Beijing’s School Choice Fair

I started this blog because I got pregnant for the first time and I had no end of questions about the foreign experiences my body was undergoing. Then, dealing with that in a foreign country meant I was multiplying this foreign experience twofold. I thought I could retire this blog after I had my first child, but then I got pregnant again. The blog resumed its previous course.

The funny thing is that I’m starting to think that I should rename the blog. Maybe “Mothering in China” or “Kids in China” or “Pulling My Hair Out in China”… ? You see, the moment I think I’m on a roll with this parenting thing and have life wrapped into a rhythm that I can understand, perhaps signalling the final retirement of this blog, new questions arise.

For instance, my daughter is already two years old and the most common discussion in our household is where she should go to nursery school next year. This is most often asked of us by outsiders as well. It’s as though “Where will you birth?” has been supplanted with “Where will you school her?” without even dropping a beat. And therein lies the continuing foreignness of my mothering experience: schooling is a wide and detailed topic in Beijing with choices so varied and complex that makes the range between options astoundingly vast. Cue head spinning.

Some of the questions are these:

  • Local school or International school?
  • A Chinese-only School (local) or a Bilingual School? English only? French? A mix of all three? Does that exist?
  • Which education system? Montessori? The English National Curriculum? The Chinese National Curriculum? International Baccalaureate (IB)?
  • How much can we spend? If we’re on a budget, should we splurge in the younger years or the mid-years or the older years?

As a blogger here in Beijing, I was approached to attend the “School Choice Fair” that is organized by a magazine in town called “Beijing Kids Magazine,” a publication for which I also write a bi-monthly column. They asked me to attend the event and write a blog about it (content of my choosing) in exchange for a free brunch at the Hilton for my family. Who can resist a free brunch? Besides, I am currently in this spiral of questioning and I really wanted to have a good reason to get myself (and two little ones) out the door in pursuit of some answers.

Luckily, my mother-in-law was keen to attend too. Nothing like an all-you-can-eat seafood bar as inspiration for her accompaniment, not to mention the sushi, and salad, Chinese dishes, and dessert—it was decadent, no question. In the absence of my partner who is far too overbooked these days for spontaneous brunches, a friend also came with us. Their help with the kids was essential.

We arrived at The Hilton and were greeted by a great big colourful creature (a person dressed as a cartoon character) that scared little Echo into a tucked position behind our knees, our legs her protective trees in a forest of adult-sized cartoons. I don’t blame her. Those big costumes are scary!! Shortly thereafter, we were ushered upstairs by helpful staff.

Basically, the School Choice Fair (officially called “beijingkids & Jingkids 2014 Spring School Choice Fair”) is a trade show. Sponsored (fittingly, for this city) by RGF Air Purifiers, it took place on the second and third floor of the Hilton with some tables set up in small conference rooms and others around a mezzanine circle outside of the elevators on each floor. Each school (as well as a few additional services for the international community) had a table or “booth” at which they were handing out information and flyers. Many had play tables for kids off to one side and balloons and gift bags, etc. I found myself wondering if it was unfair for me to be judging the schools most likely to be overcharging in the way of school fees by the quality or quantity of their free gifts! There were also lectures that I couldn’t attend, but I think I’ll go again next year without the kids and do so!

I was quite eager to ask after a few specific schools located in our neighborhood, but I admit that I was a bit overwhelmed when we arrived. The din of the crowd, the close and narrow hallways in the circular mezzanine sections, and what seemed a non-logical ordering of school tables made the event feel scattered.*

Then again, I was carrying an infant in a pop-out car seat carrier. People kept stopping to coo at him because he looks like a teddy bear at this age, all bundled up in his brown bear suit and doll-like. My daughter was exclaiming about the balloons and colours and running in various directions. My mother-in-law and friend were trailing her but disappearing behind groups of people while I was waylaid by the good-natured cooers. Several times, I lost sight of them around corners. So, maybe it was just me who was scattered and not the event! I had some distraction going on.

I managed to get a hold of some flyers for a couple of the schools I had been seeking, but I came upon yet another trial related to my children and their fuzzy citizenship status here. Without a visa in the foreign passports, I was told, they will often be turned away from international schools. Some will make allowances if at least the one parent who is a foreigner (me) has a work visa (Z), which I do not have. (Work visas are issued by formal jobs that are often 9-5, and that’s not likely to happen!) I spoke with one gentleman (a fellow Canadian) who represents the Ivy School system here in Beijing, of which there are several locations. Also married to a Chinese national, he knew all about my issue and could only advise that I may get my kids through some school’s doors and not others. It was unclear. He nodded in sympathy.

I left my daughter, friend and mother-in-law in the play area that the Ivy Schools were offering to the kids. Cooking classes, bracelet making, and Echo’s personal favourite: playing with pasta. Two wooden bins had been filled with uncooked pasta of various shapes. They provided spoons and containers for the kids so that they could scoop up the noodles and dump them out randomly. She was in heaven. She kept holding up the bowtie pasta and screaming, “Bow! Bow! Mommy! Bow, Bow!” I laughed and said, “Yeah, baby, I see it! It’s shaped like a bow!” (How exciting!)

I then took my son in his carrier and felt my head clear as I left on my own to explore the third floor. I was particularly searching for the Canadian school’s booth. A very friendly guy named Cory gave me some great answers to my visa questions. He said their school would enable enrollment in this special case, especially since my kids hold a Canadian passport. Apparently, they’ve done this before. Seems my countrymen are able to jump some of these bureaucratic fences!

I successfully refrained from collapsing (years of performance techniques) when I learned that half-day pre-school for Echo at the Canadian International School of Beijing (CISB) will cost over $15,000 Canadian a year, full day $21,000. And I’m talking Canadian dollars here! (I’ve done the conversion.) And, that’s just kindergarten or pre-school; it’s even more expensive when you get to the older years. The only way for it to be cheaper is if I were an employee at the school. I thanked Cory for his time and walked away smiling, wondering if I could get a job there and/or if I really wanted to be a teacher after all?! For the sake of my kids, I’ll consider it…

FYI, I don’t get a discount because I’m Canadian.

When I returned to the play area to fetch my family, Echo was still up to her elbows in pasta and my mother-in-law was sitting peacefully off to one side watching the chaos of kids and parents swirling in and out of the big, loud room. It was time for lunch and I lured my daughter away with promises of cheese (her favourite food) and pasta that she could actually eat (her second favourite food). She left holding my hand, but with her head turned back yelling, “Bye bye pasta!” over and over in a very forlorn voice, like she was leaving an old friend.

If I were running things (!), I would have chosen a larger space like a gymnasium or a double-sized conference room in which all the booths could be located together. It would have been on a single floor and it would have been organized geographically, such as by districts in the city perhaps. Maybe if the schools had multiple locations, they could have had multiple tables? To be honest, I would have preferred to walk less and only review the schools that are in my general neighbourhood because we simply can’t send Echo somewhere across the city.

That’s my only critical feedback. Otherwise, I’d say it was a successful fair!

My head is still spinning, however. I’m not sure I’m further along in the pursuit of answers or confirmations on which direction we’ll take this schooling quest. At least I was given a bit more insight through the event, however, and have more information on which to base our choices next year. Oh, and I have A LOT of promotional flyers and folders to sift through.

And the brunch was amazing. It was worth every word of this blog post and then some.


*(Later I realized we had been given a map lay-out in the welcome package given at the main entrances. OOPS! Perhaps posting those as signage at the entrances as well would have helped those of us who didn’t realize those maps were tucked in the folder for us!)[:]

Travelling (Visa) Circus: Part 2
Travelling (Visa) Circus

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