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Kai Ryssdal: In this country, it’s not all that tough to imagine a life without siblings. There are families with just one child all over the place. Now, though, extend that to a life with no cousins. No aunts or uncles. Just one child, mom, dad, and maybe grandma and grandpa. For tens of millions of kids in China today that’s the reality — almost 30 years after the government banned Chinese parents from having more than one child. This week on the broadcast we’re taking some time to explore the economic effects of that policy, which has now produced a whole generation of only children.
Marketplace’s Scott Tong picks up his series in Nanjing in eastern China.
Scott Tong: For sixth grader Fang Jin Xue, the day starts at seven, sharp, with a…
Fang Rong: Baobei kuai dian!
Hurry up! From her mom. The 12 year-old grunts a word of compliance. And then pulls on her clothes: Green hoodie sweatshirt, black cotton pants and pink eyeglasses. The morning hustle feels like my house on a school day — but this is a Saturday.
Fang Jin Xue explains why: Tutoring class, every weekend.
Fang Jin Xue: First, two classes of English. Then one science, one writing, one Chinese. Then two math classes. It goes late, so we eat dinner at the school.
Mom Fang Rong nukes some sesame porridge. They wolf it down. And scamper down seven flights of stairs — no elevator here. It’s hectic, mom says. Every family is racing to get its one child ahead.
Fang Rong: Competition is fierce, so we all feel we have to do something, right or wrong. If parents don’t put kids in tutoring classes, they panic.
Fang Rong, the mom, is a factory quality control worker, making $7,000 a year, about the median income in urban China. Dad works at a factory too. Together, they spend 10 percent of their income on their daughter’s schooling. Surveys suggest other families shell out as much as 50 percent.
It makes for a thriving education market, says Tom Doctoroff at the marketing firm J. Walter Thompson.
Tom Doctoroff: Anything that helps a kid become smarter, and able to compete in an increasingly dog-eat-dog landscape is a priority for the parents. Whether it’s English lessons or piano lessons, parents are gonna spend money and time in making sure their kids are equipped to rise.
As they board the city bus, Fang Jin Xue’s Mom carries her “Hello Kitty” backpack for her. Mom says the books are too heavy. It seems an overdose of caution. But my Chinese friend, John Lu, explains.
John Lu: Our hope for the future depends on one hope. Good or bad, he or she is the only hope.
Fang Jin Xue and her mom now get off the bus, and walk five blocks to a Nanjing middle school that’s she’s applying to. She’ll take an assessment test today, with dozens of other sixth graders. As she walks in the gate, her mom says:
Fang Rong: Baobao buyao ji.
Slow down, baby. She says every parent here looks stressed; the kids, too.
Fang Rong says it wasn’t always this way. When she grew up in the 70s, children in her neighborhood just played, outside the weapons factory where their parents worked — until five o’clock came.
Fang Rong: When the factory horn went off, we grabbed our book bags and sprinted home. We took out our homework and pretended to work, just as my mom got home.
Back then, almost everyone in China was equally poor. Now, there’s social mobility, more competition. And, many say, more stress.
Fang Jin Xue emerges from the test 90 minutes later. She says teachers had her read articles aloud and converse in English. Results won’t be out for a while.
They zoom home for lunch, and later it’s off to cram school for six hours. Beginning with English.
Teacher: Ready, go!
Students, in unison: What’s the weather like? It’s raining.
Now, right around now in my house in Shanghai, my kids are focusing their brains on the monkey bars. Risking life and limb. Education value: zero.
My friend, 30-something mom Shirley Wang doesn’t get it.
Shirley Wang: We don’t think fun is that important. Skill, your capability to survive in society is more useful, more meaningful than to just have fun.
Back at the Fang household in Nanjing, it’s now Sunday morning. Sixth grader Fang Jin Xue knocks off some math homework with mom. And then, one brief indulgence: They walk to a stationery store and buy a special pen that writes in multicolors.
China’s consumer market for one-kid families is huge: Fast food, toys and especially infant formula. Chinese TV is full of ads for it. This one promises, “Buy this. It helps brain development.”
Again, ad man Tom Doctoroff.
Tom Doctoroff: Even if you’re talking about a Happy Meal, that Happy Meal isn’t just for happiness. It has to have an educational lesson in there. Or it has to have something that helps move the child forward.
Piano playing and ballet teacher counting
Fang Jin Xue’s last weekend class is ballet. Mom Fang Rong pays nine bucks a class, because, she says, her daughter’s “used to it” — not that she’s passionate about dancing, or for that matter anything.
Fang Rong: Nothing makes her very happy, or very upset. In our time, I used to dream about eating a meatball every day. Kids today have no passion. They have everything.
Fang Rong admits she’s conflicted about investing all this time and money putting her daughter on the education treadmill. But everyone’s doing it.
At least, she says, Fang Jin Xue can hang with other children at weekend school. That’s where all the children are.
In Nanjing, eastern China, I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.
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