Children at Diwali celebrations last year at the Kemao-Pearl Delta Innovative School near Guangzhou. Credit: Kemao-Pearl Delta Innovative School
New Delhi, Aug. 11: Every evening after dinner, at 10pm in Beijing, software executive Sangeetha Narayan flips open her laptop and logs into her Skype account for a chat she describes as “soul-saving”.
At the other end of the call is her seven-year-old daughter Meena, a Class II student who lives nine months each year with her grandparents in Bangalore.
Meena is a victim of an unlikely tension shearing families apart at the frontiers of the growing ties between India and China.
When Narayan, 36, and husband Mukul, 37, moved with their jobs to Beijing in October 2011, Meena was with them. They were excited about exploring one of the world’s fastest-growing economies as a young family. They were welcomed at work by colleagues, and by the closely knit Indian community in Beijing.
But there were hardly any children of Meena’s age in the community, they noticed. By December, Meena too had left Beijing and was back in Bangalore.
“We hunted for affordable English-medium schooling everywhere,” Narayan said, speaking on the phone minutes after ending her Skype call with her daughter last Thursday.
“There was nothing we could find, and we had little choice but to send Meena back to be with her grandparents. It kills me, but that’s the truth.”
That dilemma is the truth for a rising number of parents like Narayan in the burgeoning Indian expatriate community in mainland China, where only one Indian-run school near the southern city of Guangzhou is promising affordable international education.
Estimated today to number more than 67,000 by the ministry of overseas affairs compared to around 5,000 at the turn of the century, the community is one of India’s fastest-growing expatriate groupings.
It is expected to expand further as more and more Indian firms, especially in the services sector, try to tap China’s massive market. China became India’s largest trading partner in 2012.
But while border tensions and trade tussles between the neighbours grab headlines, the lack of affordable English-language schooling is also emerging as a constant itch for the Indian embassy in Beijing. The mission is petitioned repeatedly by the Indian community in China to hunt for solutions to a problem that is dividing some of these families and goading others back to India.
“It’s definitely one of the biggest concerns of the Indian community in China,” said Jaywant Malkani, a general secretary of the Indian Association in Shanghai, speaking over the phone from China’s economic capital.
Schools that follow the International Baccalaureate or Cambridge International Examination curriculum in China have traditionally catered to a western expatriate community and typically charge between 250,000 RMB (Rs 22.5 lakh) and 300,000 RMB (Rs 27 lakh) a year.
Although some Indians are sending their children to these schools — “out of sheer desperation,” Malkani said — the fees are too high for most Indian professionals.
Local Chinese schools are affordable, but most Indian parents want schooling that allows their children to transfer to schools in India or other parts of the world if they move, without a major disruption in curriculum.
Santosh Hegde, a marketing executive who moved to Shanghai from Mumbai last November, tried — like the Narayans — to find schooling for his 10-year-old son Arjun. But he wasn’t “satisfied” with the level of English teaching available at local Chinese schools, the only institutions he could afford.
“I would have actually been really happy if my son could have studied with Chinese children and understood a new language and culture,” Hegde said. “But we couldn’t compromise on the quality of English.”
Arjun, like Meena, is back in India and meets his parents only during school holidays or the trips they make as frequently as they can to India.
Beijing — which along with Shanghai and Guangzhou has one of the largest Indian populations in China — did have one Indian school, run by the embassy. It was started during the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s when most schools in China were closed.
But the school, which offered only primary education, was shut down in June 2011 because the embassy was unable to attract enough professionally qualified teachers and concluded that it wasn’t best equipped to run it.
But S. Jaishankar, India’s ambassador in Beijing, reached out to the Indian community, promising support for any effort to start schools. In 2010, Jaishankar asked Satya Moorthy, an Indian educationist settled there with his Chinese wife for the past two decades, if he could get the community together to set up a school.
“We both knew how critical that was, and I agreed.” Moorthy said. He has worked with China’s ministry of education since 2003, and got their approval for a school.
The Kemao-Pearl Delta Innovative School in Luogang near Guangzhou was started on a pilot run last year and will this year have its first full-fledged batch. Like the former embassy school, the Guangzhou school too will start with elementary classes, but Moorthy said it would expand soon and offer secondary classes too.
The school, supported by the Indian consulate in Guangzhou, is not-for-profit, allowing it to keep its fees to about 50,000 RMB (Rs 4.5 lakh) a year.
Jaishankar also asked Moorthy if he could set up schools subsequently in Beijing and Shanghai, but those plans will depend on the success of the Guangzhou project.
Till then, at least, families like the Narayans may need to suffer the pain of separation to enjoy the gains of the growing economic bonding between India and China.