Why I Like Chinese Students

Today was the first day of class for the new semester, and after introducing myself and the class (The latter took about five minutes because a speaking and listening class with no textbook and no required exam is a self-contained phenomenon; if you know what speaking and listening are, then you know what to do in class. Expanding on that would be like expanding on a class whose title is “Walking Laps Around the University Track.”), I let the students ask questions. You never know what you’re going to get when you do that in China. The majority of Chinese students are petrified on their first day of English class because although they’ve studied English for years already, they’ve spent about five total minutes actually SPEAKING English (none of their teachers stress conversation; there are lots of reasons for that). Today’s class actually did ask me some questions. Good questions, as it happens. I made a comment early on that in the beginning I had a hard time teaching Chinese students because no one talked or reacted to me in any way, so I had no idea if they understood anything I was saying. I then said that after ten years of experience, I really do enjoy teaching Chinese students.  A student popped right up out of her seat and asked, “Why?”

My immanent departure from China has reminded me of a few things, one of which is that I really do like Chinese students. For that matter, I really do like ordinary everyday Chinese people, too. What has frustrated me to no end over the past several years has not been my classmates at Nankai, or the students in my class, but rather a system which is so top-heavy and overcrowded that few if any of my students and classmates have had the opportunity to demonstrate how gifted they are. Almost all of them get crammed into whatever opening they can find. But that doesn’t answer the question of why I like Chinese students.

So let’s flip the microscope around. There’s a certain sense of entitlement with American students in college, as though higher education was one of those things that just happened, like gravity or the seasons or crappy music on the radio. This is partly because America has so many institutions of higher learning and so few students who apply to go there. I say that from a comparative standpoint, as in China it’s the exact opposite problem. American univerisities require a fairly extensive dossier of everything from exam scores to class grades to teacher recommendations, while in China everything comes down to a single exam. In the first case the institution is trying to make an educated decision between a few thousand candidates, while in the latter the choice would be impossible if it required so much information because it’s between tens of thousands of candidates. The exam system, whose specific content is new but whose position at the center of Chinese society is about as old as China itself, is intended to streamline the process. That’s a labored way of saying that your entire life, as a Chinese student, is determined by a single exam. If you get a high score, you enter a top university, get a great major, and likely end up with a great job. If you get a low score, or don’t pass, you go to a lower-tier university and end up in a factory or a restaurant after you graduate. Still, though, regardless of the practical considerations after graduation, students who get into a university in China have a sense of excitement and relief that no American student can possibly understand. This is not due to the guarantee of a great future so much as the knowledge that for the next four years life will be more free, more interesting, more active and stimulating, than anything that will follow.

That might sound odd considering these same students still end up taking about double the course load an average American college student would, but again, comparison is everything. The average American student is entering college after what was likely a pretty relaxed, active high school experience, and probably finds the academic workload at the higher level very difficult. The average Chinese student is coming off of a final year of high school in which the work load alone (something on the order of 70-80 hours of study per week, with no breaks) is a major reason for the predominance of eyeglasses. Students are under such stress, and have to work so hard, that they start to lose their eyesight. Compared to that, college life is a dream come true. You live with your friends, you get to run around campus and play basketball during your free time, and unless you do something monumentally stupid you’re guaranteed to graduate.

How does that help answer the question I was asked earlier? To begin with, there’s this fact: here, I’m needed. That sounds a little ego-centric, but every teacher and artist likes to know that his or services add something to people’s lives, and regardless of what kind of semester I’ve had professionally in China, my students have always been vocal about enjoying what I’ve done with them in class. That has nothing to do, incidentally, with whether or not I’m intelligent or more qualified than a Chinese teacher.  Think about it for a second. There are foreigners all over the education system in America, and almost limitless options for recreation and academic pursuits; in China, most students have never had a foreign teacher before, and don’t have nearly as many options. That means when I do an exercise in class that has them out of their seats running around the room, or creating a story in a small group, or merely preparing a discussion, they’ve never done anything like it. Any good educator or artist has a touch of the missionary about them, so introducing someone to something they’ve never seen or done before is fulfilling in a very different and more fundamental way than, say, a well-prepared and executed lecture in their home country.

This isn’t self-serving, either. The goals of education tend to be either too abstract or too practical in America. A class is set up for a purpose no one rightly understands, or merely to help someone find a job. Oftentimes teachers themselves are only aware on a theoretical level what the point of education is, but in an environment like a language class in China, where students come from an entirely different tradition, you’re brought back to something so fundamental it gets passed over in every pedagogical seminar: the need for wonder. I myself am a student of literature, and I maintain that if you read Hamlet or Anna Karenina or Watership Down with no sense of wonder at the feats of creativity and insight accomplished in those works, you’ve missed the point completely. I first became aware of this in Shandong province, where at my university I was given a reading class and made it my personal mission to introduce students to the sheer joy of reading. This led to moments I’ll remember for the rest of my life, like when one student read a novel all the way through in English, the first time she’d ever done that, or when another student was a ball of excitement becaused he’d gotten lost in The Count of Monte Cristo. None of them had ever had the chance to just read. Not read for an exam or read because a teacher told them to, but just. . .read.

I have come to see that sense of childlike (yes, childlike; not childish, but childlike) wonder as not an optional extra, but as key to any good class, and it’s changed how I teach and study. If you’re a teacher, and you’ve lost the ability to rediscover what you’re teaching, either through your students or on your own, then either your pedagogy or your subject is wrongly-chosen. And I owe Chinese students a huge debt here, because in opening doors for them to read and think in my class I rediscovered just how wonderful education could be. Talking about Hamlet with students in Shandong who had never understood a word of Shakespeare in their Chinese classes made me excited about Shakespeare in ways I never was in the past. Poring over Emily Dickinson in preparation for students who had no frame of reference for her poetry made me approach her in a way I never would have before.

So why do I like Chinese students? Put simply, their need for wonder, and their willingness to discover it if you’ll guide them towards it, has infused that same need for wonder into my own studies. If I’m a successful student at the University of Oregon, it will be largely because Chinese students have taught me how to teach.

 

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2 Responses to Why I Like Chinese Students

  1. Biscuet says:

    Great post! Reminds me of the days when I loved teaching in China. I don’t think I was very good at it, but your reflections make me wish I had been a better teacher.

  2. James says:

    I taught in China, then returned to university for another degree. My experiences as a teacher made me promise to myself to be more like the students I had who had loved learning.

    The sheer joy of learning, in their eyes and smiling faces and the joy it gave me as a teacher made me move from the middle-of-the-classroom-next-to-the-aisle seat I always had taken to the front row. I wanted to show that joy to my teachers, and be a more dedicated student.

    It worked, somewhat.

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