In the Shadows of Confucius

December 28, 2008
By
Born in the US and growing up in a household centered on the teachings of Confucius, I spent years sandwiched between two different cultures, trying to find a happy medium between my parents and me when it came to studying and school for a "normal" American teenager. After debating with my parents for years, I came to the conclusion that there was a big generation gap between us. This discovery caused me to wonder how Chinese teenagers perceived China and its role in the world. I presented my thoughts to my parents one day and luckily, they thought it was beneficial for me to live with Chinese teenagers for a while. I was accepted as a visiting student at one of the top high schools in the Northeastern part of China during summer break and got the opportunity to blend in and gain a new perspective by listening to the opinions of kids my age in China.

The School and Students

The school was located in the suburbs and it took me over an hour to get there by taxi. Its campus was quite large with a paved open area surrounded by a few buildings. After registration in the security office, I was led to a building where the school administrative offices were located. With the help of a few people, I was led to another four-floor building, which was called "Jiao Xue Lou", which mainly was where students attended classes. This building was decorated in red and white tiles and covered with tinted windows. As I walked through the main entrance, I saw a big bulletin board exhibiting the names of a few students who had won various scientific competitions. On another wall, a poster showed the names and portraits of the students from the school who had recently been accepted to the top universities in China, namely Beijing University and Qing Hua University. I was told that it was very hard to get into this high school with an admission rate for the applicants of less than 1%. I was also told though the overall admission rate for a college in China is still low, but nearly every student in this high school can get into a college and some of them will end up going to the top ten universities in China. As the sense of the competition at this school finally dawned on me, the bell rang, signaling the end of the period. Dozens of students wearing white T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers ran from classroom doors, their arms hooked around each other, whispering and laughing as they held onto their student cards to buy snacks from a shop at the end of the hall before the next class started. A young teacher with a bright pink shirt and long hair greeted me, introducing herself as my guide for the week. We walked through the hallway crowded with teens my age and stopped at a classroom.

As I tentatively looked in, the first thing I witnessed was a group of boys chasing and throwing random objects at one another. They stopped when they saw me, and I immediately withdrew into the hallway. This was going to be a long day, I thought to myself. The bell rang again as students shuffled into the classroom silently, snacks in hand. The teacher and I entered the room and the class fell silent. I faced a classroom of 56 students, blatantly staring at me, wondering what I was doing here, especially during the week before finals. The teacher announced that I was an ABC (American Born Chinese) and that I was going to spend time with them in their classroom. Surprisingly, all the students stood up and gave me a big round of applause. I was assigned a desk-mate, who was a boy in the first row (I noticed that every desk was shared by a girl and a boy). The students smiled at me and one even got up from her seat to wipe my desk for me. I thanked her and helped her pull the shades down in order to see the next teacher's PowerPoint presentation clearly. The next class was history. The teacher walked in and greeted the class as every student, including myself, got up from his or her seats, bowed, and said, "Good morning teacher." We sat down and focused attentively on her lecture about the economic development of various countries. This marked the beginning of a new journey for me, as I would later find out.

Getting up at the unimaginably early hour of 5:30 am during summer break everyday and traveling to school for almost an hour was definitely not number one on my list of things to do during my highly anticipated summer vacation. I arrived at school around 7:30 am everyday, with just enough time to prepare myself for the upcoming, grueling nine hours of classes nonstop. Every class was about 45 minutes with a five to ten minute break in between for students to relax. Each day there was also an exercise students had to perform that involved rubbing their eyes so that they would not get worn out by the amount of work they had. However, even with this kind of daily eye exercise, the majority of the students wore glasses. Each teacher walked into the classroom, stepped up to the front, and immediately began lecturing the class about what they needed to know for finals. Students opened up their books automatically, prepared to write down anything teacher said. The only sounds that could be heard were the teacher’s booming voice as it echoed throughout the classroom and the sound of students feverishly writing down anything the teacher said.

Lunch lasts about an hour. This was the only time I had to truly talk to my new classmates. Through a mixture of English and Mandarin, I got to know what their views were on China's education system were and how they would maintain its strengths and destroy its weaknesses.

"Gao Kao" (the national entrance examinations for college in China)

It is in every student's dreams, in every teacher's lectures, and practically in the air everyone breathes in China. It is the dreaded “Gao Kao,” or the national entrance examination for college, analogous to “SAT: intensified.” China has a long history of national examinations. During the Han dynasty (the time of the Roman Empire), the emperor started to hold exams to select officials. On one hand, it is fair. It allows success to be reached, regardless of social status; equal access to education for all. It also is efficient, as seen in changes observed in average fourth grade test scores in math and science from 1995-2007. China's test scores increased from 557 to 607 in math and 508 to 554 in science, according to trends seen in the International Mathematics and Science Study. On the other hand, the ghost of the old Chinese education system that strangled individuality and creativity still haunts schools today. With China's booming population comes scarce opportunity. The students' scores on Gao Kao decide their future. Unfortunately, Gao Kao only occurs once per year and is distributed all over the country. The stakes are high. Teachers teach for GK, students learn for GK, and schools are ranked by GK.

This system, from what I have observed, does have fundamental flaws. I discussed this with some of my classmates and we have similar views. Firstly, there was too much to learn in such a short time; it was like a major cram session at school. Math, physics, chemistry, biology, Chinese literature, English, music, art, technology, and psychology are among 17 subjects that students had to learn each year. Personally, it's hard enough for me to manage six final exams at school, let alone 17. Secondly, methods of learning need to be changed. My desk-mate presented his view on this, saying that students are very "passive, just like robots". Teachers do not give students many opportunities to apply what they learn to reality. In chemistry, for example, students are rarely allowed the opportunity to do labs. "If we learn so many theories, why can't we apply them to reality in order to understand them better?" a student asked. Thirdly, Chinese schools should look beyond Gao Kao. I sat with a tall girl with glasses during lunch, talking about school life. She said that the school should be less focused on Gao Kao and put some emphasis on extra-curricular activities. Art and music classes are also threatened by Gao Kao. "Students do not take music and the arts seriously. Most students do their homework during music and art class because they believe that these subjects are not important since they do not appear on Gao Kao," a student said.

I presented my views to the students by asking them during the Q





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