An online article that went viral in late July cut straight to the core of the concerns harbored by many of China’s middle-class parents. “I Earn 30,000 Yuan [$4,500] a Month and Still Can’t Afford My Kid’s Summer Vacation,” lamented the somewhat sensationalist headline.
The author, a corporate executive from the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, goes on to list her fifth-grade daughter’s summer expenses: A 10-day summer camp in the U.S. costs 20,000 yuan; a summertime nanny takes home another 5,000; a further 2,000 went toward piano classes; the same amount was soaked up by swimming lessons; and a final 6,000 was splurged on preparatory courses in English, essay writing, and the International Mathematical Olympiad.
The grand total: 35,000 yuan — 5,000 more than the writer earned in a month.
With the end of the summer holidays in sight, let’s take a moment to reflect. How much money does a family living in Shanghai actually need to give their child a decent summer vacation? For many middle-class Shanghainese, the expenses consist of summer camps, cram courses, and rehearsals, along with the added costs of taking children on day trips.
Let’s first look at this last part. The cheapest way to get across the city is to take the subway and ride a shared bike the rest of the way. However, shared bikes rarely include child-friendly seats, so if you have kids under 12 years old, it’s often best to take a taxi to your destination unless it’s really close to the subway station. In a huge city like Shanghai, many parents choose to take a cab there and back, which costs around 40 yuan if you’re going somewhere nearby. If you drive, parking costs downtown start at 15 yuan per hour, so it’s easy to spend up to 60 yuan a day on parking alone.
Then there are entertainment expenses. A parent-and-child ticket at an average amusement park costs about 150 yuan if you use a discount coupon obtained through mobile apps. Seeing a family-friendly show, perhaps in one of Shanghai’s popular small theaters, will set you back 400 yuan or so for two tickets.
And that’s all before you’ve eaten. Even at an average restaurant serving local food at passable hygiene standards, a family of three will still have to fork out about 200 to 300 yuan. Pickier parents can expect to spend between 500 and 600 yuan at higher-end or organic restaurants. A streetside ice cream, milk tea, or viral store treat might see you part with another 30 to 50 yuan.
All told, a family day out in Shanghai will probably cost you anywhere between 600 and 1,000 yuan. But wait: We’re just getting started.
Last year, the most expensive summer camp in Shanghai — organized by a local international school and featuring full access to their highly qualified teachers and state-of-the-art facilities — cost up to 6,000 yuan a week. This year, the same money only buys you a vacation at one of the city’s most run-of-the-mill English language camps. More mediocre camps still cost about 2,000 to 3,000 yuan a week. A child’s four-week summer camp fees might, then, amount to around 12,000 yuan. Yet most young white-collar workers in Shanghai only make about 9,000 yuan a month.
There’s also the attraction of highly popular enrichment courses. A 45-minute class in English, piano, dance, soccer, swimming, or painting will vacuum up about 200 yuan. Summer classes are usually 10-course programs. Given that parents tend to enroll their kids in about three courses, most end up spending between 5,000 and 6,000 yuan over the summer. It gets more expensive if kids want to learn more niche pursuits like tennis, fencing, or the cello.
Of course, spending money is not the only way to enjoy the summer. This year, I sent my daughter to live with my mother for a few weeks in Hangzhou, capital of eastern China’s Zhejiang province. There, she experienced a vastly different kind of summer life for only around 1,000 yuan per week. Slathered in sunscreen and shaded by big summer hats, she and her grandmother took buses from place to place, exploring the city. During the day, they visited museums; in the cooler evenings, they strolled through some of the beautiful parks by the city’s famous West Lake. Mom would ask my daughter to teach her English, and she would read her Chinese books in return.
My mother has never understood the value of padding out a summer vacation with unnecessary spending. As I listened to my daughter excitedly describing the places her grandmother took her and the fanciful books they read, I realized that parents who crow about being unable to afford their kids’ summer holidays are just stuck in the grip of their own anxiety about their children’s future.
When it comes to their children’s education, middle-class Chinese parents routinely fork out boatloads of money. Yet it does nothing to ease their crippling fear of falling behind or failing to keep up with the Joneses. They part with astronomical sums of cash in the hope of buying comfort that never comes.
There are complex causes behind the ambition, anxiety, snobbery, and materialism that so many middle-class parents display when it comes to their children’s education. The traditional vaunting of erudition and the precariousness of many parents’ social positions fuel the flames of a consumer market happy to charge excessive sums for supposedly holistic activities. But we must realize that high prices are no guarantee of quality. They are also no guarantee that our children are receiving help and care when these are most imperative. As a parent myself — and one who is admittedly not immune to such behavior — this gives me a lot to reflect on.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Chinese children sit by a river during a summer program in London, U.K., July 27, 2012. IC)