Hello Dr. Rimm,
Welcome to "Chinese University 101", Part 1
By Jeff Walsh
The female students are wearing winter coats with colorful plastic sleeves of red and pink over the arms with floral patterns, butterflies and pandas on each sleeve. Three of the boys in the back row are wearing purple and gold "Kobe Bryant" Los Angeles Lakers NBA basketball jerseys. Two of those students have given themselves the English name "Kobe". The third girl from the left in the fifth row is cold so she puts on her pink "Hello Kitty" mittens. The mittens are connected together by a string. She then puts up her hood with bunny ears on top.
Bernard Jones, a tall, distinguished man of letters enters the classroom. With his standard lecture briefs in one hand and leather briefcase in the other he moves directly toward the podium. The seasoned, silver-haired instructor of 25 years steps up to the lectern and proceeds to scan the classroom. He smiles and waves at his second-year college students, and then begins taking attendance. The first four rows are completely empty. The class monitor then informs Mr. Jones that "Birdman", student number 3346570003 is in the hospital with influenza accompanied by classmates "No-No" student number 3346570005 and "Penguin" student number 3346570006. All other students are present.
Jones begins his class with a simple query: "Does anyone have any questions from the last class?" Complete silence. Mr. Jones writes some answers to the homework on the blackboard and asks some of the students to read the answers off the board loud enough so everyone in the class can hear. Dolphin? "Dolphin" who sits in the seventh row complains that she canít read the blackboard. Dolphinís friend "Kobe #1" gives her a pair of his glasses. Newly bespeckled Dolphin complains that the blackboard is still blurry with Kobe #1ís glasses. Jones waits for her to come up to the blackboard to read the answers to todayís lesson.
Itís 2011. Welcome to a university campus in Mainland China.
As you might have guessed, education is different in the East...and thatís for every age group. There are no parochial school teachers wielding discipline to school children in pert, plaid uniforms. I have yet to hear that a school kid of any age threatened to call his lawyer for equal rights in the classroom. A Chinese classroom might actually be one of the safest places in the universe - there are no knives, guns, violence or metal detectors in ANY of the classrooms.
In this land of Confucius and Eastern wisdom, the populous is supposed to strive for a "harmonious society.". That harmonious society includes books, books, books, books and more books. When new college textbooks arrive on a college campuses, kids act like Santa Claus stopped by on Christmas Day. In a summer school for middle school students in Cixi in Zhejiang province, I counted 34 textbooks...on just one student's desk. In the U.S., a kid wants to be a rapper, rock star or millionaire. The Chinese kids want to be "bookish" so bad that they often wear fake glasses WITHOUT the lenses as a fashion statement. Three out of four of my students in any given classroom wear glasses. Those who donít wear glasses in China...wish they did.
Do those fake or real eyeglasses lead to unlimited concentration, good grades and English proficiency among Chinese students? Probably not. Some more plausible reasons for language and general academic success among Chinese students are 1) unlimited study hours 2) no part-time jobs and 3) "Tiger Moms" -- a phrase that's been made common by Amy Chua, the Chinese-American author of the current New York Times Bestseller "In Search of Tiger Mother".
Chinese students donít drive...yet. The automobile is becoming an ever increasing part of the Chinese landscape but I have yet to see a young Chinese student own or drive a car. Many or most universities have fairly strict curfews and gate guards checking I.D.s to and from the campus. Last year, I saw a kid scale a 15-foot fence to get in after curfew. It's not quite like military life, but one can draw a few comparisons from Chinese campus life. As freshmen arrive on the university grounds they attend a "mini-military camp" for three weeks before ever attending their first class. College kids are placed in a group that they stay with for four years Ė much like a military platoon. They have the exact same classes, at the exact same times. Chinese kids eat, sleep, study, walk and talk together often joined hand in hand, row by row. There's almost no music. It's like a giant library or monastery. Every so often at odd intervals music or talk radio comes on over a campus-wide PA loudspeaker systems and then stops again. I think the university sanctioned Christmas music for exactly 24 hours. I did hear "Jingle Bells" on Dec. 24th and 25th..
While American university students have to hold down one, two or three part-time jobs to help defray skyrocketing university tuition, "Tiger Moms" insure that the Chinese kidsí total focus is on their schoolwork. University studies in China are viewed as a 4-year, full-time job. Chinese parents and their children seem to look down on part-time employment as menial or manual labor that someone else should perform. If the university places a kid in the "wrong major", well, thatís just too bad. That kid will study that particular major 24 hours a day anyway. One medical university in Shandong Province places freshman as Medicine, English or Tourism majors depending on their entrance exam placement scores. Are you surprised to find Tourism majors at a Medical College? "Medical Tourism" is actually becoming increasingly popular in China.
Laugh at your own peril at the overgrown adolescent Tourism majors with bunny slippers and misspelled English words on their jacket. That Chinese kid with the SpongeBob earmuffs and panda sweater might go on to attend Harvard Law School next year. You may ask, "Why do 21-year-olds in China wear clothing that 5-year-olds wear in the West?" It's very simple. College is the first time a Chinese kid experiences childhood. And itís the first time away from Tiger Mom. Twenty-year-old girls skipping and playing hopscotch outside university classrooms is not an uncommon site.
There are silly clothing styles, but very serious results. The Chinese believe in the old adage "Flowing water never goes bad." Here are some of those results:
Every three years, the Paris-based OECD holds its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests of the reading, math and science skills of 15-year-olds in developing and developed countries. Sixty-five nations compete. Last year the Chinese swept the board. The schools of Shanghai, China finished first in math, reading and science. Hong Kong, China was third in math and science. Singapore, dominated by overseas Chinese, was second in math, fourth in science. America ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math.
The Chinese aren't just good at math. Take my favorite subject "Conversational English", for example, they just canít get enough. It's not enough for them to interrupt you at McDonalds with someoneís baby, cousin or brother looking for a complimentary English lesson. In fact, it seems English learning is a mania sweeping the entire country. Itís a total immersion program in China for "all things English". The hunger for learning English is so pervasive and so widespread that it's hard to keep up. There are more teaching jobs then foreign teachers to fill them. In China, in what I like to call the "Wild, Wild East" kids canít get enough of KFC, Pizza Hut, Amway, American movies and NBA basketball. It seems all Chinese under 30 wear some sort of English or "Chinglish" on their clothing...so much so that it seems like it's a uniform. Many kids have NO IDEA what kind of gibberish is emblazoned across their chest. It's an "inversely proportional" relationship - students with the most English words, phrases and sentences on their hoodies and Leviís are the same students that are least likely to be able to read them!
Let me give you two concrete example of how fanatical the Chinese are about learning English at any age. Example #1: When I was teaching in Taiían in Shandong Province, a young woman approached me just outside the front gate of my university. She asked if I would tutor her 9-month-old son. I thought, tutor her 9-month-old son? It seems to me she should be looking for a babysitter, not a teacher. I didnít accept the job. Example #2: Last summer, I spent a great deal of time in beautiful and picturesque Hangzhou. During that time, I met a nice young Chinese lady who owned her own business. On a starry moonlit August night, we walked hand-in-hand on a wooded path around the ever enchanting West Lake. Willow branches gently swayed in the wind while the reflection of the moon danced on the placid waters of the lake. After a brief stroll during this romantic midsummer evening we sat on a park bench gazing doe-like at each other as I leaned closer and closer. The young lady suddenly snapped to attention, took a book out of her purse and asked, "Can you help me with the English pronunciation on Chapter 3, page 61?"
If life is test, then life for a Chinese student is test after test after test after test. I have no idea if it's "heredity" or "environment", but the Chinese seem to be born test-takers. Once the exam begins, they are locked in to it. During an exam, Category 5 hurricane force water and winds coupled with the shifting ground of a 7.2 earthquake wouldnít cause the average Chinese student test-taker to bat an eyelash.
Challenging Chinese examinations have always been a part of life in China. It's hard to argue against 5,000 years of continuous history. Chinese have been taking entrance exams and exams-for-promotion since 206 B.C. Examinations administered during the Han Dynasty were given on four levels: local, provincial, metropolitan and national. Candidates were tested on their knowledge of the Confucian classics, their ability to write, and the "Five Studies:": military strategy, civil law, revenue and taxation, agriculture, and geography. Todayís kids should consider themselves very lucky not to have to take the "keju" or imperial exam...only about 5 percent of those who took them passed.
The gaokao, the 9-hour Chinese college entrance exam, is the modern day successor to those difficult exams of ancient times. Many consider the gaokao to be "the most stressful examination in the world". I have nothing but respect for the Chinese people so let me use a "face-saving" term to describe some of the test-taking methods in the classrooms. Let me state for the record that day-to-day "classroom piracy" and/ or "collective reasoning" occurring in the classroom is quite hard to stop...harder to stop then poppy fields in the Afghan countryside.
Thank you, dear reader, for enrolling in "Chinese University 101". You passed with flying colors.