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Good, Good Study. Day, Day Up.

June 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Education has famously been part and parcel of Chinese culture for millennia.  While the Japanese were relying on their social standing and the prestige of their families to ensure a decent salary, the Chinese were introducing standardized testing, and encouraging children to get at least as far as their parents got, so that the parents could live in relative comfort during their retirement.  The idea is that you spend whatever is needed on your child to make sure they get the best job, because you’ll be relying on that job to provide financial support after you finish working.  

Most universities, indeed most high schools, focus on learning by rote, usually in classes of about 30 to 40 students.  The teacher stands at the front of the class, tells the students how to do things.  The problem is that, for some unknown reason, the Chinese look towards the top 5% of successful Chinese, and deduct that because 5% made it, the system must work.  Of course, since the system fails people 95% of the time, one can also deduce that something is terribly, terribly wrong with the education system in the PRC. 

This week, Chinese high school students will take the gaokao – the national college entrance exam where 9.15 million students will compete for 6.85 million university places.  It lasts for three straight days, and will ultimately determine the entire future of a student’s life.  Students regularly study sixteen hours a day in order to get the all important perfect score.  Competition, is, as you can imagine, pretty tough.  It’s so tough in fact that the university have instigated a kind of upgrade/downgrade system that you usually find on airlines: if the  places on a particular course have been filled, the students simply get bounced to another course – whether they like it or not.    

As part of the modernization drive to educate it’s people into the 21st century, the Chinese government has made English lessons compulsory up to the second year of university – so students typically go through nearly 7 years of language instruction, and still manage to level out at a mediocre level of second language ability.  Conversations with a Chinese English student are riddled with Chinglish – a particular blend of directly translated English that grates on the nerves after six months in the country – and other fossilized errors that students apparently show little intention of making any effort to eradicate.  

That’s not to say that some people make it.  The laws of chance dictate that at least some of the unfortunates that are forced through the Chinese higher education system make it to a decent level of fluency, but for most, speaking English is a tool, something that will get them a certificate that will get them a job – job that many thousands of other similarly qualified Chinese graduates will be competing for.  

The obsession for learning English is such that with only 59 “schools” in China, Wall Street Institute – a private language school – was bought by publishing giant Pearson for $92 million.  And it’s the money that is increasingly dictating the quality of education one receives – if you have enough you can send your child abroad to an American or, more commonly, a Canadian university (the visa application is a little less stringent in Canada), if you don’t have enough hard cash for that, you’ll have to settle for a “top-tier” university.  Chinese students are enrolling in US universities in droves, but the rote style of education isn’t preparing them for the Socratic methodology used in western countries, inevitably leading to friction between the American and Chinese students.  

Zhao Jun, in an interview with The Atlantic, says that he supports his son’s decision to study in the US – and he’s the editor-in-cheif of a government produced education journal.  He gave a fairly damning description of the current Chinese educational system, “the course design is too rigid, the method of teaching is too mechanical, and the standard for measuring talent is too one-dimensional.”  He’s not the only one, either, Gaokao applications have declined by 700,000 students since 2009, many of the students favouring the best education that money can buy – outside China

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Mixed Sex Education Messages From China

February 1, 2012 Leave a comment

I’m at the age where most of my friends are getting married. It’s not really that depressing, but by the time that you hit 33 (as I will be this May), it becomes apparent that the number of women that are a) eligible, and b) my age is pretty small. Many of those women are single for a reason, and because most of the single girls have been educated by TV shows and no-one else, it’s fair to say that by and large, not all of their dogs are barking. On paper, I’m pretty much perfect – rich, vaguely decent looking (certainly slim by modern Chinese standards) and I have a government job. Ok, I work for a university, but I don’t have to pay rent and all my meals are subsidized, leaving a fairly large monthly disposable income.

The fact that I’m single is down to a number of factors. The first is that I’m plainly no sleazy enough. I do actually respect women, I find one night stands to be something quite pointless, and, as I get older, personality trumps the body. Most of my contemporaries have pretty much the opposite view, you just needed to look at the crowds of confused men that scattered through the bars at Chao Yang West Gate in bewildered, pathetic groups when Maggies closed down in 2008 to see that. Most of the girls are incredibly highly educated too, especially the ones that can speak English, and were probably learning French and German before they were on solids. It’s hard to treat a woman who was being taught stuff about particle accelerators in the last year of high school, and the only reason that she didn’t complete a Phd was because she didn’t have enough time as some samey pick-up in a bar. Especially when she takes time out to write haiku in the morning. And then translate it into Finnish.

In Japan there wasn’t much hope for me, since I really wanted to meet a girl who could engage me in a conversation, rather than nod and “mmm” in that annoyingly endearing way that Japanese women do, needless to say, I ended up with a Chinese girl instead.

I had come to the rather racist conclusion that Chinese girls should stick to Chinese men, and Japanese girl should stick to Japanese men. Chinese men have the right attitude, and it’s probably why I hate the vast majority of Chinese men that I have to come into contact with. I simply don’t have the wherewithal to occasionally bring my bitch into line with a quick backhander, but I’m pretty sure that to a Chinese woman, three with the belt now and again, it’s perfectly normal. I’m just not that assertive. Culturally, a westerner doesn’t really tick all the subconcious boxes that a Chinese girl needs in order to commit to a long term relationship – most of the Japanese/western marriage that I knew about were falling apart, and the vast number of western/Chinese marriages that I know about aren’t happy ones, or have caused massive, irreparable rifts in at least one of the families.

Despite the apparent hopelessness of my situation, I’m in a better position than most Chinese men. Since most Chinese men are raised in families that have typically overbearing mothers and distant fathers, they don’t really have much in the way of a male role model. Which is why a lot of them are single and desperate, and rather unable to converse on any level with a woman. The bad news gets worse when the idea of “losing face” is added into the mix: the men can’t really have a girlfriend who is less qualified than they are, and since the women regularly beat the men academically, there’s a lot of single guys about.

The situation has become so bad that people are advertising on the Internet. Not to find a girlfriend, but to rent one out, especially over the Spring Festival where many of the guys go home only to be confronted with questions about when they plan to get married. Oddly, if you’re a Chinese guy, the philandering begins once you get married. Mistresses are still a show of how wealthy and powerful you are (by those standards, I’m not very much of either). ”The practice of monogamy is only 60 years old in China. Before that the number of mistresses a man possessed was an indicator of his success,” so says Li Yin He in the Global Times. Liu Zhu Jun (pictured) alledgedly had 18 mistresses, each of them willing to cater to his uniform festish – and will all that sex going on, he still managed to be the Minister of Railways, until his dismissal in February 2011.

The relative sexual inexperience of a Chinese girl isn’t much of a help when it comes to finding a soul mate. It’s entirely possible, because I’ve been to lots of weddings betwixt westerners and Chinese women, but for the most part, these couplings seem to fall into one of three categories:

1) Pregnancy – the couple get married to save face in the light of the impending patter of feet.

2) Statute of Limitations – there comes a time when a couple live together for so long that getting married seems to be nothing more than a formality.

3) Pressure from parents – the big one, since most Chinese thinking is about 25 years behind current thinking in the western world, most women would probably be pressured into marrying someone by the parents rather than having to put up with the shame of living in sin.

Between these three you’d think that either I would have been stupid enough to get a girl knocked up by now, OR, I would be in the same weary long term relationship for long enough that someone would’ve eventually complained enough for me to grudgingly go through the prolonged agony of a Chinese wedding, but no. Sex education in China is somewhat lacking, especially for a country that has copulated it’s way to 1.3 billion people, but statistics show that teenage pregnancies are on the increase, and, worse, many teachers are dismissing sex ed classes as unnecessary. In Shanghai, there’s only one helpline, run by Zhang Zhengrong which gets around 1,000 calls a day from distressed teenage girls. 3 percent of the 50,000 callers they’ve had since they were established in 2006 have have three or more abortions. Another three per cent have had an abortion in an unlicensed (read “cheap”) clinic. While some parents believe that if their kids don’t know about sex, they won’t worry about it, but the Women of China website tells some horrific stories:

Two years ago a father in Shanghai rushed his 19-year-old daughter to a hospital after she had given birth to a baby at home. In order not to be discovered by her parents, the young woman secretly delivered the baby herself in the toilet. Then she put the baby in a plastic bag and threw it in a neighborhood garbage can. The father couldn’t believe it and told me his daughter was a good student, hard-working at school and obedient at home,” Zhang says. “The careless parents didn’t know she was pregnant until she gave birth!”

At the end of last year, the government began it’s “Steps of Growth” programme for high school students, which immediately triggered a mealstrom of controversy. For a start, there was never any consensus as to what age the kids should start in the programme, and early in 2011, a school established rules that stipulated that boys and girls should stay 50cm apart when they are talking in public – the ”distance for civilized communication” was rounded decried throughout the media, when the China Daily bellowed that local schools should follow rules passed by the Ministry of Education rather than making it up as they go along.

Categories: Education

Five Simple Rules for Learning my Language

March 17, 2011 3 comments

The British comedian Tony Hawks in an episode of the BBC’s “Grumpy Old Men” told of his revolutionary new diet plan.  One Day One, you eat less and get more exercise.  On Day Two, you eat less and get more exercise.  One Day Three, you eat less and get more exercise, but on Day Four, you do something really exciting:  You get more exercise and eat less.

The number one question I get asked is “how can I improve my English?” Like a lot of things, it’s not really about getting the right answer, it’s all about asking the right question.  “How can I improve my English?” is one of those questions that is often answered with the simple, and rather uninteresting “speak more”.

It is entirely possible to learn English (or any language for that matter) in a very short space of time; you just need the right tools.  And by “the right tools”, I don’t mean “a good teacher”.  There are a number of roadblocks for Chinese students that must be overcome in order to obtain proficiency in a foreign language – in the vast majority of cases, this means learning English.

The first step is to set a goal.  “Speak English well” is not really a goal, whereas, “I aim to achieve a level 8 on the IELTS exam” is a goal.  When I first started learning to read and write Chinese in 2009, the best advice that anyone gave me was from my Chinese textbook – write the date at the top of every page.  Then, six months down the line, you’ll be able to see how your writing has progressed from the uncertain scratches in the front of the notebook, to the more practiced strokes of someone who is getting somewhere in their studies.

Using an outside system of measuring is essential because, basically, your own perception of learning isn’t a really good way of determining if you have improved or not.  Intermediate English students regularly complain to me that they feel their English isn’t improving, but they are basing their level of learning on their past experiences of learning lots of things three or four months ago when they were at a beginner level or pre-intermediate level.  Even worse, some of them will compare themselves halfway through a course to an advanced student, or even a native speaker, and find themselves demoralized that no matter how much work they put in, they can never quite get to the level that will satisfy their own, ever changing measuring stick on how good their English fluency is.

So the first rule is: Don’t trust yourself to measure your own successes and always set realistic goals.

You can never trust yourself to measure yourself.  Lying on the sofa suffering from a hangover after a New Year’s Eve party can make you feel pretty awful, but you are not seriously sick, and certainly don’t need to visit a doctor.  Your own perceptions of yourself are skewed, depending on the time of day, whether you are hungry or not, or how much sleep you go the previous night.  Don’t trust yourself to guess how good or bad you are at something, because you’ll almost always feel bad.

If you want to learn to swim, go swimming.  If you want to learn to drive, go drive a car.  If you want to learn to speak another language, then you have to go and speak that language.  Western language learning systems, and their respective companies have known this for years.  Rosetta Stone is a system of listening-based matching activities.  The Pimsleur Method is only available on CD and contains no written material at all.  Michel Thomas goes even further and tells students outright that under no circumstances should they ever take notes during a class.  Reading and writing something employs different parts of the brain than speaking a listening.  Writing things down means that your brain tells your fingers which position to hold a pen in, while speaking requires your brain to co-ordinate different sets of muscles in your throat and your mouth to make the right sounds.  Logically, they are completely different parts of the body, and they’re completely different parts of the brain.  Writing everything down (in case you forget) is pointless because, well, you will forget exactly because you wrote it down.  If you’re just going to go to a class and write things down, it’s a waste of your time and money and you may as well give up because reading and writing won’t help your speaking a listening skills.

Rule 2: Don’t write everything down.  If you forget something, listen again (ask your teacher, replay the CD, etc)

Chinese students get too hung up on the teacher.  Students who have never been near a school since they graduated from university years before think that they are good judges of what is a good teacher or not.  This is complete a total rubbish, and allows the student to display an amazing amount of contempt and arrogance towards their teacher.  Students are no better judges of their teacher in the same way that soldiers are not good judges of what makes an effective drill sergeant in the army.   A teacher needs to follow only one – he must speak less than the students.  If your teacher is speaking too much, and isn’t letting you speak, you need to complain, or you need to find another teacher.

The teacher is never a good as the materials, and before you sign any contract or hand over any money, you should ask to see all the materials that you will be learning from.  Demand to sit in on a class, or arrange a demo class.  The best type of school is the type of school that will allow successful students to continue on to the higher level classes, and keep back failing students – essentially they fire underperforming students from the class.  The class can only go as fast as the worst student, and one beginner in an advanced class can ruin the whole learning experience for everyone.

Rule Number Three is: Be critical of your teacher and materials, expect failing students to repeat classes, and make sure to see any and all materials that you’ll be learning from.

When I started working at Wall Street Institute a few years ago, a large American man called Charlie who had moved from Dubai with his wife to relocate to China told me a rather incredulous story that a rich Arab had wandered into the center of which he was the manager, and after sitting through the sales pitch, quite politely asked, “so you just download English into my brain?”  Four years, later, I still can’t decide if I’m stunned at his ignorance that a language can be learned this way, or that he was willing to have the surgery to have a USB socket implanted in his brain.  The point is that language learned cannot simply be a passive process.  If you look at children in the playground, they don’t speak because they have to, they speak because they can.

I can still remember when I reached what I call “The Playground Milestone” because I could finally tell people in China what they looked like and what they sounded like.  I took great pleasure in telling people they looked like a whale, or that they smelled like a monkey.  Hugely offensive, of course, but it gave me important practice in what is an essential part of language.   The point wasn’t that people really did sound like frogs but that I was taking the language apart in my mouth and my brain and placing it in that “sweet spot” that enables me to quickly and fluently withdraw and deposit words from and to my long term language memory and produce the sound accurately.  An active learning process means that you are able to guess what a word or phrase means based on the context and any other cues (sounds, wild gesturing by the teacher, bizarre graffiti on the whiteboard).

Rule 4: Get involved, engage your brain and start thinking, try to make your own grammar rules based on observation and repetition.

Over the weekend and Advanced student took a pre-intermediate class.  She didn’t really need to be in the class, and she could effectively communicate in English with me on a variety of different topics.  Her English was a little ropey, but for someone who had almost exclusively learned from books her entire life, she had pretty good speaking and listening skills.  In the class, she asked quite possibly the most pointless and idiotic question that I’ve ever heard from a student of her ability: “Is, ‘do you married?’ ok?”  The poor teacher tasked with leading the class had to stand around and patiently explain exactly why it was wrong.  Which is where we come to Rule 5: Don’t use the classroom as a crutch.

Chinese students essentially want to be told that their English is great.  Having said, everyone wants to be told that their second language ability is great.  It’s only when you get out of the classroom and start talking to people that you realize one important thing: You don’t know shit.  Suddenly, you are grasping for words, trying to keep up with what they are saying, you don’t understand much and you fall silent as your pathetically small vocabulary fails you in almost every respect.  Back in the classroom, you get all the answers right and you feel great.  One of the reasons that Rosetta Stone is such a great success is that once you mechanically learn all the right responses, you get 96% on almost every level.  You have great grammar, wonderful pronunciation and you can recall each and every word perfectly.

Your brain needs to be strained and tested and put through a trial by fire to truly get to the level where you can converse naturally with a high level of fluency with native speakers in another language.  It’s only when you start having to donate a lot of energy to decoding and recoding foreign words that you really get to the point where you’re not talking to someone, but talking with someone.

Change Ain’t Good

March 3, 2011 3 comments
High Chancellor Adam Sutler (played by John Hu...

Image via Wikipedia

“And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission.”

V, V for Vendetta

“What we need right now is a clear message to the people of this country. This message must be read in every newspaper, heard on every radio, seen on every televisionI want this country to realize that we stand on the edge of oblivion. I want everyone to remember why they need us!”

Chancellor Adam Sutler, V for Vendetta

As a fresh faced youngster in 2006, I wanted to save China.  I wanted to shine a light on the corruption, the censorship, the human rights abuses and I wanted to open the eyes of the Chinese people, and really let them see what China was, and let them understand what the western world thought of China.

Of course, it was an utterly pointless exercise.  I got my first Chinese girlfriend, a 19 year old economics student (ok, I’ll admit that I was 27 at the time), and I really thought that I’d be able to bring her around to the western way of thinking, hoping that this article that I wrote about movie censorship, or that column I wrote about plagiarism, or the things that showing her pictures of Tankman and the 1989 protests would make her see sense.  I even dragged her around the old Qianmen area that was scheduled for demolition to make her see what her government was doing to these irreplaceably historic buildings.  I got shooed off the makeshift living areas for the homeless behind the infamous “mini great wall” behind the Qianmen bus station for taking unwanted picture of the squalor.  For all my procrastinations, for all my heartfelt appeals, for all my solemn, headshaking, I didn’t make a dent.

Her father was a government lawyer, and was having none of it.  After a couple of months, I had gotten around to the idea that her life revolved around getting a manicure in Wang Fu Jing, going to KTV, and going dancing till three in the morning and coming home stinking of cigarettes and baijiu.  Occasionally seeing me, and quite possibly buying more shoes.  Things didn’t work out between us.

I like to live in a sea of information.  I’ve got Facebook open, Tweetdeck tuned to some of the top China commentators and bloggers, the TV on mute tuned to BBC News 24, and BBC World service playing via the Internet – I do all this whilst chatting on MSN, sending and receiving text messages and answering Skype calls and downloading podcasts to my iPod for later listening.  It all adds up to the fact that I know more about what’s going on in China than most Chinese people, and I barely speak the language.  All of my information about what’s going on in China comes from English news sources.  This is a source of friction between me and the Chinese people that I talk to, basically because the news isn’t always good news and Chinese people don’t believe that western news sources can be trusted.  This is a rather inconvenient situation for foreigners, because nearly all Chinese people don’t actually know that it’s illegal for Chinese journalists to work for foreign publications.  So how the hell else are we supposed to get the skinny on what’s happening in China?  What is interesting though, is that the things that I’m interesting and repost on Weibo or Kaixin, aren’t the same things that my Chinese friends are interested in.

Starved, in the first few months of my return to China from Japan, of Facebook, I signed up with Kaixin which slaked my thirst for constant new news.  Last week I disabled my account, mostly because what my Chinese friends on Kaixin were blogging about was pretty much diametrically opposite to what I was blogging and reposting about.  That and I was getting pretty pissed off with everything I was reposting as “newsworthy” was pretty much instantly deleted by the censors

And this is where we come to part one of my theory of why everyone in this part of the world defends their culture so much.  It’s a cliché, and it’s not going to be popular, but in a nutshell: everyone looks the same in this part of the world and the historical and cultural background is the only thing that can help people differentiate Korean from Chinese from Japanese.  Part two of my theory attempts to answer a question that was posted last weekend about why the Chinese government is so good at “playing the crowd” at home, but not particularly good doing it on an international scale.  Every citizen has a certain preference as to how they perceive their country.  The Chinese government has the advantage because for a long time, it’s told people how to perceive their country.

Let’s take a look at the Japanese for a moment.

The Japanese prefer to think of their country as small.  You’ll say you want travel somewhere, and they will almost faint away in shock at the very thought of the great distance you want to travel.  You’ll meet someone in Osaka, enthuse about the country to a certain extent, and hear about how small the country is.  Then you’ll mention that you want to travel somewhere like Himeji (a mere two hours away from Osaka Station on the limited stop service).  Hands will fly up in horror, girls will faint away in a swoon, sirens, klaxons and alarms will sound and Japanese special forces will abseil down from the ceiling and crash through the windows as the Japanese people you are talking to try to contemplate the great distances involved in the epic journey that you are planning and very likely may not survive.  Japan is small, but everything is Very Far Away. And Japanese like to think of it like that.  And it’s the same with China, Chinese people have certain preferences that they adhere to when they think of their country.

Chinese people prefer the idea that China has been ruled in a ceaseless, uninterrupted chain of dynasties and emperors.  The actual details of wars, in-fighting, assassination attempts, treachery and other insidious parts of Chinese history are not important.  What is important is that the rule of China as one country has been how it has been, and it is the way that things will be to come.  This is why slogans like “a thousand years of the CCP” and suchlike were so popular.  It made Chinese people feel secure that someone was actually going to be watching over them, that something would be there.  In China, there’s no corruption.  Corruption is just a means to the end of being comfortable about knowing the outcome – the accumulation of money is incidental.

Chinese people prefer to know what’s going to happen – my love life is littered with Chinese girlfriends who thought obsessively about the future – they wanted to know if I had a life plan, if they should have a life plan, if they should have a monthly or 6 monthly plans.  My most recent ex was given the advice that if she didn’t get a promotion in the next six months, she should quit the company.  That was last June, and as far as I know, she’s still at the same place.  One of my go-getter Chinese friends sits down and writes a yearly schedule for herself every January 1st.  Last year, one of my students wouldn’t even move to Xian because (amongst a myriad thousand reasons), she was afraid of what might happen.

Fear of failure is rampant in China, and it all comes from the Chinese education system.  Students are repeatedly told that they know nothing, that they are empty vessels and they need to be filled with instructions on how to carry out the simplest of tasks (one of my students in the English school I was working in last year asked me to do a class on how to tie a tie) without instruction, without clear leadership, without the feel that they are being told something that they didn’t already know, Chinese people are lost.  Into this steps the CCP, which rather than being run as a voice of the people, sees itself (and calls itself) the ruling party of the country and indeed, of Chinese society.  Chinese laws don’t so much protect individuals, but they protect social and economic stability, a legal situation, and a national mindset that goes in completely the opposite direction to the western ideals of protecting individuals first.

The Chinese Communist Party is very proud of the fact that they have “opened up China”, with their policy of reforms and, er, opening up.  In actual fact, no one actually did anything, rather, the Party stopped interfering with people’s lives, and let them get on with whatever they wanted to get on with.  The problem with opening up has been that the focus in China has shifted from the collective “China” to the individual “Chinese”, and the laws in China, as already pointed out do not take into account protection for the individual.  There are no independent courts, no due process, and very channels for legal protection for the average Joe Chun.  The people are left with one alternative: The authoritarian protection of the ruling CCP.

Failure Is An Option

January 2, 2010 Leave a comment

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.