chinese. She lost her Mandarin speaking after moving to the U.S. when she was eight years old and had to relearn Chinese as an adult, a fate she swears her daughter will avoid. “I want her to really have the language on a deep level,” says Ms. Cheng, whose 5-year-old attends bilingual school after going to a neighborhood Chinese-language preschool. “I feel like the future is in China and she should be fully bi-cultural.”

Mr. Gray, too, views his children’s integration into China as extending well beyond learning the language. “We want them to be fully bicultural, which we think will be invaluable because the world is heading in a broader direction, where success is not going to be so Western-oriented,” he says.

Mr. Gray’s daughters have certainly integrated well into Chinese culture; both are fast becoming well-known singers here. Meilin, 18, is a freshman studying performing arts at Tianjin Normal University, the sole foreigner there not studying the Chinese language. She was recently selected by Disney to sing the lead part in the promotional song for the soon-to-be-released Mandarin version of Beauty and the Beast. Her 11-year-old sister Suelin, meanwhile, just returned from a two-week, four-city American performing tour with a 30-child group of young performers sponsored by the national broadcaster CCTV.

[expat Suelin Gray]
American Suelin Gray with Chinese classmates on a field trip to Inner Mongolia.

Despite the Gray girls’ artistic achievements, many Westerners fear the Chinese school system because it is considered overly rigid, with strict discipline and an emphasis on rote memorization over creativity or critical thinking. Primary students can have hours of homework a night.

“I think kids should have time to play and be kids,” says Canadian Laura Johnson-Hill, whose seven-year-old daughter is enrolled at the French school (a more affordable international option) after attending Chinese preschool.

Others see it differently. For Irene Tanner, an American parent whose 5-year-old daughter attends a bilingual school, the academic discipline is a large part of the attraction. “Expectations are much higher and I think the kids are pushed higher,” says Ms. Tanner. “I understand that people don’t like it for the same reason but I don’t see anything wrong with a rigorous primary school platform.”

Still, Ms. Tanner moved her daughter from a purely Chinese school to a bilingual alternative in part because she was frustrated by her own inability to stay on top of the education. Though her spoken Chinese is quite good, she couldn’t understand the written memos or adequately discuss her daughters’ education with teachers or administrators. “You have to either be truly fluent in Chinese or willing to be a fairly passive participant in your child’s education,” she says.

Most expats who start out in Chinese schools eventually transfer to a Western option, unless the children plan to attend a Chinese university. Chinese high school diplomas are accepted at U.S. universities but people tend to pick an international curriculum to make sure the students receive sufficient schooling in relevant topics such as Western history. Whether their new curriculum is French, English, American or international, most of the kids find it easier than their old.

My son Jacob has a good friend who moved to our children’s British school last year after attending a Chinese school through second grade. He has an American father and a Taiwanese mother and speaks both English and Chinese at home, but he had to enroll in EAL (English as an Additional Language), because his literacy skills were much higher in Chinese. He considers the nightly hour of homework that drives my kids to distraction a breeze, often finishing the entire week’s assignment Monday night.

His experience isn’t unique. Angus Ning, 15, attended kindergarten through fourth grade at a neighborhood Chinese school and is now a sophomore at the International School of Beijing. Ning, an American citizen with Chinese Canadian parents, says that he doesn’t do as much homework now as he did in third and fourth grade.

“Back then, I was often up until 10 or 11 pm finishing my work,” he says. “My first impression of my school was that it was like prison because you couldn’t move at all during class, even in first grade. I didn’t know there were different ways, though, and I got used to it and had a lot of friends.”

Ning says that it’s true that his early education emphasized rote memorization. “They give you the multiplication tables and expect you to bring them home and memorize them, not ask questions about what multiplication is. They don’t really teach you how to think. They say, ‘these are the facts, learn them and know them.'”

But, Ning adds, you learn by memorizing, too and he feels that his Chinese school gave him an extremely strong foundation, particularly in math and Chinese literacy.

Still, even Mr. Gray, as dedicated as he is to seeing his kids receive a Chinese education, can foresee a future in which he may want to move Suelin to an international school. It’s something they’ll consider when she finishes sixth grade and approaches middle school.

“We may have to go to an expat school to reintegrate her into an English language environment,” he says. After all, the goal is to create a fully bilingual, bicultural person and, as Mr. Gray notes, by then Suelin will be more Chinese than American.

Write to me and I’ll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don’t want your letter published.

Write to Alan Paul at

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