I know, because they are not what I thought they were, either.
They are not the dull-eyed, spiritless drones that I -- let's be honest -- have been throwing under the bus for the past year and a half as foils for high-achieving-yet-spunky tiger cubs.
When I scanned the roomful of preteen faces, I saw quiet curiosity, excitement, impatience, incredulity -- signs of life, not of submission.
Without a doubt, these kids are victims of a relentless and unhealthy education system. In elementary school, they are introduced to math concepts that would perplex American adults. As sixth graders, many of them spend upwards of 15 hours per day on school and schoolwork. By sophomore year of high school, each will have been assigned by their parents and teachers to either the "humanities track" or the "science track," a decision which may dictate the rest of their lives. From the first day of kindergarten to the day they graduate, they will be subject to a shaming system; students are continually ranked by test scores, with the results posted for all to see. Even more stressful, they will spend most of their youth preparing for the gao kao, the Chinese college entrance exam. Unlike the American SAT, the gao kao is the sole factor in Chinese college admissions. It is administered once a year in every province. The test takers are then assigned to colleges by quotas: the top 38 (out of 660,000) scorers in Shandong, for example, get to go to the esteemed Beijing University. Score well, and your life could change forever. Score poorly, and you will die a spinach farmer like all of your ancestors. This explains the immense pressure many Chinese parents -- especially farmers and migrant workers -- put on their children: they see academic success as the ticket to a better life. (If this interests you, I highly recommend the films Last Train Home and China Heavyweight, which I'll write more about in a later post.) As a result, these students are fully taught to the test. In literature class, they memorize great novels word for word. In physics, they learn how, not why. In all classes, they are expected to sit motionless and emotionless, and speak when spoken to.
And this school was considered dangerously progressive.
Schools are not to blame for the rigidity -- if they didn't adhere to traditional Chinese methods, the students would all fail the gao kao and end up as sweatshop seamstresses. Literally. In fact, it was moving to see how hard the teachers tried to teach creativity, independence, and values while operating within the framework. For example, each student was given a potted plant to tend so they could learn to care for others. The cafeteria had its own garden and livestock. Through harvesting vegetables and caring for pigs, the students practiced teamwork and sustainability. The administration also extended the school day, so that the kids would have time for music class, art class, and PE. Still, everyone was shocked when I described a typical American school day: discussion-based English class, where the teacher praises you for voicing a dissenting opinion; a lunch period where you socialize with friends; working in pairs to solve math problems; team sports practice for two hours in the afternoon, followed by a theater rehearsal or Drivers' Ed or volunteering at the local hospital. They couldn't believe American students had time to eat dinner with their families, or just hang out with friends.
From an American perspective, it's easy to disdain rote-learning. It's easy to gloat that those communist kids may be good at calculus, but they'll never surpass us until they have our ingenuity. But when you're looking them in the eye and trying to give them advice, you find it's not so easy. How do you tell a kid who has to study for 15 hours just to be average that he needs to "find a passion?" When is he going to have time to explore, discover, and experience failure, when every minute counts? How can he "find himself" when there's no debate team to try out for, no a capella group to join, no Habitat For Humanity to build a house with?
I was torn between two conflicting messages. The first message is classic best-of-both-worlds, and requires the optimistic belief that Chinese education is starting to modernize: Grades come first, but take advantage of the sliver of freedom you have and start a club or volunteer. Work hard at what you love. Hide your cell phone, make your parents change the wifi password, and use Chinese diligence to find more hours in the day. If you can pull it off, you'll have a shot at a good higher education in China...or in America, which is the real ticket to opportunity.
The second message is much more risky and strategic. Forget the gao kao. Forget your class rank. Put all your eggs in one basket and aim for admission to an American college. Start a wildlife conservation NGO and become a T.S. Eliot fanatic, and I'll wager you have a better shot at Harvard than your high-scoring classmate.
Of course, Message Two is a temporary solution -- it's just ahead of the curve. It only works until everybody becomes a special snowflake, and thinks having interests is more important than the pursuit of excellence. A China in which Message One could actually be realistic is the China I hope to see in the coming years. It's the China I believe these students are capable of creating.
And that's why, in the end, I chose to deliver Message One. Be an individual, find your passion, stand out from the rest, change the world -- to us, these are cliches. To kids in Sichuan, they depict a chance formerly too remote to consider, now suddenly within their reach.
I hope, after hearing my speech, someone will have the courage to take it.
Okay, you probably skimmed all that, PIX TIME!!
|So many friends!|
|showing my mom the eggplant|
|these kids were so cute I wanted to eat them!|
|...til they fed us all this, and then I wasn't hungry|
|lol jk then i ate my weight in street food!|
|lulu's stunning great wall photography|
|sometimes your mom just looks like your prettier, younger sister :)|
|Cousins on the red carpet...people always think Lulu and Jake are twins! And doesn't Lulu look stunning here (and in general)?|
|that awkward moment when you show up in the same dress as Miss China|
So that was our trip! Sorry for the overload. I wanted to leave you plenty of material to remember me by if I die during the bogus and medieval wisdom tooth surgery I'm being forced to have tomorrow. xx