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June 2005

One night in my adult class the topic was social problems, so I had a question dealing with racism.  They were confused by the question and insisted that they didn’t have it saying, “We are all yellow.”  Ok, I replied, butChinese people some are light yellow and some are dark yellow and it seems to me all the models and actresses are light yellow and the street cleaners are dark yellow.  “No, no one is discriminated against.  We give the minority group benefits.  On their college entrance exams, the minorities automatically get 5 extra percentage points.”  I used this to explain the term ‘affirmative action.’  But, I said, if you give them these benefits, then there must have been some discrimination in the past that is being compensated.  They vaguely admitted that at one time their might have been some discrimination, but they couldn’t pinpoint it.  Anything bad in China’s recent history is a bit fuzzy.

 But if it is true that there is no discrimination in China based on race, discrimination has just taken a more sophisticated form.  Education is now perhaps the most important factor in one’s life and the fierce competition starts early.  Kids who do well in elementary school can get into a good middle school which leads to admission in a good high school, which in turn increases their chances of passing the college entrance exam with good marks, allowing them to get into one of the good universities which will grant them entry into a good job and a high position in society.

 All of this, of course, costs money.  The good schools are more expensive.  All schools have large classes, usually with about 60 students per classroom.  The rich parents pay the teacher to move their child to a seat closer to the front of the room.  Rich parents can also pay the teacher to provide extra tutoring for their child (this is technically illegal but “everyone does it.”).  These rich parents can also pay more to send their child to extra classes in English, Chinese, and math, at a school like the one we teach at.  (An extreme example is one of my adult students who is taking my English class so he can speak English with his 6 year old daughter.  In an e-mail, he told me: "I study English for my daughter.  You know Chinese parents give much more things to their children, you will understand why I do so.  If she can speak English, that is much better than I give money to her."   All of this is so they will pass their final exam with high marks to get into a good university.   Finally, if the child does make it into the university, the parents will pay the teacher a handsome bonus.  So the child of a street cleaner doesn’t really stand a chance in the highly competitive education market.Chinese people

 I get the impression that in China, more so than in the states, where you go to school is more important than how hard you try, how much ingenuity you bring to the subject, and what you can actually do with your knowledge.  The schools in the cities are far better than the rural schools, and within the city there is a hierarchy of schools.  Everyone will apply to best schools, but relatively few will get in.  (You can imagine, then, that the admission process is highly susceptible to corruption.)  Everyone knows which schools are the best schools, and respect is accorded depending upon the status of one’s school.  Furthermore, once they start university, they are locked in to whatever major they choose to study as a high school senior.  This “choice” of course was heavily influenced by their scores on the college entrance exam, as different majors require different scores.  The students say that it is easier to get into a new university than to switch majors at their current university, but both are difficult.  China is not a place of second chances.

 I asked my students one time if they thought the education system led to more inequality rather than equal opportunities for all, but the question confused them.  Was education supposed to provide equal opportunities?  “Well, you know, in China we have a high population.  There are very few places in the universities compared to the number of students.  So of course the better students should get in.”  Yes, I countered, but success in school is largely determined by how much money your parents can pay to get you in to the good schools.  “Yeah, because all parents want their child to do well in school.”  I didn’t think they were getting my point.

 They told me that education is so important in China now because it was denied during the Cultural Revolution.  People can better appreciate the value of a good education.  The  thing that they always say about the years of Chairman Mao’s rule is, “We were all poor, then and the schools just taught Chairman Mao’s “Little Red Book.”  Although the economy is booming now, only the urbanites are reaping the benefits.  The rural peasants are not even able to obtain urban residence permits unless they have high party affiliation or a university degree.   The rate of social mobility is low.  If you’re  born on the farm, you’ll probably stay on the farm.  At best, you could get a tenuous job as a waitress, street cleaner, or construction worker in the city, but the job wouldn’t be stable or reliable.

 When we were discussing education in class, I asked if schools should teach culture.  It turns out that here in China, the schools overtly teach the culture to the students (rather than through the covert methods many mainstream U.S. schools are accused of using to transmit the dominant culture.)  In elementary school here, it is called “moral education;”  in middle school, “sociology;” and in high school, “politics”.  But all the classes have the same purpose: to indoctrinate the students into the Communist Party’s line of thought.  By the time they are adults, life in China is nearly perfect.  The only readily admitted problem is the high population, probably because it must be acknowledged in order to justify the one-child policy.

 Perhaps because of their “politics” education and long common history, Chinese generally have a strong sense of identity and patriotism.  This sense of community seems to stifle anyone or anything that fails conform.  They are all yellow, and they all seem to think alike.  Our students tell us the same things, the same jokes, the same anecdotes.  Everyone says, “Dalian is a beautiful city.”  I have never heard anyone complain about this city.  Granted, my source of insight into Chinese thought is limited to my students, and perhaps they like to make a good impression for me as a foreigner.  Indeed, I like it here well enough, but I just wish someone would complain about it for once.  Maybe it’s just our little peninsula, but it also seems that the people here are too proper.  Where are the subcultures?  Where are the hippies and the rebellious people?  I would love to meet a cynical Chinese person, but I have yet to locate one. 

 I asked if this “moral education” was good, using a John Dewey quote that states “the purpose of education is to teach a child how to think, not what to think.”   They mulled it over a bit, but in general seemed to disagree.  One student was a particular advocate of the “moral education” classes, stating it was the most important part of education.  I mentioned that he would really have to trust the government that was doing the educating.  He agreed, conveying his full trust in the Communist Party to know what is best for the denizens of China.  Then I mentioned the Cultural Revolution and hinted that perhaps something like that could happen again without independent thought and critical thinking skills.  But he seemed to think that that was a specific historical event brought on by a few powerful people, rather than a weakness in human nature that could be easily exploited.

 This failure to really learn from history and look at it in truth worries me.  The government celebrates the peasant revolutions of the past, but it neglects the peasants of today.  It complains about Japanese distortion of history, while insulating its own people from some truths about Chinese history (Tiananmen Square would be a good example).  While the gap between rich a poor grows, and social mobility remains low, it doesn’t matter if everyone is yellow.  My students, generally coming from a privileged background, can say everyone is equal, and indeed their minds seem to be frighteningly similar… yet I wonder: What does the dark yellow street cleaner think? 

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