So last week we began looking at education by starting with the kiddies. This week- and it isn’t particularly pretty- let’s see a day in the life of a Chinese adolescent. In between explaining their daily dealings I’ll drop in a few disturbing facts about how life carries on this period. I’m sorry this is a little heavy reading compared to my usual rubbish- fear not I’ll be back to complaining about pregnancy tests or my backside’s snow-induced bruise next week- but I really think it’s quite interesting.
I’ll take one of my favourite students as an example. Tom is 15, a surprisingly eloquent individual, but a typical Chinese teenager nonetheless. To wind him up once, I engaged him in some light mischief- on my part at least. I asked him to use orange in a sentence, to which he replied:
‘My father works in an orange factory.’
‘Really Tom? That’s great, but what does the factory make?’
‘No, I mean it’s one that processes fruit.’
‘Ah, what fruit does it process?’
(Nb. At this point I grab the rest of the class, but lose Tom for a while).
‘It’s an orange factory.’
‘I know, Tom, I don’t need to know the colour, which fruits?’ (This back and forth continued for a while, until he snapped).
‘Sir, I fear that you misunderstand me. Or I am struggling to express myself in the correct manner.’
A beautiful sentence, for a wonderful young chap.
So, it’s with regret that I learn about their troubles throughout what is effectively some of the most formative years of their life.
High school starts from anything between 6.30 and 7.30 with the luckiest starting even before that. (Let’s not forget that some travel to high schools around the city, depending upon preference and academic ability).
The morning progresses as any other school- with the exception of the national anthem blaring out of the tannoys as they trudge uniformly into their classrooms- a veritable smorgasbord of syllabus filling education. For those of you have read Breathing is overrated, this apparently includes the memorable ‘exercise for the lungs‘ lesson, but I digress.
Once a week- as is compulsory for all students in china, including at university- they fill the playground beneath me to play basketball or have some ‘fresh air’. I’ve no idea how these lessons go, but judging by their general motor skills this doesn’t have a spectacular impact upon grades.
Lunchtime arrives around 1pm and they are allowed to relax and spend some time away from their studies. For all of fifteen minutes. It becomes clearer why this is utterly wrong later. But anyway, fifteen minutes.
The afternoon rolls on, still in their classes of 50 per teacher. What? Did I not mention that? Sorry- on average there are 50 students to a class, one teacher. The effect that this has is interesting, because barely any of my students could honestly say that they hasn’t fallen asleep in a class, and it offers an explanation as to why it is virtually impossible to get my students off their (insert profanity here) phones during my own lessons.
This is a country, however, where the teacher is king. Teaching ranks amongst the very most respected professions in China, alongside lawyers, doctors and… errrmmm…. bankers (couldn’t resist). It is not uncommon for teachers to confiscate iPads until the end of term, shout at the students like they are subhuman or even smash a students phone should it be used during the lesson…. It mystifies me to see them using them in my class, but that’s not important. What is important is the level of respect- it’s akin to the respect that rugby referees get off 30 ugly, hulking, testosterone-driven players on the pitch for 80 minutes.
An astonishing fact is that their official salary from the Chinese government amounts to roughly £1.50 per calendar month. Even by Chinese standards, this isn’t much. Odd. The rest comes from school fees, maintenance allowances and the parents themselves. Odder. Seemingly, the amount given to the teacher improves students results… Let’s not scream corruption too quickly, rather foul play- if mummy and daddy gives Mr Smith a reasonable percentage of his wage, which student would receive his undivided attention for longer?
Anyway, Tom toddles back off home after his long day of lessons at 6pm, yes 6pm with a backpack full of homework. They even squeeze in a quarter of an hour in the break during my class on a Sunday evening, which gives an idea of how much they receive… A few hours of it. Nightly. Usually 3. Please do the maths and work out how that figures. A recipe for grey hair, I’d say. Low and behold…
Without delving too far into the birds and the bees- as I’m still learning about it all myself- it’s a tricky time for any given teen around the world, but the Chinese love to pile it on. Aside from first loves, parental disputes and school from 7-6, they still have to negotiate homework and social exploration- the two are entwined. If that amount of homework is given, when can social time start? With all that is above, is there any surprise that emotion, creativity and personality are often found lacking from conversation with the youth of China?
Exam time is another kettle of fish, but I’ll have a look at that sometime in the future. It’s another eye opener!