The Early Childhood Development Industrial Complex in China

I would say I’m just back from this year’s tour, but it’s been almost three weeks. My lungs are still a little tender from the pollution, and I haven’t organized all my notes yet, but all of my pictures are sorted, and I think I have downloaded all of the photos that others shared with me during the trip.

After my first two trips, falling back into the regular work routine was always the first step of perpetually procrastinating transcribing recordings, asking follow-up questions, and sharing all of the information that librarians and parents shared with me. This tendancy to procrastinate is also the reason that after 6 years of knowing about the phenomenon of private children’s libraries in China, I only completed my first article in December.

Gogo Polly Storytime

This time, I have managed to carve out a little bit of time almost every single day since returning. Yes, sometimes I was just sorting photos, but I have also touched base with quite a few people who I met along the way. I have made a careful list of each interview, and I’m pretty sure I know exactly which WeChat contact was at each place—as opposed to all of the people from 2014 and 15 that I have no idea where I met them.

Setting aside a few minutes a day is good practice. Another good practice is to share out notes as I compile them. This is the natural next step to the live field notes that I shared on Instagram along the way. I won’t claim that those were spontaneous thoughts. Some of them were—I stopped dead on the street after taking the photo. But more often, there are perplexing questions in my private notes. Moving forward, I want to share observations, but also some of those perplexing questions.

So here is the first shot.

What am I doing out there? What is the point of this whole endeavor? While the macro goal of ReadingEverywhere is to encourage recreational reading, and I firmly believe that my very presence does at least a little bit of this (‘What did you learn in school today honey?’ ‘This weird American librarian visited my class and read a book about stinky poop and told us it doesn’t matter what we read as long as it’s fun.’), my personal goals for these trips is constantly shifting as the Chinese people I meet tell me more about their lives. I talk to a lot of parents and small business owners (who are mostly parents of young children themselves). They present an every more complicated picture—rapidly changing economic situations; limited room in public kindergartens; a growing array of private education options; an overwhelming number of private businesses advertising in every subway station and on the side of every mall.

The average Chinese parent is flooded with marketing pitches from what I have taken to calling the early childhood development industrial complex.

Baby spas. Behavioral consultants. International-style schools. Private kindergartens. It’s amazing the picture book libraries are able to squeeze in there at all.

Yet there they are. With many of them devoting quiet corners to parent-child co-reading. With many of them offering a social environment with organized activities, in clean, well-lit places where you can take a pile of books home with you after each visit. Every library I visit offers some new complication. Every conversation teaches me that beyond storytime, there are an infinite number of cultural differences and an infinite number of similarities in child rearing between China and the West.

Guangzhou neighborhood reading room

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