01.03.2011 - 13.03.2011
Back to reality with a bump; those post travel blues kick hard.
Even though I am technically still travelling in China, the first few days back from any trip are always flat and this time was no exception,
especially considering that this time there was no nice home-baking and paternal care (food/washing/taxi service etc.) to ease me back into real life.
Within 24 hours of landing at a wet and cold Guangzhou International Airport, I was walking to my first class clutching at a lesson plan hastily devised on the flight back. In fact, it was an article on the plane that had given me the inspiration. Speed-dating - and its rise in China.
Here was an interesting topic that not only allowed unrestricted practice for spoken English but also allowed a significant amount of cultural exchange. This was as close to the holy grail of ESL lessons as it is possible to get. After a quick pinch to check reality wasn’t suddenly about to ruin my dreams, I got planning…
Now if a relative or friend has ever uttered their mild disapproval at the heavenly mortal you now call 'relationship material', then spare a thought for Chinese kids. Teenage relationships here are actively 'banned', though not by law per se; rather by pressure from parents and teachers. And, as with many things in Chinese culture, this is linked to the expanding population.
Every year millions of students graduate from high school and look to go to university. The problem is that the number of ‘top’ universities in China compared to the number of high school graduates wanting to go to these institutions is hugely disproportionate . Entry into university is decided by one set of exams called the Gao Kao, at the end of your final year of high school and it is this score that decides your future education and, in many ways, your future full stop.
From the start of their three year long high school careers, everything is done with the Gao Kao in mind. As early as the first term of their first year at high school exams assess the students' progress; lunchtime help sessions are set up; and every aspect of a student’s performance is analysed to ensure they are on track. The pressure to succeed in the Gao Kao builds and builds for the next 3 years.
Like most high schools in China, the one I teach at is a boarding school, meaning that the teachers are in constant contact with their students. In this close environment, any relationships the students embark on are quickly spotted and noted. The teachers and parents alike fear that a relationship will harm the student’s chances in the Gao Kao, as it will distract them from their studies. Therefore, as soon as it is found out that a student has a boyfriend or girlfriend, parents are called, visits are made and very quickly the 'ban' is put in place.
This is a fair step away from the reality back home where, come year 11, most students have at least dabbled in matters of the heart. The idea of parents and teachers controlling who you see and what you do to this extent would spark outrage amongst Britain’s youths, yet curiously here it is accepted, as the consequences (failure in the Gao Kao) are too much of a deterrent.
Back to the wet Monday in early March...
When the first slide for my speed dating lesson went up with the word ‘dating’ in bold print the inevitable pandemonium and confusion broke out. After a slow start, the discussion on dating, particularly speed dating, was lively and often hilarious to listen too. You had the ‘good kids' extolling the virtues of school with no distractions, and the kids who had a boyfriend/girlfriend, or wanted one, suggesting social interaction could only be a good thing with a serious subtext of rebellion running along throughout.
What did become clear was that it wasn’t just relationships that were clamped down on in the name of the Gao Kao. Pets, the Internet and often friends were all things deemed to take up valuable study time and attention and thus were carefully controlled and limited or, in the case of pets, just banned outright. In fact, it often seemed that the only thing these kids were allowed to do in their free time was study and take part in extracurricular lessons.
It is not my place to judge this phenomenon, nor really to offer an opinion; the reasons for such strict control of a student’s free time are reasons that, as an English educated student, I could never understand and will never experience. What is clear is that many of these decisions, draconian and outdated as they might seem, are taken with the benefit of the student bang in the centre of them. However, when considering my own education and high school career in relation to China, it is impossible to ignore the sharp relief into which things fall.
In England, students appear a lot more socially mature compared to students of the same age in China. Often, friendships and social interactions are quite whimsical and immature here, whereas in England they seem a bit more developed and advanced at a younger age. Also, the students’ appreciation of the outside world is very limited in China compared to England. As the Internet becomes easier to access for the students in their homes (at school it is restricted as it is a ‘distraction’) then this will change; however, for now there is very little appreciation of the wider world beyond the school, let alone beyond China.
All of this means that students in China, even university students, seem young and naïve when compared to their western counterparts and this is rooted in population pressures. But, given the chance, they are socially vibrant and confident, as illustrated by the speed dating lesson where, by week two after the debating has stopped and they had to speed date for 40 minutes western style, every single class threw themselves into it with gusto and excitement.