Learning in China: Primary & Secondary School, National Exams, University
When I accepted the position teaching writing at Xi’an International Studies University, I had no idea, really, what China’s education system or students might be like. I assumed that since I’d be working with first-year students, they’d have matriculated through a system similar to the U.S. or Europe and be prepared to tackle the rigors of college courses taught in English. Though they were—and continue to be—up for the challenge, in no way had my students been through an education system like the West’s. None had ever written an academic, thesis-driven paper. Most had written—hand written—up-beat, brief descriptive pieces praising the attractions of their hometowns or their favorite family vacation, writing well-suited for Chinese travel magazines but not so much for academic papers. The Chinese virtue of ‘harmony’ is omnipresent and likely influences all communication written and oral. So far—and I say this as observation, not judgment— most student writing tends to lack assertion or argument. And this makes sense—there’s no argument in harmony, right?
But this seeming lack of critical writing skills doesn’t mean Chinese students aren’t sent through a meat-grinder of an education system. It’s different, here. In China, the ability to memorize and recite is highly revered; even my lower-performing students can quote facts, numbers and historical dates—in English—to give the best Jeopardy contenders a run for their money. Our students have been through a rigorous system to be sure, but its focus is more on memorization and not so much on synthesis as this recent USA Today article alludes. (I know, I know, USA TODAY—the McDonald’s of news. But it’s relevant. Check the comments, too.) This New York Times opinion piece (01-15-11) offers insight and a slightly different perspective.
There’s also keen emphasis on raising and educating children to be successful, prosperous, so that they will be able to take care of their aging parents. This one-child policy, instituted in 1979, continues to shape demographics and increasingly confounds long-held cultural values. Nearly all my students are only-children, which means there’s tremendous pressure on them to be successful not only to provide for their futures but for their parents’ as well. There are some loopholes, of course. If you’re wealthy you can get out of anything—like anywhere else in the world; if you are an ethnic minority, you can have more than one child; if you’re a farming family, you can have multiple children. There may be a few other exemptions, though I think these are the main ones. But the bigger issue, the elephant in the pagoda, is that the State-sponsored pension fund is just not enough to cover the cost of retirement. (This article from the China Daily, State-sponsored media, briefly addresses the issue.) In China, your kids are your retirement and security. So, all of my students have been made from a very young age to learn, study, and achieve in order to get a good job, ostensibly with a high salary, so that they will be able to provide for their parents.
One of my students told me of her childhood spent reading, studying, memorizing, test taking. For as long as she could remember, her mother woke her at 5:30 am to review and prepare for the day. By 7:30, she was at school until noon. From noon to 2:00, she could take a nap or rest. From 2:00 to 4:30 pm she resumed school work. Each day from 4:30 to 6:00 she studied piano, took ballet lessons, or did some kind of sport. From 6:00 to 7:00 pm, she ate dinner; after dinner, she would meet with a private English tutor until 9:00 pm. From 9:30 to midnight, she did homework. And then at 5:30 am, repeat. All of this in preparation to get a good score on the national exam that determines which university a student will be placed in as well as what major the student will study. In some instances, though, all the preparation, focus, and study is for naught. The subject or university a student is interested in, sometimes, is not the one he or she ends up in. The national exam score determines a great deal about a student’s future, but in some cases, students are just placed in a university and given a major and must follow the path they’ve been given.
Take a look at this—Foreign Teacher’s Guide to Living and Working in China—lengthy, but good. Check out the timetable/ course schedule near the bottom. This is how my students have spent most of their lives.
So, students at Humboldt College have been burning midnight oil most of their lives, combusting, and will continue to do so throughout their undergrad experience. For example, our students take Chinese and English courses during both halves of their first year; half are Chinese classes—Chinese Literature, Moral Ed. & Study of Law, P.E., Contemporary History of China, Math—and these classes meet twice a week, two hours each class period. Classes at Humboldt College include Academic Writing and Research, Creative Writing, Western Civ., 20th Century Film, Oral & Cross Cultural Skills/ Communication (3hrs/wk). Plus, a two hour writing workshop lab once a week. These are their classes for one semester. Tally the hours: 18 classroom hours per week in their Chinese coursework. 21 classroom hours with Humboldt College. That’s 39 hours per week our students spend in class.
39 hours a week in class. There’s precious little time for anything else but study. Forget free-time, boy/girlfriends, daydreaming.
I think the words of one of my students are particularly insightful. Last semester Mia wrote a personal essay about her biggest dream. She did a great job with it, and it gives her perspective of and experience with education here in China. She’s bright, talented, and the embodiment of ‘if you want something badly enough, you won’t stop until you get it.’ Highlighted words are vocabulary I asked students to incorporate into their papers. *Mia knows I’m posting this and is happy to share with you—if you’d like to make comments (constructive, please) for her, I’ll make sure she gets them. (Her paper is below.)
As always, thank you for reading and listening. I so enjoy all the comments, emails, and feedback I receive.
I Know You Are the Most Beautiful One
A dream is a seed in each person’s heart; it brings hope and impetus when you are in difficulties. A dream is a guide. It tells us the most beautiful way in our life. “What is your dream?” My teacher in primary school always asked us. “Scientist,” one classmate said. “Writer,” another classmate said. “I want to be a designer and build up my own company.” This is my answer for her question. Yes, being a designer and building up my own brand is my dream, and I have had this dream for many years. It is an important part of my life. I found I really liked design in my childhood, and I tried to do something about design and learn more about it. This made me feel good. This dream gives me huge impetus to face any difficulties, and I also have made some plans for the future to achieve my dream. Having this dream, to be a designer and build up my own brand, makes my life vibrant and clear, and I have encouragement to face any problems.
When I was young, I liked drawing and doing handicrafts very much. I often watched a TV program called, “Change Space,” a really famous TV program in China about decorating rooms. Two families changed spaces to design each other’s rooms, and then they were all surprised. It’s really funny because they often use rubbish like cola cans or broken CDs for creative decorations. Each time I watched that program, I thought it was creative, and it aroused my interests. So I found I really liked design in my childhood.
When I was in middle school, I tried to do many beautiful handicrafts. I read some books about how to match colors or how to do a handicraft step by step. I combined my ideas with decorations, and they were really wonderful. For example, I used some colorful papers to fold a small box or a cute animal. I also made some beautiful cards to send to my friends and family. I drew some wonderful pictures on them. I made a lovely doll for my little sister as a gift on her birthday. Each time I finished my work, I felt really good, and it made me feel that I did a good job. Making decorations in my room and doing handicrafts often fascinated me.
When I was in high school, I worked really hard to pass the exam to enter a university where the design major is very good. My physics is not very good, but I insisted on doing exercises everyday and tried my best to get high scores no matter how difficult it was, or how tired I felt. I had encouragement to face all of these problems, because of my beautiful dream. But at last, I couldn’t go to a design school, but I will never give up. I believe that “where there is a will, there is a way.” If I insist on working hard, I know I will get more opportunities. One year from now, I will go to America and have a chance to choose another major to make my dream come true. My dream always gives me encouragement to face any problems.
To make my dream come true, I have some plans. A big goal needs to be divided into different small goals; in this way it will be easier to achieve it. My first goal is to study hard in Xi’an International Studies University this year and maintain a g.p.a. greater than 2.4. I also need to improve my English skills to make sure I’m ready for life in the US. Second, I want to study hard on my major in U.S. and get good grades, so I can develop great ability. I think classes will be more interesting, and I will enjoy them a lot. Then I will come back to Xi’an International Studies University and finish my classes here. Meanwhile, I want to be a graduate student. I am not sure whether my graduate school will be in US or China. I will decide in the next two years. Then I want to become a designer in a company, gain more experience, and earn lots of money. At last, I will leave that company and build up my group and set up my own brand.
When I begin to build up my brand, I will use much time to design a series of products with my most creative ideas. I will make the first series of products to influence the marketing. And then, I need to create advertisements to advertise my brand. Then, I will continue to design more and more wonderful products, expand my market, and strive for great influence. At last, maybe everyone will know my brand and ideas. They will use my products and feel really comfortable. I’m looking forward to that day when my dream comes true, and I will be happy to see that. Maybe there are some difficulties, challenges, or nuisances that I can’t expect now, but I will keep this dream in my heart and face the problems with encouragement.
I do have some trepidation about my dream, because there is more pressure in modern life. There are many people in China, and that results in a lot of competition to find a job. There are many elites in our society, and it might be hard for me to find a good job that I really like. But I believe that if I insist on working hard now and make myself more outstanding, I will find a nice job. If I couldn’t find a good job, I will try my best on apprenticeship to improve my ability, and then I will find opportunities to achieve my dream.
Being a designer and building up my own brand is the most beautiful dream in my heart. I have had this dream for many years. It inspires me to face all problems and encourages me to solve them; my dream makes my direction in life more unambiguous. My dream makes me grow up. My dream is a teacher teaching me success in my career. Oh, dream, I know you are the most beautiful one in my heart!