A couple of weekends ago, I sat through one of the most stressful 10 minutes of my life. On my lap was Benji, his eyes wide, his lips pursed firmly shut. It was his first kindergarten interview.

You may recall that I went through a dilemma about Cantonese vs English kindergartens and finally decided to stick with the five English-medium kindergartens I had applied to. A few weeks ago, we got a letter asking us to come down for an interview on Saturday afternoon. I was pleasantly surprised that it was scheduled for a weekend, but apparently this is common in Hong Kong where both parents work. I called up and asked if it was possible to change his interview time to the morning and was even more surprised when they agreed. All systems looked good to go.

I had then had a mild panic when I realised I had no idea what happens at these interviews nor had I made any attempt to teach Benji anything appropriate. A quick survey of anyone I knew with kids in Hong Kong who did not go the international school route did nothing to allay my fears. Everyone assured me that it was very easy and they just ask the child stuff like their name, to identify pictures such as fruit, alphabets and primary colours.

Problem is Benji doesn’t know any of this. He knows plenty of stuff that he is interested in – like the names of different vehicles (car, train, plane, crane, auto, moto, boat etc), words like cockroach and umbrella etc but not the sort of generic things they would probably ask. He plays with colours but we hadn’t tried to identify them yet. He refuses to say his name though he can say all our names. The alphabet I thought he was supposed to be going to kindy to learn. And I’m ashamed to say we’ve never properly drilled Please and Thank You into him.

Lax parent that I am, I have never really been bothered to teach Benji things systematically. As long as I can see that he’s learning new things, I’ve been okay with it. So just because a school textbook would teach A for Apple, I didn’t specifically feel the need to do so. He’s developing a vocabulary, unconventional though it might be, and I figured he’d around to fruit eventually.

But well, this might not hold water at an interview. Who knows, maybe there’s some really good reason why every kid must be able to tell apples from oranges at age 2?

Anyway, I figured fruit might be too ambitious so I started with trying to get him to identify himself first (no success!) and to say please and thank you (success! But only if prompted). Colours I have had no success with and I’m beginning to think he might be colour blind (finally I googled and apparently on average kids on average identify colours around 3. Why then would they ask two-year-olds is beyond me. I guess they need to ask something).

Finally, I just gave up. The day dawned bright and clear and after V completely ruined my mood by nagging me on my tardiness, we arrived on time in the end. It started off well. We were sent to a room full of kids with toys spread out on low tables. The parents could sit with the kids (apparently some interviews take kids to a separate room. How cruel! Not sure I would want my kid to be in said schools).

I had been afraid Benji might be rowdy but he was perfectly well behaved. My only complaint was that instead of focussing on the intelligent toys, he found himself a truck. All around me parents were nudging their children towards matching blocks etc and quizzing them on animals, plants, etc. Encouragingly, most of the kids either ignored their parents or got the answers wrong.

Then, teachers came and fetched each child and one parent for the interview proper. Unfortunately, when Benji’s turn came, we made him drop his truck which he was not very happy with and then he saw the teacher, a blonde blue-eyed lady, and he was even less happy. The teacher was sweet enough to say he could bring the truck so I had him go get it.

When we went into the interview room, which was a regular bright classroom with child-sized tables and chairs, Benji trailed me reluctantly and then wouldn’t even sit in his own chair. The teacher first held up a paper with the outline of a ball on it. Now, honestly, even I had to look hard to realise it was a ball because it wasn’t coloured. Anyway, Benji just stared. She then asked him to colour. Now, normally, Benji is quite enthusiastic about colouring but this time he wouldn’t even pick a crayon. I had to give him one and he just held it limply. The teacher suggested – how sweet she was – that maybe he didn’t like purple so we urged him to choose and he chose red. After much coaxing, he drew a small line. She then, desperately I guess, asked him about his truck and he wouldn’t even say “car” his favourite word.

In the interim, I felt obliged to babble to cover the acute embarrassment of my child behaving like he did not possess the faculty of speech. I didn’t say very intelligent things also. When asked what he liked to do I said be outdoors, and play with cars. Perfectly normal but nothing that presents him to any advantage either. Ugh. I was totally flustered and emerged dismayed when the teacher finally gave up and said goodbye.

I had been hoping that we’d be done with just this one interview and wouldn’t have to do the rounds of the other schools but it appears this one’s a goner. I’m not very optimistic about the other interviews going brilliantly either. Benji is not going to perform well in these settings. That day we checked in on the other kindergarten I applied to and they were having an open day with a free music class running so I went in with Benji. He took one look a the Caucasian teacher and went tense. His whole body was literally stiff for at least 15 minutes and he stuck to me. Only towards the end of the class did he loosen up and begin to participate properly.

The fact is he’s a kid who clams up in front of strangers. He takes at least half an hour to get warmed up and we don’t have the luxury of that. I can push him to interact with people but if his personality is shy, there’s not going to be great progress in two weeks. God knows, I’ve had 30 years to get over my insecurities and they only started fading in my mid-20s through the love of a good man and alcohol.

I also question the whole interview process. This one was hardly onerous but it seems counter-intuitive. There’s a slim chance I wouldn’t be saying this if my kid had sailed through. Why ask kids to identify two-dimensional objects? Why not hold up a ball and ask what it is? As Plato said, twice-removed from reality and all that? Why ask kids to colour when their motor skills are not that developed? Hell, in some countries they don’t let them pick up a pen till they’re 6. Why ask kids to identify colours when the average age for this capacity to develop is 3? Hell, why have an interview with kids a whole year before when developmentally so much can happen in even a month?

MinCat confessed that she was baffled that parents get so stressed out about kindergarten. I explained that my reasons for being stressed were not related to Benji not getting into the best school. I was afraid he wouldn’t get into any that I applied to. Maybe I should have applied to 15 instead of 5. The fact is that most parents apply to around 5, one doesn’t have time or energy for 15. Applying and attending interviews is not our full-time job after all. My one criteria is that the school be near home – I don’t want him wilting in the MTR like the kids I see every morning. There is also the matter of the fees, which can be really steep and if you don’t have a choice, you have to pay them.

There is the more far-off anxiety of primary school and parents can be forgiven for hoping that if they expend some energy at this stage, they will be saved at the later stage which is even more competitive because the good kindergartens have informal arrangements with primary school. So that’s why parents get flustered – it is often over other factors than ‘the best’.

Anyway, one down, four to go.

Edited to add: There is a happy ending to this story. This evening I finally managed to prise open our mailbox and it turns out the one letter I saw sitting there last evening was from the above-mentioned kindergarten accepting Benji. Wow. I must say I’m pleasantly surprised that the school understood that he’s not a freak but a regular kid who’s just shy. Though I’m pretty sure the decision to accept us had a lot to do with us being “international”. Anyhoo…celebratory dance!