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A Letter from China
September 19, 2000

A Letter from China: Education

(The third of a series of letters about China by Ernest Pinson--Ch'eng Ping Sun)

"Zhe ben shu shi shul-de?" ("Whose book is this?")

I had exactly 8 days to pack, get a visa, a passport, take care of finances, see friends, terminate social obligations, call relatives, e-mail 15 times to China, etc. before embarking for China on 30 Sep1999. My reason for going was to replace an English teacher from Sweden who, without giving notice I was told, just up and left the college, Nanjing Institute of Meteorology, and returned home, even after participating in the summer orientation program in China. Nothing could stop her! So what was with this woman anyway that would cause such a sudden, irresponsible, and determined action only two days prior to opening classes?

Someone told me I would soon find out for myself -- culture shock! Well, it never happened, not to me at least. Oh sure, there are certain inconveniences. For example, one has to boil every drop of water for consumption, teach in classrooms without heat or air conditioning, do without advantages of a car, learn to get around without speaking to people or reading advertisements, adjust to the food and some uncouth (to us) eating habits. But like any nation, China has its own culture, its own tradition, its own rationale for doing things the "Chinese" way. Clearly it is true that some people can tolerate certain things in daily life that others just can't stomach or live with. But for me, the first hand experience of learning a totally different culture and national heritage, plus the refreshing respect students have for teachers (and yes!) for the elderly, plus the chance to make new friends and then travel and see a world totally alien to one's own made it worth the loss of such "conveniences." (At least that's what I keep telling myself!) But the philosophy holds true that one person's delight is another person's regret.

The first day of class when I walked in the door there was a loud buzz buzz of voices and they all whispered "wow." (I had the only black beard on a white face they had ever seen.) I then wrote my name on the blackboard, and again I heard the initial buzz buzz and the same American expression "wow." (I had just written my name with my left hand -- no left-handers in China.) Next, I told them about my family and academic training, that I was Dr. Pinson 5-feet-6 and my wife was Dr. Pinson 5-feet-10. For the third time in less than 5 minutes I heard the buzz-buzz and the spontaneous "wow." (It seems no husband/wife team both having Ph.D.'s exist in China, especially when the wife is 4 inches taller.) Then I went around the room asking each to tell me his/her Chinese and English name. (Each English major is assigned an English name like John, Julie, Jane, Joyce by their Chinese English teacher the freshman year). Each student stood up in grand respect saying "yes sir, no sir" in response. Then they laughed in glee as I horribly mispronounced all 253 Chinese student names -- try it when sh, ch, xi, and q all have about the same sound.

Here's what you'll find in a Chinese university level classroom. All classes meet 2 hours on the same day each week in this fashion: 1st class 8-10; 2nd 10-12; lunch 12-2; 3rd class 2-4; 4th class 4-6; normally they go to classes 18-20 hours a week, sometimes at night and on Saturday and Sunday as well. Each student has a desk mate from primary school on up, each class is composed of about 35 students (sometimes 55 or thereabout in high school), each student will stay with his/her assigned classmates and desk mate throughout the school career, and each student takes a prescribed curriculum for his/her entire college career, depending upon the major (almost no minors offered). Few optional courses are available, perhaps 2 or 3 in the senior year. If a student fails a class in college (and it almost never happens!), he/she must drop out of school because no one may switch to another class. Thus the same students stay together for every class throughout the 4 years of college. Primary schools (elementary) and high schools (they call "middle schools") start about 7:30 am and end around 5:00 p.m., 5 days a week with half-day Saturday. Parents must pay a graduated amount of money (called "Yuan") for each child throughout his school career -- no free education there. Some cities have private schools, but they are considered inferior and take the less talented students.

Chinese university students are top-notch. Keep in mind, however, that they send only the upper 10 percent to college, and all of them will almost surely graduate. USA, in contrast, accepts 53 percent, but only about 40 percent graduate. All texts books, teachers, and educators must be approved by the Chinese national government (remember, USA has state controlled, though not national, education).

Generally, Chinese students will outperform Americans in math, the physical and natural sciences, geography, physical exercise (I was awakened every morning 6:30-7:00 am by a loud speaker playing music and leading student in required exercises), and foreign languages (6-8 years of English by grade 12; how many years of foreign language did you have in high school? -- I have a Chinese friend who had 8 years of English, 4 years of Japanese, 4 years of French in his school years). We, conversely, will usually outperform them in computer, engineering, technology, speech, psychology, world history, and philosophy.

In my very personal and subjective opinion, their high schools are more difficult than ours, but our colleges surpass theirs. (I was surprised to discover that USA graduate schools are admired the world over.) Students in China are required to take two national exams, one at grade 6 and another at grade 12. These exams are important because they can make or break a life career by determining not only the schools one can get into, but the career and social standards as well. Although statistics are not publicized, China, like Japan, has an extremely high suicide rate among teenagers because the pressures from parents, grandparents, peers, and finances are so intense. As one Chinese student said in her English speech contest, "why is it we study so hard and long, live such intense school lives, and still China has no Nobel Prize winners?" The answer to me is simple, too often they teach to the national exams and that means "rote memory." Chinese can memorize anything; I'm frequently asked by students if the best way to learn English is to memorize the dictionary, but their system doesn't allow or encourage creative and analytic thinking. They know the cold facts, but can't apply them easily to life; hence, they'll beat you at pure math or knowledge of the sciences, but they fall down in engineering and inventions.

Still, I dearly love their dedication to learning, to their country, to their family, and their respect for teachers (I am more likely to be called "teacher" Pinson than Mr. or Dr. Pinson). I met a Chinese English teacher who is one of the most helpful, caring, accommodating, friendly, and pleasant persons I ever befriended. And I'm back in China because of student's desire, their hunger to improve themselves. They seem to realize that after many lost years in the 20th century, they must now prepare to meet the outside world educationally, financially, socially. Japan next door is a painful reminder of that loss.

(Next time-- differences in American and Chinese customs/traditions.)


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