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College Pt 1: the view from Hong Kong

final illu

Conceived by therockmom. Realized by Bonnie Wong.

Kids deserve your high expectations! No, no – they thrive following their own paths! The world needs engineers and doctors. The world needs creative thinkers. If you don’t get in to the Ivy League your life is over. What’s wrong with a state school? Don’t sacrifice Fine Arts in education! Everyone should learn to code!

How are we going to pay for all of this?????

My oldest is two years away from university so we’re already starting down the path: PSAT, IB, ACT, campus visits, personal essays, community service, summer prep work, faultless transcripts, blah, blah, blah.

I waiver from a rebellious ‘Does it really matter?’ attitude to a creeping anxiety that, as a parent, I should be more engaged, more helpful, more ambitious for my kids. Not helped by the fact that I live in Hong Kong, ground zero for Over Achievers Anonymous. A place where you can find a class, workshop or tutor for any and all intellectual, personal or cognitive failings.

It’s easy to say: well, I did this when I was your age and I turned out just fine. Yeah sure – in the ‘80s, when perms were awesome, Cosby was America’s Dad and China was a nation of peasants.

The world is a very different place now.

All I can say is: listen to your kids. And then find a good Physics tutor 😉

With many sincere thanks to Hong Kong artist & creative thinker Bonnie Wong for helping me realize the vision above. You can find her at:


The Professional Kid – too big to fail?

Q: How many Hong Kong kids does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: Is that with or without a tutor?

Just a normal academic day in Hong Kong.

Just a normal academic day in Hong Kong.

There’s a sad/funny story going round about the parents at an international school here in Hong Kong. The school in question is considered one of the most well-regarded, expensive and academically rigorous of the international schools in town. Dual-language learning (English & Mandarin), loads of homework, low student-teacher ratio and a tough admission policy including an exam (sorry, they call it an assessment) and an interview for the child and parents. My kids don’t go there and we never considered it for them, mainly because it’s super expensive and a long bus ride from where we live. I have no doubt the school and its teachers are very dedicated and prepare children well for ‘the challenges of the 21st century’ but, having learned a little more about its academic demands, I jokingly call it the kryptonite school. It seems to leech away any time a child may have had for sports, hobbies or, well, free time.

Next year the school will open a sister campus in mainland China and will begin a policy of sending its Year 10 students (age 14-15) there for a year of boarding and instruction. Five a.m. Calisthenics, The Little Red Book’s Lasting Legacy, Crafting Algorithms for Fun and Suppression! and Theories of Insurrection Management will be offered as electives.

Kidding, totally kidding about that last part.

It seems the parents are split, about 50-50, as to whether they think it’s a good idea for their kids to spend a year in China. Some are very supportive, recognizing an exchange year as a wonderful life experience. Some are not so keen. When I heard from a friend about the parents’ objections, I asked if they were concerned their kids would get homesick, or maybe the parents would miss their children too much. My friend said half the parents (50 percent!) are worried about their children being away from… their tutors.

I am not kidding now.

You’ve heard of the military-industrial complex? Well, here in Hong Kong, we have one of the world’s most sophisticated education-industrial complexes. And I use ‘complex’ as both the adjective, intricate and multifaceted, as well as the noun – a personal hang-up.

But set aside for a minute questions about the cost of this huge, sprawling mass of after-school educational centers, private tutors and prep courses. Not to mention the money we’re already paying in teachers’ salaries, school facilities and that laptop that every kid needs. Hey, let’s not think about what this says about the curriculum itself i.e. are we forcing our kids to punch above their weight class? Or whether they’ll be able to succeed once those tutors are no longer around. “Excuse me, boss, but I’ll be paying a guy to come in and help me with my spreadsheets.”

Let’s focus on the bigger picture. Let’s narrow it down to one fundamental ask: why is failure not an option?

I think it’s because in this age – in our post-Boomer, middle and upper class demographic – our children are ourselves. We’re the Meta-parents, the Type-A over-schedulers, the anxious Mommy and Daddy bloggers (Yes, I cop to it). We’ve gotten ourselves on to this hamster wheel and we can’t seem to get off.

We obsess because we can. Because society rewards it. Because technology encourages it. Or just maybe because our parents, who were divorcing and finding themselves in the ‘70s and ‘80s, didn’t.

I don’t know. I don’t have the answer. I know I want my kids to do well, give their best effort, in whatever they choose to do. I want them to be happy but I also brag about their achievements and I fret about what they’re doing online. And I’m not sure if I’m comforted by the fact that they’re way more focused and goal-oriented than I ever was at their ages. Should I be comforted? The other day I asked EO and her friend a question: would they use a private tutor if it meant the difference between an A or a B? They both said ‘Yes’ without hesitation. And when I asked why, they asked me, “Won’t it help you in the future? It’ll lead to better opportunities, right?”

At first, when I thought about the bigger picture and what my fundamental question to you readers should be, I thought I should ask: will our children remember a happy childhood? But then I thought, oh, that’s just me spouting hyperbole, thinking everyone should have a Tom Sawyer kind of childhood. Of course, our children, who don’t have to scrounge for food or worry about drone attacks, will be perfectly happy. Reasonably happy, at least. But it will be their kind of happy, and unless we make some fundamental changes, it will include Kumon and SAT prep and hours of homework and a whole lot of expensive, instructional bullshit because we think that’s the path to a good future. And they won’t know any different.

I’ll leave you with another anecdote, a brief conversation I had with a neighbor a few years ago. She has a son and a daughter, who both go to prestigious local schools, really the cream of the crop in Hong Kong education. We were chatting about summer holidays and she was excited because they’d made plans for a big trip to Italy. She said, and I quote her verbatim, it would be their ‘last hurrah’ before her son started at this fancy, all-boys school. So how old was her son, you ask, as he enjoyed one last carefree summer?

He was seven.

If I Break Up With My Child’s School, Can We Still Be Friends?

You like me, you really like me!

Dear Outstanding Institute of Secondary Learning,

Hey! I’ve been meaning to write you for a few weeks now. I hope I can speak freely and honestly here. First of all let me say that I absolutely do not want you to feel under-appreciated. I think you’re great! Really. And I know you cost a lot of money, which I do not resent at all and which I know is going toward awesome teachers, top class facilities – like a student café that serves pesto paninis – a multicultural environment and really fantastic opportunities that are going to inform my EO’s learning in more ways than I can even articulate at this point. She loooooves school, seriously, and we really love the fact that it’s so easy to get her out of bed in the morning.

But, to be honest, it’s only been a few months – in a relationship that I’m hoping will last many years – and I think things are moving way too fast. In fact, I think we need to take a little break from each other. I know, I know, please don’t be offended. It was really great being able to take that tour last Spring and chat with students and attend an assembly where the orchestra played like professionals and the choir sang ‘Ave Maria’ and a young girl received an award for placing in the top five in the entire world in a literacy exam. You were super impressive. I also liked the snacks.

But then came the request to attend the afternoon ‘Laptop Induction’ which I found to be not only an obsequious thank you for the big commitment of purchasing an expensive but required laptop for my EO but also some kind of cheesy justification for spending all this money in the first place. EO enjoyed it (don’t we all love Power Point after all?), but for me it was like being invited over for dinner after I’ve pulled a back muscle helping you move house. And finding out that in fact you’ve just ordered take-out and the wine isn’t great. I’d rather be home watching Game of Thrones and actually spending time with my children.

Then we had to go to ‘Curriculum’ night where we got to see our EO’s tutor but not officially talk to him/her, and we were told that things are going great with those laptops (your money’s not going to waste, they’re not spending their computer time on House of Anubis and Angry Birds, honestly!). We learned how our children are going to be assessed and found out that eventually we’ll be able to follow their progress online, almost in real time, like tracking a hurricane or Angelina Jolie’s whereabouts. We were given full-colour brochures and more snacks, but by the end of the evening I felt that if I had to hear the phrase ‘learning in context’ one more time I was going to scream.

It’s not you, really. It’s me.

Next on the calendar was the actual ‘Meet the Tutor’ night, in which we sat around enjoying more snacks, sidestepping the responsibility of being Parent Rep and trying to think of incisive questions to ask our child’s tutor. But seeing as the kids had only been in school for four weeks we were kind of stumped. My EO’s very organized and enthusiastic. Her only issue has been the fact that her bus gets her to school very early, which we’ve solved by packing extra snacks (yogurt drinks!) for a sort of second breakfast. I thought I should have mentioned this to her tutor as a shining example of our adaptability, resourcefulness and affinity for healthy snacks, but quickly realized: I’m reaching here!

I have plenty of friends who are teachers, and I’ve heard that, more often than not, the kids they teach are great. It’s the parents who are the bears to deal with. So I’m wondering, and please don’t take this personally or anything but: are you trying to make us helicopter parents?

We receive weekly bulletins plus additional emails on specific topics or invitations to interactive talks like ‘Approaches to Learning Global Humanities for Years 7, 8, 9’. We’re invited to check the school website daily for an up-to-date briefing (I’m waiting for that link to Jolie’s Louis Vuitton blog btw). We’re welcome at swim galas and cross country meets and netball games. And we’ve got upcoming teacher conferences and monthly parent forums and seminars, where no doubt we’ll discover even more ways to obsess about our child’s progress and to help them learn in context. Go ahead, ask me what I know about Computer Based Adaptive Online testing, I dare ya!

Whew! Sweetheart, I love you, my child loves you, but frankly, you’re exhausting and if I can say so, kind of needy, kind of Sally Field here. If we’re going to have any future with this relationship, we’re going to need a little space. You should know that I’m part of a generation borne to parents with a high divorce rate, who couldn’t commit to much more than Friday night football and the Spring talent show. Trust me when I say I’m not going to get offended if I don’t hear from you in a while.

I appreciate you letting me speak freely here. I feel like I’m being completely insensitive, when in fact I really trust you and I do want this to work out! But I think I should also come clean and admit that I’ve come under the influence of a New York Times op-ed called “Super Person” about the rise of the over-overachievers and how we’re all sacrificing our children’s souls and our own identities as moms for the sake of Harvard admission. After spending time with this article, I’ve started having visions of destroying my daughter’s laptop, moving us all to Maine and teaching my children carpentry.

That would certainly inform their learning.

*This blog and the contents therein do not constitute any endorsement or overt (or covert) support of Angelina Jolie, Louis Vuitton and/or Johnny Depp’s dubious haircut in The Tourist.