An educator in Shenzhen, China, Jiang Xueqin, wrote recently in The Diplomat about the differences between Chinese teenagers and American teenagers. The piece instantly transported me back to my high school years in China. But contrary to Jiang, I loved those years because they helped shape who I am today.
Jiang writes that the most important task of American teenagers is to construct a self-narrative that forms his basic identity as an independent human being. In contrast, he argues, Chinese teenagers are never allowed to take risks, which blocks self-understanding and self-reflection. Because Chinese students never confront typical teenage tribulations, they are doomed to live out their teenage years forever.
I am a product of one of these Chinese boarding schools, and a participant in many small acts of teenage rebellion. Yes, we were required to wear uniforms and were not allowed to wear jewelry. But my desk-mate and I had fun sneaking ear studs behind our hair, an act we perceived as extremely defiant. We were not allowed to leave school on weekdays, so we pretended to be sick and obtained special permission from school nurses to leave school for two hours. Then we devoured hamburgers and fries at McDonald’s and came back in time for afternoon classes.
I hated math and science, and so did my desk-mate, because we were not allowed to talk in class. So we used a notebook to write conversations about pop culture and our little hidden romances. I still treasure that notebook today.
Recently I saw a survey on Kaixin001, a Chinese version of Facebook, titled “Do you still miss this?” The survey featured a brand of instant noodles. Instead of boiling the dried noodles in water and eating them, you break them into pieces and eat them like crackers. Most of the voters were my age and believed they were most delicious only when eaten in class. If I kept going on about these small acts, you might think I was a delinquent, a liar, or a bad student in general. But I was simply a teenager.
About the Chinese education system
Students in the Chinese education system endure six years of elementary school and six years of middle and high school to prepare for what is often the most important turning point of their lives: the National College Entrance Examination. The exam takes place once each year. If student scores are high enough, they might be able to enter one of the few high-ranking Chinese universities in big cities like Beijing or Shanghai. This builds the foundation for good jobs after graduation. And if their English is good enough, they can take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or the IELTS (International English Language Teaching System, or the British equivalent of the TOEFL). And last, if their families are financially blessed, they might have a chance to apply to colleges in English-speaking countries such as the USA, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, or New Zealand.
Unfortunately, if their entrance examination scores are below a certain point, the options after high school are limited to obtaining associate’s degrees or starting in extremely low-paying jobs.
For most Chinese students, the only way to a brighter future is to ace every subject in school and to be in extraordinary condition on the three days of the National College Entrance Examination.
I spent four years at the Wuhan Foreign Languages School, one of the best high schools in my hometown of Wuhan, in Hubei province. Since it was a boarding school, students were required to stay on campus for five and half days per week. Students start studying at 7 a.m. and take classes until 11 p.m.
Many American students find it hard to understand the Chinese schedule. But we accepted the rigor because competing for the few high-ranking Chinese universities requires a lot of work. Nearly 8.8 million students take the college entrance exam each year, and only about 20,000, or 0.2 percent, make it to the top colleges in China.
Some of my classmates from high school are the hardest-working people I have ever met. The school’s schedule was never enough for them. After the lights went out at 11 p.m., they carried flashlights to bed and read textbooks under their blankets. They finished meals early, so they could use 10 extra minutes to memorize more historical facts and English vocabulary. They lived like this for six years to prepare themselves for the three days of the examination, which would determine their fate. They were like the Sadhus of Hinduism, the ascetics whose focus shuts out everything else. They rebelled in their own way, too, sneaking bites of dried noodles like the rest of us, and sometimes secretly reading newspapers in class — though that was usually to prepare for a politics exam. They taught me an important lesson: work hard and persevere. If you’re going through hell, as Winston Churchill said, keep going.
There is a more somber Chinese saying, “Chi de ku zhong ku, fang wei ren shang ren,” that explains why Chinese students work so hard: Those who can overcome the highest level of hardship and pain will become the elite in this world.
Sticking it to The Man: our ‘Exchange Diaries’
To return to a happier teenage memory, I will describe my desk-mate in high school. These are people you sit with for many years. In most cases, if nothing goes wrong, you sit with that person until you graduate. My desk-mate was Monica, and we were alike in many ways. We both dreaded sciences and mathematics. We were not teachers’ favorite students, and we were both passionate about literature, especially English literature. Like all teenagers, we felt different and misunderstood. So we looked for things that “defined” ourselves. We shared a Walkman during study periods, listening to metal bands like Slipknot and Korn. In contrast to our taste in music, we loved classic British female writers, such as Emily Bronte and Virginia Woolf.
Because we sat through classes from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., punctuated only by 10-minute breaks, we had the most interesting conversations on paper during math classes. We were not allowed to talk at all during class except to answer questions from the teacher. So we pretended to take notes and “talked” to each other on scrap paper.
We talked about everything: our “original” views about the world, the books we read, the boys in other classes we secretly had crushes on. As time went on, our notes got longer, so long that we started to use notebooks rather than scrap paper for our secret conversations. The habit got us into writing. I started to write about my earlier years in Seattle, and Monica would comment on each chapter. She encouraged me to share my stories with others, and my classmates also commented on every entry I made. Some comments were about the same length as my articles. It was as if we were writing diaries to each other. We decided to call it “Exchange Diaries.” My friends and I kept writing and commenting, just like we do on blogs today, until we graduated from high school. That was when my diaries were published into a novel.
The habit didn’t die. Even though Monica and I went to different universities in Beijing, we still write to each other. When I completed a short novel for a class in modern Chinese language, Monica was the first person to read and comment on my work.
Today Monica lives in London and I live in Chicago. We don’t quite write to each other anymore, but what we did in high school carried on to our college years and changed our lives completely. We still write in journals and we still love to read. Although not everyone shares our passions, in some ways, we keep writing for each other as our most loyal readers.
A marketing strategist in Chicago, Michelle Cui Xiaoxiao recently graduated with a master’s degree in integrated marketing communications from the Medill School at Northwestern University.
Above, the campus of the Wuhan Foreign Languages School, or Wuhan Wai Guoyu Xuexiao. A Deng Xiaoping inscription on a dormitory reads: “Be prepared to meet the needs of the future and the world,” or “Wei zou xiang shijie he weilai er zhunbei.”