The China Connection

Humboldt State opens a gateway to the world's next superpower



It's early December at Xi'an International Studies University in Xi'an, China, and the students have been in the classroom since 7:30 a.m., preparing. Some read. Others write. A couple text on their phones while others catch a few more minutes of sleep before class begins. None of these 13 Chinese freshmen are quite ready for today's 8 a.m. English writing class, especially when sleep is but a desktop away and Humboldt State University is on the other side of the world.

Xi'an International Studies University (XISU), a liberal arts school of approximately 20,000 students located in one of the four great ancient capitals of China, has teamed up with HSU since 2006 to create Humboldt College, an academic exchange program. HSU instructors go to China for one year to teach and prepare a group of students for living and studying in Arcata. Those students spend their sophomore and junior years at HSU, then return to Xi'an for their final year.

At 8 a.m. the Xi'an classroom is cold. Beneath a tall row of north-facing windows a radiator hisses and whines, struggling to heat the large classroom, where the high ceilings are covered in peeling white paint. The campus, constructed just five years earlier, has an austere feel, with concrete buildings surrounded by struggling shrubbery. Everyone is wearing hooded winter coats, scarves and gloves. Some students stand and move around to get warm.

The third draft of a personal reflective essay is due this morning. The students have been asked to think about their past -- where they grew up, how they spent their time and with whom -- and then consider how those origins influenced them, how they shaped their characters and personalities. It is a challenging assignment, requiring students to make a nuanced analysis of their lives and then express that in writing. While this is a standard assignment for freshmen composition courses in the United States, here in China, where the Confucian-based education system emphasizes memorization and test-taking, the task requires a different approach.

The students' first and second drafts were a tangle of English, focusing on historical facts and tourist attractions in the students' hometowns without a glint of personal reflection. The organization was messy, the vocabulary not academic enough. With guidance from their instructor, the students had to break it down, proceeding in small steps. In their third drafts the students had been told to focus on organization and use more sophisticated vocabulary. Once those skills are better dialed in, they'll be asked to incorporate personal reflection into the fourth and final draft.

The students have a wide range of English experience. Most have been taught by Chinese teachers, not all of whom had the best grasp on proper sentence structure or pronunciation. This broad range of student skill levels makes progress in writing class slow going. So do the cultural differences. Western-style academic writing tends to be direct, with a thesis statement somewhere in the first paragraph or two, body paragraphs supporting the argument and finally a conclusion that reiterates the thesis. Chinese expository writing, in contrast, tends to circle around and hint at points so that somewhere at the end of the essay is hidden the main idea.

After class a fashion-conscious 19-year-old female student named Li Yuehe approaches the instructor's lectern, hoping to talk more about her writing. Since becoming a student Humboldt College she has chosen to go by the English name Sharpay. Her knee-length wool coat, a faded red-and-blue plaid garment, reflects the pragmatism with which she approaches school and studying. But poking from the sleeves of this coat are soft, ivory-colored angora gloves, symbols of her greater yearning for success, for a future in which she can afford the latest fashions from the most popular designers.

Sharpay is a top student in the program. She asks how can she better organize her thoughts: Should she write in Chinese first then translate to English? Is there a model she could copy? In China, she says, her teachers often provided examples for students to learn from and emulate. Sharpay's questions slowly give way to descriptions of what it's like to be a student here.

An only child (in keeping with the nation's one-child policy), Sharpay began kindergarten when she was 4. Monday through Friday, from 7:30 a.m. to noon, she learned basic Chinese language skills, numbers, colors and, most importantly, how to behave in a Chinese classroom. The teacher, she learned, is the unchallenged transmitter of correct fact and information, which must swiftly be committed to memory. At an early age, Chinese students learn to listen, pay attention and do as the teacher says.

By age 7 Sharpay spent more of her waking hours at school than at home. From 7:30 a.m. to noon she studied Chinese, math and history. From noon to 2 p.m. she ate lunch and rested. Academic classes resumed from 2 to 4:30 p.m., followed by an hour of ballet, piano or voice lessons. She ate with her family from 6 to 7 p.m. and afterward she worked with her mother on homework. Finally, at 9 p.m., Sharpay went to bed. She'd awake at 5:30 the next morning to do it all again. This was her routine five days a week, with additional English classes most Saturdays and with Sundays reserved for homework.

Junior high was more of the same, with course material becoming increasingly difficult, requiring even more homework time. Like most middle-class Chinese students, Sharpay also had to focus on passing and scoring well on the Zhong Kao, the test that determines which high school each student will be accepted into -- the better the score, the better the high school.

Sharpay was accepted into a branch campus of the highest-ranked high school in Shaanxi Province -- to her family's dismay. They'd hoped her score would be high enough for her to be accepted on the main campus. But she worked hard, and after the first year at the smaller campus she was ranked high enough academically to transfer to the main school, with its better facilities and instructors. There she studied higher math, Chinese language and history, physics, chemistry and Communist party history.

In high school Sharpay often stayed awake studying until 1 a.m. -- sometimes later. Her mother would wake her again the next morning at 5:30.

Being a student in China is an academic gantlet requiring focus, determination and an ability to see beyond the painful immediacy of late nights and early mornings that are necessary for success. Having parents who push and believe in this process factors favorably in a student's academic and career success, and most middle-class Chinese parents are heavily involved in their child's education.

Parents and children invest years of their lives in this system. The large population living, working and succeeding in China is highly competitive, and many citizens think that great sacrifice in a child's early years will yield great benefits in the future. It is part of Chinese custom for children to honor their parents by supporting them after retirement, and with China's rapidly increasing economy and virtually no state-sponsored aid for elders, many parents consider their children valuable financial assets.

In a sense, children are part of their parents' investment portfolio and retirement package. So it's in the parents' best interest to push their children through the rigorous Chinese education so that they'll score high on national academic exams and eventually land lucrative jobs. This is not necessarily selfish on the part of the parents but a pragmatic approach to living within contemporary Chinese culture. Being a student in China is an extreme exercise in delayed gratification; students don't necessarily focus on what they personally want to do but rather on what would be best financially for them and their parents.

With such pressure to succeed within a system where memorization and swift fact recall are prized, it's no wonder that the students are having difficulty with self-reflection. In American classrooms creative and free-writing are often used to engage students. Not so much in China. The system is focused on facts, test-taking and perfect recall, with little emphasis on personal reflection or creativity. For these freshmen students, brainstorming and writing for exploration are challenging new concepts.

Sharpay's roommate Zhang Xiaozhen, who likes to be called Mia, floats into the conversation. Like Sharpay, Mia is clad in a thick winter coat. Hers is quilted black wool, understated and stopping just below her knees, but her gloves are simple black cotton. Mia hovers timidly, her curiosity restrained. Her shy demeanor contrasts with Sharpay's fact-gathering, mission-oriented persona. Mia, too, sees a successful future for herself, but unlike Sharpay her vision is less focused on buying contemporary haute couture and more keen on designing fashion accessories. She wants to be a jewelry designer -- a profession that will require creativity, innovation and dirty hands.

In soft English, Mia begins talking about her challenges with high school and studying for the national exam, also known as the Gao Kao, which translates literally as "tall exam." The test looms large in the lives of students and their families. The Gao Kao determines which college, if any, a student will attend, and like the Zhong Kao, the higher the score, the better the university a student will be accepted into. Mia is the class artist, often embellishing the margins of her written notes with cross-hatch shapes and original anime figures.

In high school Mia knew she wanted to make things. She enjoyed sketching objects like furniture, jewelry and abstract sculptural forms -- she liked the idea of translating an idea or image from her mind onto paper and then into three dimensions. Because Mia wanted to design more along the lines of architecture than fine art, she would have had to go to a university with a strong design major. But getting into a quality Chinese design program requires high physics scores on the Gao Kao, and though she did well in high school physics and had a tutor for the national exam, Mia did not test well enough in physics. She was not accepted into any design universities.

However, her language scores were great, getting her into XISU, the main foreign language university in Shaanxi Province. But Mia really, really wanted to do design, and that's how she found her way to Humboldt College.

In America, finances are the main obstacle to higher education, and students are allowed to pursue whatever they desire. This is not the case in China. Passing the Gao Kao with high scores does not necessarily ensure a student will be able to choose her area of study. If a language university needs Portuguese majors, a student may be placed in the Portuguese program instead of the international studies program that she wanted.

When Mia looked into the Humboldt College program, she was surprised to learn that she might still have a chance to study design. This fall at HSU, she will take art, design and jewelry classes. And Mia's parents are supportive so long as she pairs these courses with an equal amount of appropriate business classes.

Standing at the instructor's lectern, Sharpay and Mia's conversation returns to their English writing skills. The young women consider some novel questions: Why are you writing? What is your point? For whom are you writing? Who do you want to read your words?

The students go through many rewrites of their personal essays, refining them for their final portfolio submission due in mid June. When they started the fall semester, most could not write a cohesive paragraph around a topic sentence. After much practice the students learned how to make a claim and to back it up in an organized way. Sometime in April the class has a breakthrough with important grammatical concepts like varying sentence structures; the effectiveness of long, complex sentences to explain; and the power of simple sentences to punctuate.

By June some grammar issues still linger, and one or two students occasionally write without a clear point or purpose. But these are issues that they're likely to overcome once immersed in English at HSU. Mia and Sharpay, both HSU scholarship winners, are ready, academically at least, for the next step in their educational adventure. On Aug. 15 they and their classmates will arrive in Humboldt and begin their American education, which hopefully will give them a competitive edge for applying to graduate schools or job hunting in China.

At the end of the semester Sharpay turns in her final draft, a heartfelt re-telling of a pivotal moment between her and her father. It read, in part:

Our car was on a wide road, and the two sides of the road had many street lamps in Chinese traditional style. And maybe the lamp was bright, or the moon was really beautiful that night, but the sky looked amazing. Then I looked down. Under the stone balusters was a great lake. There were so many trees around the lake, and lights were everywhere. We were on a bridge almost six meters high. The water on the lake was moving, and there were several ships. We could hear a soft song around us.

"It is amazing, isn't it?" Dad asked. "How big this world is, how small your world is."

At that moment, I finally understood the reason why dad brought me here. He wanted to show me that my being outstanding in my own world means nothing. ... I have a long way to go in my life, and I could be a better person than I was right now.

Josephine Johnson taught English writing, academic reading and creative writing to Chinese college freshmen in Xi'an, China, during the 2010-11 academic year. She is a musician, writer and community observer living in Eureka. Read more about her adventures on her blog,


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