School can be competitive, but it can be even more competitive when you are one of the thousands of kids in China taking the gao kao every year, a nation-wide final high school exam that seals your fate and likely your worth as a human being in the eyes of the Chinese society. It is well known that Chinese value prestige and brand recognition, which can be a source of family honor. As early as elementary school, children are labelled as smart, dumb or slow based on their academic performance. The high performers will go on to win all forms of praise and attention from teachers and parents while the mediocre performers are left behind and maybe encouraged to attend a trade school. In a conformist society such as China, it pays to be a high academic performer. A high performer is showered with glowing terms such as capable, smart, and brilliant; they also have their pick of prestigious career opportunities based on their grades. Anybody who falls outside the realm of “academic brilliance” is a failure with no future.
My experience in China is a good testament to a culture that esteems cut-throat competition but without substance. A simple explanation for the cut-throat competition is that there were far fewer university spots than the number of test takers. Having lived and been educated in at least three countries, my experience tells me that the Chinese resistance to change and their emphasis on conformity have resulted in such a cruel competition. It is a belief that children are not capable of any more than conforming to others’ expectations. The school system views children as nothing but cogs in a wheel to be churned through the school system rather than as individuals with their own talents and abilities. It is a view that passes from one generation to the next and is a world away from my Western upbringing. Here in North America, children are encouraged to do well in school but there are opportunities to develop one’s talents whatever they are. Teachers and other adults often help students find their creative outlets and encourage them to explore their interests. What were your high school guidance counselors for?
As a child, I enjoyed creative writing and just writing in general. As I read Nancy Drew, I was also creating stories of my own. I never saw myself as particularly bright in math because I struggled with fractions and algebra but studied hard enough to earn decent grades. If I had been a student in China, I would have been written off as a total failure, and no self-respecting teacher would have wanted anything to do with me. I would have been labelled as incapable of anything right from the get-go. But thanks to my lucky stars, my parents brought me to this country at a young age. I was surrounded by teachers who gave me the confidence I needed to develop my interest in writing. I also came across various competitions were I showcased my writing to people who appreciated it. I was also given the opportunist to be a columnist for a local paper. People saw my ability and believed in me. Also, I did well enough in math and science because North America provided me with resources I needed to succeed in school.
There is no question that China and Western countries hold very different views on the role of an individual. In Western countries, there is a view that every individual has talents that they can contribute to the world in a positive way. Children are encouraged to maximize their potential through the use of an endless supply of resources, activities and programs. By contrast, China lumps together the individuals into a mass crowd that must be trained by a headmaster and molded into one identity. In Chinese society, conformity trumps the individual. If one does not fall in line with society’s expectations of excellence, that person will live their entire life thinking they are not good enough. It is true conformity breeds order and harmony in a factory or the military, but conformist thinking – an example is the gao kao -should never rule over the spirit of human potential, which is as vast as the universe.