How A Young Couple and a Kid Live in Shanghai

Living in Shanghai for most people is not easy – the continuous inflation, and increase of cost of almost everything (housing among the big part). For a family, it is also not easy. Let me share the real problems a couple with a kid (like Yifan) will face.

Both Wife and Husband Work

In Shanghai, very few family can be really independent. In Shanghai (and in China), for most families, both the husband and wife work. Maybe as a good sign of equity between women and men, Shanghai demands exactly the same thing for women and men. That means, it is really rare for wife to stay at home to take care of their kids. Me, for example, I only have one friend who arranged his wife in home – they came back from the States and get used to have one person stay in home. Except him, I don’t know any of my friend who have the “wife-at-home” arrangement so far. Not to mention an arrangement to have husband at home while wife works.

The recent 50 years transformed China so greatly that in the last few hundred years, women never work, and was not encouraged or allowed to have access to education. In the recent 50 years, the society treat women exactly as men, and there is no such a thing to have wife stay at home.

And a Kid? Quite a Challenge

Everything is fine before the kid. After the baby was born, the real challenge is, who should take care of the baby.

This important, have-to-face problem ties bigger family with small family. For most of my friends, grandparents play an irreplaceable role. Many family has to involve their parents to take care of their grandchildren. It is almost take for granted that infant to baby period of childcare is the responsibility of the parents.

Even with parents, (or without parents), couples need help from outside. That is the nanny business. People, like us, hire 24 hour nanny to stay with the family to take care of the baby, while parents or at least one person the couple can trust must be with the nanny to make sure the safety of the baby. Although people need nanny so much, the trust level is still low. From time to time, newspaper report nanny kidnap or just bring the baby away. It is pretty rare in the whole city, but considering how big the risk is, parents need to be very careful.

Kinder garden?

The current allowance for vacation after having the baby for wife is 4 months. After that, although the baby and the mother is still in the breeding period, many have to cut it off when the mother gets back to work. Many kinder gardens start to accept children as young as 18 months, and many even have full time plan, in which kid get to the kinder garden on Monday mornings, and leave on Friday afternoons, and stay with the school in between.

Most of the other kinder garden start to get children from the age of 3. This does not solve the problem well, since they are often dismissed as early as 4 PM, while most of the working time in Shanghai ends at 5PM or 6PM. Again, a nanny or grandparents are needed.

How to Handle That?

I know it is tough for the young couple – Wendy and I was experiencing it and will experience more. We are pretty OK on the financial side, but how about people who really don’t have too much to spend on nanny? No wonder some of my friends send their kid back to their home town for one year or two so they can be raised by their relatives outside Shanghai, or some even quit, and went back to their hometown just because of the kid. It is not easy to raise a child in Shanghai, really not easy. It has more to do with money, and time…

P.S. Competition

Just a side note – competition starts from kindergarden. Recently, I even started to worry whether Yifan can pass the entrance exam of a good kinder garden. It sounds ridiculous, but really good kinder garden receives 3000 applications while only can get less than 300. They have strict interview process to ask the 3 year old many questions, that have to be answered correctly before they are admitted. They have to be the top 10% in all the other 3-year old kids. OMG! I started to get advertisement newsletter in my inbox promoting their course to help my kid on how to perform well in the “kinder garden entrance exam”! It is really outrageous. But…. can I just ignore and take it easy and send my son to a “so-so” kinder-garden? I don’t think it is a big deal, but I realized the competition adds up from 3 year old – many primary school choose candidates according to which kinder garden the kid is from…

If you say China is a very competitive market, you may learn the reason. With so many people and so rare resources, it is really hard to handle, and the only thing to do is to compete hard, from 3 year old… BTW, this is another evidence about how little the resources on education and health care the government is putting tax dollar into – I didn’t feel the pain only after I have my own child.

15 Comments

  1. Both parents working is also very common in the U.S. Stay-at-home moms would indeed be the exception.

  2. I share same pain with you. Maybe the competitions in Shanghai is toppest in China, even world.

  3. Sounds familiar to life in the US for two-income families. A few terminology differences: “breeding” should be “nursing” (when the baby is still drinking mother’s milk). In the US, only 1 year is called “Kindergarten” – the year before 1st grade. Years before that are just called “pre-school.”

    In SF I experienced the same thing — for “top” preschool programs, I needed to get on the waitlist *before* the baby was born. So I just filled out the forms with the child’s name “Baby Ng” just like everyone else. And the child has to go in for an “observation period” kind of like an interview for kids. No entrance exam though. It helps to have good relationships with important people who already have kids in that school. This is one reason why we abandoned SF to move down to Silicon Valley where the preschool situation is much less crazy.

  4. Really interesting post! Agreed that stay-at-home moms are uncommon in the US. The competitive kindergarten admissions process reminded me of this New York Times article. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/03/education/03preschool.html?scp=6&sq=school%20nursery%20competitive&st=cse

    Good luck to you and your family and thanks for sharing with us!!

  5. Forcing 3-year-old kids to go through an interview process to get admitted to the kinder garten would be deemed “inhuman” in Germany. Totally inconceivable!

    JS, I don’t know what you think about the Chinese rote-learning-based education system and the consequential “exam culture”. In my opinion, succeeding in and going through all exams and finally graduating from one of the country’s top universities doesn’t really give you a competitive edge. Why not escape this ultra-competitive yet unfavourable environment and send your son abroad when he is, say, around 13 or 14? Or allowing him to grow up in a bilingual place like Singapore would also be an option. Financially this should not be a problem for you. Other obstacles might be higher in your case.

    Actually, although I’m still a student, I have already been thinking about how to raise my children for quite some time. What I have described above are the two options I currently have in mind. I definitely want my children to grow up learning Chinese as one native language, but would never let them waste a total of 12 years of their lives on primary and secondary education in Mainland China.

  6. Hhhmmm….. Maybe for some couple it could be a good opportunity for the wife to work as “Tagesmutter” (Mother by day).

    I have seen this arrangement in Germany, where kindergarten are also scarce.

    Usually a middle age lady, with enough room at home, takes care of kids in the neighborhood at a lower price than a kindergarten.

    Another option, is a group of people agree to use the roomiest house of one of them and look for a Tagesmutter.

    A Tagesmutter could also be one or several of the members of the group, or a hired, external to the group, person.

    Web of trust must be build of course. Nothing that a sort of social network could not help to address.

    Internet solutions could also help mothers(and fathers) to ease worries. They could check whenever they want about the kids: Webcams in the room where kids stay, chats with the tagesmutter, mobile phone for tagesmutter…

    Maybe a web site could be setup to provide such kind of service. Something similar to what is done with car sharing to easy traffic transportation problems: “Tagesmutter sharing”

  7. If the competition is so scary now, imagine the competition say 30 years later. Jian Shou – have you ever thought of leaving Shanghai?

  8. Like Mary, Shanghai reminds me of things I read about in the New York Times. Same big city experience.

    Wang Jianshuo, I really like reading your posts about Yifan because my daughter Charlotte is only a couple months older and we’re thinking about many of the same things here in Shanghai.

  9. Here in Seattle, my daughter’s private school also had interviews and application process for entrance at kindergarten age, and accepts only fraction of applications. It is not uncommon in larger cities in the U.S. such as S.F. and NYC; and particularly areas with high proportion of foreign workers in highly educated business (like finance, high tech, etc.).

    There is one BIG difference between the situation in China and U.S., though. The difference is that the competition doesn’t really matter to the child’s future in the U.S., and in China, it does matter (eventually). At least by middle school, the education system is a giant filtering system that will determine the child’s future at each stage of the ladder. When a kid fails to make it to the next rung on the ladder in China, that is where they will be stuck the rest of their life. But in the U.S., a college dropout can become the world’s richest man. You can get a perfectly good education in the U.S. going only to public institutions. In places with high competition for the “best” private schools, the public schools are usually top-notch anyway. Public schools in the exclusive neighborhoods of Seattle, S.F, NYC are the best in the country.

    So why does the U.S. have these exclusive kids schools, you might ask? I think it’s because parents are overprotective, and they want what they think is “safest”, even if the public schools are “safe enough”. And parents from India and China assume that the U.S. education system is similar to the one they grew up in, so they expect the competitive exclusivity. And finally, the schools become little social circles for parents with similar views and backgrounds, so they do not need parents or kids to be exposed too much to the “general public”. But IMO, it’s the same as most other things that overprotective parents do — little actual difference in the end.

  10. Here is another story from National Geographic, which I think is relevant to this thread.

    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/05/china/middle-class/leslie-chang-text

  11. Monserrat FRias

    July 22, 2008 at 12:20 am

    Having kindergarten entrance exams!!! wow, what could they be asked to do? Tie their shoelaces? Write their name? Spell ABC?? Count up to 10?

  12. Hi, Work at home crafts is a popular method that many are talking about doing in the work at home world. Most people who would like to work at home are stay at home moms. They usually take care of their children while the husband is at work.

  13. Mimi_Rockefeller

    July 22, 2008 at 10:08 pm

    I had no idea public schools in SH had entrance exams for 3 year-olds! So, I am very curious… can you give a few examples of exam questions?

  14. Not public schools – public schools are just admitted by school district. But really good private schools have the exam.

    One of the question I read on the Internet (CAUTION: I didn’t personally experience it and don’t know whether it is just rumor): What does Panda eat? The poster’s child was rejected because he answered “cake” instead o the right answer: bamboo.

  15. Public school acceptance is based on your ‘hukou’ (residence) location – however our local primary school still wanted to ‘interview’ the child.

    This involved basically some teachers talking to the child without us being wihtin earshot.

    After the interview they brought the child back, and infront of the child said that his Chinese character knowledge was not enough, and his mental arithmetic was not quick enough (I think he used his fingers :-)), and hence they dont recommend that he goes to the school. It would be too tough for him.

    Anyway – we didnt want to send our son to a school that had that mentality, so we managed to get him into another nearby public school that didnt interview. When it came to the actual enrollment time, the original ‘interview’ school was still expecting our child to enroll – I dont believe they can refuse you if you are in the catchment area for the school.

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