The Wuhan Foreign Languages School, or Wuhan Wai Guoyu Xuexiao.

How Chinese teenagers stick it to The Man.

by Michelle Cui Xiaoxiao on 24 June 2010

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.”

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Brendan O'Kane 24 June 2010 at 3:05 pm

Both Cui Xiaoxiao and Jiang Xueqin have valid and non-contradictory points. Part of the difference in their take on matters is simply generational; a good deal more of it, I suspect, is because Jiang’s take is from the outside looking in, and Cui’s is from the inside looking out. The system wants to destroy all opportunities for kids to develop personalities and the capability for independent thought; it’s set up to be that way, and so that’s what Jiang sees. (I’d argue that the system in the US isn’t much different in terms of intentions; it’s just nowhere near as good at doing so.) Meanwhile, Chinese teenagers are still finding ways to get up to mischief (even if it’s very tame mischief in the larger scheme of things — when I was 16, I compensated for my bad grades by figuring out how to print fake report cards) because they are teenagers.

One thing that both articles miss, I think, is that the stresses on Chinese teenagers and American teenagers are not the same: the stresses on Chinese teenagers are systemic and inflicted by The Man (parents; schools; the gaokao system), while the stresses on American teenagers are social and largely self-inflicted or peer-inflicted. Not that Chinese teenagers aren’t interested in dating, looking cool, etc., but they don’t really seem to inflict the same amount of general nastiness upon each other that kids in the States do. (Not that I speak from experience — I went to a pretty nerdy school where people mostly just left each other alone. But I’ve heard plenty of horror stories.)

The teenage son of a friend – whom I’d also count as a friend – is about to enter his junior year of high school, which means that from here on it’s basically all gaokao prep all the time. My friend, herself something of a free spirit, is worrying that she raised him to be too free-spirited, too willing to sass back. Her son, meanwhile, is worried that he’ll miss a World Cup match because of his stupid lame-o cram classes. I’ve been telling his mother that this is normal and healthy, but at the same time, the fact is that the test really is as important as people say it is, and that doing well on the test has absolutely nothing to do with native intelligence (which the kid has in spades). He’ll be fine in the long run — he’s a good kid, with a good head on his shoulders — but in the short run, I can absolutely understand his mother’s desire for him to be just a bit more drone-like.

Small acts of rebellion are quite important for kids to define themselves, in China as in the US — anything from playing World of Warcraft for half an hour when they should be studying, to experimenting with profanity with their friends, to spending a little extra time on their social networking site profiles to customize them just a bit more. As well as more traditional forms of rebellion, like passing notes and sneaking cigarettes after school. I was out getting breakfast the other week, and I saw a couple of high school kids in their dorky white tracksuits on their way to the gaokao exam, the boy carrying his girlfriend in his arms. The kids are basically alright.

Brendan O’Kane

2 Sarah Jane Zwier 24 June 2010 at 10:15 pm

Thank you. It’s so interesting to read a first-hand experience of attending Chinese schools. It’s great that Michelle and Monica’s secret notes in class turned into a love of writing.

Sarah Jane Zwier
Ban Phônsavan, Laos
Mak Nao

3 Stan Wong 26 June 2010 at 8:22 am

Of course in every suppressive system certain individuals somehow manage to break through. In fact, it has in some ways become a Chinese mindset: I’m in this system and I can’t change it, but if I can somehow cheat the system then it doesn’t concern me. However, this does not mean the system itself should be justified.

Michelle Cui Xiaoxiao may have survived the Chinese education. But there are still a majority of teenagers who could otherwise become much more creative, capable and sophisticated, but have been suppressed and destroyed by this system.

4 Lewis Sandler 3 July 2010 at 6:02 am

Agree with Stan Wong: As an American teacher, Ive been involved with this system in Beijing for 17 years. It is relentless, mindless, sucks the souls out of the young students, creates nothing and results in mindless bee workers to carry on the Party’s goals. I have tried to change it from within and have succeed a little and now the CCP seems to be listening. Maybe in a thousand years. One can only hope.

Lewis Sandler

5 Liz Mitchell 3 July 2010 at 12:10 pm

It’s always refreshing to read the perspective of someone who grew up through the system and looks back with such positive perspective. I find the same hard work ethic among the new young Canadian families who have come from Asia. Their children are most often the ones receiving awards and scholarships.

A truly wonderful read!

Liz Mitchell

6 Bob Page 3 July 2010 at 2:38 pm

Stan, Lewis, Liz, Sarah,
Thank you for the thoughtful observations on education. Cui’s piece provides a first-person perspective on some of the reasons behind choices that educational systems make, as well as the consequences. As Brendan suggests, I am not sure that Cui and Jiang’s points of view are contradictory. It’s fascinating that classroom discipline led these two students to invent a new method of telling stories, an act of self-definition that continues to shape them today.

7 Nancy 1 August 2010 at 3:57 pm

I am so glad to hear that I am not the only one who eats dried instant noodles. I’m an ABC (American-Born Chinese), and I don’t remember how I discovered this, but I LOVE eating dry instant cup noodles. In fact, I think I’m going to eat one right now. They’re terrible if you actually cook them though.

8 click for details 29 September 2012 at 3:52 am

I am happy to find this website. You bring me back is school days. And related to instant noodles – I adore them.

9 Dave 2 July 2013 at 10:44 am

Never heard people of this origin referred to as an ABC before !! but great article really enjoyed it!

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