Image Collage by Ruby Gee
One cool thing about being a youngish-looking Asian American is that if I don’t open my mouth, I actually blend in quite well with the crowds of native Chinese that walk the streets of Shanghai everyday. This comes in handy from time to time. For instance, I can easily stroll into any Fudan University classroom and sit in on majors-only classes that are generally not open to foreign students due to my lack of Aryan/Desi physical features.
This one time, I was sitting in on an Ancient Chinese Essays class and the teacher randomly picked on a student to talk about her interpretation of the passage. An interesting open discussion on the contextual meanings of a particular line followed.
At the time, I kept thinking about how this scene would boggle the minds of some less-enlightened-folks back home, whose minds are engraved with images of weary looking Asian students pouring over government issued textbooks as an unsmiling professor drones on and on about the textbook content. This image of course, may have been possible in the archaic days of the Cultural Revolution, but certainly does not apply now. Though I’ve noticed a sense of reservation and shyness among native Chinese students, the higher education culture (at least on the humanities side) seems to be shifting towards a discussion-and-project-based model.
Similar stereotyping occurs among some students over here in Shanghai, though they at least have the excuse of limited access to the outer world in terms of online resources and travel visas. The flawed perception is that American and European students have it much easier in terms of workload. Class time is spent idyllically on green lawns, as students argue with their teachers over abstract concepts. In this romanticized world of academia, teachers actually care about their students as individuals, and field trips are not only delightfully enlightening, but to be expected.
Even though my home university back in the states is as close as it gets to heaven for academic nerdy-types (we’re actually ranked for having “the happiest students,”) I can only think of a handful of classes that would fit the peach-colored visions that native Chinese students sometimes hold regarding American education. Rice University is exceptional in all senses of the word, but we have our share of PowerPoint lecturers and students that pull multiple all-nighters to prepare for exams. You should see Fondren library (at Rice’s campus) during midterms and finals – the space is packed, with serious-looking students banging their heads against their Differential Equation textbooks, only occasionally stopping for water and Facebook.
I guess the points I’m getting at are rather trite in our politically-correct culture today: don’t generalize, stereotyping is wrong, you should have a balanced viewpoint of perceived cultural differences. But really, this uninformed East vs. West educational dichotomy thing, it’s really getting old. Can we all just be educated and well traveled already?
(disclaimer: cheekiness intended for this post)