Teaching at the best high school in one of the most economically advanced provinces in the China, I’ve been given an extraordinary opportunity to talk to the students on the path to the elite colleges and powerful positions in a country that’s undergoing massive change and only going to become more important in the world. Given the amount of freedom I get from my supposed bosses and the vague goal of improving my students’ conversational English, I often take the opportunity to talk about topics that I’m personally interested in.
This week the topic was differences in the lifestyle of American and Chinese highschoolers. Clearly, differences abound. Judging from my experiences in China, I can say that one of the biggest differences is the role school plays in life: the basic conception of school is fundamentally different.
In the US, school is confined to a part of your life; school is conceptualized as only one part of an individual’s life. In China, however, school isn’t cordoned off from other parts of life; in China school is conceptualized as connected to just about all parts of an individual’s life. I was surprised to learn, for example, that school’s control everything from the length of students’ hair to whether or not they can date.
There’s a small, modest-looking barbershop at the base of the large apartment building just outside back gate to my school. Passing by it everyday, I thought that only old women, unable to afford more and long past caring what their hair looks like, would get their hair cut there, but it is to that small shop that my male students sometimes have to run to get their haircut when the class principal deems that their hair has exceeded standard.
Teachers also do their best to sniff out young budding romance in the halls of my high school and stamp it out. Such happened to a Chinese friend of mine that I met at Michigan. After her teachers found out she was dating a boy in her high school, her teacher sat down with them each individually in her office and encouraged them to break it off. “Did you break up with him just because your teacher told you to?” I asked. “I must not have liked him very much, since I broke up with him,” she said.
In China, teachers’ mandate is not just to ensure that their students learn the material, but to make sure that their students are good, successful people in every aspect of life.
The same amount of pervasive control is exterted by other parts of the school’s apparatus. Two friends of mine studying at Peking Medical University discovered what the consequence was of having to register with the security who kept the only entrance to their dormitory locked at night. After going out several times in the evening and returning late at night, their security guard passed the information along to their teachers who admonished them for going out at night, saying it would affect their studies. It was as if they were living in a small 1950’s American town where the neighbor down the street would call your mother if you were misbehaving in another part of town.
Being at a high school, the control is even tighter for my students, who are not allowed to go out at night or even to decide when to turn out the lights in their room. At 10:30pm, the campus bells ring their sugary tune for the last time of the day to tell students it’s time to turn their lights out and go to bed. At this time, student monitors begin cruising the floors, writing up any offenders and chalking up demerit points. A small handful of demerits is enough to be kicked out of the school, according to my students, although they say it’s rare for anyone to get kicked out.