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Failure Is An Option

If the reports are to be believed, there’s nothing quite like a Chinese student.

The attitude that I have towards China and its administration is that it’s better for them to make mistakes that cost them economically, because I would rather have British companies making money from the Chinese than have Chinese companies making money from British people. Thomas Friedman pointed this out in one of his columns for the New York Times, recounting how he addressed a Chinese motor show audience and he told everyone that he wanted everyone in China to continue to use fossil fuels, and ignore renewable energy.  The point was that while fossil fuel consumption was going up, there was little in the way of development of renewable energy – and this was important because not only would it do the environment some good, it would also give the fastest developer a greater advantage in what would be the next global market.

The money is better in your pocket than in theirs.

Unfortunately, I haven’t told many Chinese people this, and for some reason, they don’t want to cooperate with my vision of seeing thousands upon thousands of Chinese people buying products that were designed, invented and manufactured in Europe.  The scary thing is that, as you might well expect from the fastest growing economy in the world, the people that are going to make the difference in China aren’t even a generation away from us.  They’re about 10 years behind us.

As anyone who’s taught English in China will know, Chinese people place a premium on education.  The English training sector is booming to the point of saturation, and the rise of China’s middle class means that more people than ever are going to universities across the middle kingdom.  It seems that in one respect, like Communism, Confucianism is working.  All this from a country whose founding father shut down most of the learning centers in China to fuel his own cultural revolution.

30 years ago, Chinese writer Jung Chang was taken on a tour of her native Sichuan.  The idea was that young students would see all how beautiful China was, and would never forget to return once they had completed their studies.  30 years ago, all of the students that had their “backgrounds” approved for overseas study fitted on one bus; last year 57,451 graduate students along with 26,275 undergraduate students were sent to the US alone.  The language problems are already showing that there are large rifts between the US students and the Chinese students.

Writing for the Boston Globe, Kara Miller noted that “My “C,’’ “D,’’ and “F’’ students this semester are almost exclusively American, while my students from India, China, and Latin America have – despite language barriers – generally written solid papers, excelled on exams, and become valuable class participants.”.  Of her American students, she said “too many 18-year-old Americans, meanwhile, text one another under their desks (certain they are sly enough to go unnoticed), check e-mail, decline to take notes, and appear tired and disengaged.”.  It seems that where the Chinese students lack comprehension skills, they make up for with their work ethic, eagerness and contributions to their classes.

Of course, anyone who has had to explain to a Chinese student that British people don’t actually celebrate Thanksgiving, and that “going shopping” is not the proper way to celebrate Christmas would call into question Millers numbers that all is lost for the Americans.  She writes that “a National Geographic-Roper survey found that most 18- to 24-year-olds could not find Afghanistan, Iraq, or Japan on a map, ranking them behind counterparts in Sweden, Great Britain, Canada, Italy, Japan, France, and Germany. And in 2007 the American Institutes for Research reported that eighth graders in even our best-performing states – like Massachusetts – scored below peers in Singapore, South Korea, and Japan, while students in our worst-performing states – like Mississippi – were on par with eighth graders in Slovakia, Romania, and Russia.”.  The reason for all this is, of course, that no one bothered asking the Chinese or the Japanese any of the basic, general knowledge questions that were on this survey.   Most pig farmers in Wuhan would have problems pointing out where Australia was on the map, as would too many of the unemployed, fluent English speaking Japanese housewives that keep all the English school owners nests feathered inTokyo.  In Japan, a white man who speaks English is obviously an American, and a black man in China is obviously a drug dealer.

My first impressions of Japanese students were not good.  For a developed country, and one that had a rising economic behemoth on it’s doorstep, the level of spoken English in Japan was much, much poorer than the level that I had come to expect from my Chinese students.  Usually in China, I couldn’t get on the bus without someone coming up to me and practicing their English with me.  In Japan, the same thing happened twice in 15 months.  The width, and indeed depth of the gulf between the two old rivals was put into perspective when I was engaged in a conversation about British and Chinese history with the guy who was making my coffee in a Dongzhimen coffeeshop.  To have this type conversation with a barista in Japan would almost be unthinkable.

So, the Chinese are going to be ruling the world in the future?  Not really.  What’s interesting is that for every Chinese person who goes to American to study now, there are probably the same number of American students who have arrived in China with the firm intention of learning Chinese.  In December 2009, I ran into at least six Americans who were studying up on their HSK exam.  Most of them were 22 or 23 years old, and all of them spoke, read and wrote pretty decent Chinese.  Education is one of those things that everyone can get involved in.  While there are always slackers – and I met more than my fair share of them while I was teaching English in Beijing – the slackers are almost always outnumbered by the nerds and the geeks.  And it’ll be the geeks that inherit the earth.  Or at least, a decent apartment in Ya Yun Cun.

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