12 September 2008

Finals and fines

At about the end of May I noticed a sharp uptick in the number of students who had enrolled with the expectation that they would be studying in universities and colleges in English speaking countries. These students joined an already small number whose skills had remained unremarkable over the course of the time that they were enrolled. Some of the students from this first wave in May were still waiting to hear final news about visas, scores from their English competency tests, and other minor details. They represented a mixed lot with a minority of them who were levelheaded about their abilities and seemed to have the intellectual wherewithal to be able to benefit from a western education. More than a few, on the other hand, appeared entirely clueless as to what would be expected of them when they showed up on campuses in Houghton, Michigan, or Dublin, Ireland for example. Some of these students could barely put together a complete sentence without the assistance of their classmates’ prodding, but they seemed to comfort themselves that they had enough time (nearly 2 and a half months) in order to become prepared to hit the ground running as international students, or “abroad students” as some preferred to be called.

I was forewarned that as an employee in this private school, I would have some paid vacationtime but that I would not be able to take any in August. It was my impression that this was a function of the public school calendar, but I didn’t realize then that it was moreso a function of procrastination. At the beginning of August, there was a second wave (or possibly a third wave. I don’t want the metaphor to become too much about standard Chinese military strategy) of students with ambitions to study in English speaking universities around the world. These were the students who seemed to feel that they didn’t want their English speaking abilities to peak too soon. The last enrolled students are equally as confident that despite having trouble speaking English unhesitatingly, they feel that they only need a few weeks in order to be at a level of oral communication to make the most of life in a western, English speaking university.

I smile and try to treat them all as equally promising scholars but then again, I am not paying their tuition fees. The days when Chinese students studied their fingers to the bone on order to qualify for state sponsored opportunities to study abroad, first in the former Soviet Union and then anywhere the CCP deemed essential for the good of the nation are mostly in the past. There are still some state sponsored scholarships and the CCP has simultaneously increased the number of opportunities to earn college diplomas within China and without. Today, however, mommy and daddy principally foot the bill; they also make all the decisions about the children’s education. The motives are somewhat in dispute. I suspect that there is a desire to lengthen the amount of time that young women spend in schooling as a kind of socially engineered scheme to delay their marrying and subsequent childbearing. One reason that students in Heze told me that young women attend higher education is so that as future wives they will be able to speak with their husbands. (At least, they are honest about the level of their career ambitions and perhaps, as much, of their job prospects.) That rational came from students who had no interest in studying outside, or more relevantly, whose parents could barely afford to send them to a Chinese provincial institution.

A followup question that I posed whenever a student told me that she was going to study abroad was: “What does your father’s factory make?” And usually I got an answer and if not, the student fully understood why I had asked. These students are just as much automata as their homebound peers. They have only focused on an education from an overseas university in the same way that they do in China. They choose a major that their parents find acceptable and they want to attend a university based on its name recognition. The purpose strictly is the diploma, not the education.

The students heading abroad have been raised in a home and school environment wherein most life choices have been removed and important decisions, made for them. In one sense, the second language challenge is the least of their problems. The average Chinese has been taught to function merely as passive vessels of facts. They have been coddled and programmed while they toil to pass the next test set out before them.

And now it’s the first week of September and the public school calendar has restarted and the adult students who had wisely chosen to avoid the younger crowds have returned to replace some those who have packed up and headed to domestic universities and those abroad or else back to the local public schools. A small cadre of younger students seems to want to continue with the courses on the weekends and fortunately, they are the more willing to learn scholars. I’ve been noticing a few familiar adult faces pop up again. Teachers’ day was this week, too. The school hosted an evening in a Hangzhou nightclub with singing and free drinks. The next day we then learned that we would be fined 50 RMB if we are ever late submitting our discussion topics. Like so many things in China, some things are as predictable as the changing of the seasons.