This summer, I spent 7 weeks teaching English in Jiangsu province, China. While I was there, I became progressively more and more Chinese. The superficial, cultural traits I picked up – driving like a maniac, clicking my fingers at waitresses, proposing a toast every five minutes to anyone I’m remotely enjoying having dinner with – are proving that they can be unlearned (which is probably just as well, as “when in Rome” is generally a good mantra). Certain ideological traits which gradually permeated my way of thinking in the course of two months, leaving me wondering things like “would there be these crazy riots in London if we had proper media censorship?”, were erased by my reassimilation into English modes of thought almost immediately on my return. But the lessons I seem to have learned permanently are the ones I learned from my students. Chinese students have a work ethic of dedication, resilience and self-discipline which quite frankly puts us – not only British students, but also Oxford undergraduates – to shame, and they’re learning it from age three. If I’d grown up with that attitude, I’d be earning more by now.
The programme I interned with, Oxbridge China Student Education Programme (OCSEP), boasts that English teachers from Oxbridge can introduce Chinese students to “the western way of learning”, and thus potentially ease the transition for an outstanding Chinese 15- to 18-year-old from Chinese High School to Oxbridge. There is certainly merit to the notion that our “western style” of teaching benefits Chinese students by encouraging them to actually speak in class, and by developing their confidence and their presentation skills. Many of them study in schools where the English language is read, written and listened to, but where there are 65 pupils in a class, which makes a classroom style whereby each pupil is asked to speak aloud in turn essentially impossible. Some of my students could write complex essays in English, but had never spoken English except in an English exam. Okay, fine: there are some things Chinese students could really benefit from in a British style of teaching. To put it bluntly, however, we have more to learn from them than they do from us.
The Chinese work ethic involves a degree of dedication which British students, and even Oxbridge students, would find at best hard to swallow, and at worst outrageous and possibly unhealthy. Earlier this year, Amy Chua, Chinese mother of two and second-generation immigrant to the United States, published her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. It’s an autobiographical account of the way she has always worked her two daughters into the ground in order to instil what she sees as a work ethic which prioritises future fulfilment, rather than temporary happiness growing up. It’s not too difficult to sympathise with on principle. After all, what is the amusement of watching two hours of Nickelodeon every day as a child, in comparison to the satisfaction of attaining your dream job, and fulfilling your potential within your career?
Of course, we ought to treat the concept with some caution. Does a parenting technique under which a B-grade is considered so disgraceful that your mother might not speak to you for a week really make for happy, well-rounded children? After all, you need to know that your parents love you even if you don’t have a straight-A report card. In Taizhou, I taught an evening class of four-year-olds their first ever English lesson, with flashcards for “dog”, “cat”, “panda” and so on. At the end of the lesson a mother brought her child back into the classroom and demanded a demonstration of what her daughter had learned, and then had me write down every word that this little girl (who would definitely have been playing with colourful bricks in a British nursery) couldn’t remember. And at 8.30am the next morning, the woman brought her daughter to school to demonstrate her memory of all the English animal words she hadn’t known twelve hours earlier. I didn’t quite know what was more concerning: the fact that this woman had clearly spent the previous evening drilling her toddler in a foreign language, or that the four-year-old herself looked so incredibly anxious that I praise her for her work, and so relieved when I did.
And yet this kind of parenting, almost draconian to British or American eyes, doesn’t appear to provoke resentment at all. Almost all of my students, at one point or another, expressed unprompted admiration for their parents. In a written homework about family, fifteen-year-old Kelvin wrote “My father is a mechanical engineer who is always strict both in his work and with himself. He once told me “the best to do is to do your best”. Whenever I’m bored with my study I’ll think of what my dad have [sic] told me and try my best to work harder.”
More than that, this unrelenting and yet loving parental pressure seems to instil not only a dedicated work ethic, but also a sense of pride, aspiration, and responsibility. I asked my class of fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds to prepare a presentation each about their ideal job, explaining why they wanted it, and what they would have to do to get it. Lily declared that her dream was to become an architect “because China is developing so quickly, [and] the government needs more talents in this way”. What British fourteen-year-old girl is planning her career based on the welfare of our country? Kelvin announced his plans to become President of China, including a whole set of coherent policies on education, employment opportunities and the environment, and rounded off his presentation (which somewhat resembled an election speech) with the conviction “It’s my duty to work hard and devote my whole life to building a richer and stronger China.” If British teenagers grew up feeling like that about the United Kingdom then maybe I wouldn’t have had to sit in China watching TV reports of opportunist rioting in London and feeling somewhat ashamed of my countrymen.