In Beijing, Back-To-School Stress Takes On Whole New Meaning

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So your baby’s daycare is still closed for summer holidays, your eldest’s school doesn’t start for three weeks, work deadlines are threatening, your wallet’s been stolen and your partner – if you even have one – is traveling for business. Sucks, doesn’t it.

Part of you knows you’re still one of the lucky ones. But it takes a story like the one in this week’s New York Times to really bring it home. In Beijing, where something like 7 million impoverished migrants have come to work because employment in their home province is inadequate, schools are suddenly disappearing just at the time of year that the rest of us are starting to fret about packed lunches, new uniforms and carpool schedules.

In the story, Andrew Jacobs writes about one school, built especially to educate these disadvantaged children, that was reduced to rubble in the midst of a government campaign to eliminate so-called “unsafe and unhygienic” schools.

“Though the quality of education they offer may be questionable,” he writes, “private schools like [the recently demolished] Red Star are often the only option for the children of low-skilled migrant laborers, who for the most part are ineligible for the free public education available to legal Beijing residents.”

He goes on: “Obtaining an urban residence permit, called a hukou, is possible only for those with deep pockets or top-notch connections, so struggling migrants live in a grey zone of pay-as-you-go medical care, dingy rented rooms and unregistered schools where the education is middling at best.”

Yet the only alternative, for most of these kids, would be to head back to their parents’ hometown, to be educated in equally dubious institutions, with only extended family to care for them.

Or, just as likely, drop out.

The swelling migrant population creates a perplexing issue in present-day Beijing. Migrants are desperately needed for cheap labor, to maintain low production costs, and as domestic workers, to maintain a higher standard of living for the growing middle classes. But the government – who sees the potential for social unrest in their large, unhappy communities – wants to make it difficult for them to remain. Besides, nobody wants a migrant shantytown in his backyard.

And yet China continues to project the image of a tiger on the trajectory of a great leap forward. Jacobs turns the knife in the wound when he cites media reports that “a government-affiliated charity is spending more than US$300 million to construct 1,000 schools in Africa.”

He concludes with the image of Li Haixin, an unemployed former teacher whose son also attended the flattened school. She plans to borrow money from her family to send her son to a registered private school. She said, “The boy was still shaken from seeing the desks, chairs and student art projects buried under a mound of broken masonry.”

I write this running the risk of sounding like Debbie Downer. (You think parenting is tough? Just listen to the latest from the folks in China!) But there’s something to be said for reminding yourself of the lack of unseen and unjust evil in your life (apologies to the citizens of Vermont for this bit of inland gloat).

On that note, a happy September to all you Augusted-out parents out there. May your schools remain standing until Graduation Day.

(Photo: Stockbyte)