In 2010, Shanghai garnered worldwide attention after the city’s 15-year-olds topped global rankings for the previous year’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam. People looked to Shanghai as a beacon of academic success, even as the Chinese education system faced age-old criticisms for its reliance on rote learning at the expense of creativity and individuality.
That same year, Chinese-American journalist Lenora Chu moved to China with her husband and young son. When Rainer was 3, the family decided to enroll him in the public school system, choosing a state-run preschool regarded as one of the best in Shanghai.
Five years later, Chu is the author of “Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve,” in which she recounts her family’s experience in the Chinese school system, delving into its mechanisms and challenges. The book, which hits shelves this month, takes its title from a song taught in Chinese kindergartens: “It just struck me that ‘little soldiers’ is an accurate way to describe these kids,” Chu, now a mother of two, tells Sixth Tone. “There is a military-like aspect to their experience,” in which Chu sees both negative and positive qualities.
Chu is herself both an outsider and an insider. Growing up in a strict Chinese-American household in Texas and attending public school there, Chu recalls frequent clashes with her scientist father’s rigid rules and emphasis on academic success in math, science, and engineering.
With degrees from Stanford and Columbia universities — and a career spent reporting on business, politics, science, and culture for CNN, The New York Times, and other top news outlets — Chu now credits her parents’ methods with pushing her to succeed. “They had high expectations, and I was able to meet them,” she says. “I’m looking at my kids now, and I feel that they’re capable of so much more at an early age than we give them credit for — that’s what I take away from my upbringing.”
Though Chu doesn’t agree with all of the methodology underlying the Chinese system, she feels that a bicultural education has built her son’s knowledge base and fostered adaptability and resilience. He talks about baseball with his American friends and knows how to “save face” for the host at a Chinese party. “He’s learning to navigate both cultures very well,” she says.
Chu spoke to Sixth Tone about navigating the Chinese school system as a Chinese-American parent, the future of educational reform in the nation, and what Chinese and American schools can learn from each other. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Lenora Chu poses for a photo at a café in Shanghai, Sept. 12, 2017. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone
Sixth Tone: What inspired you to write “Little Soldiers”?
Lenora Chu: What people are saying about Chinese education is very different from what I’ve experienced on the ground. As a parent, I want to make sure my kid is OK. As a journalist, I want to answer some of the bigger questions.
Immediately, there was a clash of cultures [when we put our son in a Chinese public school]. In the West, we always question authority, but in China, the culture is much more accustomed to not challenging the teachers on every little thing. A teacher actually said to me, “Please don’t do that in front of your son, because it diminishes my authority.” Frankly, I was stunned because no one had ever said that to me before.
My son hates eggs. But on his first day of school, the teacher held his mouth shut until he swallowed. I was very upset. I marched off to the school to confront her and said, “We don’t use force; we explain benefits and ask them to choose.”
And she asked, “Does it work?” I had to admit that it doesn’t.
Sixth Tone: Many people criticize the lack of creativity in the Chinese education system, but you mentioned that your friends were surprised to see how creative your son was.
Lenora Chu: Creativity requires two things: an environment that encourages expression, and regular practice. People forget you need practice to be creative. It’s true that I feel the traditional Chinese classroom does not allow for that. But we have all met plenty of Chinese people who have come through the system, and once they’re in an environment where they felt comfortable offering ideas that are very different from the norm, there is a lot of creativity. If we look at the marketplace, there are a lot of creative ideas being generated.
Students make shadows with their hands at an elementary school in Shanghai, May 22, 2014. Lai Xinlin for Sixth Tone
You need a very strong knowledge foundation to come up with ideas that revolutionize an industry. We are forgetting that. If you focus too much on the process without knowledge, you’re not going to get anywhere. You need both.
Sixth Tone: How has your own upbringing and education influenced your decisions as a parent?
Lenora Chu: I still very firmly believe that I can accomplish what I set my mind to, and that came from my parents. If I did something poorly, I was told to take responsibility for it.
However, if you wait too long to allow your children to make their own decisions, they don’t have practice at it. I met a model student who now studies at one of the top Chinese universities in Shanghai. But he is studying a major he dislikes because he is afraid to disappoint his parents. Sometimes you’re so conditioned to think first about what other people want that you can’t make that decision for yourself. So that’s what I think is dangerous about the [Chinese] school system, and also the culture.
At home, our children have an equal seat at the dinner table. I didn’t have that growing up, so I corrected it [with my kids]. But there are some things that are just non-negotiable: You have to learn how to read; you should respect your teacher and take responsibility for the grades you get. Once you set some ground rules, then the sky is the limit. But the problem is, if we don’t set any rules, that’s bad for the kid.
Lenora Chu celebrates Halloween with her sons in Shanghai, Oct. 27, 2012. Courtesy of Lenora Chu
Sixth Tone: How far have Chinese educational reforms gone, and what challenges are on the horizon?
Lenora Chu: Fifty or 60 years ago, most Chinese couldn’t read. Now you have a certain portion of the country that is doing really well on international tests. That’s progress.
I think it’ll take several generations to have classrooms that encourage the creativity of independent expression at the level that we do in the U.S. That’s going to be the biggest challenge.
Chinese parents don’t necessarily want their kids to go to cram schools. They’re very sad about the situation. They want their kids to be happy, and lots of Western ideas are filtering over. But you have a very authoritarian culture, and you also have the exam-based education system. Any reforms that you make are going to butt up against these two things.
It’s a complicated picture. For example, if you try to change the exam system by introducing human judgments, like universities’ independent recruitment [practices], you open the door to all kinds of trading of influence and corruption.
Sixth Tone: What do you think of corruption and inequality — between urban and rural, rich and poor — in the Chinese education system, especially as the private sector grows?
Lenora Chu: I was shocked to hear how much wealthy Shanghainese parents give their teachers for Chinese New Year. In Western culture, gifting is like a token of appreciation, but in China, reciprocity is expected. It contributes to massive inequality.
There’s a lot of market-based reform, and options like private schools are proliferating. An education official from the Ministry of Education told me that at some point, the policy needs to meet with what’s happening on the ground. They’re trying to find the right mix.
Equality is one of the biggest priorities of the latest educational reform. At some point, there could be some problems with social instability because [disadvantaged] kids aren’t getting an education, and the jobs that awaited their parents are moving over to Bangladesh, India, and Indonesia. Suitable options are rapidly disappearing. That’s a problem, and I think the leadership knows that.
A student runs outside an elementary school building after class in Shanghai, Sept. 24, 2013. Lan Hui for Sixth Tone
Sixth Tone: What sort of citizens do you foresee the Chinese school system cultivating?
Lenora Chu: In the classrooms that I’ve observed, people are pretty open about speaking up against the leadership. There’s a scene [in the book] where I sit inside a politics classroom, and the teacher’s trying to give a lecture on being a good public servant, but there is a lot of open questioning among the students. They’re actually having a debate. That is interesting — 10 or 15 years ago, we would never have dreamed of it.
Sixth Tone: What do you think the Chinese and American education systems can learn from each other?
Lenora Chu: There’s a lot of nuance in my position. I have had some educators say that they feel that it is hard for them to teach in the U.S. now, given all of the things that they have to do [like managing the classroom and dealing with parents]. I’ve also heard from parents who say if they had a kid with special needs, they would not have survived in the Chinese system.
For the Chinese system, I like the rigor of early education. I like the respect for teachers. The Chinese carry this belief into the classroom: that anything is possible with enough effort. I think that is very empowering. But I am concerned about the unquestioning obedience that is sometimes required of Chinese students.
I feel that in the West, we tend to believe in talent when it comes to academics. We’re moving too far away from knowledge, and knowledge actually enables learning.
The U.S. way is really good at encouraging children’s interests and allowing them to feel heard. That is very valuable; that’s why you have these kids who are very vocal. I think that in America, we can give teachers a little bit more respect and autonomy — that would go a long way.
Editor: Jessica Levine.
(Header image: Lenora Chu and her son Rainer, age 3, pose for a photo at Happy Kids school in Shanghai, May 11, 2011. Courtesy of Lenora Chu)