The “tiger toddlers” of China’s next generation
With a teddy bear in one hand and a strong black coffee in the other, I’m standing in front of thirty 4-year-olds all gazing up at me in wonder. Less than eight weeks ago I was clutching my 1st class degree in one hand and a bottle of champagne in the other … and in all honesty before this morning I’m not sure I knew the difference between a 1-year-old and a 5-year-old. Today is my first day at work as an English teacher for one of Shanghai’s most prestigious government kindergartens; Yuyuan Kindergarten 愚园路第一幼儿. To understand China’s next generation, I chose to uproot and live alongside them for a year in Shanghai, dropping an MSc offer from Oxford.
Unlike every 66hands study thus far, W represents each and every little 4-year-old I teach here in Shanghai. Education is highly valued in China and can act as one of the predominant means for social mobility – but inequality at Yuyuan kindergarten is evident, and already at the age of 4, only the fortunate toddlers are given a bounding head start in their Chinese education marathon.
I use the term “tiger toddlers” to refer to preschool children (aged between 3 to 5) whose parents spend more than half of their income on their extracurricular activities ranging from additional English, Maths or Science classes, to luxurious weekend trips away filled with developmental activities.
The term “tiger mother” was initially coined in 2015 by Amy Chau upon the release of her autobiographical account  of how she, a Chinese mother and Professor at Yale Law School, raised her two daughters “the Chinese way” in the USA. Chau mentions a study in which, out of 50 American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, 70% of American mothers felt “stressing academic success is not good for children” – by contrast 0% of Chinese mothers felt this way .
Each year in May, Yuyuan Kindergarten releases their catchment area. Yet within 500m of the school, you can buy a plate of jiaozi from a hole in the wall restaurant for 10RMB or alternatively, across the road you can stay in the Renaissance hotel for a minimum of 900RMB a night. Two separate worlds living side-by-side along the same road.
Whatsmore, the level of English in a class of toddlers at Yuyuan Kindergarten ranges from total comprehension, to total confusion thereby highlighting stark income inequality. Last week we were learning colours; I stood at the front of my 4-years-old and said “What colour is my t-shirt?” Eric, a confident 4-year-old sporting a cotton t-shirt that read Eton said in almost perfect BBC English: “It is white and black striped. Also, your shoes are black.” I picked on someone else. Amy, a bubbly 4-year-old with rotting black teeth and second-hand shoes stared at me blankly.
Based solely on my experience and observations to date, dental hygiene is positively correlated to wealth, and thereby English level – those that learn English outside of class (often with a price tag of between 200-500RMB per hour) have white teeth. Those that have had no previous exposure to English, who look at me with blank, confused expressions, have black, rotting teeth. One of my colleagues told me the carers (often the grandparents as both parents usually work fulltime) let them eat too much sugar and are simply ignorant of basic dental hygiene.
In 20 years from now, Eric and Amy will be 24. Now sat side-by-side, it is likely that within two decades the pair will hardly recognise one another. Eric will have been sent to an international school and then onto University in the UK or the USA where he will graduate with strong prospects of seizing a well-paid job maybe in engineering, law or business. His parents will pay his tuition fees in addition to buying his apartment and car.
Amy will go to a local school, reciting English from a Chinese teacher and working late hours to do well in the Gaokao – China’s University entrance exam. If she is in the top 0.91% , she has a chance to attend either Peking or Tsinghua University (Oxbridge or Ivy League equivalent). If not, as her parents won’t have the financial means to send her abroad for higher education, she’ll stay in China and go to a second or third-tier University. If Amy and Eric were to go for the same job aged 24, Eric would win hands down.
Were it not for a surge in China’s “tiger toddlers” becoming overeducated and overindulged, both Amy and Eric might be on an equal footing as they begin their education – as the Chinese government might have intended. In 2016, 3.9 trillion RMB was spend on its education system (the largest state-run education system in the world). 280.2 billion RMB went straight to kindergartens .
The expenditure is reflected in Yuyuan’s facilities. Each classroom is equipped with an interactive whiteboard and enough toys and fancy dress to fill a small shop. Each has ensuite toilet facilities, a dining area and a designated sleeping room with 30 beds. Beyond each individual classroom, there is a communal reading room with 500+ books, an outdoor and indoor play area as well as luxurious teacher meeting rooms.
Education has the power to shape a nation; a government can mould an entire generation’s thought, ideals and behaviour through a curriculum, teaching styles and examination structure. In 1957, Mao Zedong毛泽东 said “Our educational policy must enable everyone who receives an education to develop morally, intellectually and physically and become a worker with both socialist consciousness and culture”  Some of China’s “tiger toddlers” might grow up with socialist consciousness and culture, but evidently not all of them – and it is this new generation that the world needs to pay attention to. Afterall, where there are 3,022 preschool education institutions in the UK, there are 254,950 in China  .
 Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chau https://www.amazon.com/Battle-Hymn-Tiger-Mother-Chua/dp/014312058