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February 2008 Archives

February 7, 2008

The Rose-Tinted Glasses of Chinese Education

In “China Wakes” by a former New York Times’ China correspondent, the author Nikolas Kristof writes that he often had days when he despaired over the seemingly dismal future of China. Yet, he said, his spirits were inevitably lifted out of the despair when he interviewed Chinese students—students just like the ones who have bombarded me with requests for recommendation letters to the best American universities—applying for Harvard, his alma mater.

These bright young stars, he said, were so accomplished, that they would rose-tint his toughts of the future of China. Kristof writes that he was so impressed that he would imagine that if all the current Havard students were kicked out and replaced with these young Chinese stars, Harvard would be better off. Yet how great are these students of mine?

My first experence with Chinese students happened while I worked as a peer advisor at the University of Michigan and my epxerience started off just as rosy as Kristof’s.

As a peer advisor, I was required revise each student’s (students from the US and abroad) resume in the first of many monthly one-on-one meetings as their teacher. In my meetings, I was often blown away by the lists of accomplishments, awards, activities, and extracurriculars of my Chinese students. Sports, research, clubs, math olympics, business fairs—my Chinese students seemed to have done it all.

Yet as my two years working as a peer advisor drew out, I discovered that these resumes weren’t what they seemed. To explain my Chinese students’ resumes, though, it’s helpful to first look at the Chinese economy prior to the late 1980’s.

The Chinese education system is a bit like the old Communist approach to the economy, in which there was a blind charge ahead in developing a few sectors whose measures were used a summary assessment of progress, regardless of quality. Such was the case during the colossal blunders of the Great Leap Forward when measurements of raw output like tons of steel, the number of trucks manufactured, and the pounds of cabbages harvested were pushed as proof of the modernization and advancement of the Chinese economy.

Government planning bullishly pushed the majority of resources toward producing large amounts of metals, using figures from these as proof that the economy was advancing. Other sectors, most centrally consumer goods like toasters, TV’s, and refrigerators, were largely not supported.

And the results seemed impressive. Even foreign observers raved about the Chinese economic miracle. It was only later that it became apparent the the gains were hollow.

Problems with the strategy became clear. Most obviously, the standard of living for the Chinese populace was not improving as one would expect from the supposed progress. Second, producing collosal amounts of pig iron and army Jeeps is not a sign of a sound economy.

Additionally, the figures turned out to have been inflated by obsequious local factory bosses wanting to turn in positive reports to their superiors who would then add more ficticious tons of pig iron to the totals when they in turn sent the reports in to their bosses. To cap it off, what did end up being produced was often so low quality that it could not even be used. Tons of cabbage rotting on the roadside weigh a lot and are great for pumping up production totals, but they can’t be eaten.

The economy suffered because from a rigid policy that took a small number of measurements as indicators of progress and because the paper progress of rosy reports cannot possibly replace real steel, jeeps, and toasters.

The economic reforms in the last decades have pushed China skyrocketing out of its previous doldrums and China is now the world’s marketplace for consumer goods, but the systemic economic stumbles, I believe, are striking parallels to the resumes of my students.

First, for the students to arrive to a highschool good enough to send them abroad, students must be pushed up through systems of standardized tests that are supposed to prove that these students are stars. Yet this singular measure on standardized tests that are often more rigid than American standardized tests is too narrow of a measure to truly represent students’ talent.

Similarly, students are pushed to cram as much information into their brains as possible and then to pull this information out come test time and place it back onto the test sheet. The results look impressive (and are useful when held over the heads of American math students), but spitting information onto a test is far from demonstrating a true understanding of a field, nor is it indicative of the ability to synthesize and apply the information regurgitated.

Finally, when I inquired deeper into the impressively named activities and accomplishments written on the resumes of my students, I discovered that the resumes had been loaded in the sense that each activity sounded much more intense and meaningful than it actually was. Business fairs turned out to consist only of a two-hourlong mandatory poster session largely led by teachers. Sports like track and field turned out to be held once or twice weekly, with exertion kept to a minimum to avoid the harmful effects of pollution and in accordance with the Chinese belief that exertion is harmful to one’s health.

Sure, the economic fortune of China may have turned around, but the reforms of the education system have not had the same potency. Some Chinese, though, with the utmost faith in the efficacy of new policy directives from above, seem to believe otherwise. When discussing the rigidity of the Chinese education system with a student of mine, he countered, saying, “Thomas, I think your thinking is a bit old. The education system used to be rigid, but they passed a law, and now it’s not a problem anymore.”

In the blink of an eye, the Chinese economy changed fortunes, but the education system is not so easily managed. Economies—especially China’s—are more subject to central planning where an order from above can change a system in a heartbeat, but changing an education heritage that dates back to the ancient civil service exam system ingrained in teachers’ thoughts and the Chinese environment is not so easily maneuvered.

So here I am in a China with a rosy economic future and wealth of impressive-sounding resumes from my students. China’s awakening and Nikolas Kristof’s rosy moods aside, I’m still waiting to tint my glass rose.

February 12, 2008

Dinosuars and Imported Words

The Chinese language hasn’t been the quickest to keep up with changes in the modern era. Historically, many words considered basic in the west simply did not exist in Chinese. Words like ‘education’ and ‘religion’ came to Chinese only after being introduced through Japan, where the words were created after contact with Wester missionaries.

Similarly, words for modern technology originate in the west, just like the technology that makes the words necessary. Words like ‘CD’ and ‘DVD’ are used as is (e.g., “see dee”). The translation of ‘MP3’ is similar, although it adds a slightly Chinese touch by changing the ‘three’ to ‘san,’ the Chinese word for ‘three.’

Even words other than acronyms are often translated as literally as possible. Thus, ‘hardisk’ is translated literally as ‘ying’ (hard) ‘pan’ (plate) and ‘motherboard’ is ‘mu’ (mother) ‘ban’ (board).

Yet there is one technological innovation that has originated in China, producing a word that has no commonly used English equivalent: ‘wangyou’. Although the word that fits the bill, ‘wangyou,’ translates fairly naturally as ‘internet friend,’ the word is seldom used in the west and thus is an insight into China’s relationship with technology.

The word ‘wangyou’ exists in Chinese but not in English, for one, because in Chinese it doesn’t seem to carry the sense of pitifulness that is implied in English. In English when someone claims to have a lot of internet friends, it’s implied that this person isn’t able to make real, live friends.

Another reason ‘wangyou’ doesn’t exist the west is because it was created by a popular culture that has grown up in the age of the internet, computers, and cell phones. The Chinese media—movies, music videos, etc—seem to be much more comfortable with putting cell phones, text messages, and internet chats on the screen, whereas (with the exception of You’ve Got Mail) American pop culture seems to shy away from putting such text messages and chats on the big screen.

Thus, although it seems strange to a westerner, Chinese music videos, TV, and movies advance plots through internet chats and text messages. Such is the case with the movie broadcast this afternoon on the bus back from the Stone Forest in Yunnan province, with the camera zooming in on computer screens displaying internet chats and text messages popping up in subtitles as the characters huddle over the cell phones.

So, while American social critics bemoan the generation without alone time and less and less face-to-face interaction, China’s internet and cell phone use soars less selfconsciously with the support of pop culture above and beyond.

But it’s not surprising that the internet and China are such a match. My students are an excellent example of profucts of a systemthat pushes people toward constant contact with others, since almost all of my students’ waking hours are dictated so that alone time is virtually nonexistent.

This point was driven home after a class of mine asked me what differences there are between my life in China and my life in the US. After talking about how I’ve found it almost impossible to find spaces and times in China where I can feel truly alone with my thoughts, a student approached me after class and asked, “Do you really enjoy time alone!? I can’t stand being alone. It makes me feel so awkward!”

So my students use ‘wangyou,’ partly because wangyou’s fill a social need for them. Other internet words my students use have yet to make it into English, such as ‘konglong,’ literally ‘dinosaur,’ but now adapted to mean ‘a girl met on the internet that turns out to be ugly in person.’ Clearly, some words are better left not to be imported.

February 19, 2008

I like everything about Chinese culture!

Before I came to China, I had grand visions of enlightening my students, of extracting them from Plato’s Cave in order to critically examine their lives, their school, their culture, and anything else making them who they were.

It didn’t take long for that dream to be dashed.

During my second week of class, I took advantage of my captive Chinese audience to ask a question that I’ve always wanted to pose to Chinese people: whether or not the quaint custom of old people gathering in public parks to dance, play games, and sing is a custom that will die with the passing of the older generation. In explaining my fascination with this Chinese custom, I talked about the social isolation I have felt is endemic to modern suburban life in the United States, where I grew up much more accustomed to spending time alone.

During the course of the discussion, a student raised her hand and said, “I like everything about China!” with a big grin on her face. My students are not prone to irony, and her smile suggested that this seventeen-year-old girl, in a group of the smartest in the province earnestly loved every aspect of China.

How can I help but marvel at a system that can produce such idyllic, unselfconscious naivete?

The American education system consciously attempts to make its students critical thinkers and individuals, and we believe this is a duty of each citizen in a democratic society. But China does not have a system that rewards creative and critical thinkers, nor does it reward or accept those who stand out from the crowd, much like the proverb that states, “The tree that sticks above the rest will get blown down.”

David, the other Princeton in Asia teacher at our school has a student he’s often talked with who spent her childhood in Illinois before her family moved back to China. Her insight into the life of a Chinese highschooler is intriguing, particularly when she told him that there is tremendous pressure for her to think and act like her classmates and that their acceptance of her is dependent upon her conformity. Life in American schools, in her experience, was different. “It was more lonely,” she said, “but you could be yourself.”

If I’m successful in planting my version of critical thinking in my students, I wonder, will it truly be a service to them?

I’m further disheartened when I see that the students who seem to be the least satisfied or have the most problems are the ones who have had a taste of life on the outside—those students who have been lucky enough to study abroad in England, America, Canada, and elsewhere. I see these students chafing against the more controlling system in China and itching for a way to get out.

The students who have been abroad are already from wealthier-than-average families, yet many of them have told me of their worries—amid a stream of questions about financial aid for foreign students—about whether their families can afford college abroad. Given this, I’m even more worried about seeding discontent in those students who have even lesser means.

But in the end, my worries seem to be in vain, for the vast majority of my discussions end up with little insightful interest from my students and plenty of support for the status quo. The only time I can count on getting my students to speak up seems to be when I ask them if it would be possible to make changes to the parts of society we talk about—the rigid college admissions system for example. At these times the answer is loud and comes nearly in unison: “Nooo!”

Yet in one of my classes, the one where I have a student who studied abroad in Germany, I saw a sign that encouraged my dissent and filled me with a hint of hope. As I asked why my students thought the more comprehensive American college admissions system couldn’t be used in China for the tenth class that week, I braced for the trope that always comes at this point: “Because the population is too big!” At that point I saw out of the corner of my the student who had studied in Germany as a knowing grin discreetly spread and then faded as he looked down at his desk to hide it from his fellow students.

February 24, 2008

When Silence Becomes As Soft As A Pillow

Every Wednesday I walk along the road out the back of my school to a large highway, where I fight off the fumes of the cars whizzing by and dodge the migrant workers zipping by on their dusty bikes all to get to the fancy modern apartment complex where I tutor a couple of Korean kids who attend an American school in Guangzhou.

I’ve tutored Robin, a highschooler, and Tony, a middleschooler, for four months now, and I’ve gotten so used to working with them on their school work that looks so much like what I used to do that I’ve gotten used to a habit of theirs that used to feel awkward.

I started preparing for this phenomenon back at Michigan. When I was training to teach as a peer advisor at the University of Michigan, I was drilled on how to get my students to speak up, inspired by other older peer advisors’ horror stories of attempted class discussion that bombed. Yet all that fear and preparation seem to be for nought, since my expreiences in classrooms at Michigan are nothing like the blank stares and pleading looks to deskmates I get to enjoy every week from my students and the awkward silences or I don’t know’s I stomach every week at the Koreans’ apartment.

My experience with the awkward Asian silence has been so different from the active discussions I led at Michigan that I was startled this Wednesday at the Koreans’ apartment when I noticed myself relaxing through the long silences that came after I asked Tony to name any topics he could possibly be interested in research for his class project. The silence came, and for a moment I rested my head on the soft pillow that was the silence before I lobbed another question back at Tony.

I’ve become used to riding out these awkward silences, but I’m unsure as to why I run into them so often. The Chinese teachers of Chinesepod.com where I download weekly Chinese lessons for my MP3 claim that Chinese teachers rarely ask open-ended questions to their students. Instead they ask questions for simple rhetorical use (e.g., “Could one plus one ever equal three?”) such that an answer is not even expected.

The reasons, though, seem deeper and more varied. A large reason seems that the Chinese education system treats its students like receptacles of knowledge -baskets where information is stored and then deposited onto a multiple choice test.

China has some strange study habits reflective of a more passive education style—study methods that I rarely had to complete in the US. For example, children all across China from a young age are forced by their parents to memorize dozens upon dozens Tang Dynasty poetry, even while the children are too young to comprehend or pronounce clearly the words they have so dutifully memorized.

Students in English classes are often made to memorize and recite long passages at length. A stroll across a Chinese college campus at lunch or in the evening is enough evidence of the peculiar habit called langsong, or recitation, where a student sits and reads passages out loud to reinforce the information’s potential to stick in their memory.

In another way, teachers in China wield much more authority and command more respect, even though its slowly changing. Teachers are expected to come into the classrooms at my school and be greeted by a chorus of “Hello, teacher!” after which they lecture at the students, leaving little time for student input or discussion. .

It even seems to affect the way that students are yelled at, as David and I have experienced while in the teachers’ office overhearing students yell at their students. In my admittedly small experience getting called to the principal’s office during my school career, I seem to remember more of a discourse in the punishment, as the conversations would start: “So why did you do it?”

But here in the Affiliated High School of South China Normal University in Guangzhou, all I’ve seen is teachers tear into students who have their heads bowed in submission. It’s a hard scene to pretend to ignore, although I get by on the pretense that my Chinese isn’t good enough to understand the teacher’s yelling.

All of which brings me back to imagining the time that Robin and Tony, my Korean kids, must have spent under the orders and discipline of their parents and teachers who care for them deeply but whose care often takes a heavy hand toward molding their lives for them.

Then I think of Pulp Fiction where John Travolta asks why we should feel the need to fill silences and gaps in conversations with words. Why can’t two people just sit and enjoy silence together, he asks. I bet that’s what I’ll be thinking of next Wednesday when I get out of my noisy American mind to enjoy some more silence at the Koreans’apartment.

February 29, 2008


The extent of flattery I receive in China charted new limits of absurdity during my last trip to the local Baijia Supermarket.

In a hurry to buy a cell phone after losing my old one in Vietnam, I headed to the Baijia Supermarket in the basement of the crowded THE Plaza down the street from my school, the only store open during the height of the Chinese New Year where I could buy a cell phone.

At the glass display counter, I found exactly what I wanted: a simple, cheap black Nokia phone with the best Chinese input system I’ve ever seen on a cell phone. I told the salesclerk what I wanted and bargained the price down as much as could be expected in a store where prices are labelled.

I was in a hurry to get home, but setting up a new cell phone seemed not to be a quick task, and so I winced as the salesclerk diverted his attention to complimenting my Chinese rather than setting up my Nokia.

Given a fantasy choice between cleaning up China’s choaking air pollution or the pollution that pushes nearly every single encounter of mine with Chinese people to a nearly scripted conversation about how good my Chinese is, I might choose to sign a Clean Air Act on the flattery instead of the smog.

I might opt to cut the flattery, since fending off unabashed flattery of my Chinese is probably the most tiring thing I have to do on a daily basis.

Besides forcing the conversation from more interesting topics and besides the implication that foreigners can’t speak Chinese, the flattery is irritating because politeness requires me to deny it vigorously—accepting flattery is considered impolite. Tiring as engaging in the same scripted conversation again and again is, it actually gets worse, since the same script that calls for me to deny the flattery usually calls for the first person to step up the flattery in response to my denial.

My initial solution to my irritation was to just accept the flattery and the notion that perhaps I can speak decent Chinese, but I’ve already been admonished for doing this by my Chinese friends. So the strategy of accepting the flattery isn’t on the table.

After ruling acceptance out, I decided a better stategy could both put an end to the flattery and provide me with entertainment, so I decided to come up with non-sensical answers.

For a while, my favored response to “You’re Chinese is really good!” was to respond using Chinese to say, “I can’t speak Chinese. In fact, I can’t speak any Chinese at all,” using a grammar pattern complicated enough that it was obvious these weren’t phrases I had learned out of a phrasebook.

Yet when I tried this joke I was often met with stares of confusion as the flatterer tried work out incongruity of the words’ meaning with the language they were spoken in. Or perhaps the flatterer thought my response was rude, since I was unwilling to play by the rules of the game.

Finally, I settled upon the straegy of fighting the flattery by dishing out nonsensical flattery back by saying: “Why no, your Chinese is better than mine!” This was also met with confused stares of people earnestly trying to work out the contradiction, but more often people gave me answers like, “But I’m from China!” with an earnest tone that suggested that the flatterer didn’t catch my sarcasm.

And thus, back in the store, I responded to the young male salesclerk tooling with my new, black Nokia cell phone: “No, your Chinese is better than mine!”

As the words left my mouth, I leaned back from the glass counter with the smugness of a smart aleck. “No,” he responded, “your Chinese is better than mine!” His response wiped the smugness off my face and replaced it with pure astonishment.

Here I was, in China, speaking to a Chinese person who is so willing to flatter me that he’s telling me that my year and a half of Chinese is enough to make me better at the language of the country he grew up in.

To be fair, it’s possible that he meant that my Mandarin, the standard language across China, was better than his because he’s from the south, where Cantonese is the local language. But even this possibility is pretty absurd given that he doesn’t live in a small village and he’s a young guy (and thus not from the generation that grew up before schooling across the country was standardized to Mandarin).

And now my quest resumes for an unassailable shield—a witty response—against flattery so thick I must wade through it just to buy a cell phone.