In China, most parents believe that to succeed in life, it is important to give their children a leg-up as early as possible. In Guangzhou, parents can even enroll their three year-olds in a “CEO training course” for Rmb50,000 ($7,500) a year. According to the school – the Baoyatu Early Education Garden – the twice-weekly programme helps develop a slew of “leadership abilities” and “competitiveness” in children up to eight years old.
Meanwhile in the northeastern metropolis of Shenyang, parents can sign up their newborns for a “management training” course to help “develop self-confidence”. By the time they graduate aged six, the kids will be able to determine “fake from real friendships” and “techniques in dealing with conflicts among friends” says Shenyang Early Education Centre.
Given this fixation with education, it should hardly come as a surprise that the most recent hit TV show deals primarily with that topic. A Love for Separation, which stars Huang Lei, Hai Qing and Chen Shu, proved a ratings winner when it premiered in mid-August on Zhejiang Satellite TV and Beijing Satellite TV.
Set in present-day China, the 45-episode series tells the story of three families from different social and economic background as they strive to provide the best possible education for their children.
For various reasons, all three families consider sending their children abroad (hence the title of the series) to secure a better future for their offspring. “Even though the three families vary in terms of wealth, when it comes to education, all three seem to be in agreement: they are all worried sick about their children’s academic performance; all three are used to making every decision for their child, and never asking about what the kids want to do. More importantly, they all believe that good academic results are the only path to success in life,” comments Oriental Morning Post.
Critics say the show struck a chord with audiences because there is a widespread sense among the Chinese middle class that the grass is always greener in foreign schools.
In a recent pol conducted by China Youth Daily, about 55% of those surveyed said they wanted to send their children overseas.
Ma Honghua, an education expert, tells Nanguo Morning News that Chinese parents increasingly feel that their country’s test-based education system is too rigid and stifles the development of other interests and skills.
Take for instance, a scene in A Love for Separation which shows one of the mothers struggling to list her child’s (virtually non-existent) extracurricular achievements as she fills out an application for a high school in the US. “Does the prize she received when she was in kindergarten count? How do we ever find time for after-school activities?” she laments to her husband.
Education consultant Ma adds that “for the parents who do not agree with this teaching method many choose to send their children overseas so the kids can broaden their horizons, absorb new knowledge and not be the frog that lives in a shallow well [a Chinese idiom for being narrow-minded]”.
Moreover, another emerging trend has been to send their children away to school when they are younger. China Daily points out that of 520,000 Chinese students who left the country to study abroad in 2015, around 14% were still in middle school (age 11-13).
But for most families, sending children abroad is a huge financial burden as 90% of students from China do not receive educational scholarships. For one family in A Love for Separation, it means having to sell their house to finance their daughter’s tuition and overseas living expenses.
“Moving abroad for studies has become a common option for most families. However, such families are bound to face huge economic stress, apart from mental depression,” says Wang Jun, the director of the TV series.
Audiences also say the portrayal of ‘helicopter parents’ (i.e. they are always hovering over the kids, telling them what to do) and tiger moms is very realistic. In one scene, a mother lashes out at her daughter for dropping 0.5 points on a test: “If you are not ranked in the top one hundred [in the school year] today, you will never get into a top-tier high school. If you don’t get into a top-tier high school you will never enter the best universities. And if you don’t get into the best universities, your life is over,” she yells.
That tirade was eerily familiar to many viewers. “I swear my mother just showed up on my TV,” one netizen wrote.
“A Love for Separation presents itself as a comedy but it is a documentary,” another wrote, highlighting the seriousness of the subject matter.
But for others, the show brought a new awareness of their parents’ sacrifices: “Watching the show got me thinking about my parents: whenever I fought with them, did they secretly cry in each other’s arms just like they do on the show? When I was working far away from home, did they rely on each other to get through the day? Have I been oblivious to all the sacrifices they have made for me this whole time?” another netizen wrote.
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