When we chose to register our 5 year old daughter for an interview at Changning District Y.K. Pao elementary school, there were two main reasons for that: the school is located in 15 minutes walking distance from our home and it offers full blown Chinese-English bilingual education. It was also of help that the annual tuition of around CNY 140k was within the frame that would be reimbursed by my employer. The tuition tough was the first thing that smelled fishy about that school: Y.K. Pao claims to be a non profit school.
Designed to serve wealthy Chinese who are not entitled to attend international schools, Y.K. Pao, offers their children a convenient channel to stay within their parent’s reach, but still acquire till secondary level graduation highest English proficiency to be able to directly join one of the ivory league universities – without having to change nationality.
When we attended the open day last December, I was overwhelmed by a huge majority of Chinese parents listening to the head mistress. Enquiring more about the school, we learned that children are chosen for their parent’s potential to sponsor the various charity projects that the Y.K. Pao association undertakes under the helm of philanthropy. My wife concluded that we would never be able to get one of the 104 annual first grade schooling places without pulling some strings.
Deprived of helpful guangxi, we still registered our daughter for the March 8th interview and I meanwhile realized by accident that the school was sub auspicis Philip Sohmen’s, the grand son of Ningbo born Bao Yugang, and the son of Helmut Sohmen, a fellow Austrian who married the famous shipping tycoon’s daughter after they met – I guess during the late 60ies or early 70ies – at a US university.
How lucky, I thought, after all we might be able to pull some strings, and so I wrote to one of my former law school professors who is still president of another Helmut Sohmen foundation back in Vienna. Would he be able to intervene on our behalf? I thought without feeling too embarrassed about tilting equality before the law in a country where there exists no law. 5 year old kids can’t be that much different from each other when it comes to scoring for an elementary school entrance test. And after all: some intelligence given, they would pick up fast and close the gap with some more diligent classmates (respectively parents).
Not only my former teacher, but also a friend based in Shanghai who knows Philip Sohmen, told me that any intervention would most probably produce an even counterproductive outcome. Mr. Sohmen Jr. is known of his unbiased and meritocratic approach to school admission, was what I was told. Quite the opposite of what all the rumors about Y.K. Pao did convey.
The day of our daughter’s interview arrived and we both took her that Saturday morning to the school where she was led to a class room while the parents had to wait in another. Our daughter had been in Kindergarten since age 1, from her 18th month onwards she grew up in Shanghai attending a German-Chinese full time play group. While she is already a ping-pong simultaneous translator between these two languages, she had started slow English tutoring only a year earlier and is able to have simple conversation. All in all not bad for a 5 year old who is more on the physical than the intellectual side of life.
But what she took out from the exam already gave me the impression that only very good luck would take our offspring into this institution. The assignment seemed to be simple, but without preparation would pose an unconquerable obstacle: below the plain black and white A4 drawing of an elephant whose each part was numbered, black letters were connected with the corresponding numbers, e.g. 1 = blue, indicating which parts require to be colored which way. Such an exercise does demand from a 5 year old to be able to read numbers, words and apply the connection thereof upon the drawing; Quite a complex undertaking, in particular in your third language.
After all, that’s not the point that I want to make. If the school management requires from its pupils such an understanding, it is its good right to do so. I am pissed off because of something else: we were told already back in December that the parent’s interview (at least one parent with the interviewed child) would take place on March 21. And not thinking of too much competitiveness, we assumed that there would be surely a second round as part of getting a complete picture of each applicant. So we waited after March 8th for some information. My wife had finished a project and took off a few days to fly with both kids to her parents and scheduled their return ticket for March 20th evening to be back just in time for the second interview. I scheduled a business trip to Chongqing in the same way and left my colleagues a day earlier to be with our daughter for the second interview.
All plans were made, but a few days before the interview we somehow grew anxious because no time was communicated to us. So first my wife started to call the school’s landline number, but nobody picked up. Then I called and transferred myself to a teacher Han, who was in charge of elementary admission matters. The left message recording said that Ms. Han would call back, if number and name are provided. I did so, but was never called back. The day before the interview my wife eventually succeeded to call through and was told that our daughter did not pass the first round – only children who passed the first round were contacted about a second round interview.
Apart from being frustrated about our daughter’s first failure in the Confucian schooling system, I am particularly infuriated about the school management’s attitude towards parents and the lack of proper organization. We had been neither informed that the second round interview will only be held with a selected few, nor did we know until when notice about the second round interview would be made. Without a properly communicated information deadline all parents whose children do not make it into the second round wait until the last minute and probably like us make respective arrangements.
I find consolation in the idea that we would have not been happy with such a bunch of top down jerks, neither our daughter nor us. But restraining personal emotions, I still have to ask how this school will hold up its self acclaimed standards of meritocracy? We were neither informed on what basis kids are admitted, nor were we informed why our child failed. A certain feeling stays that after all, the rumors might have been true: Y.K. Pao selects its pupils according to the wealth network that it's parents are able to provide.