Stereotypes of Chinese students blown out the water.
15.12.2010 - 31.01.2011
Extrovert, confident and creative, with a huge showcase of individual talent. Not the usual impression that Chinese students present to western eyes. At first glance, the stereotype of hard-working and devoted students rings true in many experiences I have had at the school. Slowly but surely, however, the blinkers are being removed and the truth is being revealed, complete with its full Technicolor dream coat.
Working long hours at school, followed by longer hours of homework after, it is easy to see why many of the students may appear to lack the outgoing, ‘in your face’ personality you would find in the majority of English schools. A lack of academic importance put on the more expressive subjects (music/drama/art), coupled with a huge pressure to achieve academically, means that many students are forced to stifle their artistic talent for ‘core-subjects’. Along with the hugely tiring schedule that runs from 7.30am – 10pm, and a Monday to Friday existence in the closely controlled atmosphere of a boarding school, it is not hard to appreciate why many accuse the students of lacking personality and being highly introvert.
It was after the first couple of weeks that this assumption was first challenged; after the standard introductory lessons, I ran an English slang lesson and it was the perfect opportunity for the students to express a deeper personality. The mix of a fun and relaxed atmosphere, along with a lack of grammar rules and patterns, meant that I got a real insight into the creative possibilities of the students. After the initial awakening, the notion of introverted students who lacked individualism quickly vanished and, ever since, many examples have proven my initial judgement (along with that of most in the west) to be based on preconceptions and shallow observations and experiences.
Sports day brought an array of colour and posters from each class. The canteen is a hub of publications ranging from the serious student union magazine, to more ‘off the radar’ publications displaying wit and verve, all produced and run by the students. Both inside and outside the uninspiring walls of the classrooms, the students' creative individualism bubbles fervently just below the surface.
December rolls around and as I am waiting for my English corner to begin after school, I am approached by a group of my students from class 11. They are desperate for a favour and, as ever I agree. Nothing new there. As they walk away, I contemplate what I have just agreed to, throwing aside my hatred and fear of anything that comes with the tag ‘public performance’, I realise that I have just committed to playing a part in a student play … oops.
A long and deep fear of public entertainment has built up a mountain of dread in me and, even in the rehearsals that followed for the next week, I was consumed by butterflies. It transpired that every class from grade 1 has 7 minutes to run a ‘play/sketch’ and I was needed to fulfil the part of culturally blinkered, British businessman in a kung-fu drama. I only had to blurt out a couple of offensive lines at the ‘Japanese soldiers’, and I was home and dry!
Having scraped through the performance I was left to enjoy the rest of the shows and it left a lasting impression on me. Not only did it confirm my already forming ideas that the students are indeed bubbling with personality, individual talent and ideas; but it also impressed upon me the extent to which the West’s perception of Chinese personalities is limited to the few foreign students you see still working away at 12am in the library, or plying what is often their third language in the local take-out.
The following week, one of my tutor students told me she was taking part in the school's singing contest and did I want to come and watch after school on Wednesday? I accepted, and after class on the following Wednesday I went to the school gym prepared to meet what I figured would be an hour of nervous kids wailing away into a mic with 50 people watching. WRONG! Around half of the school (2000ish students) were there to support and cheer on their class mates or to simply enjoy the show. And what a show it was…
A professional company had been brought in for the lighting, sound and pyrotechnics. I kid you not, indoor fireworks and flares were regularly let off. The singing and the choreography was sublime, rarely a note missed and rarely a chance to let your attention drop for a second. Most surprisingly not one sign of nerves once the signer (often alone) stepped on stage; many appeared born to do it. Surprisingly, it was many of my quiet students that produced the most outrageously confident and expressive performances of the show.
It was on this fateful evening that the inevitable happened and it went something like this….
(Teacher/boss) “Roger, you know it is customary for the foreign teachers and students to sign a song at the New Year’s performance?”
(Me) “No I wasn’t, sorry.” (end of or so I thought)
“Oh, well, every year it is tradition, so this year you will sing a Chinese song in the show with the other foreigners at the school.” (What? It wasn’t meant to go like that!!)
“Chinese? Are you sure?” (Come on, say English will be OK.)
“Yes, it will be (here comes the best part...) fun.” (Crap, crap, crap, crap!)
“When is it?”
Pure dread is the only way to describe the feeling that hit me… I would be singing in Chinese to the whole school (4000 people) with no one to hide behind, and only a week to practice… Grand.
So the week passed (Christmas weekend in the middle) and, come Tuesday, we practiced for the first time as a quartet. The poor Chinese teacher dispatched to make sure we didn’t totally humiliate the school (local press in attendance) was at her wits end; far from knowing it as she expected, we stumbled and fell through the first verse before admitting we were hopeless (her words not mine).
Firmly put in our place, the next 24 hours was spent doing a rescue job and, come the final rehearsals on Wednesday, we did enough to actually impress her, something distinctly beyond our band of merry men just 24 hours before.
6.30pm (1 hour to Showtime) – Feeling sick. Consider making a break for the front gate of the school.
6.45pm (45 mins to go) – Still sick. Final rehearsal goes well. Quietly confident.
7.25pm (5 mins to go) – Auditorium is crammed with close to 4000 students, teachers and officials. Huge mistake – check; shaking – check; words of the song – ...
7.30pm - 7.40pm – Slowly get into the song after a dire start, even harmonise on the final note – students couldn’t care less. They loved it, start to finish! A flamboyant wave to finish...
Rest of the night – The brilliance of the rest of the show (seriously of a stunning quality) is overshadowed by a huge adrenaline rush bettered by few things. Think I am actually quite good at this and consider a repeat showing. Come to my senses early in the morning when I watch the evidence back – shockingly good, bad and strange all rolled into one.
(See for yourself when I finally figure out the video...!)
Throughout these experiences, several stereotypes and assumptions about Chinese students have been blown away, giving a timely reminder that one of the great lessons in life still holds true: never judge a book by its cover. The moment anyone takes the time to scratch beneath the surface of a Chinese school, they will find as much passion for the extroverted and creative as they would in any school in England. In many cases, the quality and assured nature of the performance takes on a much more mature and professional aspect than that found in England.
It is very easy to dismiss the quiet and the hard-working as introvert and without artistic worth, but remember this: for these children to flourish as they do so spectacularly, given the nature of their environment, is quite an achievement in itself. Let’s not forget that often those who shout loudest have the least to say.