Thai School: For These Chinese Moms, the Future Is Foreign
Two years ago, Yezi and her daughter moved from their hometown in a central province in China to Thailand. In the taxi on the way to the airport, she asked, “Do you miss your father?” Five-year-old Kele nodded her head solemnly. But just a moment later, the little girl was laughing the rest of the way there.
Their destination was Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand. After two prior trips to the southeast Asian country, Yezi’s family was inspired to send Kele there for preschool. Kele has always liked Thailand. She says: “It’s warm enough to wear skirts and eat ice cream all year round.”
But then her mother decided to relocate too to supervise Kele’s studies all the way until the end of junior high school. And just like that, Kele had a peidu mom hovering around.
Peidu, which literally translates as “accompanying education,” is a common practice across China, in which a parent, often the mother, abandons their careers to devote themselves to supervising school-age children.
Before moving to Thailand, however, Yezi did hesitate, and to this day, she still isn’t completely convinced about her decision to join her daughter. She recalls that, on the way to pay tuition at the international preschool, she did consider just turning around and taking her daughter back to China.
Some international schools in Thailand, as well as bilingual elementary and secondary schools, provide elite English-language education. But the tuition there is less expensive than their counterparts in China, and the rat race less intense. It’s why more and more parents are choosing to leave home and rededicate themselves to their children’s education in a foreign country.
Though the interviewed mothers aspired to give their children an international education and thus broaden their cultural horizons, their decision was, in part, also motivated by the fact that their children didn’t have a good time in Chinese schools.
But, though the move to Thailand alleviates some problems in the short term, it sometimes ends up creating new ones.
International, but affordable
Yezi and Kele rent a townhouse in Chiang Mai, where the chaotic traffic on the newly constructed roads back home is nowhere to be seen. Also absent, more importantly, is China’s stifling system of rote-learning and highly ingratiating “parent-teacher engagements.”
She always picks Kele up by car in the afternoons. Chiang Mai’s old, winding roads make driving unpleasant. After a year of preschool in Thailand, Kele returned to China for one year of elementary school.
Now, she’s back in Thailand to finish as part of an international class group at a bilingual school. At 4 p.m., students file out in small gaggles of friends. Usually, the few Chinese girls all stick together.
Yezi feels a little conflicted. One of the reasons she didn’t choose a wholly international school is that, in some, Chinese students account for almost half the cohort, while she prefered proper immersion in an English-speaking environment.
But she also worried that if she were to send her daughter somewhere with no other Chinese kids at all, then Kele may not fit in.
On picking up their children, a few Chinese mothers take them to a nearby restaurant with a play area for kids. There, amid the rolling hills by a clear stream, the children can play in the water, dig in the sand, and feed small animals while the restaurant staff keep watch.
Inside, the mothers are free to talk at ease, and take a breather. Yezi isn’t quite comfortable enough in English to socialize with mothers of other nationalities.
School affairs in international schools are also easier to deal with. In China, when a teacher reached out about Kele not paying enough attention in class, she tried to dodge: “I can’t stop her from drifting off.” But sometimes she had no choice but to help “straighten her out.” Afterwards she’d tuck her in and weep over why life had to be so tough for a little girl.
Most peidu mothers say that the Chinese-style school-parent engagement is absent in Thailand. According to Yezi, teachers contact parents only if their child has been swearing or bullying — problems that Kele doesn’t have.
She also feels Thailand does a better job of protecting children’s privacy. Report cards are particularly confidential unlike back home. Exam results are sealed in envelopes which parents pick up at their discretion.
However, Yezi does hope her daughter does well enough academically to get into an international junior high school with better faculty. No matter where one goes, entrance exams, and the doors they can open or close, are always the primary means of admission.
Du Xuan is a liuxue — or “study abroad” — agent, who sets peidu mothers up with schools in Thailand. She says that for international schools that set the admission bar relatively high, students need to take several hours of exams on a computer.
For many Chinese students, their English skills are often not good enough, thus requiring them to study in a lower class group.
Compared to international schools in China, their counterparts in Chiang Mai are far more reasonable: at the former, annual tuition fees can easily go up to several hundred thousand yuan, while Chiang Mai’s most elite choices are “only” a little over 100,000 yuan ($14,000).
Moreover, in Thailand, teaching materials are up-to-date with those currently used in Europe and North America, and they also offer many electives without charging extra.
Chen Jing, a peidu mother who also works as a liuxue agent, says that some parents will do their utmost to get into a school with demanding English requirements. If they fall short, they settle for one that’s slightly less demanding and aim to transfer later.
She tried in vain to talk people out of transferring so frequently. Her own son excels academically and fits in well, but at times feels forlorn — the friends with whom he gets on best have left for other schools one after the other.
Affordability aside, parents also like the fact that for a foreign country, Thailand is not that very far away from home. Chen says many peidu families were separated for a long time due to the pandemic, which led many mothers to suspend studies and head back.
Since her family relocated, this hasn’t been a concern for Chen. Teachers are meticulous in their work and adapt to the needs of individual students. There are only a few more than a dozen students in each class group, and students of different levels are given exercises of varying difficulty.
Through her son’s chess teacher, she became acquainted with parents of high-performing children at other schools, with whom she has since shared jiwa or “chicken blood” strategies that pressure children to improve at school. Her planned family future is to eventually relocate to North America.
In stark contrast, Yezi has a more foxi, or “Buddhist-like” approach to education, which she now feels has dulled Kele’s sense of competitiveness a great deal.
Back in China, when families get together, there are always children keen on showing off by reciting ancient poetry. Initially, this often prompted Kele to show off her own strength — English skills.
Later, however, she became entirely indifferent. As the adults obsessed over how the kids are doing at school, Kele sat off to one side, daydreaming.
There’s another, more passive kind of parent who believes this is what they have to do, to spare their child from the rat race that defines Chinese education.
Around 2016, Liu Jing from Shanghai felt weighed down by the burden of raising two children. She woke up at around 5 a.m. to breastfeed her younger son before driving the older boy to school.
Every evening, she brought the young one with her to pick up his brother and take him to swimming classes. She then waited, toddler in arms, until the class was finished and took them both back home.
Her schedule was packed every day. And while her husband kept working, she quit her career for the flexibility of an online shop owner.
At the time, the older boy was about to begin elementary school and they still didn’t have a Shanghai hukou, or household registration, which is mandatory to enroll children in local schools.
Liu urged her husband to apply for a residence permit, but he forgot, which delayed their son’s application. As a result, he only made it into a less reputed public school located about an hour’s drive away. He couldn’t fit in and started lashing out.
She knew transferring to another public school wouldn’t be easy and that, given changes in school district policies, the popular ones at the time may one day lose their sheen.
Prestigious private schools may not be entirely appropriate, either: a friend’s child ended up developing depression from all the peer pressure there, leaving her with no choice but to send him abroad.
All the while, Liu’s husband was content to stand on the sidelines, doing nothing. She ultimately decided to get a divorce and, following “study abroad” strategies online, took her two kids to Thailand.
In Thailand’s comparatively relaxed education system, her son has gradually become more self-assured. There were some bullies at the bilingual school, but she taught him to retaliate. If it ever got too much, she says, “Many kids here change schools every couple of years.”
However, the price they pay for this unconventional upbringing is that her son can only chat with his Chinese friends from preschool days through online video games.
To earn a living in Thailand, she previously considered becoming a daigou, or “professional shopper,” but feared it wouldn’t be lucrative enough. Instead, she decided to rent a villa and opened a small B&B.
She takes care of attracting and accommodating Chinese tourists, while a local assistant helps her deal with maids and drivers. When her younger son was still a baby, she sang him to sleep around 9 p.m. before driving off to pick up tourists.
On top of all this, she also manages her own studies: she’s taking classes in Thai, English, and the piano. She hopes her entrepreneurship and diligence will prove exemplary to her children.
Seemingly on a whim, Keke, a mother from Shenzhen, strayed from the path she decided upon with her husband, in favor of sending her child abroad.
Her daughter attended an elementary school in Shenzhen and, under her wings, “was among the top few students in her class for Chinese Language and Literature as well as English, and she was in the top half for Mathematics, too.”
The school’s district also had an excellent junior high, so her daughter’s academic path was all but set. “But I was still anxious that we might not be able to send her to Shenzhen’s best high school down the road,” says Keke.
She thought the zhongkao and gaokao — the high school and university entrance exams — were still not secure. “Would you be willing to send your kid to a secondary vocational school?” she asks. “I couldn’t accept it. So tell me, what else could I do?”
She felt that applying for high school and university in a foreign country would be easier, so, despite her husband’s objections, she resolutely quit her job and took her daughter to Thailand. Keke’s English is still not all that good. When she arrived, even buying groceries was an obstacle.
As for Yezi, she was anxious even before her daughter began attending school in Thailand. No college in her home province is considered elite, and any local child who gets into one is a big deal. Yezi herself was an arts student, while her husband was an athletics student, so between the two of them, there wasn’t a lot of academic confidence.
She only kept Kele in a Chinese elementary school for a year before returning to Thailand. In that period, when her daughter recited poetry and fumbled — mixing up the stanzas or forgetting lines — Yezi would freak out and slap her across the face or kick her off her stool.
Says Yezi, “At that time, I beat her fiercely.” After rehearsing under her strict eye, Kele ultimately won an “Ancient Poetry Grade Certificate” at the Chinese school which they hung up at home.
Yezi calculated that Thailand was not only cheaper than other countries but also more affordable than many places in China, including Suzhou, an affluent city in the coastal Jiangsu province with a direct high-speed rail line to home.
Moreover, a friend reminded her that “if your child goes to school in Suzhou, her classmates will all be the kids of locals who have cars and houses. Do you want your child to feel inadequate?” Some other judgmental friends asked, “You don’t think your husband will cheat on you? Who sends their children abroad this early?”
But Yezi had experienced living away from home on her own for extended periods of time. When she was 11, her parents sent her to a dance school in Beijing, but her body’s proportions weren’t best suited and she wasn’t flexible enough. She became increasingly frustrated with each setback and realized she never even really liked to dance.
To this day, she feels that though it built her character, the whole experience was too exhausting and arduous. Before leaving China, she was a dance teacher who helped arts students much like her younger self prepare for the gaokao. This experience was also one of the factors that motivated her decision to move to Thailand.
She wrote her daughter some letters in the past, the underlying message of which came down to: “I hope that when I’m about to leave the world, I’ll be able to take comfort in knowing that you are doing well. ”
Best of both worlds
According to Yezi, though her daughter is enjoying an unrestrained upbringing now, she’s also lost some opportunities.
For example, if she returns to China in the future, she most likely won’t be able to get jobs that require fluent Chinese skills, because she can’t speak the language well enough. She may also experience difficulties making friends, because she won’t be able to empathize with people who grow up facing fierce competition.
Currently, she’s been wondering whether to send her daughter to the West for high school, but that would be tremendously challenging and expensive. And yet, they can’t just remain in Thailand. Though there are many people of Chinese descent here, Thailand isn’t an immigrant country, and it’s hard to get citizenship status.
Without that, migrants don’t have access to universal healthcare and applying for loans is near impossible, meaning cars and houses purchases require cash.
Having crossed the Rubicon, the family is like a troupe of explorers lost in the wilderness: they’ve come too far to turn back, yet the path ahead is uncertain.
According to many interviewed, Chinese peidu families in Thailand mostly don’t work locally and stick to their own social circles. One of the few things they share with Thai society is the air.
While March and April in Shenzhen is the beginning of spring, when flowers bloom everywhere, the first thing Keke sees on opening her window in Thailand is the glow of fire amid the mountains. During this season, local farmers set the fields amid the mountains ablaze, hiding the peaks under a thick blanket of ash.
Yezi enjoys the local planetarium, whereas Keke is frustrated that Chiang Mai doesn’t have a decent library. In Shenzhen, she could take her daughter to a concert every few months or so; in Thailand, that’s not an option.
To Yezi, Chiang Mai is “all natural scenery, a huge expanse of green” — but, over time, it begins to feel monotonous.
There are also Thailand-born Chinese students who end up going to school back in China. Xu Fang and her husband were involved in business in Thailand for close to a decade; all three of their children were born there. But when their eldest son was about to begin elementary school, she took him back.
To her, it’s not just about making sure that her kids don’t fall behind in terms of their Chinese language skills. She’s also noticed that, under the influence of the more laidback Thai education system, her friends’ kids have become complacent.
She says, “All they aspire to is some contract job, since their families are well off anyway,” adding that they’ve also grown distant from their relatives back home. Though she was well aware of all this for years, she also couldn’t just leave and be separated from her husband.
What ultimately spurred her into action was the Thai government’s decriminalization of marijuana in June this year. Since then, vending machines selling cannabis-infused drinks have been spotted on the streets. It left Xu deeply suspicious of the direction that Thai society is going.
Now, she’s back in China with her three kids. They sometimes miss their father and envy the classmates whose dads come to pick them up after class.
Reporter: Ge Mingning.
Yezi, Kele, Keke and Xu Fang are all pseudonyms.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhi Yu and Apurva.
(Header image: A student dressed in a Santa Claus costume arrives at school in Ayutthaya, Thailand, Dec. 24, 2021. Chaiwat Subprasom/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images/VCG)