May-June 2006 Selected Content
Homeschooling From Abroad - Leslie Clary
We had always planned to send our homeschooled son, Zak, to public high school, mainly because it's what he wanted. However, the year he turned 13, I took a job teaching English in a technical college in Haikou, Hainan. Hainan is China's small island province in the South China Sea. Estimates put native English speakers living in Hainan at just over a hundred. Clearly, public school was out of the question. However, we knew the education he would receive abroad would surpass anything he could learn in school.
Zak is a homebody. He is not an adventurer, so we were unsure how he would respond to moving to the other side of the world. He also loves to communicate. When we asked him how he felt about moving to China and studying Chinese for a year, he shrugged and said, "That might be okay." In teenage Zak language, it was an unqualified thumbs up.
I left first while Zak stayed behind with my husband, Bob, who had to tie up some loose ends to his business. A few months later I met them in Shanghai and we took a plane to our new home in Haikou. Hainan is a green, fragrant land of coconut palms and tropical rain forests. Junks float lazily down the Nandu River. Rice paddies surround the city and water buffalo wander along the paths. During the summer it can become unbearably hot with nearly 100% humidity. Geographically situated between Taiwan and Vietnam, Hainan has more in common with those places than with mainland China.
The college provided us a comfortable two-bedroom apartment on campus. The campus is basically a closed community with guards at the entrance to both of the gates so I felt comfortable letting Zak wander around at his leisure, even late in the evening. The campus grounds are clean. A pagoda and small pond are at one end. A large fountain with blossoming plants sits in the center. There are basketball courts, tennis courts and a game room with ping pong tables and pool tables. Because we are in the tropics, the lifestyle includes a long naptime at mid-day and most activities take place much later than back in the States. Zak was delighted to find that he no longer had an early bedtime. It is not unusual for students to congregate at one of the college's sidewalk cafes and sip green tea or fresh coconut juice at 11 or even 12 o'clock at night.
We debated what to do about his education. He did want to learn Chinese and we discovered the college offered an immersion program for English speakers who wanted to learn the language. We signed him up. He is the only student. Five days a week, four hours a day he meets with teacher Ming, who speaks no English. We decided that and adjusting to a new culture, especially one as foreign as China, was education enough. We weren't going to push academics; rather we would let him take his time and find his own rhythm.
I had some concerns. He has always struggled with math and, in spite of being an avid reader, his writing skills are not where I would like them to be. We pulled him out of public school in junior high because he was clearly a boy who would easily fall through the cracks. He is a social child and loved elementary school. However, in junior high, he began failing classes, and worse, his self-esteem plummeted. I became a crusader of his education.
In spite of my husband and other homeschooling parents telling me to relax and back off, deep inside I was convinced if I didn't keep him on a strict schedule with a set amount of time each day for basic academics, he wouldn't get what he needed. My parents were both school teachers. I am a college English instructor. The public school system is practically written into my cells. It took moving to China to begin my own de-programming.
I discovered when I backed off and loosened up, Zak began taking more responsibility for his education. He likes Chinese. Every evening he practices writing characters. As a result his handwriting has improved. The internet makes communication easy and he feels less isolated from his friends back home. He sends emails and chats online every weekend, and he is paying more attention to grammar and spelling. He has also begun writing game reviews for one of his friend's websites, which we use for English lessons. He even began picking up his math book on his own. Now we have a college student who tutors him three times a week. Xu Zhi Yuan speaks excellent English, but one of the perks is that he also helps Zak with Chinese.
Adjusting to Haikou has been a challenge. The local people speak a Hainanese dialect that sounds like marbles rattling in a cup. The markets teem with baskets of writhing snakes, turtles, frogs and all manner of dried herbs and mushrooms. One day as we were walking down the aisle of an outdoor market we saw a man walking toward us, stark naked, covered with mud and with long matted hair. All the locals ignored him and continued staring at us, the only Westerners in the place. We do sometimes feel like aliens on another planet!
Yet China has changed the whole family and I'm certain it's the best education Zak has received up this point. In the US, so much of what we hear about China is simply untrue. The country is changing so rapidly it's unbelievable. And Zak is able to witness that. He's made friends. He now eats with chopsticks as easily as with a spoon and fork. He can order food and negotiate taxi rides to visit his friends across town. Another benefit I didn't expect is that he's voluntarily eating more vegetables. Without a doubt, the Chinese have refined the culinary arts to perfection and one of his favorite foods is qing cai, a leafy green vegetable sauteed with garlic and soy sauce. It's true that the world is our school and homeschooling from abroad has been an amazing venture.
© 2006, Leslie Clary