From the Trenches of China’s School Admission Wars, a Bestseller
In the polarizing 2015 book “Primates of Park Avenue,” a writer living in New York’s ritzy Upper East Side famously details how, among other fancy accoutrements, she cannot fit in without an expensive Birkin bag.
Now, a bestseller about motherhood in a privileged neighborhood halfway around the world describes an equally competitive life that is nevertheless almost entirely different. In Beijing’s Haidian District, it’s all about getting your child into an elite school.
“Haidian mothers don’t need a Birkin. We don’t use makeup; we wear flat shoes. Instead of packaging ourselves, we’d rather spend more on education,” Amber Jiang writes in “Getting Ashore.”
The title of the book refers to a popular term for passing China’s civil servant exams or getting into a top school, both seen as tickets to a good and stable life. In this metaphor, everyone else is struggling to stay afloat out at sea.
“Getting Ashore,” published in October, is Jiang’s personal account of how she got her son into a quality middle school in a district where competition for such spots is notoriously fierce. She tackles her quest with dedication.
More than a year before her son would sit his middle school admission tests, Jiang, then 44, quit her job. It’s a choice many of her peers made. As her son’s primary class entered its last few semesters, the number of full-time mothers almost tripled.
Jiang writes about how parents who are penny-pinchers in their own lives become generous spenders for their children’s education. “A year of your child’s tuition could buy 10 Birkins,” that chapter is titled.
In the last two years of the boy’s primary school life, Jiang signed him up for a weekly extracurricular diet of three math classes, several Chinese language cram courses, and five tutoring sessions with foreign, English-speaking teachers. Jiang herself, a graduate of the prestigious Peking University, retook math and English classes to make sure she could better assist her son.
Jiang first wrote about her experiences online, detailing how to navigate school admissions, extracurricular classes, and home tutoring. There was an obvious market for such advice. Her articles were shared millions of times on social media. “I think not just parents but different groups of people are all paying attention to education,” she tells Sixth Tone.
Readers from around the country, all caught up in the relentless race for scarce school spots, contacted her with questions. “Parents in Beijing — especially those in Haidian, who are mostly well-educated — don’t need to read my articles to learn,” Jiang says. “But for parents from third- or fourth-tier cities and those from rural or mountainous areas, my writings can help them better understand education concepts and methods, and the overall competition out there.”
China’s education landscape is ever-shifting. Just last year, private schools were banned from admitting students based on their own criteria to lessen the stress on young learners during their compulsory education period spanning primary and middle school. Now, the institutions are assigned pupils based on a lottery system. But the pressure to get a leg up on the competition remains.
Sixth Tone talks to Jiang — who prefers to use her pen name, Amber, instead of her given name — about “Getting Ashore,” her thoughts on navigating China’s education system, and how the experiences changed her. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sixth Tone: What did it take to quit your job and become a full-time mother in Beijing? How was your transition?
Amber Jiang: I used to work in a Fortune Global 500 company. I was like a cog at work. Every day I repeated the same things. Honestly, the job restricted my scope. I didn’t have time to read or interact with people outside my workplace.
When I made the decision, there was just a bit over a year left before my son’s middle school admission. My father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer. Your family always matters more than your job.
Of course, for anyone living in Beijing, you should have some savings before you make a decision like this. I’d been working for 20 years before I quit. Our family had purchased an apartment and we had no loans to pay back.
Sixth Tone: What motivated you to shift from a foxi mother — a “Buddhist-like” parent who refrains from signing their children up for all kinds of extra classes — to a jixue mother — a “chicken blood” parent who frantically pressures their child to improve at school?
Jiang: I had underestimated the difficulty of getting into a good school in Haidian. Close friends of my son had started their preparations long ago. When I realized the issue, it was already quite late. I had to work harder.
I was a foxi mom. But my child, just like many others, has a strong drive to exceed or at least be equal to his peers. When some of his classmates confirmed their admissions at desirable middle schools, my son was under pressure. He later told me he was also concerned about losing face. It’s a matter of vanity, as he put it.
Sixth Tone: How was your transition then?
Jiang: It was much more challenging than others might think. The group of jixue mothers seems very mysterious. They’re like a hub of information.
To keep myself sufficiently informed, I was in 12 online groups set up by various training organizations, seven chat groups with hundreds of parents, and I followed 20 public accounts on messaging app WeChat that focus on middle school admissions.
I found my abilities lacking to cope with his classes. So I signed up for IELTS to revive my memories of English. I studied Math Olympiad courses ahead of my son during the day. I listened to all the voice messages from his math teacher, took notes, and summarized the key points for my son. That helped him save a lot of time.
Sixth Tone: Based on your observations, what has caused such anxiety among parents?
Jiang: There are external and internal factors. External factors include the low high school enrollment rates. Beijing students are already lucky, as they have a higher chance of getting admitted by a high school (at 80% in 2020) compared with eastern city Hangzhou or Shanghai, where the number was only a bit over 50%. Those not enrolled face the path to a vocational training school.
Of course, parents get anxious. It’s hard for most parents to accept their children becoming blue-collar workers. Most families’ bare minimum is their children getting a university degree and becoming an office worker. Families won’t change their minds in this regard anytime soon in China.
Another reason is the depreciation of diplomas. When I was a student, many of my classmates chose a vocational school over a university because they wanted to graduate earlier and enter the job market. Many later got a decent job.
It was an era when talented people were in high demand. Employers didn’t see a university diploma as a strict requirement. Nowadays, thousands of people compete for one post in a government organization. What if you don’t have a diploma from a Project 985 or Project 211 (designated as elite in China) university? It means you don’t have as many choices. You can only wait to get selected by others.
Internal factors include expectations from parents getting higher. That’s a natural result of increasing income levels in Chinese families. Alongside this is families attaching greater importance to education. Parents might simply wish for their children to outperform them and lead a better life than them. But it’s not as simple to achieve as it appears to be.
What’s also worth mentioning is the emergence of social media which amplifies this type of anxiety. When you can clearly tell what others are doing to prepare their kids — your child’s peers — you can strongly feel the pressure to work hard enough to ensure your kid is not left behind.
Sixth Tone: Your book was published just months after the country started to practice the lottery-based admission system for children during its compulsory education period. Do you believe policy reforms such as these, aimed at creating “happy education,” will fundamentally ease the burden on students and their families?
Jiang: As long as the availability of desirable educational resources remains the same, I don’t think things will change.
We’re all very envious of parents in Finland (Nordic countries are often cited as examples of nations with enough good schools to make competition unnecessary). No family there needs to push their child to learn at a very young age. But every child can eventually go to university. That is a country suitable for happy education.
China is different. We need to race for elite educational resources. Even if the lottery practices are in place, cram schools won’t stop, because the country won’t adopt a lottery admission system for high school or college enrollment.
Also, even with the lottery system now in place, top schools like the six leading public middle schools in Haidian continue to admit students based on their own evaluation systems, although they set aside a very limited number of seats for the lottery system. I calculated and figured the chances to win in that lottery would be just a bit higher than the draw for a license plate in Beijing (the chances of which were 0.03% in late 2020).
Sixth Tone: Have you witnessed the same level of anxiety among parents outside China?
Jiang: Elsewhere in the world, I would say parents in Seoul might be somewhat similar to Beijing parents in terms of their anxiety. The TV series “Sky Castle” reflected their social realities.
That’s why, to ease pressure on kids, many families have been preparing them for the top 100 universities in the world outside of China. The reason is simple: It’s easier to secure a spot there than aim for one at a leading domestic university.
Sixth Tone: What do you think are the ultimate expectations from parents when they invest heavily into children’s education?
Jiang: I think it’s finding a decent job. By having an attractive diploma, parents are hoping their children might have more options in the job market. Families from rural China are now also wishing their children can become office workers. In the past, this was not a prevalent mindset.
Society has changed as the rapid economic growth has slowed down. That’s why we’re talking about involution (a recently popular term to describe intense competition in Chinese society). In the past, we said “no pain, no gain.” But now we have to endure 10 times the pain for the same gain.
Sixth Tone: What kind of feedback have you received from readers of your book?
Jiang: It took me by surprise that many students have read my book. Some of them are as young as second graders. One of them asked me what my attitude toward education is now: foxi or jixue?
My answer is that in terms of actions, I continue to make every effort possible. But inside, I try to remain foxi. It’s very hard to acquire that kind of inner peace, given the general atmosphere out there. But that’s what I’m trying to achieve.
Eventually the result of getting ashore doesn’t matter that much. But the process before you get ashore is really important. If you set a target, you exert the best efforts you can. No matter what the outcome is, the process will help you in that moment or another in your future.
Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: Students and parents in a building for extracurricular courses in Beijing, 2018. Li Jianguo/People Visual)