If you didn't buy a house in a certain apartment complex or your id (hukou) is from a different city, you can't go to school for free. If that is your situation, after everyone is registered you have to show up on the "bribe the school day," and give the school a little donation so that your child can attend school. The system is really complicated, but that's it in a nutshell. We live close by and we work really hard to convince them to let us attend.
I unpackage this much more in my book, but Chinese education can be summarized by these points:
1. Motivate through fear and intimidation.
2. Memorize as much as possible.
3. Comparison will make you a better student.
4. Your teacher acts as your parent, and is therefore responsible for all moral upbringing.
5. Perfection in your handwriting is a perfection in your character.
6. Your entire schooling career culminates in a test your senior year (the gaokao). Nothing else really matters.
Take these for what they are worth. There are some strong points in their education, memorization being a big one.
Here are the reasons we send them to National school:
1. It gives them a place of influence and to serve.
2. They meet friends. After the age of 5, Chinese kids pretty much study, play piano, take extra classes, and study some more. They do very little playing. If you've read Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, you already know that. I wrote a little about that here.
3. They can learn language naturally. This is huge to help them feel at home.
4. It gives us a chance to rub shoulders with other families.
5. It helps us not feel so foreign and gives us different insights into the culture.
Sending them to National school is not easy. We have to do a lot of communicating about what they are learning and process the things that we don't agree with in that type of education system. But it's given them a heart to understand the Chinese way of thinking. It's given them space in their hearts to sympathize and understand their neighbors. If they did not have good language skills, their lives would feel very isolated. Their community would be small and they would struggle to feel at home.
National school has been a blessing in many ways for our family. I am grateful that my kids were able to start young and attend Chinese school for many years, therefore making it very normal for them.
I know that not everyone can send their kids to Chinese school, but for our family it has been a test of faith and a lesson in joy. And the bottom line is that we have to be less concerned with their comfort and more concerned with their good.