On traveling, teaching, learning and living in far western China.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

And you thought you had it hard

Work until midnight, up at 5 am, coffee everyday to keep you going.

The life of a work-a-holic who's determined to climb the ladder?

Yes: but this work-a-holic is in middle school.  She goes by "Sherry", and I tutor her (and 2 other middle school students) every Saturday.

I was astounded to find out about this 14-year-old's daily schedule.  I worked pretty damn hard in high school, and I did all my homework in middle school, but never like this.  And it sounds like she's not too different from anyone else her age.  (Get ready for next year, she warns Alice and Andy, the two 13-year-olds the grade below her).  At the end of the year, that is, at the end of middle school, Sherry will have a big test.  She thinks next year will be better once she starts high school.  I didn't dare mention the 高考 (gao kao - "high test", or the National Higher Education Entrance Exam), because I was certain that she was fully aware that her crazy schedule would resume soon enough.

Preparing for the 高考 consumes most Chinese high schoolers, who take it during their last year, much like we take the SAT.  But the pressure to do well is so much higher, partly because of the extreme degree to which Chinese culture values academic success, and partly because of the university admittance quotas, which limit the number of students from each province who can be accepted.

A 2007 Time magazine article reports:
Chinese cities ground to a standstill during this year's gaokao, moved up a month to avoid the oppressive summer heat. In some cities, police cars were barred from using their sirens during testing hours, and taxis were given yellow signs allowing them right of way when delivering examinees to their test sites. In others, construction was halted at night for fear that the clangs and booms might stand in the way of a good night's sleep. In Tianjin, China's third-biggest metropolis, doctors reportedly prescribed birth control pills to female test-takers whose parents feared that an untimely period would prove distracting.
(You can read the full article here.)

Sherry, Andy, and Alice still have a couple years to go before worrying about the 高考.  But even as middle schoolers, they are already facing similar pressures.  Sherry told me that all of their music, art, and PE classes have been canceled, so that more important subjects like math, chemistry, Chinese, English, and geography can have extra time to cover material.  "We only have PE when the government comes to check on the school," she told me, fully aware of how things work in her country.  "The art, music, and PE teachers just sit in their office all day, drinking tea and reading the newspaper.  They like it." Parents don't seem to be complaining about the arrangement, either.

"My mom knows I like art and music and PE, so she lets me do some drawing and singing and playing outside on the weekend."  But during the school week, like so many other Chinese children, Sherry is an academic machine.  Her parents are hoping to send her to high school in the States.  For Sherry, it will be a long-needed vacation from the Chinese educational system.

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