American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve
347 pages; $27.99
China is such a vast, contradictory land that the most illuminating books often explore it through an intense focus on a single topic: The aviation industry, the one-child policy, the lives of migrant factory workers. Education is a particularly transparent window, as demonstrated by the perceptive Little Soldiers, which turns over cultural rocks from bribery to the urban-rural divide while delving into the nation’s school system, deeply rooted as it is in both ancient Confucianism and Communist dogma. As Lenora Chu notes, in China, “countless individual decisions, big and small, are made in the name of education.”
Anyone will understand the country better after reading this book, the heart of which is Chu’s experience of enrolling her three-year-old son in an elite Shanghai preschool. She and her husband, the NPR correspondent Rob Schmitz, work hard to get Rainey admitted, but from his first day they start to have second thoughts. They fear that their son is being brainwashed into being a good little soldier, a loyal Chinese patriot, and are sure that the school employs methods that rankle American sensibilities, including hard-edged coercion; public competition, with posted rankings of everything from height and haemoglobin level to recorder skills, punctuality and politeness; and even threats of calling the police if a child doesn’t take a nap.
Their toddler comes home singing songs in praise of Chairman Mao, has a friend attending “early MBA” classes and tells them that his teacher forces him to eat eggs by holding his mouth shut. These warning signs are balanced by his rapidly developing self-sufficiency, sense of discipline, math and Chinese skills. He’s also learning to navigate a complex, obstacle-filled world. In China, there is almost always a “work-around” to strict rules, and Rainey starts wordlessly figuring this out, much to Chu’s delight.
The author befriends two high-achieving Shanghai high school students, one meticulously working the system and the other counting the days until she can abandon it in favour of an American university. Along with an array of international education experts, they serve as insightful commentators as Chu pulls back to examine the broader system, including a more typical Shanghai public school and poor migrant students stumbling toward the zhongkao high school entrance exam, which can determine whether a student will follow an academic or blue-collar path. Chu follows a migrant worker from a rural province who has lived apart from her husband and son for years. Working as a masseuse in Shanghai, she has dedicated her life to improving her child’s lot, only to realise that, raised without parental guidance, he lacks the study skills necessary to launch himself onto another track. It is one of several heartbreaking tales the book could have explored more deeply. The overlooked students get less attention than do the strivers in Little Soldiers, as in life.
Chu recalls her own teenage rebellion growing up in Texas with Chinese immigrant parents who demanded excellence and expected to largely control her decisions. A Freudian could have a field day with her decision to enroll her own son in the strict Chinese system, but Chu understands that she is striving to replicate her own jumble of Chinese and American education and culture, with the parental and institutional roles reversed. She writes, “It was as if I looked into Teacher Chen’s eyes … and immediately recognised my father’s intentions (sometimes misguided but always well-meaning).”
After immersing herself in the Chinese education structure, she visits American schools and quickly recognises that while the Chinese system is designed to weed out and filter students, in America the express goal is “No child left behind.” The American schools feel impossibly soft, with an overemphasis on individual desires that allows weaker areas to wither. This is especially so in the teaching of math, with so much focus on applicable knowledge that concepts are taught in a shallow fashion, while Chinese students memorise what they have to, then explore deeper, more complex applications. Chu vividly sketches these differences in terms that will make readers ponder what they actually think about rote memorisation and parents question their preferences for their own children.
© 2017 The New York Times News Service