A CONVERSATION WITH LENORA CHU, AUTHOR OF LITTLE SOLDIERS
Q.: As an American, you had a rare glimpse into the Chinese public school system. How did this situation come about?
My husband and I relocated from the U.S. to Shanghai in 2010, with our toddler son in tow. Our professional mission was straightforwardâ€”weâ€™re American journalists, sent over to cover China for an American audienceâ€”yet we had our son with us, and weâ€™d be raising a family in China. To my surprise, this little boy turned out to be my entrĂ©e into one of the worldâ€™s most revered, and most insular school systems. Few Americans have firsthand experience with Chinaâ€™s schools, which is typically described in stereotypes: Itâ€™s either â€śThe worldâ€™s best students,â€ť or â€śRote-learning robots! No creativity!â€ť Through this very intense, personal experience of parenting my son in Shanghai institutions, I had a chance to pull back the curtain on the system.
Q.: Why did you decide to send your son to a Chinese state run school instead of a private international school?
A few months after we arrived in China, Shanghai students were declared No. 1 in the world in math, reading and science. Apparently, our little American family was surrounded by some of the worldâ€™s best academic achievers. And, two blocks from our home in Shanghai was the elite state-run kindergarten, as far as posh Chinese urbanites were concerned. Heâ€™d also learn Mandarin, the worldâ€™s most spoken language. Whatâ€™s not to like? Of course, our mettle was put to the test immediately.
Q.: What were some of your early challenges?
That first week of school, I gathered from my son that someone had forced eggs into his mouthâ€”and he had no choice but to swallow (at 3, Rainey hated eggs). Aghast, I marched off to confront the teacher. â€śIn America, we explain the benefits of egg-eating, and motivate children to choose,â€ť I said. Teacher Chen challenged me, â€śDoes it work?â€ť I had to admit that it doesnâ€™t. Later, she lectured me against questioning a teacherâ€™s methods in front of a child. In America, that teacher might have been dragged into court for forcing a child to do something against his will. But this is China. Itâ€™s an authoritarian, top-down culture, and our early confrontation set the stage for many clashes to come.
Q.: What changes did you see in your young sonâ€™s behavior and demeanor once he started attending Chinese school? Would you say that Rainey seemed miserable?
Hereâ€™s what made the situation so difficult for a parent. In the early months, my son would whine that â€śI hate school… I haaaaate school…â€ť and heâ€™d shrink against my legs as he approached the school gates in the morning. At the same time, I began to notice positive behavioral changes: He started to faithfully greet his teacher with an exuberant â€śLaoshi zao!â€ťâ€”Good morning, Teacher! He began patiently waiting his turn in lines, and performing little duties around the house when asked. (He also began eating eggs at
home). Not an easy situation to evaluate, until of course, I finally got into a classroom and got an inkling of what was going on.
Q.: How did you gain access into the classroomâ€”something that is quite rare for any parent, let alone a foreigner, in China?
In America, access to schools is relatively easy, but the Chinese are less open with strangersâ€”and theyâ€™re incredibly wary of journalists. Fortunately, anything difficult in China can be accomplished by guanxiâ€” pulling on networks of people you know. A good friend introduced me to a teacher, and over the following years I was invited into all kinds of classrooms. Because I speak Mandarin, and I am ethnically Chinese (but born and raised in America), I was able to melt into the background and observe a classroom environment completely unscripted. Of course, I was stunned by what I saw.
Q.: What did you discover in the classroom about the way the children were treated?
I witnessed an astoundingly early cultivation of discipline and obedience, using methods that would be considered questionableâ€”if not legally actionableâ€”in America. In an early childhood classroom, I watched teachers forcibly plant toddlers into chairs and begin training them to sit for long periods of time. Teachers made threats when kids didnâ€™t comply, shamed deviant children in front of their peers, and withheld water to control behavior. My heart went out to a kid I came to affectionately nickname Little Pumpkin; he was larger than average, and lively, and he constantly drew the teachersâ€™ rage. I also saw art classes where kids were instructed to sketch rain exactly the same way. These techniques were shocking, but effective.
Q.: Did you begin to wonder what was happening in your sonâ€™s school?
Of course! I had many, many questions, and this is where my journalistic instincts kicked in. I began to seek out experts, talk to teachers and principals, and befriend Chinese students: What price do the Chinese pay for unrivaled academic achievement? Are Chinese methods really what the West should measure itself against (much less emulate)? On a personal level, I wanted to make sure what was happening to kids like Little Pumpkin wasnâ€™t also happening with my son. I discovered something surprising: For decades, Chinaâ€™s top education officials have been trying to make its school system friendlierâ€”and less stressfulâ€” for students at all levels. For example, a decade ago, the ministry fired off guidelines for kindergarten teachers: â€śMaintain happy emotions for childrenâ€ť; â€śEncourage them to exploreâ€ť; and even thisâ€” â€śDo not beat young children!â€ť Yes, the Chinese government needed to spell this out.
Q.: You say China wants to soften the edges on its school system, but what explains what you saw in that classroom? Iâ€™ve also heard about Chinese student suicides from academic pressure (which has also gotten attention in major U.S. cities, too).
For years, China has been scrutinizing other systems, including American schools, to learn how to nurture the â€śwhole child,â€ť and to encourage creativity and individuality. The Chinese are confident they teach math and science well, but theyâ€™re worried their kids arenâ€™t critical thinkers. Yet, no matter how hard the Chinese try to reform their system, they run up against what I call the double-straitjacket: A high-stakes exam system and a deeply rooted authoritarian culture. And, the pressure is making kids and families crack. Student suicides arenâ€™t necessarily an outsized problem in China, but the news media propagates such stories, and a public clamor for change begins anew each time.
Q.: What else did you find a surprise as you were investigating Chinaâ€™s schools?
How much grey money is awash in the systemâ€”including gifts given to teachers, cheating, and backdoor admissions to college. (As parents, we had our own brushes with corruption as Raineyâ€™s journey in school continues). I was also surprised to find a yawning inequality gap between rural and urban Chinese. We all know China as an economic superpower, but we rarely hear about the struggles of Chinese in the countryside. Roughly half of all rural Chinese children donâ€™t even finish high schoolâ€”these dropouts would populate a city the size of London each yearâ€”and the factory jobs that awaited their parents are inching over to other parts of Asia.
Q.: What sort of relationship did you develop with Raineyâ€™s teachers as time wore on?
I have strong opinions and I make them known! I began to get in trouble with Raineyâ€™s teachers. Chinese culture promotes compliance, and â€śthe nail that sticks up will be hammered down, the bird whose head sticks out easily shot,â€ť as the proverbs go. (My son almost got kicked out of school over my disagreement with nurses about the best way to treat asthma). But, I learned. It was a slow awakening, a realization that I needed to trust my sonâ€™s teachers and let them do their job. This is an autonomy and respect that American teachers, frankly, havenâ€™t enjoyed from society for a very long time.
Q.: Why are teachers so revered and above reproach in China?
Teaching is a profession of high social status in China, equal to medicine and law, in part because education is so closely tied with life prospects. Fail a fearsome test called the gaokao, and a student wonâ€™t go on to a top college. Of course, because of the power teachers hold, parents often give gifts to curry favor, and coach their children to be â€śguaiâ€ť and â€śtinghuaâ€ťâ€” behave and listen to the teacherâ€” every chance they get. It makes for an efficient classroom, but as you can imagine there are downsides to unblinking obedience of an authority figure.
Q.: As part of your research, you got to know a couple of Chinese high school students. What did they share with you about their lives?
The school system works for some Chinese kids, and it effectively spits the others out. Two young teenagers Iâ€™ve followed for years illustrate these dichotomies. Darcy planned to join the Communist Party by 18, and he did everything society expected of him, even when the requirements were oppressive, or just plain ridiculous. â€śBe forgiving,â€ť he told me. â€śAmericans have more freedom because its education system is more developed.â€ť On the flip side, Amanda was a Chinese school misfit; she preferred Western philosophy to Qing Dynasty poems and had novel ideas. She was gradually ostracized and suffered intense periods of disillusionment. Fortunately, she was admitted into an elite U.S. university. The kicker is, even after finding her escape from Chinese society, Amanda realized her rigorous Shanghai education had been world-class. She made a major mathematical discovery as an undergraduate, and sheâ€™s practically guaranteed a path to academia.
Q.: As Steve Jobs said, â€śInnovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.â€ť How will these Chinese kids fare once they enter a fast-moving global workplace? Do American students have a leg up in creativity?
American and European executives at Fortune 500 companies tell me they have trouble finding great Chinese employees. They want outside-the-box thinkers who can anticipate challenges, and they feel theyâ€™re not getting that. I always ask whether itâ€™s a mismatch of expectations: A fresh Chinese college grad wonâ€™t feel comfortable directly challenging his boss, brainstorming in large groups, or even attacking a problem in a dramatically new way. These are things we Americans encourage in our kids as a matter of culture. Thatâ€™s important! But, the Chinese may simply need training and a chance to put these skills to use. Yet the balance is complicated. The marketplace is getting increasingly globalâ€”how do we adapt our workplace cultures to draw out the best in our people, whatever their backgrounds?
Q.: Your parents are Chinese, but you were born and raised in the U.S. What aspects of Chinese education were still a part of your upbringing even though you were educated in America?
I grew up in American public schools, but I came home to my very strict parents, who plotted my path to test perfection and advanced degrees. In Chinese culture, thereâ€™s an almost unnatural respect for test scores and achievement measured in a quantitative way. As just one example, my father liked my SAT result so much that he locked it away in his memory, only to quote my score 15 years later during a toast at my wedding, before 200 guests! The message: That high number is a measure of my worth as a human being. Of course, there are downsides, but knowing where I stood helped motivate me in key areas of my life. In American education, competition and scores in academics have become taboo. I think thatâ€™s a mistake. Weâ€™re okay with rankings in sportsâ€”a last-place finish in the 100-meter dash just means we need to train harderâ€”but in academics we donâ€™t want to damage Johnnyâ€™s self esteem by making him feel bad about a D in algebra.
Q.: In what ways would you say that the Chinese education system is superior to ours? What aspects should the U.S. consider adopting?
No. 1 is the emphasis on hard work over innate talent, or what I call â€śChinese-style grit.â€ť The culture delivers the daily message that itâ€™s perseveranceâ€”not intelligence or abilityâ€”thatâ€™s key to success. Studies show this translates into a harder work ethic in the classroom. Also, the Chinese worship their teachers, and train them well, and the trickle-down benefits are immense. Teachers in China also specialize from Grade 1, so that a first-grade math teacher teaches only math, while another might be in charge of only language and literature. That means Chinese children are exposed from a very early age to instructors schooled at a high level of expertise and content knowledge. Those are just a few examples.
Q.: What should we eschew emulating?
The slow brainwash of Chinaâ€™s political curriculum. As a toddler, Rainey learned to play-march like Peopleâ€™s Liberation Army soldiers and sketch out portraits of Mao Zedong. The Communist Party censors texts and inserts patriotism into the curriculum all the way through college. Yet, students sense a disconnect between the classroom and real life, and the result is a growing spiritual crisis. â€śThe curriculum is all bullshit! Brainwashing!â€ť my friend Amanda told me. (Rainey eventually learned, too). Freedom of speech in classrooms and elsewhere in the U.S. is protected by the Constitution; we should always be grateful, and never take this for granted.
Q.: What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
I hope readers will come away with a better understanding of whatâ€™s happening globally in education. I also hope weâ€™ll learn to have a bit more faith in our childrenâ€”I did! Theyâ€™re gritty and resilient, and capable of so much more than we give them credit for. Try something new and unexpected in your parenting and education journeyâ€”you just might be surprised at the results.