Just this past week, I was fortunate enough to be approached by my USAC Program Advisor who, knowing my future aspirations of returning to China as an English teacher, asked if I and some of my fellow classmates would like to volunteer in a cultural exchange/Q&A at her high school alma mater named Chengdu Number 7 High School, which happens to be the #1 public high school in Chengdu and all of Sichuan province. I practically jumped at this tremendous opportunity! I would not only be able to share my home country’s culture and life experiences with students, but also gather a deeper understanding of the inner workings of the education system in China, the significant role it has in young peoples’ lives, and possibly make some friends who can act as future job contacts.
To begin this amazing experience, our small group was greeted outside the East Gate of our host university by four students from Chengdu Number 7 High School. They proceeded to escort us to the front gate of the university where we were met by their family members who served as our transportation to the high school. Two of my classmates and I hopped into what must have been an almost brand new Land Rover LR2 or LR4 (obviously, an expensive set of wheels) along with two of the Chinese students, one of which was the niece/nephew of the driver. Along the way, my classmates and I held short, to-the-point but overall interesting conversations with our new young friends, where we used as much English as possible and only relied on our elementary grasp of Chinese when their knowledge of English became inadequate. Most of the material discussed extended from an introduction of their names (Chinese and English), age, grade level, and favorite subject in school to a little about their high school, in general, to more personal information like what their parents do for a living. Unfortunately, I cannot recall much about the students’ names due to my awful memory pertaining to names, whether they are English or Chinese. I do remember a few key points, though, such as:
· The students’ ages were around 15-16 years old.
· They were both in their fourth of six years at Chengdu Number 7 High School, which translates to high school sophomores in the US education system. (The makeup of the education system in China will be explained in more detail later.)
· Though each of the students differed in their favorite subject, one loved biology/chemistry and the other liked English, they both came to a consensus on their hatred and detestation of Mathematics. (Seeing as Western society always iterates the interest and excellence of Asians in this particular field, it was an unexpected yet ironic surprise. But the fact that this hatred is consistently shared among most Chinese students, as I undoubtedly uncover later in our Q&A session, is even more astonishing.)
· Lastly, one of the students mentioned that his/her father’s job is as a civil engineer who has helped design the intricately complicated, yet efficient highway system that graces the inner workings of Chengdu. Also, he/she mentioned that his/her uncle, the aforementioned driver of the Land Rover escorting us to the high school, is an employee of his/her father, the civil engineer.
After our thirty to forty-five minute ride through town, we finally arrived at the school, exited the luxuriant vehicles our companions afforded us, and were instantly greeted by a beautiful, gated campus and our Program Advisor’s contact, a native Chinese born, English teacher, who would be our chaperone. She introduced herself and led us through the front gate where security guards maintained a constant presence checking all those who entered. Next, we worked our way to the right of the gate entering a very spacious courtyard where two buildings, each being about four to five-stories tall and connected by walkways, are adorned with classrooms. We were then escorted to and entered our chaperone’s classroom on the ground floor where we were soon welcomed by a school bell followed by a crowd of students.
The classroom itself was furnished much like the classrooms in the United States. It maintained an assortment of bulletin boards, maps and students’ artwork that graced the walls, a dozen cabinets housing all sorts of teaching instruments and materials, a huge blackboard with an old school projector at the front of the class, and somewhere around twenty-five to thirty old wooden/metal desks resembling elementary school desks where storage space is hidden in a cubby hole underneath the desk top. The only difference that I could decipher was at the front of the classroom there was a 7’x4’-ish elevated platform (one-step above the rest of the floor) where the teacher would administer her lesson plans. In my opinion, this particular architectural difference may illuminate one about not only the commanding presence a teacher possesses in a classroom in China, but also how the surrounding society views teaching as an occupation, in general.
After scoping the layout of the classroom for a minute or two, we all took seats at the front of the classroom where we introduced ourselves to the class by stating our name (Chinese and English), age, where we are from, university grade level, and what our major is in college. Once all of the introductions were squared away, we began the Q&A session where students were given a chance to ask us about anything in regard to life and culture in our home country, and then we were able to ask them about life in China. Here is what we talked about and what I learned during my visit:
1. China’s education system, much like the United States, is broken down into both public and private sectors. But even though China’s public school system is government funded, it is only freely accessible to children for the first nine years of their education. This includes six years of primary and three years of junior secondary school (equivalent to middle school in the United States).
2. Due to the degree of government subsidies that are put into the school system, public schools are far more competitive and prestigious compared to their private, independently funded counterparts. Within these public schools, there are particularly more respectable schools, like Chengdu Number 7 High School, which act much like private schools in the U.S. in that they only allow for a set number of applicants to be accepted at the start of each new school year. As a result, the committee over the decision process require applicants to take an all-encompassing examination, much like high school graduates must take the SAT or ACT, and the score received will be one of the many variables used to decide a student’s acceptance or rejection into the school (though, the score can be overlooked if certain “bureaucratic wheels” are greased in the application process).
3. As one of the primer high schools in China, Chengdu Number 7 houses only the best and brightest students from all walks of life throughout every corner of Sichuan province. These students show their extreme dedication to their school work and future collegiate career by residing within on-campus dormitories (5’x9’ room filled with bunk beds with 5 to 6 students to a room) throughout the school year only to visit families on weekends. The particular day that we were on campus happened to be a Friday afternoon. When entering the campus, we all witnessed students with suitcases heading to the front gate where they would be greeted by family members.
4. Compared to the school day in the United States (8am to 3pm or 4pm), students at Chengdu Number 7 High School, and the majority of schools in China, all attend classes from 7am to at least 7pm or 8pm and can even go as late as 10pm. My friends and I were practically speechless when hearing this absolutely astonishing news.