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Amber: Hey everybody! Welcome back to Amber and Victor’s Chinese Buffet. I am Amber.
Victor: 大家好 (dàjiā hǎo), 我是 (Wǒ shì) Victor.
Amber: And today’s episode is ‘Chewing the Fat – Education in China’.
Victor: Education. Very important topic.
Amber: So, ‘Chewing the Fats’, this segment encourages everyone to learn a little bit more diluent Chinese culture.
Victor: Right.
Amber: And don’t forget, if you have some questions about Chinese culture, you can also send it to us and we will investigate it on a future upcoming episode, thechinesebuffet@gmail.com. Okay. So Victor, you’ve been to the school in the West and in the East in China.
Victor: I’ve got the best of the both worlds.
Amber: So, you know there is a big contrast. And I have taught in China so I have a little bit familiarity and have some friends who’ve been stressed out by the…
Victor: By the students’ lives?
Amber: Of being a student in China. So first of all, why don’t you tell us, Victor, some contrast between China and the West as far as educational system? Because there are a lot of differences.
Victor: Right. Definitely. I think traditionally speaking, education is much more important to the culture. Historically, people have put a lot of value on education and sometimes, actually the official selection process for government officials historically have been based on exams what we call 考状元 (kǎo zhuàngyuán).
Amber: Yeah. It is a very test-oriented society.
Victor: Exactly. Since day one thousands of years ago, it’s been always like that. And people really pride themselves in being able to memorize the historical text and things like that.
Amber: Yeah, a lot of memorization.
Victor: A lot of memorization.
Amber: Heavy on the memorization.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: Well, that kind of maybe explains why also in Chinese culture teachers are very revered. It has a lot of status and people are very respectful of teachers, generally. Historically, even.
Victor: Right. Even in the classroom, it is much more solemn and serious setting. I moved to the US when I was 15. So, just about freshman year in high school. I remember the first day in high school, one of my teachers kind of leaned on her desk and kind of spoke to us with her arms crossed. I know it’s okay in the US but I remember just being totally shocked that a teacher could behave like that.
Amber: How would they behave in China? Stand up at the front?
Victor: Because… stand up in the front…
Amber: Very formal.
Victor: Very formal. You have all the best gestures, your physical gestures, and your stance is very important. And the students too. Young kids in China, they are always taught to sometimes put their hands behind their backs.
Amber: Even when they are sitting in class?
Victor: Right. Because you’re supposed to listen. You’re not supposed to do anything else.
Amber: They can’t fidget with their pencils, or anything?
Victor: No, nothing like that. We call this thing 小动作 (xiǎodòngzuò), like “little actions” underneath their desk? That’s not allowed.
Amber: I see! Well, I do remember too like experiencing Chinese teacher even in an English class. Chinese teachers were very strict and yelling a lot. Like, they run a tight shift. And they always thought that Western teachers were like, if we want to play games with the kids or something, they’ll be like ‘no’. It’s not learning.
Victor: Yeah. So, the idea of learning is very different. Although sometimes, there have been some questions about… just in terms of developing students creativity in that kind of environments. It’s not very conducive to helping students to learn on their own.
Amber: That’s true. I think that’s a valid point. Another thing is that, the class size. In China, the classes are very big. At times, even 80 to 100 students in one class.
Victor: Much bigger. Yep.
Amber: Which I think is also hard because it’s difficult for the teacher to maintain order when there’s so many kids behind their back. 80 hands to look at.
Victor: Yeah. You raise your hand when you want to speak and you have to stand up when you speak in class always. Sometimes in US, you can just sit there and say whatever but in China, you have to stand up.
Amber: And also, there is some sort of rigid structure to certain things. Like, I know there is military exercises. I remember the school by my house in China. I’ll hear some songs every morning and they are all like outside, lined up, marching, etc. Another thing is the eye exercises.
Victor: Yeah. The eye exercises.
Amber: That is definitely compulsory every day. What is it? Like rolling your eyes…?
Victor: It’s kind of like this light version of eye massage. Because you know, students spend so much time in the classrooms and you don’t go out as often.
Amber: Yeah.
Victor: And just to, I guess, to help with your eyesight.
Amber: I think all this writing in Chinese characters ruins all of your eyes because every Chinese person I know wears glasses.
Victor: Yeah, a lot!
Amber: Every kid!
Victor: Because they’re always studying. The little kids are always memorizing things and stuff like that.
Amber: So, like the eye exercise has done maybe worse.
Victor: Yeah. So you know, the students in the West, especially in US, they’re having a lot easier.
Amber: Yeah. I think definitely being a student in the West is a lot easier. What are the school hours? Are they like… we’re basically like 8:30 till 3:00 or something.
Victor: Yeah. School hours can be quite long. Well actually, maybe pretty the same in normal school here from 7:40-ish to 2 o’clock or 3 o’clock? But when the final exams come, the hours can become very unpredictable.
Amber: Okay. Now that brings us to another huge part of education in China which is this final exam. Basically, it’s the exam that every student in China is…basically like the combination of all their childhood years of studying and pressure and tutors because this test basically determines the rest of your life outcome, kind of.
Victor: Unlike the students in the West, the students in China have to pass the high school entrance exam and if you pass that, you go on to high school and then the big one, the national phenomenon is the college entry exam.
Amber: Yeah. And all based on your marks. Whatever mark you get, that determines which school you’ll rank and get into, which therefore in turn, determines what kind of career you’re probably going to have.
Victor: Right.
Amber: It’s called the… what’s it called, Victor?
Victor: It’s called 高考 (gāokǎo).
Amber: If you say this word to any student in China, it can bring on shudders of emotions, crying. It’s stressful.
Victor: This is serious because it happens only once a year. It’s kind of like the American equivalence of the SATs or the ACTs. It only happens once a year. So, if you miss your chance, you got to wait another year. This is like a big deal in the Chinese students’ life and it’s very strict. It usually happens in early June.
Amber: Students stress about this test so much so like…
Victor: And the parents.
Amber: And the parents too. They put so much pressure because often they only have one child as well. So, all their hopes is placed on this child’s back.
Victor: Students spend a lot of time preparing for the exam. On the exam day, like this whole nation…actually a couple of days. So, the whole country just becomes all focused on this exams. And students go through extreme before and during exam trying to do the best they can and sometimes… there is actually in New York Times article a few months ago about exam and then one of the things that mentioned is sometimes students will eat for breakfast. Their favourite is like a sausage and two eggs because it kind of represents ‘100’ which is the perfect mark on the exam.
Amber: That’s so perfect.
Victor: It’s like their favourite breakfast choice.
Amber: It’s like brain food.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: So, your mom would be cooking after the 100% breakfast.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: And also, their parents put so much pressure on the kids. For example, there is this one mother that her son did the test and he didn’t even rank a second tertiary university because his mark wasn’t high enough. And she basically yelled at her son. She’s like, “I cooked and cleaned and washed your clothes for all these years and this is how you repay me?” Poor kid.
Victor: A lot of heartache. It’s a very grueling process I’d say. But they also has to do a lot with cultural prestige education is attached to.
Amber: Students graduate from a certain university that the better companies will only hire students from the better universities. Is that why or…?
Victor: I think generally speaking, a degree from Otago University carries a lot of weight and that’s kind of like seen as your entrance to a better life. It may not be necessarily the case but at least in people’s minds, that’s what it is. With the most famous being Tsinghua University and Beijing University which is like equivalence of, I don’t know, like Harvard or Cambridge in the West.
Amber: And you can see because there is so many people in China and probably proportionately the amount of schools and spaces available is quite small. So, that is a lot of competition.
Victor: I think most of it comes down to limited resources because in China, according to various reports, there are about 2000 colleges and universities in China just for higher education which is slightly lower than the number in the US, but the population is much more.
Amber: Yes. Much like three times more.
Victor: Exactly. And as you can imagine, competition for higher education is very, very stiff.
Amber: Now speaking of being crammed, they do cram the students into the universities though. And one thing I have heard of a lot like say for example, what university in life is like. One thing is that the dorms is very crowded.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: My friend, she told me stories how there was basically eight of them in a room but the beds were stacked up. It was a very tiny room and she said that there wasn’t even a fan and it gets very, very hot in summer. She said that they could only shower certain time of the night. Like they weren’t allowed to take a shower when they wanted to. She said it’s extremely intense.
Victor: More rules, I guess. But I think though… because I never went to college in China but from the things I’ve seen and things I’ve heard, those cramped environments usually are very good for memory-making. People who do have to suffer through those things. They’d look back and say that was not so easy but it was really, really fun because you create a lot of memories with the people that you live within a small space. And another thing: because of the education system is so strict in many, many ways, much more so than in the US or at the rest of the world, dating is not really encouraged at all.
Amber: Yeah, exactly. My friend told me that even in college you’re not allowed to date. Is that true, Victor? They said you had to hide it. You couldn’t walk around and kiss and hold hands.
Victor: Now is a lot better. Just 10 years ago from my memories, it definitely is still in middle school and high school is a big no-no. And people do it behind the teacher’s back whenever but you’ll never do that openly because the argument is that it’s really distracting in studies and that’s your main goal. As a student, that’s all you should be doing.
Amber: Yes. Chinese students are much more focused and not playing beer-pong and, like, getting drunk every night like they are in the West.
Victor: They’re carrying heavy backpacks and learning English words.
Amber: Now, there is one other thing that kind of is a big criticism sometimes that people have about Chinese education system is that it’s very heavy as you mentioned on the memorization. But often, creativity is not at all encouraged or developed.
Victor: Right.
Amber: I think the artistic skills aren’t much valued as much as academic skills. Like I know I had a friend too who is very artistic but her parents were bent on her being a doctor like it’s every parent's dream to make their child a doctor. So, she had a real struggle with that because it’s true. Their creative skills didn’t pay very well and she wanted to please her parents. In the end, she did what her parents said.
Victor: Right. So, it’s all kind of tied into the idea of survival. Give society a job. In the West, it is too but so much more than in China.
Amber: Yeah, So, what about the thing? Is it true, Victor, that Asians are good at Math? I think it is. I don’t know, I feel like the Math part of my brain is an attribute so maybe I’m a more creative type, I don’t know. I can’t say that.
Victor: I acquired it through more training and much higher standard in China. I mean, rest of the Asia too I think. Probably. But in China we have to memorize the multiplication table from early age and you had your test at almost every day and all the time. So, it is just kind of ingrained in your brain. It’s just part of you. You always know it. Not necessarily you can think of it but you just know it automatically.
Amber: It’s true. One of my English students moved to Canada and then he went into college. And he said that other subjects were difficult. He had to catch up. But, the Math he was already at college-level although he was trying to get some high school classes.
Victor: That was in my case too when I first moved here from high school. Like we mentioned earlier, with the huge population and only limited numbers of schools, education has or the like of it in many especially rural areas has raised the attention of the government and the society in general for the past decade or so in China.
Amber: It’s true because the kids in the cities have much better opportunities and more access to schools, things like that.
Victor: Right. So, since 1989, the China Youths Development Foundation has sponsored like a social charity network called The Hope Project. It’s called 希望工程 (xīwàng gōngchéng) and it’s one of the biggest project in China. And it’s aimed at improving educational conditions and a system in mostly rural areas in China.
Amber: Well, that’s good. So they’re building schools and stuff like that?
Victor: Yes. So since 1989, they’ve raised a lot of money, about 3.5 billion Yuan and built about 13,000, what they call the Hope elementary schools in China. The 希望小学 (xīwàng xiǎoxué) in various areas that have been lagging behind in education.
Amber: That’s good.
Victor: So, yeah. Like encouraging teachers to go over there and teach and helping the countryside’s to improve its educational status.
Amber: So, that’s it for the Chinese Buffet today and if you want to learn more Chinese or about Chinese culture, make sure come visit us at chineseclass101.com. We have lots of lessons there that can give you lots of insights about China and also teach you to speak Chinese. 再见 (zàijiàn)!
Victor: 再见 (zàijiàn).