The trouble with China’s teens

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.

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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.

The Discussion: 23 Comments

American teens dream of “writing their own Aeneid,”

I stopped reading after this sentence.

June 1, 2010 @ 11:06 am | Comment

Why, Hong Xing? Do you have something against Virgil?

June 1, 2010 @ 11:11 am | Comment

No, I have trouble reading stupid “observations”.

June 1, 2010 @ 11:14 am | Comment

Well, it may be a good idea if you actually read what the author has to say before trashing it. Just a friendly suggestion.

June 1, 2010 @ 11:18 am | Comment

I think we have the embodiment of some of those characteristics to which the author referred, with regards to the products of the Chinese educational system, right here on this blog.

This article seems to approach the issue from a social/psychological standpoint, but the theme is applicable to the underlying philosophy of the education system, and by extension, to the strengths and weaknesses of the home-grown Chinese workforce who are the products of that system.

Conformity and deference to authority are characteristics that are taught in typical Chinese homes, and are a source of pride for typical Chinese parents (nothing better than for your friends to remark on how well-behaved your kids are, especially for generations gone by). Now, I imagine many parents of teenagers today wouldn’t mind a little more conformity and deference from time to time. Which is to say that those aren’t bad things; but as they say, one can certainly have too much of a good thing.

In the education system, there is an emphasis on doing things the one right way, rather than accepting or encouraging students to discover different ways to skin the cat. The key is to pass the test, rather than truly learning and understanding the concepts. The key is for rote memorization, rather than thinking outside the box. Now of course, you haven’t learned anything if you haven’t learned the basic facts. But a premium is placed on regurgitating those facts, rather than solving problems with that foundation of factual knowledge.

This limitation comes to the fore when these kids become adults themselves, and have a relative dearth of experience in solving new problems they’d never seen before. They certainly capable of rehashing ideas that have worked in the past; but they seem relatively ill-equipped to innovate new ones. I think we see some of that reflected in the China of today. Certainly very capable of taking something others have designed, and making it. But not nearly as successful in the creative process themselves. Of course, as more and more of the younger generation head overseas to study, they will likely integrate some of that educational culture in addition to the factual knowledge that they gain, such that in the years to come, there’s no reason to doubt that Chinese people won’t close that creative gap. And perhaps when enough Chinese return with experience in an alternate education system, we will see an evolution in the Chinese system itself. And who knows…less conformity and deference to authority might spur an appetite for changing more than just the education system.

June 1, 2010 @ 12:00 pm | Comment

Good to have you updating the blog again Richard!

Both systems have their shortcomings…but at the end of the day, the only thing I might take from the Chinese system is instituting uniforms (or at least dress codes) at public schools in the US.

I think American students need to be reminded that they are at school to LEARN and treat their studies with more serious attitudes. I think that starts with atmosphere…and requiring students to dress professionally goes a long way toward creating such an atmosphere. To me, it is a small and cost efficient change that would have decent results.

June 1, 2010 @ 12:51 pm | Comment

Both systems are absolutely worthless wastes of money. One thing to note is that he didn’t mention the gang rape, drug abuse, teen pregnancies, drop-out rates and awful scores on international tests for America.

Well maybe not, the system in China trains a disciplined workforce for soul-destroying factory/industrial work. The system in America is expensive babysitting that runs America further into the debt hole with each failing attempt to “close achievement gaps” or to otherwise stop social ills plaguing American public schools.

June 1, 2010 @ 2:20 pm | Comment

My question is always: how much of it is what you get at school vs. what you get at home? Will a Chinese teen in an international school dream of becoming Virgil – will a teen from America or France or wherever, attending a Chinese school, prize synchronized calisthenics?

June 1, 2010 @ 3:05 pm | Comment

The Author Jiang Xueqin is clearly an idiot. Chinese educational systems is similar to Japanese and Korean educational systems yet only the Chinese educational system is portrayed as ‘repressive.’

I know many Americans who are glad that there is some kind of mandatory uniforms when they go to school because the kids won’t get picked on when they wear ‘cheap clothes.’ A school is a place to learn, not to see who has to best hair or the most expensive sneakers.

June 1, 2010 @ 10:15 pm | Comment

but the picture painted by the article just simply not true, yes we do have more pressure from parents and teachers about studying hard, but the life in highschool was defintely not a miserable milltary experince painted by that author, at least it’s not my highschool.

Yes. we do have lessons from 7 in the morning till 11:30, then 2 till 6 in the afternoon, but we don’t have to cut the same hair cuts, or wearing same uniform, we also love, fight, making friend, having sex, running away from home, getting drunk, it was a lot fun actually.

June 1, 2010 @ 11:36 pm | Comment

Maybe it depend on where you went to school. I’ve been reading articles on education in China for years, and nothing this writer says seems extraordinary. And he doesn’t say they don’t laugh and have fun; of course they do. But I don’t think it’s a secret that Chinese students, under Gaokao-induced pressure, spend more time studying/memorizing. Even if you can show that the hours spent studying are about the same (which I strongly doubt), it’s the kind of studying that is so different. I have big issues with US schools, which are getting worse. But figuring things out for yourself and thinking critically are still emphasized, and thus when kids graduate college they are better prepared for the real world, where memorizing won’t be of much help when you’re asked to do something that requires decision making and leadership.

June 2, 2010 @ 12:23 am | Comment

how much of it is what you get at school vs. what you get at home? Will a Chinese teen in an international school dream of becoming Virgil – will a teen from America or France or wherever, attending a Chinese school, prize synchronized calisthenics?

Obviously most students will aspire to become something celebrated in their respective culture. This article is not about what you want to be or do when you grow up, but whether when you do grow up you are armed with the practical knowledge and problem-solving mindset to succeed in whatever your choice may be.

June 2, 2010 @ 12:29 am | Comment

@Chi, comment 10
My wife’s nephew is here in NZ for his tertiary education. He says it is a lot more relaxed here (and note, this is New Zealand, not US – different western system).
I guess my sister in law did pile on the pressure for him to perform – as I recall, it was up at 6 to go to school, then study after school until around midnight. Hobbies were pretty sparse – might be him, might be the system. He played tennis and computer games (the latter of which caused friction at home as…hehehehe…it got in the way of study).
But as you say, it was not all work, work, work – there was fun and games too. The pressure wasn’t from the school system or the CCP, it was from his parents, which I pressume is attributable to societal tradition (though my parents pressured me too…)

Here in NZ he’s pretty relaxed and settled. He studies as hard as he can and works in McDonalds for pocket money – he doesn’t want to be reliant on his parents (though we do have a fund for him in the bank…just in case).

As for the school hours – I personally went to boarding school from the age of 11. Never mind 7 til 6 study hours – I had it 24/7 ;-) And it was still the best years of my life :-)

June 2, 2010 @ 6:59 am | Comment

Pug_wash

The Author Jiang Xueqin is clearly an idiot. Chinese educational systems is similar to Japanese and Korean educational systems yet only the Chinese educational system is portrayed as ‘repressive.’”

Riiiight. And all those media stories about the high suicide rates of Japanese and Korean kids were about….?

June 2, 2010 @ 7:00 am | Comment

I Believe A Good System Is One That Does Not Value Creativity, but instead values Discipline

Of course to many Rightists, discipline is a another word for dictatorship. But I don’t care about such cosmetic things. I care about how to make China strong, and to make China strong, it’s necessary to learn from America. And I believe: it seems as if America promotes creativity, but in reality America’s technological achievements all originate from discipline.

We know that America can build large scale integrated circuits and China cannot. America can develop large computer operating systems and China cannot. America can land on the moon and China cannot. America can build Boeing planes and China cannot. The reason for that is not because Americans are more creative than Chinese, it’s not because Chinese engineers know less than American ones. It’s because America has a massive team of disciplined engineers and China does not. In order to illustrate this point, I want to give an example. And this example will give those who know nothing about high technological production some knowledge on how a high tech product is built.

Let’s say there’s an artist called Mr. A, who wants to paint the world’s largest and most complex painting. This painting contains hundreds of figures, mountains, rivers, grass, houses, etc. etc. He himself alone cannot complete this painting in his lifetime. So he hires 10,000 artists to work together. But the basic theme and structure of the painting is determined by Mr. A. So all these 10,000 artists must paint according to Mr. A’s wishes, and they also have to keep their styles identical, so the painting would look like it’s done by one person, namely, Mr. A.

So what should Mr. A look for in hiring these artists. Well first they must possess high skills in painting. But more importantly, they must not possess any creativity, and definitely should not have their own distinct styles. They must strictly obey Mr. A’s styles. So these artists will definitely feel very oppressed and unhappy when they start their work, and it’s guaranteed that none of them will become famous for this work. They will each contribute their own and die without a reputation. The only person who will become famous is Mr. A himself.

My example ends here. Now, I can say that most of America’s high tech products are born like in that in example. Like the design of a CPU in a computer. Today’s CPU is made up of millions of transistors. And putting those transistors together needs circuit drawing, which means thousands of engineers must work together to draw out a massive circuit. As soon as that drawing is done, the production is as easy as copying a disk onto a computer. China’s Tsinghua University has the entire production equipment ready, but alas, they do not have 1000 disciplined engineers willing to draw the massive circuit, with each one removing his/her creativity. The same reason applies to why China does not have its own computer operating system, it’s not that there’s insurmountable technical barriers . It’s very eash to find advanced programmers in China, but none of them is willing to kill his/her creativity to work for some boss, no one is willing to work without a reputation for some massive project.

Therefore I think education should promote the spirit of “willing to sacrifice one’s chance to become famous and willing to work silently for someone.” Of course a society still needs some creative people, like Mr. A, but definitely not a lot. In any country, including America, most of the citizens lead a disciplined life working for a boss. And it’s this kind of lack of personal style and lack of creativity that drives the society forward.

June 2, 2010 @ 7:16 am | Comment

Math, too bad you weren’t born in 1930. You would have been perfect material for the Hitlerjugend.

June 2, 2010 @ 7:21 am | Comment

Either a great Hitler Junge or a lemming…
“And it’s this kind of lack of personal style and lack of creativity that drives the society forward.”

Priceless :-)

June 2, 2010 @ 8:36 am | Comment

“I Believe A Good System Is One That Does Not Value Creativity, but instead values Discipline”
—LOL, then China will forever be, at best, the factory of the world, but the creator of nothing. Then look at how much the workers at Foxconn get paid to assemble iPads, for instance, compared to how much Apple gets paid to sell them. Sure, you need a creator and a manufacturer to get a product to market, but surely you can have an education system capable of producing the requisite minds for both.

I quite enjoyed your example, btw, where you used “artists” to illustrate the process that goes into the production of “high tech” products. That must rank in your top 5 of all time.

In general, I think moderation is the key. Some people will be more disciplined; others will be more creative. Society should foster both. THe point is to not have an education system that beats one trait out of all people in pursuit of the other.

June 2, 2010 @ 9:54 am | Comment

A lot of facts are wrong in this person’s writing.

1. Boys and girls are not permitted to be near one meter of each other on school grounds,…
I do not know a single school that has such a rule.

2. there’s a regulation haircut and school uniform,
Again wrong. Nobody cares about haircut. School uniforms are only required on special occasions. Anyway school uniforms exist in many American schools too.

3. and there’s no mobile phone service
Are you kidding? Every kid from a middle class family has a mobile phone.

As to whether the American education system is better or the Chinese system is better, the answer is that a mixed system is better. Ideally every Chinese student and Chinese teacher should spend a few semesters in an American school. If you are exposed to both systems, you get the best of both sides.
Some elite middle schools in China are now sending students to US for summer school. This is a terrific idea.

June 2, 2010 @ 11:02 am | Comment

Do the Chinese people care at all about neutering their children’s creativity? school uniforms are one thing, but they don’t need to all look alike. These kids will grow up not knowing how to handle or even talk to the opposite sex. We don’t want that in the US.

July 4, 2010 @ 2:53 am | Comment

The one meter rule is simply wrong. This is obviously not a normal school.

The uniform and haircut thing is actually more feasible. However, many schools no longer have these policies. It would like uniform on uniform days (once a week). Also, there definitely is mobile service though the penalties for being caught using them is much more severe.

@Beverly, I do not think that this is neutering their children’s creativity in the field of academics. How does uniforms and haircuts inhibit a child’s ability to think of a new concept in the field of science? Simply, this inhibits children who are too physically expressive. This way, children feel much more mentally secure. They learn that studying and learning helps them go up this social ladder. Naturally introverted and shy students are more socially acceptable, whereas in America, they are considered boring and simply doesn’t want to talk.

July 4, 2010 @ 1:49 pm | Comment

Hi, Pal,

China needs to come up a boss like Mr. A. Without Mr.A’s creativity, there woundn’t be a team to work. If Chinese schools produce a millions Mr.A’s. Chinese will hire a zilliion Americans work for Chinese and China will have all miracles that Americans have. But Chinese schools only produce disciplined machinese.

July 17, 2010 @ 11:16 pm | Comment

[...] praise on everything China, including the Great Leap Forward and, needless to say, the TSM. He rejects the creativity of the West in favor of the “discipline” of the East. He lauds Mao’s genius in adding [...]

September 2, 2010 @ 8:17 am | Pingback

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