Five and a half years ago, I was a 15-year old middle school student in Beijing, busy preparing for the high school entrance exams. One day, I received a letter that changed my life forever. It was an introduction to a New England boarding school that accepted international students and provided need-based financial aid. I decided to give it a shot, not really expecting to get in. But I was lucky. In Sept. 2004, I came to the U.S. for the first time in my life to attend 10th grade.
What initially attracted me to the idea of attending boarding school and college halfway across the globe was the vast range of opportunities that educational institutions in the U.S. offer to students. There are so many different courses that I can take and such a variety of extracurricular activities that I can choose from. In high school, I had time to play in the orchestra, do Model U.N., and learn squash, all in the same semester. I was given the chance to develop not only within the classroom, but also outside of it.
Chinese high school students do not have access to such luxury. Most students sit at their desks all day, doing practice math problems or memorizing lines from ancient Chinese prose. I remember visiting a 12th grade classroom once and seeing students buried in huge piles of practice tests and reference guides, hunched low, and writing frantically. It was not a fun scene.
The key factor behind such stark contrasts between the two countries is the difference between their respective college entrance systems. In China, a student has only one shot at entering college every year through the Gaokao, a college entrance examination held annually in June. My teachers used to tell us, “One point, one soccer field,” meaning that if you dropped one point of the Gaokao, you would drop back as many places in the rankings as the number of people you could fit on a soccer field. Imagine the SATs being 10 times as hard as they are now (especially the math part), having only one chance to take the SATs every year, and having your scores completely determine which college you were admitted to. You’d probably cut your daily two-hour dose of hoops and instead spend the time on math problems too.
Chinese students are no less fun-loving than the average American student. We used to complain all the time to our teachers about our heavy workload, but their response was always that examinations were the fairest solution for a country in which 10 million students apply to college every year. If China adopted the American system, the argument went, not only would there be huge logistical problems, but it would also be practically impossible to prevent corruption. This makes sense. However, I would argue that logistical and fairness problems alone cannot explain the difference. If there really were a strong will, educators would surely be able to come up with innovative ways of tweaking the system so that it is not wholly dependent upon test results.
I suspect that there is a deeper and more fundamental cultural difference between American and Chinese education. Historically in China, going to school was about acquiring knowledge. Students memorized passages from ancient authors like Confucius over and over again until students fully grasped the underlying meanings of the texts and were ready to take the Imperial Examinations—which were first instituted in 605 CE—to become a member of the Chinese bureaucracy. It wasn’t about doing community service, learning leadership skills, or building social networks. This tradition was so strong that even Mao could not dismantle it: although Confucius was denounced and the Gaokao suspended for ten years during the Cultural Revolution, the ancient educational philosophy focusing on the teaching of knowledge never really went away.
Furthermore, while I personally chose to study abroad because of the wide range of opportunities that American education offered, I do believe that the Chinese system still has many advantages. Chinese students excel at math and science because they do a lot of practice problems and become good at it. Socially, because everyone takes the same classes, students are in one classroom with the same fifty classmates for most of high school. Classmates bond with one another in this close environment and establish life-long friendships. In comparison, American students can meet more people in their different classes, but it is much harder to make a large number of close friends because you spend less time with them.
Time flies. Sometimes I just cannot believe that it’s been five years since I first stepped on that flight to America. Of course, I miss my family and friends back home, as well as the food (no offense to HUDS). Nevertheless, I have never regretted coming here for school. I have had access to resources and opportunities that were unimaginable in China, and thanks to American education I have been able to develop both personally and intellectually. I hope that in the future, more and more of my American friends can take a journey in the opposite direction and grow by experiencing China, just as I had broadened my perspectives by coming here.
Zhongrui Yin ’11, a Crimson photographer, is a history concentrator in Adams House.