Friday, April 1, 2016

The Chinese Students

Regarding this article in The Boston Globe:

A friend on FB wanted to know what I thought about the article in The Boston Globe. Here is what I said:

That touches on some issues. I really think someone needs to do the research and just write a book about the explosion of Chinese people seeking academic degrees. It’s a marvel to me, these people without basic thinking skills (Inference, predicting, synthesizing, etc…) or the cognitive tools to express themselves (opinions, desires, etc…) who have now obtained a credential which qualifies them to be my boss. An infuriating marvel. 

What articles like this usually leave out is the fact that many of the ss who attend overseas universities are not at all qualified to do so:   Not in English, not in Chinese, not in Klingon… there is no language in which these students are able to study at a university level or really even a mediocre high school level. They do not have the skills. They will never have the skills. They would probably be happier driving a taxi in Nanjing than pursuing their parent’s dream of a child who has studied overseas. Year after year they have been placed in classes in which they have no hope of success… and yet they pass! Money talks. Education is big business. There is nothing, including prestigious degrees, that is not for sale. That’s the key concept that westerners have to get.  

These are the ss I teach. Some have learning difficulties which are beyond the abilities of any of us to deal with, others are not smart enough, most — by far a majority — have just learned that they will pass whether they study or not. That becomes problematic when they are suddenly put in a situation in which their learning is objectively evaluated. 

One thing I do with a new class is TTT. It’s an easy way to see what they know and find out how they learn (plus, lets me know whether or not they can take a quiz without doing what westerners call cheating.) The way it works is, I have a concept I want to teach… say, plural nouns… first, I give them a quiz using questions I think will give me about a 50% pass rate. Then I teach to their weaknesses (input, worksheet, activities… easy-peasy) Then, I give another quiz using questions at the same level. I should get higher marks, right? Well, sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. What I do, though, and this is the interesting part, I share the results with the class. But they do not understand why. Typically they are not able to process the fact that they have, or have not, done better on the second quiz. The most common response I get is, “Why you give so much test.” Not being able to do something, then learning about it, and acquiring the skill to do it… they don’t understand that. What they understand is that they are all going to pass.  They’ve paid the money, after all.

Money is the key. I liked the story about the guy who told his Chinese clients that there was a 40,000 (was that USD?) donation required every year. The article seemed to give the impression that he shouldn’t have done that, but I thought it was clever. It’s how things are done. He might have wanted to buy a car or get married, after all.  When I lived in Wuxi my real estate agent (because there is an agent for everything) wanted a monthly stipend for having found me the flat. What I did is I got the property owner to lower my rent by that amount, then I offered the property owner an additional 100 RMB per month to write me a fapiao for 500 RMB above what I actually paid. Thus, the agent got his stipend, I think it was 300, the property owner got an additional 100, and I got an additional 400 because I turned in a fake fapiao. I had an attack of conscience about this once and confessed to Jacky. Instead of being angry he was proud of me. He said I was really becoming Chinese. 

College admissions is a big business in China. There are companies which help ss and their families navigate what is admittedly a complex system of making application and getting accepted to ANY western school, though they would all like to go to Harvard and often do not understand why this is not possible. What articles like this one DON’T tell you is that the “help” families pay dearly for is not just with the paperwork, but also in obtaining adequate scores on IELTS and other admissions tests. Your school’s recruitment office may think they are getting students who scored a 6.5 on their IELTS, but it may very well be that they are getting a student who is closer to 4.5. (I think the USA uses TOEFL which is similar though not as widely accepted.) The scores are simply faked. This happens, and it happens a lot. I have been asked, and offered good money, to write admissions essays. I  have turned it down in the past, but I’ll probably do it next time. Why shouldn't I get a little on the side too? Though I have to be paid in cash. Do not bring me a bag of cigarettes. LOL. I’ve actually been offered that. The other thing they do is “enhance” the admissions package with volunteer activities, and creative endeavors. The current story making the rounds is about a lad whose father flew him to Tibet for the day so he could be photographed feeding poor people. It happens. When we talk about volunteering or getting a summer job my students just stare at me blankly. They are going to be rich anyway, why would they work at all, certainly not for free. 

Here’s something westerners don’t seem to understand:  Chinese people cheat. All of them cheat, and they do it pretty much all of the time. I remember a few years ago there was a photo of some Chinese students whose desks had been moved outside and separated by wide spaces as a preventative to cheating. Every single teacher I showed that photo to said, “Oh, they’re cheating.” One year in Wuxi Jacky and I were invigilating a final examination and I caught a student cheating. He had answers written on the inside of his forearm (It was pretty clear that someone had given him the test in advance because the answers were 1b, 2d, 3a, like that.) Well, I was ready to fail him on the spot and hold Nuremberg-like hearings about what was going on in the copy room (like we didn’t all already know what was gong on in the copy room… they, too, have their ways of making a little on the side.) I angrily said, “Go show Mr. Zhou.” When he showed his arm to Jacky, Jacky laughed. Thus ended my career as a war-crimes prosecutor. The thing is, it’s not a moral issue. Not at all. The far higher good is pleasing your parents and being a good Chinese. If your friends help you along the way… well, isn’t that what friends are for? If western schools hope to have any understanding of their Chinese ss they have to understand that what we call cheating is simply a way of life. There is no value attached to it. Same-same for plagiarism. The thinking is that if something has been written once why would anyone bother to write about it again? Just copy what’s already there. Anything else is duplicated effort and stupid. Believe me, your Chinese ss are copying off the Wiki. Attribution? You’ve got to be kidding. Whatever exists is there for the good of the society. It is free to use. 

Obviously, I explain these things to my ss. I don’t want them to go to the abroad, as they say, and have problems because they don’t know how to take a quiz, behave in class, or otherwise conform to western expectations. But, I gotta tell ya, they are baffled by it. I go over it over, and over, and over. I don’t tell them that one way is right and one way (their way) is wrong. But I do tell them that they will have to conform in some small ways to western culture. It’s a hard sell.

Many of my students, at least a plurality, have been in some kind of boarding situation for most of their academic life. Some didn’t start until junior high. A few are day students. Most go home at the weekend but live at school during the week. Even when they are home their parents are often absent. Just a few weeks ago one of my younger ss ran up to me and he was really excited. He breathlessly told me that his mom was coming to see him and his younger brother. He was really so thrilled, and he asked me to come and meet her. I am a softie, so I said I would. There are rooms where parents can come and visit their children and so I showed up at the room. The mother was late, causing a little anxiety. She breezed in, gave the most perfunctory kisses I’ve ever seen… I would be insulted to be kissed like that… and gave the boys presents. Nice presents. Mostly she chatted with the other adults in the room. And then she left. It was just an easy breezy, here then gone, type of thing. The boys were happy and so I was happy with them. But, honestly, I almost cried. I felt so bad. Later, the older boy, my student, did tell me he wished his mom could have stayed longer. But it is what it is for those boys. They are sweet boys. The younger one comes to my office a lot. I don’t know why. I keep candy in there. But they don’t really have an adult in their lives. Many of my ss have never had a stable adult role-model to which they can relate. Going to bed on time, personal hygiene, courtesy… these things were not modeled at all. Thus, we have a kind of Lord Of The Flies situation in which younger ss learn from older ss. Mostly, they just learn their place in the hierarchy, and how to get through. The Chinese educational system supports this with a system of class monitors who are charged with maintaining order. That’s code, btw, for ensuring that teachers don’t find out what’s really going on. Most of the real jockeying for dominance goes on outside the classroom. I have stories to tell about that, but I won’t do it here. It does, however, go a long way in explaining why Chinese students tend to group when they go overseas. They understand that society. I mean, part of it is the language. Ss leave China every day, bound for foreign unis, who don’t really understand English.  They are not going to learn it. Their parents are going to pay a lot of money and the University of New England in Armidale is going to give them as many degrees as they’ll pay for. That’s the reality. But the other side of it is that they do not want to acquire western values, and they are not interested in western culture. They create a bubble in which everybody knows their place. That’s comfortable for them. We all find a way to be comfortable, don’t expect your Chinese ss to be any different. 

That is probably more than you wanted to know. Just remember, money, money, cigarettes…. No, just kidding about the cigarettes. Not really. I pay for my scooter parking with cigarettes. Cigarettes are as good as cash, really. And it’s not bribery. it’s simply undocumented payment. I’ll tell you, the smartest thing I ever did in China was start walking around with a package of cigarettes. I don’t smoke, btw. But, it helps grease the wheels a little. 

I will leave it to the real academics to discuss how this influences the value of a bachelor degree (hint:  makes it worthless) or how best to deal wth Chinese students after they arrive. I’m doing the best I can over here, but… you know. 

I will recommend two additional resources:

This is from several years ago but is still relevant and gives some insight into the agency role in getting ss in to uni. 

The other recommendation I will make is the BBC series, “Are Our Students Tough Enough,” which documents an experiment in which some ss were taught using a British method and some were taught using a Chinese method. I won’t give away the results because it’s a good documentary, kind of exciting. 

I assume that there are some Chinese students who are bright, engaged, able to process information, and express themselves. I have not met one. But, you know, in a universe of possibilities they almost have to exist.

And now on to the far more engaging question… What will we say about Thomas this week?!

On a personal note, Jane, I've been enjoying your tree pictures. You know how I love the trees. And +Maya.


  1. This was fascinating to read, but it must be frustrating for you. Also, I find it disturbing to think of all these people with unearned degrees getting jobs they are in no way qualified for.

  2. Live and learn. As we know, folks in the US are far from paragons of virtue, but the adjustment to life here must be daunting to Chinese students. Sorry to hear that the policy of selling degrees is so common in US prep schools and universities. As soon as Tom and I worked as graduate assistants for a university, our view of academe as an ivory tower was spoiled forever, but I'd never have believed that it would come to this.

    Thanks for your view of the wider world, Linda.

  3. A friend of mine works in a college that accepts a large number of Asian students. She gets frustrated because the administration is more interested in the money than the learning.