Everything Is Dangerous
It’s amazing how many near-death experiences can be squeezed into a two-hour stint within the confines of an elementary school in China. The most mundane, some might say instinctive, actions can have drastic consequences if not carried out correctly. Going down stairs, washing hands, walking across the room– all scenarios in which elders must enforce safety, whether it be for the child in their own care, or in the care of another ayi (the Chinese caretaker.) Every movement of the child must be watched, and commented on, in order to ensure their survival. The extent to which these ayis hover over the children entrusted to them makes me wonder, are they more concerned with the child’s safety, or are they more concerned with appearing concerned?
Four days a week I had a front row seat to this spectacle at the kindergarten where I would attend classes with my employer’s daughter. At school the ayis put on a show for each other, engaging in an unspoken contest of who is more attentive with their employer’s child. Amateurs simply force their child to sit in their lap during any seated activity. More seasoned caretakers go to much greater lengths to prove their worth. The children under the watch of these women may as well have stayed home, as they won’t be getting any sort of learning experience on their own. Not on this ayi’s watch. When it’s time to clap, ayi grabs their hands to make them clap. When it’s time to eat, ayi all but chews their food for them. She places the child in his chair, pushes him up to the table, and proceeds to carefully deposit all the food or drink into the child’s mouth for him (all the while incessantly wiping his chin and constantly instructing him to chew slowly and drink carefully).
Any ascent or descent invites a whirlwind of comments on the proper way to use a staircase. Daredevil foreign kids who hop from one step to the next will quickly be intercepted by an ayi (not necessarily the one taking care of that particular child, mind you) who points out that by behaving so recklessly, they are endangering not only their own wellbeing, but also the wellbeing of every person around them. In most cases, the mother of the child is standing right beside them, and has clearly not found their child’s actions dangerous enough to be interrupted.
There is also a wrong way to wash your hands. Most children stand in a trance as their ayis do the washing for them: turning on the water, squirting the soap, rubbing their hands together, drying them off. This is the correct way. The wrong way goes something like this: a two-year-old attempts to go through these steps on her own, and gets water on her sleeves (where was the ayi to help roll up her sleeves?) This results in a gaggle of concerned ayis flocking to the poor, damp child and shoving paper towels up her sleeves to keep her arms dry. There is, of course, also a lecture in store for the neglectful mother.
The charges of the most attentive ayis have become so crippled in their ability to do anything that they fear even traveling across the classroom without an ayi’s hand to clutch. The most traumatic event for one of these children is when the ayi excuses herself for a moment to run to the bathroom while the child is seemingly distracted by some activity. The scream-crying that erupts from the classroom upon the child noticing his ayi’s absence usually only lasts a few seconds before the frantic ayi flurries back in.
Foreign mothers and ayis generally make no attempt to talk to one another. During the slightly calmer snack portion of class, ayis congregate around the table of children eating to keep a constant watch as the mothers retreat to the back walls for a hard-earned chat with their girlfriends. The resentment was clear both from the ayis and the Chinese teachers, who delighted in any chance to scoop up the plate of a fumbling child or help push in a child’s chair, all while glancing at the negligent mothers talking amongst themselves. It was abundantly clear what was on the minds of the teachers and ayis: they were doing it right, and we Westerners had a lot to learn. And maybe, in a way, they were right.
In a crowded, competitive society in which children are taught from kindergarten to study hard in preparation for one big test at the end of high school which profoundly influences their higher education and career, perhaps the children allowed to learn from their own mistakes and think independently are precisely the ones left behind. But what does this mean for foreign children in the care of an ayi, the children who will go on to expensive international schools and never be placed in the Chinese education system? I couldn’t help but have flashbacks to myself as a kindergartner– scraped up knees, my hair in some bizarre up-do as I had styled it myself, making messy art projects that I thought were so exquisite at the time– and feel that these children were missing out.
Previously published in NewsChina