Vignettes on Chinese education

A few vignettes of recent episodes that make me go, Zhende ma? Really?

1) There is a new teacher of the foreigner’s Chinese class, and she wins the award for Favorite Chinese Person of the Day (yep, this is an award I mentally give out when warranted). At the end of class after she’d taught us the expression for “crazy,” she asked us to explain what we thought was the most crazy thing about Chinese people. My answer, which I had the proficiency to only half-explain: as you might imagine, it’s the inability or lack of desire to ask questions of what one is told.

Wode xuesheng bu hui you wenti. Ruguo tamende laoshi huozhe baba huozhe zhengfu shuo dongxi, suoyi tamen xiang zhege dongxi hen hao. Danshi changchang tamende laoshi huozhe zhengfu bu shi zheng.

Or, something like: My students can’t ask questions. If their teacher or father or government says something, then they think that thing is good. But sometimes their teacher or government isn’t proper….

My Chinese teacher won herself further points by basically saying that yes, this is unfortunate, and yes, Chongqing people are particularly provincial (compared to where she’s from on the coast), and that the government can be crazy.

2) I’m constantly surprised but how unsurprised I am sometimes. This week in class I was doing an exercise that involved a roleplay thing in which there was a character from Paris. In 5/5 classes I’ve done this with, the student describing the Frenchman said something extremely similar to, “As we all know, French are very romantic.” Really? Are they? Why do you think that? Oh, because in some textbook somewhere that you’ve all been taught from, this was the description, and Thus It Is So and Thus It Is Passed Down. Has anyone ever learned anything else about France? Or asked, why is it that we think French people are so romantic? I imagine I made faces at the fourth and fifth student whom I heard say this.

3) I went out to dinner with a couple of students yesterday, one of whom is a Uigher from Kashgar, Xinjiang—ie, a member of a large Muslim minority from the Central Asian part of China. It’s government policy to pull the best and brightest students from the minority regions (including Xinjiang, Tibet, etc) and send them away to boarding high schools, where they can be mainsteamed into the Han (majority) way. On the one hand, the argument usually goes, this gives these kids the opportunities they’d never have otherwise. It brings them up to the standards of the Chinese majority education system, and fasttracks them to be able to get to better universities and thus better lives. But, it also pulls them away from their culture and their homes at this formative time, perhaps forces them into the majority ways, and hopes to ensure that down the road, when they finish their educations, that they’ll bring Han influence back to their homes. The picture I’ve often seen painted of this situation is grim: homesick 13-year-olds stripped of everything they know, not supposed to speak their native language, etc.

But not so, said this girl. High school was the happiest time of her life (compare that to how most Chinese kids feel, in school 60 hours a week to prepare for the college entrance exam!) Yes, she had to leave her home and go to a boarding school far away, but the school was filled with kids like her from backgrounds like hers, and their teachers cared so much, and wanted so much for them. In Chongqing, that’s not the case—she was shocked, upon arriving at college, to find that she was just one among so many. She lost her keys and ID card so many times at the beginning because for the first time there wasn’t someone looking out and holding her hand. Whatever that’s worth.

4) As we left dinner, I asked the girls if they had a lot of homework that night. Yes, for a translation class they had to write a 5000 word essay in Chinese and then translate it into English. The topic: jade. What? Well, their teacher also said they could just find something on the Internet and then translate that. That sounds like a productive use of everyone’s time.

5) A few days ago I got an email from my counterpart: there’s a senior who had the previous PCV as a teacher two years ago. For some reason, her grade was never recorded properly. But she needs a grade from that old class to graduate. Can I have a five-minute conversation with her, and decide on a grade to assign her for that class? Unfortunately: no. I probably lost face on this one, but no. How about getting in touch with the old teacher? She may be in America, but she’s still alive and has an email address, I suggested. Because, I don’t know, I don’t feel comfortable letting a five-minute chat substitute for a semester’s worth of oral English work two years ago.

6) You may recall my ranting before about my double-major Friday classes—eight weeks with kids who mostly are only “studying” English on the side so that they can get a certificate that says they’ve done so and get a better job in the end. Maybe only a quarter of the kids would typically show up to class (meaning, 20/80). On the last day of class, for the “final” (a poorly planned debate extravaganza), I discovered that there’s a good portion of the class whom I’d never seen before who do not speak English. Like, at all. Maybe they can write a little, but they can’t say or understand much of anything. And yet, I will pass them, because if they failed the department would either change their grades or make me give them another final. And they’ll get Bs at that, because I didn’t keep good enough track to really justify doing otherwise. My bad, and yet…I don’t feel that bad, because it’s hard to find motivation to render much care or effort on behalf of students or administrators who clearly care so little. Of course, this isn’t how I feel about my English major classes full of try-hards.

None of this is really new. It’s just something I can’t get over. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again: the US education system may have problems, but it least it isn’t this.


3 thoughts on “Vignettes on Chinese education

  1. 2) I am French American. My students have known me for almost 2 years. JUST NOW they stop saying the romantic thing cuz they know it makes me want to vomit… They also just realized that no, I do not dress like people in the French fashion week. But every single new person I meet says it… Good luck with that one! If you’re tired of it, they know a lot of random stuff about Napoleon and “la révolte des Canuts”, which is the most random thing ever ( )
    well, they were kind of Communist, so this could explain that hahaha

  2. Mathilde, yeah, I can see how that would get old veeeeery fast. And my this Canut revolt is….random. Like the 2 pages out of a 15 page chapter about 19th century British history that my literature textbook devoted to the Chartist Movement, in all its vaguely-communist glory. Great.

  3. Hm, on the bright side, you now have an appreciation for those who choose adventure over studying. If you would call it adventure.
    Additionally, I seriously have the reels in my head turning on how this can be a great book when you return. We will talk offline about this. But it’s a fantastic book. 🙂
    And most importantly, you’re HOME in two months!!! HURRAY! XOXO

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