A weekend in the suburbs (of Xiamen)

As we approached Xiamen Bridge to leave the island, I started to get curious. I was on my way to visit my colleague’s family. As the family is the most important institution in Chinese culture, the weekend promised to be quite interesting.

On arrival in their apartment, the whole family was waiting to welcome me. I noticed immediately that the grandmother was also present. Compared to what we are used to, it’s quite common in China for grandparents to live with their children and grandchildren. They are not considered a burden as younger generations in Europe might think, but they are considered key members of family life and are treated with respect.

When I entered their apartment, I couldn’t help but notice the small altar in the living room. Based on old Buddhist traditions, three incense sticks are lit every morning and evening to honour the old gods. This is in line with the rest of the neighbourhood, where a few temples and memorial halls can be found. In most cases, these have been used by generations of the same families. Starting from playing children in the temple up to mourning the dead in the memorial hall.


Getting to know life in the suburbs also includes taking a look at the education system. So I asked for a tour. It normally starts with two or three years kindergarten after which regular education starts. This regular education should be the same for the first nine years. It consists of six years of primary school and three years of junior high, these first nine years are mandatory and free of charge.

Of course, it doesn’t end with that. After junior high students may choose to continue with senior high for another three years. It’s also at senior high when students can first start making choices on what they want to learn. In the case of senior high, this generally means a choice between science and literature. Interesting in this case is that the parents have to pay for their kids to attend senior high. There are plans to also make the attendance of senior high free of charge.

Uniform and speeches

An interesting fact about school life in China is that – up until senior high – all students gather in the courtyard wearing their school uniform on Monday morning. This is part of a ceremony that’s conducted every morning, the students and the staff sing the national anthem while the flag is raised by one of the students. After the ceremony, the director gives a short speech about the coming week.

Whether a student can go to university is based on the exam students have to take at the end of senior high. The university system is much as we know it, it just takes more time. A undergraduate degree would take four years and a postgraduate another two or three, which is a year or two more than in Europe. When a student decides to join the workforce, they will typically try to find a job that’s close to home, so they can still be around their family. So, after twenty years of changes and the possibilities of finding jobs and better money elsewhere, it still comes down to being home and caring for the family rather than focusing on individual goals. This might also change over time and I’m not sure if that’s good or not.

Originally published on sax.nu.

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