My 5-year-old daughter, Sophie, talked about how excited she was to start Kindergarten for at least a year. Moving to China put an interesting twist on these plans.
Since the International School cost more than $10,000 per year, that option was out of the question. To make things up to our daughter, we promised to enroll her in a Chinese school, and, on our fifth day in China, I took Sophie to a nearby Kindergarten to register.
The place was adorable. The little bathroom sinks had faucets that looked like elephant trunks. In addition to ample outdoor playground equipment, there was also a huge indoor sandbox with pristine white sand and plastic slides, including one jungle gym that was exactly like the one in our backyard at home in Utah.
I met with the female principal who said, through a translator, that Sophie looked like a miniature Barbie. She also said Sophie had to have a physical exam to go to Kindergarten.
“No problem,” I said, because she had already had one in America and I had all of the paperwork plus her immunization records.
No. It had to be in Chinese, she said.
Perfect! Because we had to get the physical exam translated into Chinese to apply for our visas. I started shuffling in my purse for that paperwork too.
No, the principal shook her head again and the translator explained that it had to be done at a Chinese hospital.
The next day, I was paired up with a Chinese woman who spoke no English (I spoke no Mandarin) and Sophie and I were taken to the hospital where the acceptable Kindergarten exams were done. It only cost about $10, even with no health insurance.
Since it was the day before school started, it was crowded and we had to wait in a long line outside in the sun.
After about an hour, we entered a dingy crowded room where Sophie was measured and weighed on an archaic scale with hanging weights that had to be put on and taken off.
After another line and another hour, a nurse looked down Sophie’s throat and felt her tummy.
I noticed the next line led into another room and the kids in there were crying.
“Oh, they must be getting tired from all the waiting,” I thought.
But, in reality, they were crying because they were getting their little fingers pricked to have their blood tested.
As I inched closer, I could see exactly what was going on. Parents were walking up, sitting in a chair with their kid on their lap and having their child’s finger poked just one right after another. No sterile gloves, no hand washing in between—no bio-hazard containers in sight.
I could feel my face going white with anxiety. “Hmmm,” I thought, “On the one hand, if I don't get this paperwork filled out, they aren't going to let my daughter go to Kindergarten, she will be really disappointed, we will have waited in line for 2 hours and wasted everyone's time for nothing.
On the other hand, if she gets her finger poked and is exposed to someone else's blood she could get any number of diseases and maybe even die. So, I'm going to go with a big NO on this one.”
I conveyed to the lady helping us that I did not want Sophie's finger pricked. She talked to the nurses, showed them our paperwork from America and explained that Sophie had already blood work done. They refused to accept it.
She gestured as if to say, “Everything will be O.K. let's get the test done.” I said, in my best mime, “Over my dead body will anyone be pricking my daughter's finger today, Kindergarten or no Kindergarten.” And, we left.
I explained what had happened to the American mom who had recommended the Kindergarten to me in the first place. She was shocked. They had never tried to draw her daughter's blood for a school exam and all of her experiences with Chinese hospitals had been very good, sterile and clean.
The place we had gone to was more like a M.A.S.H unit.
The Chinese lady who was helping me went to the Kindergarten and explained what had happened. They accepted her exam from America.
Later that day, I went to a supermarket and there were lots of people handing out food samples. Shockingly, all of them were wearing gloves and masks. It was quite the contrast from my “hospital” experience that morning.
Sophie started Kindergarten a few days later. I had never imagined such bravery in a five-year-old as when I dropped her off smiling in that classroom full of strangers in a foreign land.
The communication barrier was tough, but what was even harder was the fact that the teachers and classmates had had very little or no contact at all with Westerners. This made Sophie, with her long blonde curls, a novelty like you can’t even imagine in the sea of black haired children.
People could not resist staring at her and stroking her head. It was more than any child could be expected to bear and the excitement soon turned to dread. After one week, Sophie and I decided together that home school would be a better option, and we made the most of those extra days together while we were in China.