This semester, I’ve had the chance to tutor three high school seniors, all girls, in conversational English. One girl is hoping to study abroad in Toronto, Canada, and needed to practice her English in preparation for her university entrance exam and interview. She had those two weeks ago, and she’s waiting to hear if she will be accepted or not. I really hope that she will be. She is one of the brightest, most creative people I’ve had the pleasure of teaching here. She is not like most of my other students, who are so conditioned from the educational structure of memorization, exam, memorization, exam that most of their inherent creativity is pushed out by the time they hit middle school. I prepared discussion topics and worksheets for our tutoring lessons, but we hardly touched those, except for the interview practice questions, because each time she walked in the door we immediately began conversing and didn’t stop until the time was up. We covered everything–poetry, books, favorite authors, philosophy, religion, politics, family, and education. She was very quick to admit that there was much more out there that she didn’t know, and that she wanted to know more. This is not a very common attitude in students here, because most of them seek information only so far as it is relevant to exams. But she actually appreciates knowledge for its own sake, and we quickly realized that we were what Anne would call “kindred spirits.” She shared a lot about her life, and what she thinks about education, especially her dissatisfaction with her own.
Her story is like that of many other Chinese high school students. In their first year of high school (Senior 1), students in China choose between Arts and Science concentrations. Arts students take English, Art, History, Geography, Politics, Chinese, and Math classes. Science students take Physics, Chemistry, Biology, English, Math, and Chinese classes. I may be missing one or two classes somewhere in there, but that’s the gist of it. Many students who would prefer the Arts concentration are convinced by their teachers and parents to go the Science route instead, because there is much greater competition in the Arts category to get a high score on the gaokao (China’s biggest test–it determines which tier/quality of universities one can get into). The Science route has fewer students, so if you are a good enough student, you have a better chance of getting a high score on the gaokao. My student (her English name is Echo) is one of those who would have pursued an Arts concentration, if not for her parents’ and teachers’ advice. She also wants to study Psychology in college, but her parents told her that she must study Business Management instead, as this will be better suited to getting a high-paying job.
She loves history and literature, she can think critically and creatively about things she reads, and she questions the world around her. And yet, she is in an educational system that does not cultivate students to ask why, and whose goal is largely for the sake of economic advancement rather than the sake of well-rounded, informed, creative-thinking, responsible citizens. The system is all about getting ahead and winning, not bettering yourself just because it’s a good thing to do. What’s amazing is that she realizes this. Most of my students don’t, or if they do, they don’t care or think about it very much. I have hope that if she has the chance to go abroad, she can live a richer life, not because she couldn’t live a full life in China, but because she, more than most of my students, is open to the idea of growing and learning from cultures other than her own. Most students don’t care at all for the world outside, so it’s refreshing to me when I see one who does. I am genuinely excited to see what Echo does in the future–I hope there will be more like her!