China’s Education System Made Me an Individual

David Wei Jiang.

I am an American born Chinese who has been studying in China for the past 5 years. I am currently enrolled as a sophomore in Fudan University studying Software Engineering, and prior to that I spent a few years at Shanghai’s Yan An Middle School (上海延安中学).

Let’s get something straight, anyone from the U.S. who spends this much time in China is usually crazy. I’d like to think that I didn’t really have a choice. After all, for most of us, even up to University, we are simply pawns of our parents. So here I am. I’m having trouble justifying the cost of going back to the U.S. since my experience in China has left me quite jaded to the entire concept of “higher education” in general.

Throughout my years in China I have been most affected by its education system. At Yan An Middle School, one of the top schools in Shanghai, I had a first hand glimpse at how people in China prepared for the University Entrance Exams, the notorious “Gao Kao”. I even spent my entire high school senior year preparing WITH them, even though I wouldn’t have to participate in the exams.

Yes, I’m probably a bit loony in the head. I think all through that time, I was trying to rationalize my existence. You see, back in the U.S., I was a dorky geek. I had almost no social life, few friends, but perfect grades. I took “Gifted and Talented Classes”, took the SAT’s 4 years early (1400/1600), and was well on my way to becoming an introverted scholar-guy receiving an above average salary for doing some technical job most people would find boring, like database management or whatever.

On looking around, I realized that EVERYONE seemed to have the exact same personality as me. This made be feel uncomfortable. At least in the U.S., I could justify my lack of social grace with “intelligence”.

Although I tried rather hard to adjust, even becoming above average at math and earning some respect from the teacher because of that, I eventually got tired of trying to reclaim some “former glory”, trying to be who I “was”, and turned to trying to be more of an individual, who I could be. What I saw around me was a mass of zombies, and most of them were better than me at what I was trying to do. It was a slap in the face to my self-esteem as well as my sense of self. I thought that by taking the easy route (taking classes with the other foreigners) was akin to running away, but I realize now that true courage lies in being willing to make great changes. Life here was practically the same as before: being a bookworm, minus the good grades.

As high-school came to an end, a choice of University loomed. Quite apprehensive at returning to the states by myself, I elected to enroll at Fudan University. After all, my mother had studied there and it was nearby in Shanghai as well.

I had high hopes for University. It was a place that would be radically different than high school, a temple of knowledge to better yourself, and an asylum for those who just didn’t think they were ready for the real world. Here I would grow and develop. It would be a welcome change from the single-mindedness of the system before that only gave a damn about the Gao Kao.

It was really far too much to ask. Youth is quickly deceived only because it is quick to hope.

I’m sure that anyone who has spent time studying in China knows about these problems so I won’t elaborate.

Here’s what is in my opinion a great article (Chinese): 今天你翘了吗?”——我们为何对上课失去热情.

Of course, despite half the classes that couldn’t be understood by anybody, and the other half where no one listened to anything,I had to deal with issues specific to foreigners here. For those who don’t know, for some odd reason, foreign students in China are considered second-class. Since China is a culture that idolizes “intelligence”, grades, and social orthodox, most foreigners are seen as dumb clowns who paid their way in to mess around the campus.

While in the U.S., foreign students are treated the same as local students. In China, we are privy to a higher “entrance fee”, a lower status, and an assortment of seemingly random rules. I couldn’t, for example, get a dorm with my classmates but had to live in a “special” building which was literally hundreds of times more expensive. It was also a single dorm. This was rather annoying when I needed help reading a policy booklet, doing homework, and general camaraderie in general.

It really is hard to explain this feeling of being stereotyped and considered a lesser person for something that has nothing to do with you. To walk into a group and instantly feel left out. It hurts in a way that tints your views on everything in a negative way…

Sometimes I wonder where I would be if I had stayed in the U.S. but I feel as if my time in China has become an inseparable part of who I am now. I have no idea what the future holds for me, but I feel as though I have crossed paths with a culture I can’t deny. It is here that everything I based my sense of self on was taken away. Left with nothing, I was forced to rediscover who I really am. Though I’m far from finding the answer, and it’s far from painless…it feels more “right”. It’s here that I felt what could be described as racism, which perhaps has left me more empathetic than I was before. It’s here that I realized how shallow grades were and how much more important social dynamics were. It’s here that I realized that despite my prior success in science and mathematics, I had never been interested in these subjects intrinsically, and I had succeeded only for the status success in these fields brought me.

It is here that I was forcibly taken from Plato’s Cave and thrust into the light. Here I am, eyes burning…stinging…seeing a reality that I do not want. Yet in a way, this truth is liberating.

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  • Xiao_hei_hei

    I totally agree, sorry for my lack of response, but I agree. Love your writing style too!

  • Xiaolong

    Excellent article!

    Your experience will certainly be very helpful for me, even tho’ my blood is not chinese.

    Thanks to a scholarship I won (the OAS-China scholarship) I’m going to China next September to study mandarin and then an undergraduate program. I’m very happy about it, but certainly very afraid too. Being a laowai is not always easy.

    Like you, I have always been a straight-A student. Managed to enroll in the best high school of my home country and managed to bypass the university entrance tests, but helped my friends with theirs anyway. But this comfortable nerdy life is certainly about to change as soon as I arrive to China.

    For what I can read in your article, I’ll not only have to deal with some racism there, but also with a huge slap in the face to my self image too, which will certainly make me grow up and perhaps force me into building up my individuality.

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us all!

    • 老虎

      Phillips Exeter Academy?

      • Xiaolong

        Sadly not, I don’t live in the US.

  • Dawei

    Good article.

    As an employer, we spend months and even years de-programing students who come out of the top universities in China. They are all very smart but have been so boxed in that they find it very difficult to think laterally and to take any sort of initiative or leadership role that may expose them to any risk. It is a rare gem that survives the education mill and still has their freedom of thought intact.

    Higher education is about teaching people to think not remember facts.

  • anon

    To be honest, you still sound rather angry and bitter. I can’t help but take away that you discovered that other students in China are better than you at math and science, which understandably made you question the amount of pride and self-worth you placed in excelling at them, but now you’re grasping for something else to define your self-worth…and that thing could be social dynamics and individualism, which is every bit the stereotype that “excelling academically” is for “Chinese” students.

    I mean, what are you going to do when you go to the West or some place where people are better than you at that? Will your sense of self be taken away again, and you’re forced to rediscover yourself again?

    • Xiao_hei_hei

      It’s almost like you stopped reading after the second paragraph… This article/piece of writing clearly goes deeper than being pissed off because of low grades and lack of self identity.

      • anon

        That’s why I said “you still sound”, because that was the lasting impression I had after reading it to the end.

        I understand that he feels he has come to terms with being disappointed with not having as high grades as his Chinese peers and thus losing that aspect of his self-identity. But I openly wonder if he really has. That’s my reaction and why I wrote my comment. I feel like he’s substituting one stereotypical self-identity for another because he can, because he happens to be able to claim both a Chinese and American background, so he can switch from claiming one or the other based upon whatever environment he is in. In America, he relished in his superior academic performance. When confronted with it being less impressive in China, he felt his identity took a hit and now (to me) appears to be trying to piggyback his identity on “individualism” and “social dynamics”. I understand that I’m also stereotyping these things as belonging to one national/ethnic identity over another, but I think you can understand what I’m saying.

        It’s good that he’s being confronted with these things and he’s grappling with them. That, we can certainly say, is being thrust into the light. That he feels he’s being forced to confront a reality he doesn’t want can be lauded. And, to his credit, he’s far from finding his “answer”. I admire that. I have a harder time identifying with the angst in the earlier majority of his article and I’m not sure he’s heading in a “better” direction, but I do applaud him reflecting upon the matter overall.

  • I think this is fantastic! It is really refreshing to hear about what I see around me from a foreign student’s point of view. Especially a Chinese heritage, Chinese speaking foreign student. One of my fellow foreign teachers learned Chinese well enough to become a student in agriculture here, and I got some of the same feedback from him, but he went into all of it with a feeling of superiority and I never fully trusted what he was saying.

    I also love that you mention Plato’s Cave, which I’ve found to be one of the most powerful teaching tools for getting Chinese students to open their minds to new ideas.

  • David Jiang

    To reply to anon, I guess I am still a bit bitter, after all I AM still in the system. The thing I’ve realized though is that your sense of self worth needs to be inherent, not based on outside factors like your grades.

    There is ALWAYS someone who is better than you. Based on this, every boyfriend who truly loves his girlfriend would realize this and find this better person to be with his girlfriend.

    It’s not like I’m exalting western individualism, after all some collectivist cultures work rather well. Japan for example is known for its creativity even though its education system is just as rigid as China’s.

    What I think a lot of students in China and Asian Americans (and asians elsewhere) need to realize is that a lot of people grow up in their parent’s shadows. Their sense of self worth is never attributed to themselves. Even when they succeed, the parents take all the credit, after all, who chose the school, who applied the pressure, who tutored the math?

    Most families are dysfunctional, and those of a Chinese culture dysfunctional in a specific ways. People in China care a lot about 面子 for example, to put it crassly, they’re perfectionist glory hogs who like to self-deprecate themselves while simultaneously accidentally showing off their success. Without a safety buffer from family and society that allows failure, people are unwilling to take chances and just do what they’re told. Then when they fail, they have someone or something to blame. Sometimes it easier to be wrong together than be right alone.

    I think its more important to be able to look yourself in the mirror and be proud of who you are and what you’ve done, both your successes and failures than to have someone else, even your parents, do it for you. I haven’t yet reached this goal, but I’m trying my best.

    • anon

      I’m not worried about you exalting Western individualism as much as I was worried you were swinging too far into it as an alternative way to define yourself against others. You are absolutely correct in understanding that your sense of self-worth should not be based on outside factors.

      Of course, I think it is unavoidable to measure ourselves based upon outside stimuli but the key is to not put too much of our self-worth on any one thing because we’re more than just our grades, our “individualism”, our “social dynamics”. When our “self” is understood as a plurality of aspects, hits to any one aspect do less damage to our sense of self and self-worth. Reading what you’ve said here in this comment, I think I can feel less worried.

      I will add, though, that if most families are dysfunctional, then what is functional? How do we define a functional family? Or are we in danger of saying a family is more functional or dysfunctional versus a family? I’m not so sure about that. I think that’s more lazy stereotype and value prejudice than anything, an extension of (for example) the whole Tiger Mom controversy. Particularly second-generation East-Asian-Americans tend to grapple with collectivist/individualist values that I think are sometimes a bit overwrought and becoming more stereotype cop-outs than genuinely useful.

      Anyway, thank you for replying to my comment and addressing what concerns I had after reading your article. I think you’re a smart guy and will figure things out for yourself, and I wish you the best.

      • David Jiang

        Thanks for the feedback, I appreciate it. Although individualism is the attitude of thinking for yourself, I think that the concept of “Western Individualism” is actually, or has become, a stereotype.

        I also believe that all families may well be dysfunctional but I attempt to treat it like an unescapable aspect of life, like old age or death. The point is to realize its inevitability and deal with it. If you place too much faith into the ideal of a functional family, you set yourself up for disappointment. A pessimist is a pessimist because the world does not live up to his expectations, but this is only because those expectations were so unreasonable to begin with.

        By realizing that you have a “dysfunctional” or simply imperfect family, you allow yourself more credit and can come to the conclusion that your ideas are perfectly OK and can be acted upon rather than acting like an order following employee who hands over all failures as well as successes to the “boss”.

        It is true that in attempting to justify the injustice of one system, that people often swing completely into the other camp. Some students for example completely give up on their educations, never going to class, cheating, taking up smoking or whatever else can be considered rebellious. Still others have been so mentally pummeled (“Learned Helplessness”) that when the inadequacy and falseness of their lives catches up to them that they see no other escape than walking off the nearest skyscraper. The human mind for all its sophistication is more suited for rationalization than for seeking out the truth. Walking the middle line is difficult and I appreciate both the upbeat commendations as well as the differing views from everyone.

        • anon

          David, yes, I agree! I agree that “Western individualism” has become a stereotype AND I believe being many things some would call dysfunctional are an inescapable aspect of life, even an idiosyncrasy that needn’t be worried over and even embraced for itself.

  • 老虎

    Your paragraph about how foreigners are looked as “second-class” is interesting. I think that the schools promote or allow the foreigners to have special privileges. I was recently touring 北外 with a Chinese friend and the dorms they lived in did not have air condition, were not as modern, and had a 12 o’clock curfew but she quickly pointed out that the foreigners living quarters were much nicer and of course they had more freedoms.

    But then again it is different for everyone and I have seen both sides…
    Because one of my waiguo friends is enrolling at Bei Da and he is taking economics classes 100% in Chinese and is the only foreigner in the class. The Chinese students actually place him in a “higher status” than they would most people…but then again he goes to Harvard…

    Anyways ill re-read my post in the morning to see if it makes any sense then because I feel like I am rambling at 2 AM.

    out

    • David Jiang

      The dorms for the locals may be 100 times worse than those for the foreigners but they’re also 100 times more cheaper. It’s not that the “best” resources have been allocated to the VIPs but simply the result of economic considerations.

      To place the negativity of the attitude towards foreign students into perspective you need to keep in the mind the Koreans. For reasons unknown to me, Koreans make the the majority of the foreign student body. They are referred to derogatorily as “Bang Zi” or 棒子. Not sure what it means, but it’s probably the same as being called a Chink or a Nigger. The actual reasons for this negativity from what I can tell is seemingly because they actively flaunt their wealth, are somewhat arrogant, and end up in the best schools despite being what many Chinese consider idiots. It flies into their faces like: “You can work as hard as you want but your life will never be as good as mine.”

      The ill will is never expressed in a confrontational way, but for a foreign student who looks exactly like a Chinese, hangs out with the locals, and can understand the sarcastic and scathing undertones of what people say, it creates a depressing environment for myself. Unlike “true” foreigners, I have not grown up in a culture that gives me the traits of extroversion and forwardness that allows me to make an impression rather than be subject to one.

      For example, often my criticisms of Chinese education for example are met with rebuttals like: “Well, you’re a foreign student so you probably never go to class. You shouldn’t make ungrounded ignorant assumptions.” This is despite me being in the minority of people that actually DO go to class everyday. People not listening, not coming, and not understanding classes in China is accepted as the norm, however I have kept a habit of always arriving because Western teachers don’t put up with such disrespect.

      BTW, keep in mind that my use of the word “second-class” is an exaggeration. The feeling I’m trying to express is that it doesn’t feel good to be considered an idiot as soon as you introduce yourself.

      • anon

        Hang around Koreans enough (in Korea) and you’ll quickly learn that many of them see the Koreans who go to China to study as the underperformers or slackers that failed to get into a decent school in Korea, not unlike the Chinese kids who end up going to vocational schools or otherwise third-rate universities throughout China. The enmity between Chinese and Koreans (especially the male population) is stereotypical, as is Korean “arrogance”. Given the close proximity, it isn’t surprising that there are a lot of Korean (and Japanese) students in China but the stereotypes hold that the Koreans tend to be substantially more arrogant and aggressive than the more reserved and “polite” Japanese students.

  • David Jiang

    Note that my issues and personal views are from my experiences which are a product of my position which is of an incredibly minority group. To date, I have not met any American or even Western born Chinese who has studied for such a long period in China and has mostly taken classes WITH the locals as myself.

    In a way I can offer an insider’s view along with a unique western perspective, but only to the extent that my personal prejudices do no narrow my point of view.

    Thanks to everyone who has pointed out some of my exaggerations but keep in mind that what one thinks, what one says, and what one does are usually not related. The words I choose may not be the most accurate description of reality, not may my emotional state be truly free of prejudice or a vengeful feeling of injustice.

    Of course what’s important whenever you’re reading what someone writes or listening to what someone says, is not a pedantic analysis of the semantic meaning of words applied in sequence, but the meaning that person is trying to express. This is something I learned when I started out learning Chinese. I found that constant interruptions pointing out my inaccurate accenting of characters of inaccurate use of a word incredibly annoying when I was passionately trying to express a feeling.

    • 老虎

      Bang Zi comes from when the Chinese fought the koreans and their only weapon was sticks…

      Anyways I understand what your saying only because I did know a lot of the foreigners you are speaking about, but then again I also know more foreigners who are in China to study and do a full immersion. There are always two sides but I believe that the foreigners who do not give a shit are more prevalent.

      Good post, enjoyed reading it.

  • Peter

    “Youth is quickly deceived only because it is quick to hope”
    Is this you? I like it.
    Cool article – interesting. Imagine how you would feel living as a white person in China, some limited benefits but so many barriers.

  • Bill Hung

    “While in the U.S., foreign students are treated the same as local students. ”
    This is NOT true. US foreign students pay much higher fees and are discriminated. In my experience it’s $16k local vs $26k foreign per year for tuition fee. And 3.2GPA local vs 4.0GPA foreign student for admission grade.

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  • Hi David,

    Great article. I particularly liked how the pressure you felt from being yet another face in a faceless crowd helped you define yourself. In the US, I suppose wanting to fit in with the mainstream is the general wish, but when brought to China, I admire your desire to differentiate yourself, but at the same time, doing it within the system — taking the GaoKao!

    Anyway, I’m also a Chinese-American. I’m in BJ, and have attended school in both China and the US. Send me a note, I’m working on a funded startup, and I have a feeling that you would appreciate a chance to work on something beyond the confines of the Chinese university.

    No shenanigans, I was previously associate at a VC firm (Trilogy VC) that invests only in Chinese student led startups. I quit to do this startup.

    • David

      Hey Steven,

      Sorry to reply so late but I haven’t checked these comments for quite a while =(

      I would be glad to know some more information about your startup, you can contact me at dlwjiang[a]gmail[dot]com

  • dirtman

    hey just curious, how old were you when you started learning mandarin. did you only start to learn it once you went back to china? i am curious because i myself am a overseas born chinese looking to ‘rediscover’ myself in china once i am done with my undergrad studies in the states

  • 1234

    Nice article! I completely agree with you. I experienced the same feelings when I switched to this really prestigious school where I wasn’t considered the smartest anymore. I had feelings of, “why try anymore? Everyone is better than me anyways.” and also realized how shallow a good grade actually is in the greater scheme of things. There are so many more important things in life! Stripped of my previous identity of being smart, I realized that I had nothing else. Cue feelings of depression.

    However, I realized that it doesn’t cancel the fact that I still am considered smart in society in general. Though I am not the smartest, it still remains part of my identity. Therefore, I refuse to give up on working hard, however futile my efforts may or may not be. I believe that it is possible to succeed in many areas if I try my best in all of them. So instead of feeling bitter or depressed, I feel motivated to work towards the light ahead. :)

  • West in Korea

    You are to be commended for maturity and clarity of insight David. I had a similar experience in university in then Communist Poland, as an American Born Pole. Your story brought back a lot of memories of similar experiences. One thing about the “special dorms”: I think they are east to explain in that, as in the old Soviet Bloc countries, your “special room” is surely bugged to high-heaven, probably even camera equipped. Keep up the good work, it will change you for the better. The experience will improve your critical thinking in many ways. You’ll end up “more American” but also more able to critique that background as well. From 1991-2006, I spent many days in China on cross border business, living in Hong Kong. PRC Chinese seemed more open in the 1990’s than more recently, to me anyway. Have you ever taken your language skills, etc. to Taiwan to check that Chinese version out?
    Your 15 July 2011 (4:13 PM) response was interesting too: I have lived in Korea since 2009. t is interesting to hear the PRC student attitude vis a vie Koreans. Koreans test extremenly well you know (great prep), so that could explain less than stellar performance upon entry. But I think there must be mostly jealously as a basis point for the PRC attitude you note: Korea has become a sort of pop culture factory (the Shenzhen of Asian Pop Culture) and it may not sit well that such small a small country with historical problems (even rather recent in the Korean war, etc.,) with China could be such an ecomomic and culural powerhouse. Koreans are flashy too: well dressed, etc. so it all rubs it in.

    • David

      Thanks for the comment. Much of my experiences comes from being somewhat stuck between two cultures. I’ve noticed that when talking about Chinese people or Americans, I always refer to said group as “they”, always considering myself an outside party. I suppose I’m caught in the crossfire.

      From what I hear, many of the Koreans in China are from richer families, the equivalent of the children of China’s government officials studying abroad in a country like Australia skipping the trouble of China’s entrance exams while going to school everyday with LV bags.

      As a minority, you will always be subject to minor degrees of prejudice, the cause is sometimes jealousy. Whatever the reason, it does not feel good.

  • wacky

    just one question
    why are you studying in china, isn’t education in the US better than in china?

  • Sunshine

    The land should be given some respect, but the people there are useless garbage. Wandering immoral materialists with no purpose. I thought capitalist Americans are bad enough but the Chinese have to be better. They strive harder doing the same things, being of the same social intelligence level just to survive if not escape poverty.

    Well, your desire to hang out longer with those garbage denotes your masochism but a masochist of course is certainly welcome to follow his heart about his own life.

  • Ghumbo

    trd

  • Natasha Tome van Tonder

    This was a very insightful read <3 Thank you so much for sharing your heart like this.

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