As I’ve been learning, the Chinese and Western ways of learning are vastly different. For starters, they work much, much harder. (They laughed, actually laughed in disbelief, when I told them our school day is from about 8:00-2:30. They start earlier and often go until 9 p.m. and then stay up till midnight doing homework. And that is not just in high school, but middle school as well.)
In my speaking classes we watched a documentary, American Teen, which chronicles the senior year of 4 high school students in America. I thought it would be interesting for them to see what a typical American high school is like.
Afterwards we talked about some similarities (such as pressure to go to college) and differences with their schooling. As you can imagine, there were a lot of differences. But I wasn’t so interested in the big general differences such as the length of school days, or the ‘no dating’ policy of high schools, but rather the small details, the things we take for granted, and the things that usually make a big impact.
One difference my student pointed out between the movie and his high school was bookshelves. We don’t have bookshelves in our classrooms, he said. I asked around and it turns out almost no one had a bookshelf in their room. I know it’s not a big deal or anything, but no bookshelf? I mean, they spend 12+ hours a day in the same room, and the teacher doesn’t even have a bookshelf for the class to share books, or put reference material? The students said they had to have their own books which they kept on their desks (a mountain of books, they all described it as.)
And of course they don’t have lockers. Another small detail, but upon thinking about it I realized lockers play a big part in school social life. Everyone decorates them to express their personality, friends slip notes into the grate for you to find next class, and if you want to ‘accidentally’ run into a boy you camp out by his locker. Small details, but big differences.
One student asked me if the Student Union had much power. I said that student groups have social power. That is, they make decisions over things like prom location and yearbook themes but had no real power over the schools academics, or policies. “Why,” I said. “Do Chinese Student Union members have power in your high school?”
Turns out yes. The members of the Student Union monitor the other students as they do their morning exercise regime. If you are not active enough, or not following directions, they rat you out and you get in serious trouble. The same goes for the eye rejuvenation exercises. Every day, twice a day, the student had to close their eyes for 5 minutes while placing their fingers on their upper brows in a specific manner. They were told that this was good for their eyes. The Student Union members walked around and made sure that everyone kept their eyes closed.
Keep in mind these details aren’t just in one school, but in every school. My students are from all different cities, and yet they did the exact some things in their schools. (They even had the exact same text books.)
I was also taken aback to find out in primary school they had to all sit in the same exact position. Elbows on the table, arms crossed with hands gripping the opposite elbow crook. They had to sit like that all day long, and it is a vivid memory for them still. (They all acted it out for me.) How could young students actually sit like that all day? To me it seems astonishing; to them it’s just a fact.
On the first day of class I tell my students that I am not only the teacher, but the student as well. I use the students in speaking class to teach me things about Chinese culture that I didn’t know about. After all, that’s why I’m here. Not to press western culture on them, but to discuss the differences, and to learn as much as I can. For that I’m grateful for my students in helping me understand the culture a little bit more. (Though, for the record, I’m not sure I will ever truly understand Chinese culture!)
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