One of the most pervasive stereotypes about Asians in America is their smarts. Whether it's a product of parents or simply the educational system, there is the notion that Asians somehow “learn” better than most other people. And while this factors prominently into the “model minority myth,” it also underlines how much we as Americans don't understand about the education system across the Pacific.
The exterior of the main teaching building on campus (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).
Education didn't get to be such a high priority overnight. Though I plan to write a subsequent post detailing the situation in China more generally, in Taigu, the environment still isn't exactly speed-tracked for learning. SAU is what can be referred to as a mid-tier school—it doesn't require a tremendously high score on the college entrance examination, but it ranks higher than the private vocational colleges that serve students who fail the test outright. Though the years leading up to college are paved with sleepless nights of studying and manic rote memorization, college and beyond is a breeze by comparison. Here in Taigu, college, graduate, and PhD students have a reputation for being lazier than their middle and high school counterparts. As a result, students routinely skip classes they find boring, text in the back of crowded lecture rooms, and play Warcraft in internet bars in lieu of doing homework. Unfortunately for them, China knows a thing or two about taking disciplinary measures to enforce appropriate classroom protocol.
At one of my part-time teaching jobs in Taigu town, my boss stood before a classroom of admittedly mischievous middle school students brandishing a jagged chair leg. He then proceeded to shout in Chinese, “if you don't behave well in this class, I will use this to beat you,” before walking out and pleasantly ushering me in to start my lesson. It was not the first time I had been privy to the threat of physical violence at an institution of learning. When I did an activity on values and morality last semester, the vast majority of my students were in favor of beating their children, as almost everyone in the class had been beaten growing up either by their parents or their school teachers. Punishment for acting out in class in China is severe. A friend told me that when he was in high school he was once forced to stand within the confines of a chalk-drawn circle for an entire class period for disrupting his teacher. Others have spoken about the tiny metal rulers that teachers would use to hit you if you were nodding off in class.
A hallway and a segment of the wall from inside the main teaching building, both of which look like vestiges of a zombie apocalypse.
Earlier this year when we were taking the new Fellows around campus, Gerald aptly pointed out that the main teaching building looks suspiciously like a level straight out of the classic shoot-em-up arcade game, House of the Dead. The walls are pockmarked with what might as well be shells from a sub-machine gun blast and the halls are so stark and dimly lit that you almost expect a biologically engineered undead to emerge from the shadows at any moment. At the front of the entrance stands a rusting statue of a famous Chinese educator and a precariously dangling chandelier as if to warn of imminent danger. The classrooms themselves are bare and gloomy save for coats of white paint that seem to wilt further into gray by the day and large portrait-sized biographies of famous Socialist dictators. Even in midday, walking the halls alone can send shivers down my spine. So in the end, the big question still remains—what's more terrifying: a flesh-eating mutant or the Chinese disciplinary system? Hand me that shotgun any day.