My husband is a smart cookie (and yes, I said ‘smart’ not ‘smartass’…although he is that too).
I mean, not only does he have an engineering degree, and speak two languages pretty fluently (one of them being Mandarin, a very difficult language to master), but he made it through school in China!
If you don’t know what that means or why it’s impressive, here’s the reason.
Pretty much whether you’re a student or a grown adult working a full-time job, Chinese kids work harder than you do. Don’t get offended; I’m sure you work hard (or not, whatever). But they work crazy-hard!
These kids get up at 6am to be at school by 7:30 to begin classes. Most of their classes are boring, lecture-style, with drills and rote memorization. They write exams like they’re going out of style (which, unfortunately for the students, they are not). High school students (or their parents) choose one of two streams in their final years – either a humanities stream, studying history, geography, and the sort, or a sciences stream, with advanced math, chemistry, and physics courses (guess which one is more popular?). To the best of my knowledge, they don’t get electives.
Students finish school between 4:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon, at which point they attend other extracurricular classes to improve their scores in areas like English and Math, or to gain skills like art, music, and dance. Primary school kids generally make their way home around 9:00 in the evening, and middle school and high school students even later than that. Many of them still have a couple of hours of homework to finish before they can go to bed. They even go to class on the weekends. Most of the primary school students I see here carry backpacks that are larger and heavier than they are (hence the popularity of the little rolling suitcase backpacks). I often see middle school and high school students studying while walking or biking to and from school.
All of this schooling is necessary (in Chinese eyes) because of the high population of this country and the demand for limited space in the best schools. It is not just the best universities that are desired, but the best high schools, middle schools, primary schools, and even kindergartens. Students write exams and their scores determine which schools they can attend (though it’s becoming more and more common for the parents’ wealth to also influence this – if the parents can pay a large enough sum to school officials, they can ‘buy’ a spot in that school for their child).
And if you weren’t blown away by just how much time these kids spend at school, here’s something else. They’re learning harder stuff too. Seriously.
In my previous incarnation as a teacher in Canada, one of the things I taught was middle school math. My jaw dropped to the floor when I glanced at a math textbook used at one of the schools I teach at here in China. The textbook was a grade 5 level book, but the teachers told me they were teaching it to the grade 4 class. When I looked at the type of math, the concepts were the same ones I was introducing to the grade 8 classes in Canada.
That’s right, Canadian middle school students – Chinese kids half your age are doing the same math as you are. Imagine what the kids your own age are learning. Maybe you shouldn’t be complaining, huh?
Anyway, back to my husband.
When I stop to think about it, I’m in awe that he managed to make his way through this system and succeed. I have nothing but respect for anyone who has survived this gauntlet of education. However, he freely admits that he was not exactly a go-getter throughout school; I’m pretty sure the actual words he used to describe himself were “smart, but lazy,” meaning he understood the material easily enough that he didn’t have to work very hard to do well enough.
I was relieved to discover, however, that university in China more closely resembles its western counterpart when my husband started telling me stories about his time there.
Having already been accepted into their chosen program, the pressure is off. Students no longer have to win a spot at a top level school, and their course of study has already been designed (most universities here are more targeted to specific degrees, rather than the broad offerings of those in the west). They can actually relax a bit and behave like proper young people. I’ve even heard a rumour that the course material is often easier in university than it is in high school, so the biggest learning hurdle is often behind them and some students even have the luxury of (the horror!) slacking off.
My husband even had the freedom to choose some of the classes he took, informing me that a couple of his choices were based on the number of first-year females who would be expected to take the class.
“When we were in our last year, my roommates and I decided to take a class or two because a lot of girls that were new to the school would be taking them. We knew they would be like, ‘Oh, I’m lost!’ and then we could say, ‘Don’t worry, I know the university very well. Let me help you,’” he told me with a naughty glint in his eye and wiggling eyebrows for effect.
What surprised me even more than the fact that my husband was such a smooth operator in university, were a couple of the specific classes he mentioned taking. Now, any of us who have attended post-secondary school have probably filled a few requirements for our degree with some fluff classes (I definitely enjoyed my “History of Rock and Roll” lectures!), but I had no idea that a Chinese university targeted towards science and engineering would even offer classes on such topics.
I’m not sure how they have helped him in his mechanical engineering career path, but my husband apparently also studied Greek and Roman Art History and…are you ready for this one…
The History of Make Up.
And yes, that tidbit is being stored away in my brain to make fun of him for it at a later date, in case you were wondering!