With a strong figure and a loud voice, Mrs. Z looks like the type of northern Chinese women who's fiercely fervor and competent.
Friday, 11:00 am. Somewhere outside Beijing’s 5th ring road.
As our taxi drove away, me and Yan anxiously looked around while standing in front of a residential area. We were here to meet Mrs. Z, a lady who works at the pre-school department of Beijing’s education bureau. Last night, after I expressed desire to chat about the recent RYB kindergarten case, she initiated a face-to-face meeting at her house since “that thing is not so convenient to be talked about through WeChat anymore” (as she later told us, everyone in the education bureau was commanded to not to talk about the RYB case at all, and all of the staffs' telecommunications are now tightly monitored).
“Hey girls! Here you are!” A lady in faux-fur jacket and leather pants shouted from the other side of the road. With a strong figure and a loud voice, Mrs. Z looks like the type of northern Chinese women who's fiercely fervor and competent. Before I said hi, she raised her head with a gleeful smile, “You girls arrived just in time! A friend of mine is coming to pick me up for lunch, you two, come together with me!”
"I’ve been running between meetings and kindergarten inspections every day, now with all the new surveillance cameras being installed, there are more check-ups upcoming! But what else can we do?"
11:30 pm. Private room of a hotpot restaurant.
When Mrs. T - Mrs. Z’s friend who happens to be the principal of a local kindergarten - drove us to the restaurant, me and Yan thought we’d be joining a casual catch-up lunch between two old pals. We were nothing but naïve, as it turned out: stepping into the room, there were five other guests already waiting around the table. Seeing Mrs. Z coming in, everyone stood with their faces lit up. “Dear director Z, long time no see!” “Sister Z, you look marvelous!” “How can you always stay so pretty!” and more. Mrs. Z shook hands with all of them, exchanging chit-chats and ordered everyone to sit down.
“You two, sit here!” patting on two empty chairs next to her, Mrs. Z located our seats while introducing to everyone else, “this is Biyi, that is Yan, they both studied in the West and are now back planning to open their own kindergarten in Beijing. They came to me for some business advices today and I thought I’d bring them along for lunch, to meet all of you experienced, lovely seniors who can teach them a lot!” Although still had no clue what was going on (we certainly are not opening a kindergarten, but judging from the situation, Mrs. Z had to say so just to legitimize our existence in such a private lunch), with our previous experiences at other Chinese dining scenes (“饭局”) however, we figured the most appropriate behavior was to sit tight, simile always, and to eat quiet.
And to drink a lot, apparently. 10 minute into the lunch, a bottle of Chinese liquor was already opened and poured around. To show our sincerity and also to sooth down our awkwardness with a room full of strangers, me and Yan each took a glass, joining in a round of toast initiated by Mrs. T the kindergarten principal -
“I am so honored to have my dear sister Z and also our village head Mrs. Li joining our lunch today,” she nodded to a thin, mature-looking guy sitting across the table, “as all of you know, my kindergarten had been ordered to privatize and we are facing a lot of new challenges in management. So me and my staffs,” Mrs. T pointed to two other ladies next to her who were busy serving everyone food from the hotpot, “really need advice from you the great leaders. As you all know, running a kindergarten nowadays is such a tough work…”
“For sure, for sure,” Mrs. Z drank up her liquor, took a bite of meat and started talking in a calming yet authoritative tone, “everyone in the education bureau has been in such hustle lately. I’ve been running between meetings and kindergarten inspections every day, now with all the new surveillance cameras being installed, there are more check-ups upcoming! But what else can we do? Those policies from the top,” Mrs. Z paused, pointing her index finger up to the sky, “they are changing every day. No one knows what’s coming. The only thing we could do is to study carefully, to truly understand every word of those new documents and to follow with prudence!”
“You are so right, cheers! Let’s drink!”
Some more rounds of liquors, meat and soups down, me and Yan began to feel our stomachs burned and face flushed. The conservations on the table heated up too: after Mrs. T talked more about her recent work challenges (for instance, “we now have to report our children’s attendances every single day before 8am to the bureau, literally where everyone is and why he/she is missing from school in super specific details. Our teachers have no time to take care the kids anymore because they are all busy filing attendance sheets!”), it quickly escalated into a joint moan over kindergarten management in China. “Running Kindergartens in our society today is so hard,” Mrs. Z and Mr. Li the village head, the two supposed “great leaders” of today’s lunch, talked in conjunction, “there’s no way to make the publics satisfy, no way.”
An hour later, we managed to diminish a good amount of food from the piping hotpot. “My dear friends,” Mrs. T the principle stood up, looked at everyone including me and Yan, and began to speak again in a sincere, almost begging tone. “Everyone here is like family to me, so I will just say everything with complete honesty. Ever since the RYB incidence being exposed, I’ve being feeling suffocated and desperate. New high-resolution surveillance cameras are being installed to our kindergarten today, from now on, every single details of our kindergarten, our teachers and our kids will be caught right under the eyes of the parents. Our teachers are now even scared to just touch the kids – who know what the parents are going see or interpret from those cameras? Us the managers are truly lost. No matter what we do, in the end of the day, it is up to the parents and those online to decide our fate.”
The hotpot was steaming vigorously, yet for about five seconds, there was a long, dry silence on the table.
"There would be no more education, to say the least."
“Is it really that hard to run a kindergarten in today’s China?”
Listening to our question, Mrs. Z smiled while continuing to make us some Chinese tea. It is now 2 p.m. and we are back to her house from lunch, sitting next to the tea table under warm, fuzzy winter sunlight of Beijing.
“It’s never been easy. Kindergartens, or as us professional call, pre-school educations in China has always been a special industry that is hard to regulate. No matter how many new polices the bureau comes up, there are always too many kids and never enough kindergartens. Hence the endless new illegal kindergartens popping up every year – we actually have all of them on our list, as much as they are illegal, they are still under our supervision, technically.”
“But RYB is legal right? So what happened? Why?” - finally, Yan dropped the question the two of us had been eager to ask the whole time.
“Well,” sipping on her tea, Mrs. Z’s voice was now calmer and softer than at lunch. “for one thing, I do think part of what the parents described were rumors. Kids that little were easily mislead to talk into things that were not true, and their memories are not credible. But two things have made the whole situation so much worse, at least for us working in education: the first is how the police investigated it in such a secretive, opaque way, the second is how the internet reacted after the rumors spread. Influencers, celebrities and media commentators threw themselves into emotional crusades against kindergarten educations in such a loud and aggressive gesture – no one is reacting rationally anymore, everyone is angry and entitled to judge. My colleagues at the bureau have been busy deleting and censoring online comments lately, but they are virtually non-stoppable.” Mrs. Z shrugged, and poured us some more tea.
“But the government is reacting aggressively too isn’t it? With all the new surveillance cameras, attendance checks etc.?” I asked.
“That’s right,” Mrs. Z nodded, “the city government has ordered all kindergartens – even the illegal ones – to have high resolution surveillance cameras installed by the end of today, even inside the bathroom! And some parents even required live streaming of these cameras! Can you imagine what would happen in the future? There would no longer be trust between parents and teachers, and every single behavior of the kids would be exposed to all the parents!”
“So there would be no more privacy.”
“Ha, privacy! There would be no more education, to say the least. The teachers are now afraid to educate the kids – what if the parents saw through camera and decided it was ‘aggressive’ or ‘hurtful’ to the kids? What if they complained and exposes it on the internet? Everything is up to the parents, not the educators nowadays!”
“Surely there must be some clever, passionate teachers who still see value of their job, and won’t be affected by the surveillance cameras?”
“Ha, the teachers!” Mrs. Z squeezed out a dry laugh, meeting our eyes with a sincere yet mystical look. “you know, I started as a kindergarten teacher 30 years ago, shifted to the admin route and ended up where I am today. From what I’ve seen all those years, I could assure you that today’s China still lacks kindergarten teachers in terms of both quantity and quality. Everyone knows kindergarten teacher is a tough job with low income, and the clever, capable ones would never stay at the job, that's the reality.”
“So what can we do? I mean, what can everyone do to help with the situation?”
“Nothing much, to be frank. Everyone inside the system knows there’s not enough good-quality kindergartens, yet no one has the guts to ask or approve more. Why? Because the government says whoever signs the approval of new kindergartens is fully responsible for whatever the kindergarten does – no one wants to be responsible, so everyone just pretends they don't see the problem – honestly, what else can we do?”
It was 4 p.m. and the two of us were on our way back to the city. Thanks to Mrs. Z’s precious Chinese white tea, me and Yan were now fully sober, bodies warmed and feeling comfortable in a car with heating on.
Our minds were in a messy, fuzzy deadlock though. I looked at Yan, who’s staring outside blankly looking just lost as I am, and tried to talk about at least something.
“So…what do you think?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t know. The only thing I know is I don’t have the courage to raise kids in this country any more. I don’t want my child to be watched through surveillance cameras, nor do I trust the kindergartens. But I don't think I have the ability to educate my own kid as a full-time mother just yet. So what else? Who’s there to trust, and to help?”
I stayed quiet and turned back to look outside. It was a beautiful Beijing winter afternoon with clear sky and gentle clouds; as we sat in quietness, our car was just passing by a cluster of beautiful, densely-colored gingko trees on the side of the highway.
I looked and looked. Looked longer, looked harder and looker deeper – but never was I able to look through.
Before we left, Mrs. Z handed us a book full of policies and documents the national and city governments have issued regarding kindergarten management in Beijing. "Read this, and you will understand how much work we've done."
(Cover image from: Reuters)
For those of you live in or watch China, you’d know the last week of November was all about two news that broke online: 1) the RYB kindergarten child-abuse scandal and 2) the Beijing government’s abrupt eviction of “low-end population” after the Daxing fire incident.
As two young Chinese females who grew up and now live in Beijing, me and Yan are absolutely shattered. We followed along every single trace of details online, and engaged in conversations with those around us and those who were affected. Instead of shouting and complaining, we ask ourselves to be the ones that care and think; the ones that would remember and make a difference in turning things in a different direction in the future.
It sounds big, and it starts small.
Before anything, we must remember.
Thanks so much for your attention and for remembering with us,
Biyi and Yan