19 Mar 2018 16:53 IST

The learning curve

The educational choices the Chinese make illustrates their capacity for reinvention

Amongst other things I didn’t expect to happen in China: being asked for advice regarding a child’s admission to an Indian boarding school. Not just any old school: a progressive one, where mind-body balance and yoga meet over a vegetarian lunch before heading off hand in hand to a consciousness retreat. Which is all very well, but does the headmaster still dispense summary justice with his cane?

No. Apparently that’s not a thing any more.

I then discovered that my Chinese friend wasn’t alone in her interest in this place, or in her growing tiredness with the education system in China, at the demands it places upon her children’s time, its pressures and the price it extracts, monetary and otherwise. There had been other parents from the PRC who’d already applied, had their children accepted, had sent them away to India and watched them graduate. So much so, this particular school in India has a Chinese language website, and its own groups on social media where parents support each other through having children living in a foreign land.

It turns out that this school follows one particular strand out of the spiritual tapestry that India lays out for its admirers. I’m not a big fan of religious essentialism, and told my friend as much. Her reply was simple; it didn’t really matter. She was happy to consider the other progressive schools I mentioned. They were just as “woke”, without being wedded to a particular orthodoxy. But her original choice still spoke to her.

It ticked all the boxes she required for her very young kids — hard physical exercise, an academic environment that was demanding without being punitive, English instruction; most importantly, an immersion in a foreign world, with all that entails. She spoke about how positive an experience it would be with a bright-eyed enthusiasm that swayed me.

No, she’s never been to India.

My friends back home in India with pre-teen children weave hazy dreams of schools abroad as well, but those mostly unaffordable places follow a pattern. Public schools in the UK, college preparatory schools in the US, perhaps international schools in the sorts of places Indians congregate, such as Singapore and Dubai. Maybe an “alternative” school in Bali or the like, provided it’s been written about in the international press. But to send a young child to a poorer country to learn and live and dream in a different language — to set that child adrift in a sea of strangeness, as it were; how many of us would have the courage to even consider that?

Larger malaise

It is tempting to think of an impulse to send a child away to an Indian school with an avowed “spiritual” mission as one remedy to a larger malaise, one that afflicts those who live in a post-religious society. China’s brush with spirituality as a panacea to its pervasive materialism is well-documented, and frequently hilarious. Outside a posh hotel, a lady covered in clearly expensive furs chatted with me about India. Jaipur, Amritsar, the usual. I looked at the dead animals on her head, body and hands, the watch on her wrist, blinked at the aroma her affluence was diffusing into the Beijing night. Bodh Gaya had been particularly meaningful for her. I’m Buddhist, she said, as if sharing a secret.

Of course she is.

But India is materialist as well. Since we aren’t dealing with a dearth of religion in our own lives — indeed, the opposite is currently true — what explains the appeal of the various hucksters in our spiritual marketplace?

Similarities and differences

There is no equivalence, of course, between the bespoke seeking of my designer Buddhist and the more visceral struggle that must underpin the despatching of a child away to a school in a different world. On the one hand is a type familiar to us in India, the collector of exotic sadhana. On the other, parents who have decided to take a punt on India with that which is of most value to them, their children.

The first is directly, self-confessedly, almost covetously on a mission of reinvention — to rise anew (but still well-coiffed and fragrant!) as a shinier, better, more “balanced” person. But my feeling is that the standard of actual reinvention is better measured against the group who have demonstrably more to lose.

I’ve always written about the similarities between my two countries; indeed, even in this piece: but in this case, they’re very, very different.

Last week, I met a very young girl, not yet a teenager. She’s almost completed writing her first book in Chinese. She approached me for help in order to render it into English. She’s a first-generation English-speaker, and even now it is very definitely a second language to her.

I know your schedule, I told her. When will you write? When do you write? After midnight, she told me blithely. When her parents were asleep.

“You actually think you can do it?”

“Can.”

I know she will.

It is this capacity for reinvention that stops me in my tracks every time.

Those parents may not know it, may not have articulated it to themselves or their children, but that is what they’re doing. They’ve got an issue, they’ve identified a solution, they’re all in with it.

I’d suggest more schools in India get with the programme and get Chinese language websites. We’ve all got a lot to learn.

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk. Avtar Singh is the author of Necropolis. He lives in Beijing.)

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