China’s “Comfort Class” | The Bling Dynasty, National Geographic Magazine: Bella’s Piano Lesson | Beijing, China

Bella’s Piano Lesson | Beijing, China

From Leslie Chang’s story that accompanied these photographs in National Geographic Magazine:

By the time she was ten, Bella lived a life that was rich with possibility and as regimented as a drill sergeant’s. After school she did homework unsupervised until her parents got home. Then came dinner, bath, piano practice. Sometimes she was permitted television, but only the news. On Saturdays she took a private essay class followed by Math Olympics, and on Sundays a prep class for the middle-school entrance exam and piano lessons. The best moment of the week was Friday afternoon, when school let out early. Bella might take a deep breath and look around, like a man who discovers a glimpse of blue sky from the confines of the prison yard.

For China’s emerging middle class, this is an age of aspiration—but also a time of anxiety. Opportunities have multiplied, but each one brings pressure to take part and not lose out, and every acquisition seems to come ready wrapped in disappointment that it isn’t something newer and better. An apartment that was renovated a few years ago looks dated; a mobile phone without a video camera and color screen is an embarrassment. Classes in colloquial English are fashionable among Shanghai school children, but everything costs money.

Freedom is not always liberating for people who grew up in a stable socialist society; sometimes it feels more like a never ending struggle not to fall behind. A study has shown that 45 percent of Chinese urban residents are at health risk due to stress, with the highest rates among high school students.

Fifth grade was Bella’s toughest year yet. At its end, she would take entrance exams for middle school. Every student knew where he or she ranked: When teachers handed back tests, they had the students stand in groups according to their scores. Bella ranked in the middle—12th or 13th in a class of 25, lower if she lost focus.

She hated Japan, as her textbooks had taught her to: The Japanese army had killed 300,000 Chinese in the 1937 Nanjing massacre. She hated America too, because it always meddled in the affairs of other countries. She spoke a fair amount of English: Men like to smoke and drink beer, wine, and whiskey. Her favorite restaurant was Pizza Hut, and she liked the spicy wings at KFC. Her record on the hula hoop was 2,000 spins.

The best place in the world was the Baodaxiang Children’s Department Store on Nanjing Road. In its vast stationery department, Bella would carefully select additions to her eraser collection. She owned 30 erasers—stored in a cookie tin at home—that were shaped like flip-flops and hamburgers and cartoon characters. Each was not much bigger than a thumbnail and all remained in their original plastic packaging. When her grandparents took her to the same store, Bella headed for the toy section, but not when she was with her parents. They said she was too old for toys.

If Bella scored well on a test, her parents bought her presents; a bad grade brought a clampdown at home. Her best subject was Chinese, where she had mastered the art of the composition: to describe a household object in a morally uplifting way.

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