Hong Kong kindergartens: interviewing

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Over the past couple of months, my daughter has attended a series of nerve-wracking, make-or-break interviews to try to gain a place in an educational institution that will help her to explore and develop her intellectual and creative gifts, and to grow into the productive member of society she's surely destined to be.

She's two years old.

She's been interviewing for a place in a kindergarten (a term that in Hong Kong encompasses three years' worth of schooling, from about ages 3-5). After going through this application and interview process at my daughter's side, I think I'm well-equipped to provide you with a little tour through the lower reaches of the Hong Kong education system.

To many Hong Kong parents, getting their children into the right kindergarten is simply essential. Why? Well, most obviously, the right kindergarten leads to the right primary school, which leads to the right secondary school, which leads to Harvard, Yale or Oxbridge (or maybe Hong Kong U or HKUST), which leads to . . . Nirvana, I guess, as once you push the argument this far forward, Hong Kong people's visions of their children's futures dissolve into soft-core money-and-status porn. In any case, suffice it to say that most Hong Kong parents see kindergarten as an indispensable launching pad for an illustrious academic career.

But kindergarten admission is also crucial in a less obvious way: it's the one stage of Hong Kong schooling that's a free market -- the Government doesn't run kindergartens, so they're all essentially private (some are run by schools that are Government-funded at primary level, but let's just ignore that for now). They charge fees that they set themselves, and they can admit whom they please. This purifies and intensifies the competition -- both amongst kindergartens themselves, and amongst parents trying to get their kids in.

So what does the admission process look like? It begins almost a year in advance, which for a child of three is a very long time. It almost invariably involves filling out a detailed application to the kindergarten, and then an 'interview' with the child (and often with her parents). There's then a tense period of mailbox watching: will we get back a fat envelope bulging with admission info, or a skinny one with a rejection letter?

The Talls applied to no fewer than seven kindergartens. That meant filling out seven separate applications, attaching many many passport-sized photos, getting all in the kind of order that only the teachers of small children (and Mrs Tall) can master. We then received a letter informing us of when to show up at the kindergarten for our interview. The actual dates ranged from early October through November, and some kindergartens we didn't apply to held them even later.

When the actual interviews rolled around, we arrived to find lots of other children and their parents. The waits for the actual interview ranged anywhere from a few minutes to well over an hour (some of the kindergartens were obviously better-organized than others). Once Toddler Tall's name was called, we'd typically be asked into a classroom with 5-10 other kid/parent combos. Then we'd all sit down at the little tables, on which toys would be liberally spread, and the kids could start playing. The interviews themselves usually comprised one or two of the kindergarten's teachers coming up to Toddler Tall and insinuating themselves into her play. They would then start to ask her questions and, if she responded (which she generally did), they'd lead her aside to some other part of the room and ask more detailed questions about what the names of certain fruits or shapes or body parts were, or what you did with certain toys (e.g. cooking utensils), etc. At one less-famous kindergarten, Toddler Tall was actually taken alone into a separate room for a quite formal interview in front of one teacher, who then reported to us afterward how she'd done -- from what this teacher said, and from Toddler Tall's own account, the questions were much the same.

If you're looking for tips on getting your own child ready for these interviews, here are three.

  1. Make sure your angel knows her own name.
  2. Make sure she knows who lives in your household.
  3. Make sure she knows what's she's had for breakfast that morning. (The right answer for each and every day, by the way, is 'bread'. Makes things lots easier.) For some reason, these questions came up all the time.

Oh, and one other tip: if, during an interview, your child isn't cooperating, don't do what Mr Tall did on the one occasion Toddler Tall was being balky and refusing to answer the interviewer's questions, and decide to enact a little tough love by taking away the toy she's playing with, thereby causing her to burst into tears, thereby making Mrs Tall shoot the look of ritual conjugal disembowelment at Mr Tall. Or variations on that theme.

The interviews were actually a big laugh for Toddler Tall. In the days after the very first one, she took to 'playing interview' at home. She would put on a pair of bright-red eyeglasses borrowed from her set of doctor's toys, then holler 'I will be the teacher!!', at which point Mrs Tall or I would need to submit to our daughter's cross-examinations. We're lucky in that Toddler Tall has been very quick in developing language skills, in both English and Cantonese, and in that she's very (maybe extremely) extroverted. Both of these qualities obviously help in highly contrived 'interviews'.

Not all children are that outgoing, however, and this is clearly a source of serious stress for many Hong Kong parents. Signs of this were on display everywhere at our interviews, as we overheard parents talking about how badly their children had done, how hard they'd tried to prepare them, and so on. One extreme example: Mrs Tall overheard one exhausted looking mother of a cranky kid going on about how they were both shattered because they'd been up till the wee hours the night before this particular interview trying to teach the kid how to tell the difference between the letters 'b' and 'd'! Scary. Other parents seemed desperate to make a 'good impression' themselves. They dressed to the nines -- suits on the men, dress-up clothes and heavy makeup on the women -- and had their children kitted out as if for a wedding party.

Fortunately, the children themselves seemed mostly oblivious of the whole psycho-social pageant going on around them. But they won't be three years later, when they need to go through the whole rigmarole again to get into a primary school.

Those of you who are parents yourselves might be wondering by this point if I'm going to name names when it comes to the kindergartens we applied to. I thought about doing a rundown of all seven, but I've decided not to, for a couple of reasons. First, the impression one gets of an institution through a five-minute interview with a two-year old may be telling in some ways, but it's seriously incomplete. I don't want to slag off perfectly good schools just because my perceptions were clouded by Toddler Tall being in a mood during an interview, or by some other equally inconsequential detail. Second, children (and families) differ greatly, and I don't want to prejudice any of you for or against kindergartens that might be highly suitable (or unsuitable) for your own children. If you are interested in finding out more about how kindergartens in Hong Kong are ranked/reputed, I suggest simply checking out the discussion boards on local sites such as hkedcity.net or baby-kingdom.com. Much of the discussion on these sites is in Chinese, but there's still more than enough in English for you to get a fine idea, although you may need to google around a bit to find info on the specific kindergartens you have in mind.

Oh, and what happened to Toddler Tall? After all the sturm and drang, she was admitted to all the kindergartens we applied to, and we received our first choice of session every time. But was this a tribute to our darling's obvious potential as a kindergarten scholar, or a result of other factors? Find out what happened when Daughter Tall actually started kindergarten.