Most expats who lived and served in China met college students there who were dreaming about studying abroad. For many of them it remained a dream, for others it became a reality. Those were young adults—university students. Today, with the changes in the education system in China over recent years—including that afterschool activities led by NGOs or Three Self churches are no longer allowed—many parents of younger children find themselves looking for alternative education options for their children.
Over the years some Chinese Christian sisters and brothers have been inspired by foreign friends, cross-cultural workers who home-schooled their children, and by small, Chinese homeschool co-ops operating in their areas, some of which were started in a church.
More recently there has been another trend for those who can afford it. Some of the countries neighboring China now offer guardian visas for parents whose children go to school there. Several teachers from international schools in Asia have told me that each class now—even in primary schools—have a large number of Chinese students. “In the past we had one or two, maximum three, per class, the numbers are much higher now.”
The family backgrounds of the children who study in these schools have also changed. In the past the students were mainly children of wealthy businessmen who had moved abroad for work and brought their families with them. Today, with the availability of guardian visas, we see more parents whose primary reason for going abroad is for their children to get a better education and for that education to be in English. In addition, the guardian visa has opened a door for those called to cross-cultural gospel ministry to leave China and serve God outside of China in a country where their children can receive their education.
Having met several Chinese families who made the decision to leave China and have their children educated outside of China I’ve noticed some common concerns.
Caring for Aging Parents
A common challenge for all who live and work overseas is concern for their parents as they get older and need more care. Some people may decide to return home to be closer to their parents. For most people from the West, there are homes for the elderly in our passport countries and it is more acceptable to place parents in those homes. In an honor-shame culture such as China’s, the responsibility to care for parents, to provide financially and to look after them, falls upon the children. Those who are part of the one-child-policy generation have no siblings they can share the responsibility of caring for their parents with. For them the decision to leave and move abroad for ministry or for their children’s education is a big one.
Also, recently for some of them, the question of “can we return to China and still keep serving overseas?” That is, if I return home to visit and care for my parents, will the door still be open for me to fly out, or will it suddenly be locked behind me.
For someone like me, who used to live in China, it is always a joy when I get to spend time with Chinese people from the mainland. I like to hear their stories. As I listen, it is sometimes a challenge for me to not put my member care or TCK consultant hats on, especially when I hear things which concern me.
One of my big concerns for Chinese families with young children is one which I have seen many times—the loss of one’s mother tongue when children are growing up overseas. Or, let me clarify; more specifically the ability to read and write in one’s mother tongue.
If you have had the joy of studying Chinese characters, you know how many there are and how difficult it is to learn and use them. Those of you who have had your child in a local school in China know how hard it is to keep up with their homework and learning new characters. If you miss a month or two it is almost impossible to catch up. If you didn’t work really hard (and believe me, our kids did! And they did well!) it was very difficult to keep up with the characters and the homework after second or third grade.
A while back I sat talking with a little Chinese girl I know who lives abroad and studies in English. Her English sounded more American every time I saw her, but she also spoke Mandarin. I asked her what it was like to live here, and we talked about what she missed from back home in China.
Suddenly she said: “I wish I could write to my grandma.” I told her that was a great idea; I am always very happy when I hear from my grandchildren. I said I could imagine that her grandma must miss her very much. My young friend said, “But I can’t write. I also can’t read what she writes to me.”
At that moment it hit me that, although she spoke Mandarin, didn’t know how to read or write Chinese characters. I showed her some simple Chinese characters from my phone, and it made my heart ache when I realized that although I sometimes feel that I have lost much of what I used to know, I knew more Chinese characters than she did. Her parents happily told me how good her English writing is and how the world is open for her in the future. And yes, they may be right, but not being able to write your mother tongue has consequences that go beyond even the loss of being able to write to your grandma.
Language is culture. Knowing one’s language and culture creates roots. Without roots it is hard to develop strong wings to fly. Which is what our children growing up overseas need.
In another post, I will pick up and develop this concern for mother-tongue language loss.
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