This post comparing the daily lives of Chinese and American teens caught my eye and brought back a lot of memories. (It’s already a couple of weeks old; I just saw the link via Danwei.) American teens dream of “writing their own Aeneid,” and their teen years “are an endless drama: fights with parents over curfew, acne, not making the football team or cheerleading squad, break-ups, depression, anorexia, Waiting for Godot, anxiety, the prom.” Very different from their Chinese counterparts:
Boys and girls are not permitted to be near one meter of each other on school grounds, there’s a regulation haircut and school uniform, and there’s no mobile phone service and Internet access. All the students dress, look, act and think the same, and an administrator’s greatest pride is to see his 1000 students do calisthenics in synch on the soccer field. Walls and gates limit the movement of students, security cameras and the eyes of teachers track students, and if it were possible administrators would implant a signalling device on each student. If all this is still not enough to depress and stress out the Chinese teenager, then the head teacher and/or parent will now and then remind him that he’s worthless and useless.
The result of all this unreasonable and unnecessary repression is that Chinese students are remarkably polite and well-behaved. But at the end of their schooling they won’t be able to write their own Aeneid, (though maybe the more literary among them can write The Tale of Peter Rabbit). They will matriculate at a top university, but they will lack sympathy and empathy, which will hinder them from developing and managing personal and professional relationships; they won’t understand trust and tolerance, only power and fear. They may rise to a top management position, but lacking in self-understanding and self-reflection they’ll curse and criticize their subordinates, making the workplace a cold stagnant repressive regime.
Having skipped the tumultuous teenage years, Chinese are forever doomed to live as teenagers all their lives. Whereas Americans may be stubborn, moody, quick to anger, insecure, impetuous, condescending, extreme, and paranoid in their teenage years, Chinese may suffer from these psychological issues all their lives. The psychologists who wrote Reviving Ophelia, Raising Cain, and Real Boys may not be happy with how American families and schools are distorting the emotional development of children, but if they came to China they’d faint in horror and despair.
Based on my own experience, I’d have to say the writer is onto something. I worked with so many Chinese colleagues in China, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taibei, and it was interesting to see the differences and similarities in terms of maturity and ability to deal with issues and decision making. Not surprisingly, the Hong Kong and Taiwanese workers were generally better at problem solving and controlling their emotions, having grown up in a more developed, relatively free-thinking environment. They still had “face” issues, and sometimes things that I saw as trivial could set off tears, which I also saw frequently in Beijing. The Singaporean workers, at least in my office, could have been from New York or Paris. Especially stark was the difference between the average mainland Chinese worker and their colleagues who grew up in Vancouver or spent years studying abroad. It was as if they came from different planets. What a difference in personality and temperament, when the teen years are spent doing more than memorization.
Obviously, with so many students and so much poverty and such a deeply entrenched system this isn’t changing anytime soon. Like most other issues in China, it seems to be getting better, but very, very slowly. And just to make sure I’m clear (for the trolls): I have many friends who went through the Chinese educational system and never left the mainland. And they are the salt of the earth. Critical thinking, however, can be an issue for some of them. Some of them completely overcame these issues, and exposure to other cultures seemed to have been a big help.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.