Last Saturday my family jumped out of bed at six in the morning full of purpose. My five-year-old daughter had her first primary school interview at a prestigious bilingual school where the amounts of homework are notorious, competition fierce and the school mission unabashedly focused on academic success.

When my husband and I first applied to the school, our Indian-American selves felt perfectly attuned to the place. We are both products of strict Asian upbringings. I went to private boarding school, and we both have degrees from Columbia University. We know firsthand that connections matter, and I unashamedly told anyone who asked my reasons for picking this school: “If my daughter is going to grow up in China, I want her to know the who’s who of the locals.” Judge away, tiger-mom critics.

As soon as we arrived at the school, the first thing I noticed was the distinction between the incoming interviewing Chinese families and the foreign families. The former wore high heels, suits and ties. The latter dressed in jeans with untucked shirts. We were dressed in business casual.

While our kids went for their individual interviews, the parents filled into an auditorium for an admissions presentation. Throughout the next hour, the achievement-oriented side of me boxed with the nurturing side of me. I ended the presentation feeling internally beat up, similar to how I felt when I was applying to colleges almost twenty years prior. Back then, the battle was between following my father’s wishes (to be a doctor) and my own (to be a writer). I couldn’t help but ask myself: was I about to instigate that same battle in my daughter’s life?

After the interview, we all went out for chocolate cake. The moment my daughter sat down on the plush café chairs, she kicked off her shoes and pulled her feet up under her as if finally satisfying the urge to feel comfortable. My tiger-mom heart melted. I whispered to my husband, “We’ve got to find a different school for her. That’s not the right place.” Our eyes met and he nodded.

So now the search is back on. While Shanghai’s primary school system can be overwhelming, there are plenty of resources out there for parents of preschoolers. We’re sorting through the information but this time with a new focus—we want a school where our daughter will be inspired to be her best self, not one that will tell her what her best self should be.

Do you have tips for finding a suitable school in Shanghai? Tell us in the comments below.


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