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 a Western 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 Westerners 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 on a test called PISA. It was Chinaâ€™s debut, and theyâ€™d beat out peers in nearly 70 other countries (the U.S. and the UK finished in the middle of the pack). 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. Why not get a dose of that magic potion? We were motivated by thoughts of a little Chinese-style discipline for our rowdy toddler, and heâ€™d also learn Mandarin, the worldâ€™s most spoken language. Plus, international schools cost a fortune by comparison. What isnâ€™t there 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 the next day. â€śIn the West, we explain the benefits of egg-eating, and motivate children to choose,â€ť I said, brash in my conviction about democracy and choice. Teacher Chen challenged me, â€śDoes it work?â€ť I had to admit that it doesnâ€™tâ€”I could never get Rainey to try them. 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 schoolâ€¦ I haaaaate schoolâ€¦â€ť and heâ€™d shrink against my legs as he approached the school gates in the morning, almost in fear. He also began to show a habit of obeisance that trickled into other areas of his life. At the same time, I began to notice positive behavioral changes: Normally rambunctious, he began developing the habits of a proper little pupil. Rainey faithfully greeted his teacher with an exuberant â€śLaoshi zao!â€ťâ€”Good morning, Teacher! He began heeding the teacherâ€™s every command, 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 thatâ€™s difficult in China can usually be accomplished by guanxiâ€”pulling on networks of people you know. A good friend introduced me to a kindergarten teacher, and because of that, the teacher invited me into the classroom (eventually I gained access to more schools and different types 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. The teachers showed their whole, true selves, as they never considered me a non-Chinese, or an outsider. 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€”elsewhere. The three-year-olds I observed were a wandering, crying mess for their first day of school, and the teachers immediately set to work: They forcibly planted toddlers into chairs, and began training them to sit for long periods of time, feet planted in parallel and eyes fixed to the front. I saw teachers making threats when kids didnâ€™t comply, shaming deviant children in front of their peers, and withholding water to control behavior. My heart went out to a kid I came to affectionately nickname Little Pumpkin; he constantly drew the teachersâ€™ rage, as he was larger than average, and livelyâ€”a troublesome combination for a Chinese schoolboy. I also saw art classes that bred conformity: kids were instructed to sketch rain exactly the same way, and those who didnâ€™t had their papers tacked to the wall. These techniques were shocking, but effective. (When I came back for a visit months later, there was only subdued silence, with 28 kids perched perfectly in 28 chairs, while a teacher lectured up front).
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 tackle my concerns in a methodical way, seeking out experts, talking to teachers and principals, and befriending Chinese students. Among my questions: What price do the Chinese pay for unrivaled academic achievement? The world seemed to hail Chinaâ€™s march toward education superstardom, but 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 in that classroom 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 academically stressfulâ€”for all its students, and this goes for university all the way down to preschool. For example, a decade ago, the education ministry printed up development guidelines for toddlers, and fired them off to kindergarten teachers all over the country. It included instructions most Western educators would do as a matter of reflex, (but which Chinese teachers might consider radical): â€śMaintain happy emotions for childrenâ€ť; â€śEncourage them to explore and be curiousâ€ť; and even thisâ€” â€śDo not beat young children!â€ť Yes, the Chinese government needed to spell this out.
Q.: If China wants to soften the edges on its school system, what explains what you saw in that classroom? Iâ€™ve also heard about student suicides in China from academic pressure (which has also gotten lots of attention in major U.S. cities, too).
Â What most Westerners donâ€™t realize is that for years, China has been scrutinizing other systems, including American, British and Australian schools, to learn how to nurture the â€śwhole child,â€ť and to encourage such qualities as creativity and individuality. The Chinese are driven by the fear that theyâ€™ve figured out how to deliver hard skills like math and science, but that their kids arenâ€™t critical thinkers or collaborative workers. (These are things that the U.S. system generally does well, and we should celebrate that). As we all know, the marketplace for college admissions and jobs is increasingly global, and we need our kids to be highly-skilled, and flexible and creative to be able to compete well. 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, test-based education system, and a deep-seated, authoritarian culture in the classroom. 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 year. Hereâ€™s the trouble: The factory jobs that awaited their low-skilled parents a generation ago, are either being replaced by automation, or are migrating over to Vietnam, India, Indonesia. Globalization hasnâ€™t been all roses for the Chinese, either, and Chinaâ€™s leadership is very worried about this growing threat to stability and prosperity. (This is Chinaâ€™s own populism problem, its own â€śRust Beltâ€ť shutdown, if you will).
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! As a result, 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. Teachers are to be respected above all else in China, and direct challenges are simply not tolerated. (My son almost got kicked out of school over my disagreement with nurses about the best way to treat his asthma). But, I learned. It was a slow awakening, a realization that I needed to trust my sonâ€™s teachersâ€”who are highly trained, though I might disagree with some of their methodsâ€”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. Teachers also enjoy a boost in power and regard because in China, education is so closely tied with life prospects. (Fail a fearsome test called the gaokao, and a student wonâ€™t go on to college). Teachers oversee so much that is important in China, and theyâ€™re automatically put on a pedestal. Of course, because of the power they 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 a very 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, and two young teenagers Iâ€™ve followed for years illustrate these dichotomies. Darcy planned to join the Communist Party by 18, and he was a very practical kid. He did everything expected by his parents and by society, 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. Chinaâ€™s education system is not yet strong, and only if the trunk grows well can the flowers blossom.â€ť On the flip side, Amanda was a Chinese school misfit; she preferred reading Western philosophy to memorizing Qing Dynasty poems, and her novel ideas werenâ€™t welcome in the classroom. She was gradually ostracized, and suffered intense periods of disillusionment. Fortunately, she was admitted into an elite U.S. university, where she excelled. The kicker is, even after finding her escape from Chinese society, she realized her rigorous Shanghai education had been world-class. She made a discovery as an undergraduate that most mathematicians twice her age would be lucky to stumble upon, 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, and must be creative and flexible? Do American students have a leg up in this area?
I do hear complaints: American, European, Australian executives at Fortune 500 companies operating in China tell me they have trouble finding great Chinese employees. They want outside-the-box thinkers who can motivate others and anticipate challenges, and they feel theyâ€™re not getting that. I always ask them to consider first 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, and recognize as part of the creative process. Thatâ€™s important! For the Chinese, itâ€™s true these arenâ€™t practiced habits, but in the best-case scenario, they may simply need training and a chance to put skills to use. Yet the balance is complicated. Western millennials have issues, too; research shows they have fragile self-esteems, theyâ€™re impatient, they want a promotion six months into a new job. These are all problems weâ€™ll have to solve. 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 U.S. public schools, but I came home to my very strict Chinese parents, who plotted mine and my sisterâ€™s paths to test perfection and advanced degrees. In Chinese culture, thereâ€™s an almost unnatural respect for test scores and achievement thatâ€™s measured in a very quantitative way. Itâ€™s the lingering aftereffect of a society structured around an exam-based system since imperial times. 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. Certainly, there are negatives and positives to this kind of approach: Growing up inside the competitive environment my parents created left me with a persistent, nagging feeling that I would be left behind. However, knowing where I stood helped motivate me in key areas of my life: I could always summit the mountain with enough well-directed effort. In Western education, competition in academics has become such a bad word. 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 of the do you think it would be wise for the U.S. to adopt?
No. 1 is the emphasis on hard work over innate talent, or what I call â€śChinese-style grit.â€ť Every child in Chinaâ€”regardless of socioeconomic status or geographyâ€”has parents whoâ€™ve told him from toddlerhood that he can study hard, learn math and science, and eventually become the premier of China if he puts his mind to it. This cultural attitude grants the government great power when it tries to improve education. The people are on board when their leaders insist that educating their kids well ensures a countryâ€™s economic future. (In America, we are still fighting battles that squander precious time, such as whether math is important, or whether homework destroys creativity). Also, the Chinese worship their teachers, and train them well, and the trickle-down benefits are immense. (Amanda and Darcy still go back and visit their primary school teachers, 20 years later). 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. (American teachers tend to be generalists in the primary school years). That means Chinese children are exposed from a very early age to instructors schooled at a high level of expertise and content knowledge. Whatâ€™s more, a Chinese child quickly learns that education matters; as just one signal, parents are expected to be full partners in a childâ€™s schooling, signing daily homework books and tests to acknowledge receipt. Those are just a few examples of what we could learn from the Chinese way.
Q.: What should we eschew emulating?
Among other things, we should obviously avoid the slow brainwash of Chinaâ€™s political curriculum. As a toddler, Rainey learned to play-march like Peopleâ€™s Liberation Army soldiers, chortle the lyrics to â€śThe East is Red,â€ť and sketch out portraits of Mao Zedong. The Communist Party wields its heavy hand in the classroom, censoring texts, banning topics of discussion, and inserting patriotism into the curriculum all the way through college. Yet, students sense a disconnect between what theyâ€™re taught in school (government provides for you) and what they see happening in real life (government officials enriching themselves). 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).
Also, Chinaâ€™s high-stakes testing exerts a stranglehold on society, pinning children under the weight of their books and prompting incidents of cheating across schools. This is due, in part, to the link between performance and rewardâ€”Chinese teachers get bonuses when their students score well, and schools are ranked on graduation rates, just to name a few. In America, there is growing political pressure to hold teachers and schools accountable. Chinaâ€™s school reformers would warn us: Tread carefully.
Q.: What is the biggest thing you learned after seven years of living in China, and five years of grappling with your son in local Chinese school?
Through all of this, I realized that children are much more resilient than I ever imagined. I threw my young, non-Mandarin speaking little boy into a foreign new world, where he was required to learn a second language, adapt to an unfamiliar environment, and find a comfortable place in it. After early struggles, heâ€™s done this brilliantly, and in the process, heâ€™s become a funny, generous, and curious young boy (who can do triple-digit arithmetic a couple of years earlier than the standard American curriculum). The world is rapidly changingâ€”Americans are now competing with Chinese, French, Indians and Australians for college admissions and later, workâ€”and we need to educate our kids for jobs we canâ€™t even foresee. Our duty is to equip our children not only with world-class technical skills, but also with that flexibility they need to thrive in an uncertain world. Our son will take his confidence, grit and adaptability into the future. Try something new and radically different in your education and parenting journey! You just might be surprised at the results.