This week has been the first week of vacation for most students. So, what exactly do Chinese kids do to keep busy in the summer? Well, a number of parents enroll them in swimming lessons. One of my favorite things to do after finishing my work-out at the Meng Zhui Wan pool is to hang out with the parents and watch their kids taking lessons.
My swimming pool complex is about the only one I know of in the city that has lessons continuously all day, 7 days a week, in both the outdoor pools and the indoor pool. Several years ago, the lesson crowds were not so big but recently in China, parents want their children to concentrate on their physical health more. Swimming lessons are becoming a big draw and money maker for pools. Just last Sunday, I remember being handed a flyer about swimming lessons being given for both adults and children at a nearby pool which just opened this year.
In the States, swimming lessons tend to be private or very small groups (4-6 at the most) but at my pool here, there are about 500 swimmers of all skill levels and age-groups being taught a day. The sizes of classes range from 10 to 25 children with either one teacher for a class of advanced swimmers or 3 to 4 supervising the beginners. Group lessons cost 320 yuan ($45.70) per child for 16 one-hour lessons, or 20 yuan ($2.85) per lesson.
When I taught swimming years ago, I made a great profit as the majority of the lesson money went to me. But at Meng Zhui Wan, I found out that the pool receives most of the money and the poor instructors only receive 4 yuan (57 cents) each hour they teach. As lifeguards, they make 7 yuan ($1.00) an hour for doing very little other than sitting in guard chairs. Working with the kids takes a lot more time, energy and skill to keep track of everyone, especially when you have 25 kids an hour to watch out for. In my opinion, they deserve a lot more than 57 cents an hour.
Having so many young people being taught at one time, one would think the place would be a frantic chaotic mess with children running here and there, squealing with delight and goofing off. Not so!
For one thing, the instructors are extremely organized and strict in their methods of teaching. Children are all required to have their own kickboards and belt floatation devices (for the beginners) which their parents purchase at the swimming shop. First, the children line up to do their exercises before entering the pool. At the beginning of each lesson, before the kids even enter the water, each swimming instructor leads his or her class in floor leg kicks, stretches and correct stroke movements. Everyone practices these while the teacher looks on, correcting their errors. After that, it’s an orderly jump for each group into their roped-off section of the pool for lesson time.
The children carefully listen to their teachers who guide them both in the water and from alongside the pool in how to swim properly. As a former swimming instructor myself and competitive swimmer, I am impressed by their knowledge of stroke technique and mechanics. These are not high school students who know very little about swimming. They are those in their 20s and 30s who are experts in their field. Some are lifeguards at the complex but a few, I learned, are swimming teachers and coaches from the nearby Meng Zhui Wan Swimming Academy.
This junior and senior high school, located one block from the pool complex, trains the students in academics and swimming in hopes that they might get a champion swimmer or diver out of one of them. Now that school has dismissed, and the summer swimming season has started up, they get in swimming time in between the public pool hours and at other pools in the area. For students at the Meng Zhui Wan Swimming Academy, classroom lessons may have ceased but their vacation is now filled with Olympic-style work-outs and swimming meets.
Now back to our public pool trainers and their novice swimmers.
Keeping the children in line is easy to do when instructors are experienced enough to do so but another thing that makes the kids behave are the parents. While it’s fun to watch the gradeschoolers splashing about, mostly as they are so darn cute, it’s almost just as fun to watch the adults.
Swimming seems to be somewhat of a family affair in China, especially because of the one-child policy. All attention of every family member is focused on the one child. Grandma, grandpa, mom, dad, younger cousins, aunts and uncles all congregate along the outside pool fence or in the indoor pool balcony area to watch their children being taught to swim. They are not allowed on the pool deck, which is a good thing because there are so many of them. In fact, sometimes the adults pay more attention to what the instructors have to say than the children.
“Do like Teacher Tong says!” one mother called out to her kid while leaning over the outdoor pool’s thick iron railing. “Move your arms like this!”
She then mimicked what Teacher Tong had done, swinging her arms in the freestyle and turning her head to the side as if she were taking a breath.
Interestingly enough, her little girl, who was in the water with the rest of the kids, actually watched and listened to her.
In the indoor pool, it’s easier for parents to give advice as they are hovering almost directly over the lane. The balcony they stand on is right above the lesson lanes at the end of the pool.
One father was getting quite aggravated with his son who wasn’t kicking properly. His boy had already been chastised by the instructor (twice) for moving backwards on his kickboard instead of forwards due to his bad kicking technique.
The dad kept shouting instructions down at him.
“Your legs are too far apart!” he said angrily. “Keep them close together! You’re not listening to your teacher!”
The poor kid looked up helplessly at Dad who frowned at him and gave him a flick of his hand to show his disapproval.
He wasn’t the only father in the balcony who was annoyed by his kid’s slow progress, either.
The mothers, on the other hand, took it all in stride. Although they also shouted down directions to their children, they laughed and giggled among themselves at the ineptitude of their sons and daughters.
“Look at my daughter,” one mother said to the other. “She’s going the wrong way.
Turn around! Turn around!”
Of course, that didn’t work as the kid couldn’t hear her. Eventually, the entire line of little swimmers on their kickboards ran into one another, all due to her daughter going the wrong way.
“Looks like a car crash,” another mom added, sending everyone into fits of laughter.
But there are other adults who are less intrusive and leave everything up to the instructors to handle. They read newspapers, do counted cross stitch, talk quietly with one another or fan themselves in the humidity and quietly observe their child.
They pester no one, give no opinions and leave all up to the experts.
When I used to teach swimming lessons, these quiet parents and relatives were always my favorites. Their kids learned to swim much faster than those whose parents thought yelling at their child was being helpful. I was usually careful about not throwing those overly vocal parents annoying glances, especially as they were paying for the lessons, but there were a few times when a glare or two escaped.
Standing among the adults on the balcony today in the indoor pool, I wondered how these Chinese instructors must feel about all the upper-story parents staring down on them, scrutinizing their every move and that of their kids at the same time. The swimming trainers all seemed oblivious to the shouting spectators above them and went about their business quite professionally, ignoring the overhead crowds.
“Different culture, different viewpoint of parent involvement,” I shrugged, just as that one irritating father next to me went at it again, calling crossly down to his son to kick properly.
He was so busy yelling at his child that he missed it: the glance upward, the furrow of the brow, the annoying purse of the lips.
It lasted for a mere split second, and I seemed the only one to catch it, but the displeased look the swimming instructor aimed directly at that dad made me not so flippant to assume the Chinese are any different than I am.
I guess no matter what culture you’re in, there are always some things that never change.
From Chengdu, here’s wishing you “Ping An” (Peace) for your holiday weekend.