China was an exotic destination that I gave very little thought to as I escaped my childhood. When the ‘Cold war’ was at its hottest in the sixties and I had turned 13, I began to notice increasingly frenetic headlines in the national press in the UK.
As an intense very politically aware youngster in the sixties I would want to start my journey to enlightenment, apropos China in those very sixties; an era of confrontation and much ‘sabre rattling’ between the cold war contenders. A little background to my mindset at that time may be of interest. I would go as far as to say that I seemed to be the only student, at age 14, in 1962 at the height of the Cuban Missile crisis, who felt deeply worried in the school playground whilst others were enjoying themselves. It was during this era by the way that the quote (below) emanated from. All I could envision then were the scenarios I had read on my daily newspaper round where we were all going to be wiped out with our passports firmly clutched in our perspiring hands whilst standing at the entrance to oblivion.
Anyway that slight digression aside China and what it was in the sixties fascinated me especially the imagery created by the ‘Great Leader’ in the shape of ‘chairman’ Mao. It certainly struck a chord with my friends and I in the 6th form when the little red book was waved around in areas as obscure as Basingstoke. Its pithy offerings gave us much merriment especially when we could quote some the sayings verbatim. A favourite was ‘paper tiger’, when Mao referred to the USA.
China faded somewhat from our collective radars when we entered our respective colleges and universities. I arrived at Madeley College a somewhat raw and bewildered student but one who still had a deep interest in politics albeit at a relatively low discourse level.
My interest perked up however, when I undertook a first degree in one of those new universities where Marxism coursed through their Social Science faculties like hot streams (of political invective) attacking, unrelentingly, an oblivious status quo. It was there that China really took root and became an interest of mine in a purely theoretical way. I had occasion to meet the Guardian’s China ‘expert in the early eighties, John Gittings, whose insights provided me with much ammunition in my discourse with others. I had read in addition several tracts on China and I became increasingly intrigued by some of its practices and conceptions. It was at that time when a television programme on Chinese nursery education became a ‘hot’ topic. We saw these children setting up their tables and chairs, getting out their lunch things and feeding themselves. When they finished any of their activities they would tidily clear up. This of course was in sharp contrast to western practices where the young demanded attention and almost subservience from their teachers and carers.
Having been contracted to teach in China in the 21st century the China I found was somewhat different. Amy Chua (famous for her ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother ‘ and ‘World on Fire…”) sees ‘parents who hover over their children, doing their work for them…….investing all their dreams – not to mention money – in their only child”. However Chua goes on to say that this is all done in a ‘distinctly Chinese way’, where these ‘spoiled children often study and drill between 7am and 10pm every day’.
Here at our school that incidentally caters for the ‘better offs’ we see some of the above in action. The self-centredness of our students is not as apparent to us as foreign teachers. Keep in mind that most of us have taught in Britain and by comparison our Chinese students are incredibly well behaved and well adjusted. Certainly, as far as our school (student) hours are concerned Amy Chua is on track. To those in Britain or elsewhere these hours may appear to be horrific.
Students by and large live on campus where they share dormitory style accommodation of up to 8 students per room. We see much evidence of fresh air concerns and traditional medicines influencing their perceptions of healthcare. Yet days are often taken off to visit hospitals that treat colds as infectious diseases!
Their day starts at 6.15am and breakfast is from 6.45 until 7.10am in the school canteen. Prep in class is from 7.10 until 7.40am when our international curriculum commences.
We teach the Cambridge International syllabuses encompassing IGCSE, AS and A Level. Our students are around 14/15/16 when they undertake the IGCSE’s in one year followed by AS (one year) and A Level (one year). What is a little extraordinary perhaps is that when they enter our school they will need to quickly adjust to the teaching medium of English, and it is only after the month or so in our school, that they realize the IGCSE syllabuses in the sciences and mathematics are far too easy for them. The speaks volumes for the Chinese education system but there are a swathe of systemic problems, hence our over-subscribed ‘international’ school. To date most of our students have received A* or A’s for those subjects. As a result all our students now start their A Level mathematics course in their first year of our school’s 3 year programme.
Perhaps we are able to remember the hardships we faced in grappling with maths in our secondary school days, except perhaps for those who sat in the front row!
Going back to the school day; our curriculum ends at 4.10 pm but not so for our students! After an hour’s break for café or canteen food between 5 and 6pm they are back in their classrooms until 9pm. The same applies to day students! It’s very long day but one that is replicated throughout China and is totally accepted as the norm.
From the mundane to the ridiculous; let’s talk about driving. If you have driven in a manner shaped by fairground ‘bumper’ cars, then you would be eminently suited to the driving styles out here. The outstanding and enacted mantra is: ‘never stop for anything unless it is a red light in whose glow is a watchful officer of the law’. Otherwise do as you please and like the proverbial football crowd entering a stadium, fight for your place and never give it up once attained. If you are unlucky enough to be a pedestrian walk straight and true; avoid deviation since the electric bikes will be aching to make contact with either side of you; ON THE PAVEMENT!
Finally China is all you want it to be. It has modernity in abundance with advertised branded goods prominently lighting the thoroughfares of Beijing and Shanghai interspersed with the sanitized township replicas of old China. If we dig deeper still, we can still see remnants of the real ‘old’ China amidst the towering new blocks and ubiquitous construction sites.
Dr John H. Crowe
I have spent the last 3 years in Ningbo, China as a school Principal