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Making the China Trip – notes from families who’ve been there

November 27, 2011

Mandarin Immersion Parents Council

Nov. 15, 2011 Meeting – Jose Ortega Elementary School

Taking your family to China.

Many families with students in Mandarin immersion hope to take their children to China at some point. Each family’s journey is different, for some it’s a return visit by a family who adopted in China, some go to visit relatives, some to see the country for the first time, some to attend Mandarin-language camps or schools, some to tour around and some for business.

For all, it’s a chance to have their kids immersed in a world where Mandarin is the dominant language of society.

A round-table of families with children in Mandarin immersion offer up these thoughts about their experiences in China and Taiwan.

A family that doesn’t speak Chinese says they went “the novice route” and signed up for a tour. It provided a driver and guide for each leg of the trip, which “was kind of a luxury for the first time in China, to get the lay of the land.”

Their tour went through Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu and Shanghai.

In Shanghai, one barely needed a guide because there was so much western influence it hardly seemed like China at times.

In Beijing the guides are very helpful in expediting the large tourist sites such as FC, Summer Palace, Great Wall, and Ming Tombs etc.  “They drop you off on one side of the Forbidden City and there’s a van to pick you up on the other side”.

Beijing seemed the best place they travelled to practice Mandarin. In their experience, their son spoke a lot of Mandarin with the guides, but other than that they didn’t have much contact with Chinese citizens. (And this point his son interjected that when you take a taxi in China, make sure that it’s got a meter, otherwise you’ll pay too much.)

Their trip lasted for two weeks. Now that they know the lay of the land, he expects their next trip will be on their own

The next family was a mom with twin sons. They went for a month on their own. An experienced traveler, she did little arranging in advance beyond getting an ‘open jaw’ ticket into Shanghai and out of Beijing and visas.

The best advice she had was bringing an iPad. She took it to a China Telecom store, “they punched a card for me and I had internet for the whole month I was there for $24.” The iPad “was my map, my subway map, my gps, my guidebook, everything,” she says. “it was really convenient and I felt very connected.”

When they arrived in Shanghai, she realized how international a city it was. “Everyone wanted to practice their English with us,” she says. “That made me realize I didn’t just want to plant us in Beijing for two weeks.”

Instead she went on, a Chinese travel site, and started booking hotels in smaller towns. She found the site very helpful. “I’d book a hotel and they’d immediately reply to me. All changes were free, and I was changing my interlibrary every night.

They flew to Datong and then to Ping yao and took trains around. “I found my kids used a lot of Mandarin when we stayed in any kind of small hotel that cost less than $40 a night.” The last week in Beijing they stayed in a service apartment that had laundry.

Her advice is to plan ahead enough to get your visa, keep your expectations low and see where things take you.

“We didn’t do much my thing was to wander around and do what the kids wantedto do. We left at the end of May and came back at the beginning of July.”

She notes that Chinese kids are in school until the end of July, so it was only at the end of her trip that they saw other kids. But when they did, “the iPad was a kid magnet.”

In Beijing, she kept museums and monuments to a minimum and focused on things the kids liked. “We did things like went to the Fundazzle, which has the largest ball pit in the world. It’s like Chucky Cheese x 100, it’s the size of a football field.”

For her the trip wasn’t so much about culture and seeing ‘sights’ but “having down time. We’d get up, swim in the pool at the complex with other traveling kids, then go to someplace like FunDazzle.”

Several parents noted that June 1st is Children’s Day in China, kids get lots of presents and there are events in all the parks. It’s a good day to be there.

Another great tip: Buy a spray bottle and fill it with water. When it’s really hot, spray your kids.”

The mom and her sons travelled by themselves for the first three weeks and then her husband joined them at the end. She found that when it was just her and the kids, people were very comfortable coming up and talking to them and helping them. But when all four of them were together they were seen as a family unit and given more space and privacy. Both had their place, she says.

In general, Chinese people love kids and were very nice and interested in families. “China’s very safe, I never felt uncomfortable at all. People were very curious about identical twin boys, they kept saying “Oh, you’re so lucky! People kept coming up to us to hip us.”

Other tips: “I always booked hotels where the family that owned the place lived on site, because the guy who ran the place would have kids and they’d have a lot to say about what to do with kids.”

Many of these small hotels also had young women who worked there who were excited to be around Chinese-speaking American kids. “My boys learned to play chess from them,” she says.

A mom originally from Guangzhou in the south of China said that every year she sends her daughter back to China to stay with her parents and aunts and uncles. “She goes to a teacher there to learn Mandarin and she takes art class and writing class calligraphy, she loves it.”

Even though most people speak Cantonese in Guangzhou, because Mandarin is now the official national language, all children learn to speak Mandarin in school. So speaking Mandarin there is not a problem any more. So if parents are looking for places to go where their kids can use Mandarin, they should consider the south as well.

She was “glad to hear people say that China is really safe,” but did caution that big cities are big cities the world round.  Last summer when she was in China someone grabbed her necklace and stole it. “I also recommend you take off earrings,” she says. Pickpockets can also be a problem, as they are in all heavily touristed areas of the world.

A mom who went with her daughter and niece to China last summer did a two week camp in Beijing, but said the experience wasn’t great. She met up with another family and three of the kids did camp together.  It was mostly made up of international kids who didn’t’ speak Chinese, so the level wasn’t as high as her daughter.

One father took his second grade daughter to China when he went for work for a few weeks. He landed in Shanghai and found a nanny through his hotel. While he worked during the day, his daughter and the nanny explored the city. The nanny only spoke Mandarin so they had to use it to communicate.

To find teachers or nannies, some online and magazine sources include:

Beijing mamas

citykids beijing


Also “everybody has an ayi (a nanny) who has a sister” so it’s not difficult to find someone.

What to pay varies. Programs set up for international families tend to be in the same price range you might find in the States. But one mom knew a family who moved to Beijing and hired a nanny who worked all day with three kids and got $2 an hour.

At camp, many of the field trips were to important cultural areas like the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. But the kids weren’t that interested in them.

Having kids who speak Chinese is really helpful. It makes the kids feel important, which is nice. And they can explain to the hotel staff that the toilet is clogged.

Another mom who went to  Shanghai and later Taipei said when she goes to China she works hard to make sure her kids don’t spend time with Americans because otherwise they’ll speak English. When her children were smaller she found local preschools for them in Taipei. “Within two months, my son who spoke less then 25 works in English and Chinese was fluent. My daughter was crying at first, but by the time she left she was completely fluent.”

The next year she went to Taipei and put them in the same preschool again. But the end of the summer “they were fighting in Chinese,” which is you really know your kids are fluent.

But she warns “the effects were short lived. Two or three months later even after going to SKMI, older child reverted to English and her Mandarin speaking declined.  I continued to speak to her in Mandarin all the time but she only wanted to respond to me in English and this was after months of being at Starr King, so I stopped speaking to her in Mandarin figuring the exposure at school would suffice”

After a year of being in the States, in the beginning of the second summer back to Taiwan, the younger child was once again not fluent, was a mute and monosyllabic, at best, when people spoke to him in Chinese, but once again, after one summer of full-time preschool, he became fairly fluent again, so expect the attrition stateside, even if they are in an immersion school.

In Taiwan, there are ‘buxiban’ everywhere. During the school year these ‘cram schools’ offer afterschool tutoring and during the summer review. But they’re not the fun summer camps of the United States. “You go see it’s a room with rows of desks and it’s on a busy street and  they just hang out there all day long,” so it’s good to check out the school before you sign up.

The YMCA in Taiwan also offer summer camps with sports and gymnastics.

Some other Taipei Chinese language study programs designed for mostly English or non-native speakers:

Chientan -has overnight sleeping quarters for summer program, they have Chinese language arts in the morning and touring in the afternoon.

Chinese Daily News (Guo Yu Ri Bao)- has summer program for children to learn Chinese, has lots of choices of activities or electives.

Summers in Taiwan are unbearably hot.  You’ll want to buy a UV umbrella while you are there and pack plenty of good sunscreen.  Picking a place to live that is close to the school will be very important if you plan to walk since it is so hot.

A dad described how his wife and 3rd grade son went to China in a quickly put together 12-day trip. They took a tour during spring break and were pleased with what they got to see and do.

“What was great was the role reversal. My wife speaks no Mandarin, she was counting on him to take care of things. When they went out by themselves it was kind of a huge motivation for him later to school and studying Mandarin that he was out and able to converse. There was so much positive feedback, here he is, this little white boy in Chinese and people are stopping him and lining him up for photos, he really enjoyed it. It made him more interested when he got back to apply himself.”

Many families in Mandarin immersion have kids where one parent is Chinese or Chinese-American and one from somewhere else. But being mixed race wasn’t an issue for the families that went, they said.

Another fascinating possibility was offered up by this dad – going on Chinese tours in the United States. He had a close friend who’s a native Chinese speaker who takes bus tour trips here all the time. The tours are full of Mandarin speaking Chinese who go to Yellowstone or Los Angeles or other tourist areas. Other parents chimed in and said many travel agencies in Chinatown or on Clement St. or in the Richmond will set these tours up.

It would be a way to see the United States and also be in an almost entirely Mandarin-speaking group.

About China, several people mentioned m that it’s easy to forget that China is not as free as the United States. While Americans won’t get in trouble, sometimes the people you’re talking to can, so bringing up sensitive topics such as Tiananmen or Tibet isn’t such a good idea.

As for keeping track of kids, several parents got their kids bracelets that could hold a slip of paper. In each new town they’d write the name of their hotel and phone number on it. They told the hotel that if their kid ever came in a taxi, they’d pay for it. That way if they got lost, their children knew they could just say “Take me to my hotel” and they’d be okay.

Suggestions from a mom:

–          Don’t forget that kids get jet lag too. It was a few days before we were back on normal sleep and wake times.

–          10 hours on the plane is a LONG time, more when you add wait times. Bring LOTS of things to entertain/occupy them. Although there’s a Cathay Pacific flight that leaves after mid-night so they can sleep most of the way (stops in Hong Kong).

–          Bring lots of their favorite snacks if they’re picky eaters.

–          Always have a pack of Kleenex handy, toilets don’t always have TP

–          Brings lots of hand sanitizers

–          Be extremely carefully crossing streets. Cars don’t stop for pedestrians.

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