Sending the kids to China
Sometime last winter I conceived of a passion to send my kids to China for the summer.
Okay, not the whole summer. We didn’t want to be rid of them. we just wanted to find some kind of a summer program where they’d spend a few weeks speaking only Chinese.
The primary motivation was our oldest, whose new high school didn’t offer Chinese at her level. As many high school parents know, high schools seldom have Chinese classes that are appropriate for kids coming out of immersion. Even her school’s top Chinese class would have been too easy, had freshman even been allowed to take it. She’d been doing an online course but it was more a placeholder and didn’t really push her.
(Note that she didn’t go to either of the high schools where San Francisco’s public and private Mandarin immersion programs feed, Lincoln and International respectively. Had she done so, she would have had Chinese at an appropriate level.)
It turns out that finding a place for immersion kids to study in China isn’t the easiest thing in the world. At least if you wanted it to fit our criteria:
- High enough level of Mandarin instruction (i.e. not beginners)
- Someplace with not too much pollution
- A Mandarin-speaking area
- Not too expensive
- Fits our summer schedule.
My search first turned out several American study-abroad programs in Beijing and Shanghai. School Year Abroad especially seemed like an excellent program. These would have offered a high enough level, but had two problems. First, they were in Beijing and Shanghai, where the air was pretty bad. And they were remarkably expensive. $6,000 for a three week course was beyond our means.
[Many such programs listed here.]
Next I looked at U.S.-based programs.
The Granddaddy of them all is Concordia Language Villages. This intense camp requires students to sign a pledge that they’ll only speak Chinese while there. It’s about $2,000 for two weeks, and $4,000 for four weeks. Of course, that 4 weeks equals an entire year of high school Chinese, so it’s well worth it. But it didn’t fit into our family schedule.
Stanford University also has a summer high school language program. But it interfered with a family vacation. And was a tad pricey.
Next I turned my thoughts towards Taiwan. There are lots of options there, though finding out about them isn’t always easy. The Mandarin Training Center at National Taiwan Normal University had several camps meant for kids, and they also offered accommodations in a nearby hotel. The coordinator, Maya Chang, was most helpful.
You can find them here: The coordinator: firstname.lastname@example.org
However the timing wasn’t ideal and it was all in traditional characters, whereas our kids had been studying simplified their entire lives. It seemed like an unnecessary hurdle to ask them to go through.
At this point I was starting to doubt we’d be able to work anything out. Then I remembered Robert Fried (pronounced “freed”). He had come through San Francisco and met with me in February of 2015. He and his brother had both travelled to China in college, fallen in love with the language and stayed on to learn it. They’d then gone on to found a Chinese language school in Guilin called CLI, for the Chinese Language Institute. It taught intenstive one-on-one Chinese to college students and professionals and offered dorm-room like accommodations.
At the time, Fried wanted to talk about the possibility of creating a Chinese immersion summer camp for elementary and middle school aged children, something I’d written about (and railed about the non-existence of) on my blog. What impressed me about Fried was that as I went through the degree of oversight American parents would expect for their children, he was very honest and said he didn’t think CLI was able to create the level of control and security that younger children required. The fact that he clearly saw a market and yet also realized he couldn’t adequately meet the needs of parents made me respect him and the school a great deal.
So I looked CLI up online (https://www.studycli.org/guilin/) and suddenly thought it might be a possibility now that I had a high schooler.
The thing was, all the people featured in its videos and website were college students and working professionals and I was contemplating sending a 13- and 15-year-old. So I called the school’s U.S. number and got a woman on the phone who turned out to be the Fried brothers’ mom, Nancy. She was most helpful and gave me the name of four families who had sent high schoolers to CLI on their own. I called each family in turn and all had excellent things to say about their kids’ experience there. They’d gotten intensive Chinese, used it a lot and all enjoyed the experience. And more importantly, all of them stayed at the school on their own.
After a fair amount of discussion and some more back and forth with the school and those parents, we decided to sign our girls up. Then their cousin, who’s in a Saturday Chinese school, decided he wanted to come as well. So we had a group of three, 13, 14 and 15.
I booked them two rooms, our girls in two and their cousin across the hall. Then I went about getting them there. [Note, CLI can also arrange home stays with families who live nearby, which is also a nice option.]
Originally we’d thought about having them fly alone, but with the 13-year-old along and given the logistics, we ended up deciding that I’d fly them to Guilin and one of their dads would fly back two weeks later and bring them all home.
There are no direct flights to Guilin from San Francisco, it turns out. And the only way to get there is with a longish layover once in Asia. In the end we decided to use this to our advantage. We were able to fly from San Francisco to Tianjin (a big city near Beijing) and then have a 12-hour layover there. We left San Francisco at 11:00 am and flew to Seoul Korea where we had a two-hour layover. Then we flew from Seoul to Tiajnjin.
I’d booked us a room at a Holiday Inn Express very close to the airport. We landed, went through customs and hopped in a cab that took us to the hotel, where we ate in the restaurant and then all went to sleep. It wasn’t a fancy hotel by any means but it was cheap ($85 for two rooms) and more importantly we woke up refreshed and not exhausted the next morning. The hotel had an OK breakfast buffet and then we took the hotel shuttle back to the airport and caught our 11:15 am flight to Guilin, landing at 2:00.
Once we arrived in Guilin things were very easy. A driver holding up a sign that read CLI was waiting as we walked out customs. He didn’t speak much English but we didn’t really need any, though the kids talked to him in Chinese. It’s about a 45-minute drive from the airport to the school, but the Guilin area is gorgeous, so it was actually a lovely ride.
A word about Guilin. CLI likes to quote the proverb: “Guilin’s scenery is the most beautiful under heaven. 桂林山水甲天下” You might think that’s overblown, but it’s not. All those Chinese scrolls you see, with the craggy mountains sticking straight up out of rice paddies? The ones that look like a whole lot of artistic license? They’re not. That’s actually the scenery in Guilin. They’re called karst formations and they are amazing. It’s like walking through a picture postcard.
It’s also the southern end of the Mandarin dialect zone in China. So they speak Mandarin there, though with a distinctly ‘southern’ accent. Friends in China say that it’s good to be comfortable with understanding it easily because there are a lot of Mandarin-speaking people who don’t live in Beijing. CLI is careful to make sure that teachers have a variety of accents, so students get used to hearing the multiple ways that Mandarin is spoken in China.
In the van to the school, the driver handed each kid a plastic envelop with CLI’s school handbook and a local phone and charger. They’re “dumb phones,” and can just make calls in China. But it came with a card with phone numbers for the school, the teachers and emergency staff numbers to call any time day or night if something happened.
CLI’s in a small side street. When we arrived a gaggle of teaching interns came out to meet us and carry everyone’s luggage inside. The school is a few blocks from Guangxi Normal University, the provincial teachers college, and is one of its teaching sites. That’s great because it means there’s always several young, eager teachers around to do things with, chat with and generally hang out with.
The school itself feels a lot like a college dorm/teaching building. It’s five stories tall. There are classrooms on the first and second floors, a kitchen and dining room, game room, offices for the staff and then rooms on the top floors, with a laundry on the roof.
They showed us to the rooms, which were large, airy and had their own air conditioning. There’s WiFi throughout the building.
I stayed at a guest house that’s on the same block and was just $25 a day and perfectly nice. The interns insisted on walking me down even though you could see one building from the other. I think a fair number of the older professional students stayed there.
We arrived on Saturday, but classes don’t start until Monday. We were welcomed by a staffer, everything sorted out and settled in and then the interns offered to walk us out to the main street nearby and show us where to buy fruit, dinner and anything else we needed.
We went to an excellent little noodle stand and had some wonderful spicy pork noodles that cost about 75 cents each. We brought it back to the CLI dining room and ate there.
Several of the other student staying at the school came in to say hi, including a high school girl from Miami and college boy from Kuwait. After dinner the kids settled into their rooms, I went to my guest house and we all slept.
In the morning I walked down and then we all walked out to get breakfast, eventually finding a great cubbyhole restaurant that specializes in baozi (steamed buns) and sweet soy milk, which is a pretty wonderful breakfast. The dining room has a Mandarin-only table and a speak-anything-you-like table.
We went back and ate and then the interns took us by bus to a nearby mall to do some shopping. Another student, a pilot from the U.K., accompanied us as his luggage had been lost on the flight from London and he needed to buy all new clothes. That afternoon some other interns took us on a walk to an open air market that specializes in Chinese traditional medicines, which was about 15 minutes away down a winding lane.
There was also an outdoor performance of traditional Guilin opera which we stopped and watched.
CLI’s instruction runs in one-week increments, so there are always a number of new students starting on Monday. Sunday night all the students went out to a nearby restaurant to get acquainted and meet the teachers. I was told I was welcome to come but decided to stay home and let the kids negotiate it themselves.
That night each kid got their schedule for the coming week. They got two, two-hour individualized teaching sessions each day for a total of four hours instruction. One was more traditional language training with reading and writing, the other was focused on speaking. Some of the classes are at CLI and some were at the University, which was three blocks away.
CLI has a kitchen and every day several cooks make what looked to me to be a mouth-watering lunch, which was 20 yuan (about $3) per day. Students sign up in the morning to say they’ll be there for lunch so the cooks know how many they’re cooking for. Breakfast and dinner are on your own.
The head teacher, Sunny, was very open to talking about what we were hoping the kids to accomplish while we were there. She was also calmed to me on Monday, when just as I was about to leave for the airport one of the students came in to announce that there was a typhoon on the way. I was all ready to cancel my flight but she explained to me that they were so far inland that things never got beyond heavy rains and that the students would all be fine. Aside from some wet feet, they did fine.
CLI’s driver took me to the airport (all included in the fee) and I headed off for home Monday afternoon. I went through Xi’an on the way home, which in many ways was better because the hotel I stayed in, the Regal Airport Hotel ($85 for an extremely fancy room) was actually attached to the airport. I had a good night’s sleep, then got up and flew home. If I had to do again I’d go through Xi’an both ways, even though the layover is shorter by a few hours than Tianjin, because it’s so easy to just walk to the hotel.
All three kids said they learned a lot during their two weeks there. CLI staff were very open to individualizing the teaching. My nephew was starting pretty much as zero and so he spent a lot of time focused on speaking. Our oldest wanted to brush up reading and writing. Our youngest (the least eager of the three about being there) did all her summer Mandarin homework in a massive two-week sprint, working with the teachers at CLI. They originally had started giving her CLI homework too, but I explained that she just wanted to work on speaking and listening, so for most of the time she and her teachers just hung out, chatting and watching videos and talking about them. One of the teachers also took them out to buy groceries and then they made a meal together, all in Mandarin.
All in all, it was well worth the money and the time (though mind you I used miles for all the plane tickets, so I wasn’t thinking of the travel costs.) The kids got a good bump to their Chinese and two out of three are interesting in going back next year, for three weeks this time.
So, should you send your kids?
If you’re going to send them alone, it’s really a question of how responsible they are and how much you trust them. This is not a program where someone else is taking charge of your children and guaranteeing that they will be overseen at all times. Students are free to come and go as they please and most of the students are college aged and older. No one’s going to make sure they’re in their bed at a certain hour or that they return from going out to get breakfast.
That said, a group of responsible kids can do very well. We were comfortable with it, though we set down pretty strict rules. The WiFi at the school was quite robust, and each kid had an iPhone or an iPad. Each of them had a WeChat account, which pretty much everyone in China uses. That allowed us to do video or voice calls with them whenever we were all up at the same time. We checked in once a day by phone, and also sent texts and email.
In addition, they had to send us a text each time they left the school building (except when they were just going to classes at the University) and then again when they returned. They weren’t allowed to go out alone but always had to go in twos or threes.
It did occurred to me that a group of students could go over with one parent who’d stay nearby and be the adult in charge for them, taking on the parental role that the school does not. But again, you’d have to know and trust the other kids in the group. It’s not a legal relationship, you’d just be sending your kid to China with a friend.
The other way to do it is for an adult to go with them and stay. There were several families who brought their kids to the school and then stayed in town. One dad I know from San Francisco went in June with two of his sons. They stayed in a nearby hotel and the kids went to school during the day while he worked from the hotel. His boys had a great time.
Another family I ran into at the school lives in Holland but the mom’s originally from China. Every summer they come to Guilin to visit family and she enrolls her kids in classes at CLI for two or three weeks.
If you have a flexible work schedule it wouldn’t be hard to work from a local hotel, though the time difference means you wouldn’t be working U.S. hours. Or you could just go to Guilin and spend your time in town while your kids are in school. It’s a lovely place and there are all sorts of really nice hotels downtown that aren’t very expensive.
On the weekends, the school organizes trips to nearby sights. Our kids went on a hike up to a temple one day then trips to the countryside and around town.
All of which is to say that it’s a good way to get some serious Chinese time in if you’ve got the wherewithal to get your kids to Guilin and the time to either ferry them there or stay there while they’re in school. I think three weeks would have been better than two. But two weeks was still a nice strong memory and speaking jolt. If we can work it out I think we’ll go back next year.