Thursday, November 10, 2011

Culture Corner: China - Student Behavior

After spitting and sputtering a couple of times, Culture Corner faded into oblivion several months ago.  Having just finished another semester here, I figured it was time I wrote a real culture corner, one about China and not the problems in my own country. Are you ready?
In the past four months I've done a little bit of traveling, continued to meet interesting people, and heightened my belief that Chinese food is the most delicious in the world. But in the classroom, the past semester has tried my patience in a way no previous year in China has yet.  I'm glad to say I passed the test (barely), but I'm afraid my skin is all the thicker for it.  It begins and ends with my students.

To help you appreciate my teaching situation, I should first start with explaining the university application process in China.  I’ve not checked these stats, but I’ve been told there are 11 million high school students each year taking the infamous ‘gao kao,’ a university entrance exam that seeks to separate the wheat from the chaff.  (Retake is only an option if you repeat your last year of high school.)  Along with answering questions, students must also include their top three choices for university in the exam.  Like gambling, if one gets a final mark that is lower than the expectations of the unis they chose, it’s possible they will not even be allowed to attend uni at all even though their mark was better than many other students.  It’s only students who ace the exam and have the guts to write in the top unis that have a chance of going to Bei Da, China’s equivalent of Oxford or Harvard.  If the task of balancing expectation with reality wasn’t difficult enough, each student knows that of the 11 million taking the exam, there are only 2 million available positions!  So, what happens to all of the students who gambled poorly or simply didn’t do well on the exam?  The answer: private university.

I teach at Lambton College, which is a private Canadian school affiliated with and located on the campus of Jiangnan University in Wuxi. As Jiangnan is a somewhat reputable university, the academic standards are relatively high, which serves to keep the riff-raff out.  However, should a student be rejected upon application to Jiangnan University, they are given the opportunity to apply to Lambton College, whose only standard is whether the parents can afford the extraordinarily high tuition fees.  (I’m sure some of those fees are merrily exchanging hands with the president of Jiangnan U.)  Ultimately this equates to the following situation: I teach a bunch of dumb, rich kids.  This is a terrible combination, and to make matters worse, this past semester I taught first year students, which means I was part of their first attempts at independent living. 

By the time Westerners are 18 or 19, most have had a part time job, a girl/boyfriend or two, and have a vague notion of what is expected of them upon leaving the nest.  Not my students. Like apple blossoms floating gaily on a summer’s stream (terrible simile :), so too have my students had a blissful youth wherein nothing evil was ever allowed near them, their every whim and need cared for by doting parents. Such is the culture of China as whole, not only the aristocracy.  But what happens when they are taken from this mold?  Free from the watchful eyes of parents, an unlimited supply of money in hand, and amongst a large group of peers with similar backgrounds, my students find themselves without a hand to guide them and truly become like children in a candy store, indulging in every unproductive vice they see.

Though I teach Lambton College students, as we share the same campus I'm constantly coming in contact with the Jiangnan University students, which gives me a point of comparison.  Jiangnan U. students are what I would call normal, well adjusted youth who like to have a little fun, but are aware of their position in life and realize the importance of their studies just like the American university students we label "good". My Lambton students are the opposite.  They are clueless - not all of them, but most of them, particularly the boys who were doted upon especially hard by Granny Yu and her everything goes policy.  Extremely similar to middle school students, they have little understanding of what will happen to them after they graduate, let alone reality in general. Nothing is taken seriously. They often "forget" to bring a pen or their books to class – a language class! They laugh and giggle when I say "girlfriend" or "boyfriend." And most everything I say goes whistling in one ear and out the other, their attention span about as long as it takes me to eat a Chinese dumpling. In class I've had a bit of fun with their short attention spans.  (Please ignore that this is the student’s sixth year or more of studying English.)

Me: "A noun is: a person, place, or thing. Mosquito, what’s a noun?"  (Mosquito, like Smile, is actually not an uncommon English names my students adopt.)
Mosquito: "Uhh, uhh, uhhh."
Me: "Mosquito, you're my best student, you know that?"
Mosquito: (finger probably scratching the edge of a nostril) "Uhh, uhh, uhh."

Part of one of my exams this semester asked the students to write a paragraph describing what they did the previous day, the objective being for them to use verbs in the simple past. Correcting the exams, I read paragraph after paragraph describing how they'd stayed awake all night playing computer games, chatting with friends, and writing text messages to their girlfriends, essentially admitting they hadn't studied one iota for the exam. Needless to say, not many passed the exam. And when I pointed out to them their indirect admittance, they just laughed as if to say: "No worries, mate." 

A huge part of this immaturity is that, while American college students are off getting drunk and smoking pot, Chinese students are off playing computer games, something just as addictive to them. Just outside my campus are humungous internet bars where for one Chinese dollar an hour, a person can get online and play computer games to their heart's content. Most mornings around 7:00 or so there is a straggling line of students wandering into the campus for a day's classes, having just spent the entire night wrangling their pals in World War Galactica.  No, not partying the night - playing the night away. At various places in China young boys have been found dead in internet bars.  So addicted to the games, they ignore hunger and sleep for days, and die where they sit. How interesting  is that!?!? It truly shows how innocent they are; they throw their lives away intoxicated by imaginative characters and storylines rather than alcohol and drugs. That's culture!!

Another funny thing is my student's attendance. Unless approaching death's door, one of the stranger aspects of the American work ethic is that most American students will still show up to school despite a slight sniffle or mild cough.  But not at my school.   Never before have you heard of so many students being "sick". This their top excuse for missing class, it is followed closely by 'headache', 'was sleeping', and finally, "Had to bring girl/boyfriend to hospital." You might think having to go to the hospital is a serious thing, but such is not the case for my students. One day one of my students told me he had to bring his friend (another of my students) to the hospital because he broke his leg playing basketball. I thought this was pretty serious and didn't expect the injured student in class the remainder of the week. But the next day, there was the student with the “broken leg," smiling as though he could dance the tango blindfolded, all limbs in good repair.

In general I can forgive my student’s clownishness and immaturity, but it's their classroom behavior that’s made my job lack enjoyment. Rather than paying attention, taking notes, and asking questions, their favorite activities in class are the following:

1. playing games/writing messages on their mobile phones
2. sleeping
3. chatting with their friends
4. picking their nose

At first I tried to put a stop all of this, thinking it was my duty as a "good teacher" to make them learn. But I quickly came to the conclusion that no matter what I did, take away their phones, wake them up, prepare the world’s most interesting lesson plan, whatever - I could put them in stocks facing the blackboard - but I couldn't make them want to learn, and so I gave up. I decided I would teach indifferently, and the students who wanted to learn something would, and those didn't, wouldn't. You might think such a strategy would solve the problem for the teacher.  It did - except for those students who were still talking in class.

Sleeping and playing on your phone is noiseless and doesn't disturb anyone. But talking (especially a large number) annoys a teacher terribly because they have to raise their voice so what few students who do care, can hear. I tried many ways to get them to be quiet, but ultimately had to rely on a combination of all of them. I hated this because I didn't want to be the parent of 18, 19, and 20 year olds, even though that is what they needed. I might say "shhhh", upon which they would be quiet for two seconds. I might say "shhhh" again, upon which they would be quiet for one more second. Then I would loose a deep growl from the bottom of my throat like my father does when his dogs won't shut up. This would make all of them jump out of their seats in complete fear and be quiet for… one minute. A couple of times I couldn't get them to be quiet at all and completely walked out of the classroom. Their reaction was to become immediately distraught as though they'd collectively just killed someone, a few chasing me down in the hallway, apologizing profusely, and begging me to come back. I asked "Why?" but the irony was lost on them. And of course the next day when I returned to class they were just as talkative as the day before.

I also had a problem with my students arriving to class late. If one or two come late, it's no problem.  But if twelve or fifteen of them are late (more than half), wandering in at five or ten minute intervals, it can be quite annoying to have the lesson interrupted so often.  So, one day after all the students had petered in, I told them: "Tomorrow when the bell rings I'm locking the door." The following day all of them were on time except for two of the usual culprits. Ten minutes later when they knocked on the door, I politely told them to go home and come back the next day on time. One of these students started yelling and began violently kicking the wall. And after I closed the door, he kicked a hole in it. Well aware of his normal dormant (aka "sleeping everyday") classroom behavior, this puzzled me greatly, and though I wanted to pick him up by the neck and throw him down the stairs for his destructive behavior, I opened my now broken door and asked him to calm down, which he did. I said: "Zhou Xing, everyday in class you literally sleep from the time you arrive until the bell rings, so why are you so eager to enter today?" He of course had no answer, so I told him to go home and think about it (just like a parent!).  Nothing ever became of the situation, and in true Chinese style, my door has remained in disrepair since.  This undoubtedly will continue to be the situation when the nuclear apocalypse destroys the world. 

Despite all of the trouble the students cause in the classroom, I am extremely kind when grading their work.  Not wishing to overturn the boat of Chinese culture, most passed my class, though their ability to tie their shoes remains in doubt. My positive outlook is that they are an investment in future entertainment; I will continue finding signs like "Minding the head smash" above particularly low hung doors.  Also, please don't take my students as stereotypical; I have taught at other places which have students who care about their education.  The competition of China's job market forces them to respect the realities of life a little more than the minority who are my pampered children – I mean, students.

Ok, I'm off for summer holiday.

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