Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

China offers bitter lessons for success [Straits Times]


The schooling wisdom in vogue these days seems to be that Chinese teaching methods are superior.

I am uncertain (through conservations with friends from the mainland) if the teaching methods are indeed superior.

However, what can be easily established is that each student has to battle it out with at least 9.5 million others (a figure from 2006) for the National Higher Education Entrance Examination (known as Gao Kao 高考) and that, is revealing. In comparison, there were less than 30,000 others in the Singapore equivalent when I was in high school. Will a pool of more than 9.5 million competitors necessarily yield a tough-er and better breed of performers?

– – –

China offers bitter lessons for success
Life in the country provides an education in how nothing can be taken for granted
By Grace Ng, China Correspondent
Source – Straits Times, published Feb 06, 2011

Beijing: Two Chinese friends who work overseas recently told me that they want to bring their children back to be schooled in their homeland.

‘US schools are too soft, they don’t teach the kids that life is tough and that it will get even tougher once China takes over the world,’ said Ling, whose four- year-old daughter Alice was born in the United States.

The other Chinese mother, whose eight-year-old son grew up in Singapore, wants to send him to school in Shanghai, where her parents live.

‘China’s school system will prepare him to cope better with China’s rise,’ she said.

I was taken aback. Why is a highly successful Chinese like Ling – who went to the US for a PhD and a better life – convinced that the Chinese school system is now a better option?

And if a Western education, at least at the lower levels, is not a Chinese mother’s cup of tea, wouldn’t Singapore be an ideal choice?

After all, it has long positioned itself as a blend of the best of East and West.

The schooling wisdom in vogue these days seems to be that Chinese teaching methods are superior.

The Western style is too soft to grind achievement out of the child, writes author Amy Chua in Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother, a controversial book which has captured global attention.

But I think these mothers are less bothered about which system is superior, as much as which one works better to get their children ‘China-ready’.

By the time four-year-old Alice is ready for her first job in 2030, China’s economy may be double that of the US’, according to Standard Chartered.

Its population is tipped to peak at 1.5 billion. The pressure on young Chinese to work harder and earn more will never be greater: Every 10 working Chinese must support six of the elderly and young.

So Alice will be competing against a generation of Chinese hungry for jobs, power and the world’s resources.

Ling sees this as the key reason her daughter should study in a Chinese school – so that she has the same Confucian pressure-cooking and Mandarin proficiency as her future competitors and business partners.

That was also why Singapore’s middle-of-the-road approach did not cut it for the other Chinese mother.

‘It is not as tough as China, but does not stimulate creativity as effectively as the West either,’ she felt.

So she opted for the draconian motherland, which could at least produce top test scores.

Singapore ranked fourth in science and (English) reading, and second in maths out of 65 countries in international rankings. Shanghai students came in first in all categories. And they have mastered Mandarin. Ouch.

But I don’t agree with these mothers’ over-simplified notion that just putting a child in a Chinese school will increase his chances of success in a China century.

The Chinese system’s flaws have been well-documented. Chief of these is the inability of Chinese students to come up with original and ethical ideas to deal with the many shades of grey colouring Chinese business, politics and culture.

It may be even worse for Alice, who will shuttle between a strict elite school, personal music and art classes and a luxury apartment where she is smothered by an army of relatives, tutors and servants.

It is an artificially tough environment that coerces – rather than inspires – her to do well, because she lacks the initiative and motivation to chi ku (eat bitterness).

After all, she doesn’t need to – unlike many of her generation across China who ‘drink’ more hardship than breast milk.

But learning the art of chi ku, I feel, will be an important skill for success in a changing world order.

That is why there are strong advantages to having an education in China – but it must be one that is not confined to its school system.

For me, one of the best classrooms is out there – in Chinese society.

Out in the squishy subways, historical hutongs and beggar-filled, Mercedes-jammed roads.

Living here for two years has drilled into me that nothing comes easy or can be taken for granted.

Not pollution-free air, not affordable public housing and health care, not Facebook access, not even wiggle-room in the packed, stuffy Beijing subway train – a favourite chi ku training ground of mine.

China, with its past 30 years of inequitable, tumultuous growth, is where a child learns that success can be earned through many paths.

From the first hongbao that his mother gives to secure his kindergarten place, he may be driven to work hard because it cost her a whole year’s salary – and so many others want his spot.

I have come across children whose learning experiences in China impress me much more than Shanghai’s test scores.

One is a four-year- old girl who learnt to do household chores, cook noodles and care for her labourer father after he was paralysed in a work accident and his wife left him.

Another is an American boy who lived for many years in a small Chinese city with his missionary parents. International school fees were exorbitant and he chose to tough it out in a local school with terrible teachers. There, he not only learnt the local dialect but also developed great compassion for the poor.

These children were taught early that life is tough, the system is flawed and nothing good comes easy. But ‘eating bitterness’ to change things for the better – for others’ sakes rather than just their own – can be sweet.

This, I hope to tell my child some day, is the best thing about an education in China.

graceng@sph.com.sg

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Filed under: Beijing Consensus, Chinese Model, Confucius, Culture, Domestic Growth, Economics, Education, Environment, Influence, Mapping Feelings, Media, Nationalism, Population, Public Diplomacy, Social, Soft Power, Straits Times, The Chinese Identity, The construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese identities

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