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An Angry Father

By Yaxue Cao

Earlier last week, I was on the phone with an artist friend of mine in Beijing. We talked about the documentary he was making, my ideas about a story, and we chitchatted a little about our children. He too has two children and the older girl was a fourth grader, a couple of years younger than my daughter. The next day I received the following email from W:

“I attended the Reading Festival performance of my daughter’s school this morning. I sat through the hour-long event horrified. The entire show had nothing to do with kids or reading, nor did the children look innocent and lovely. Instead, I watched Party’s propaganda, shrill patriotism, and twisted rendition of history. The fawning on teachers gave me goose bumps. What a jumble of collective mindset and bad taste. Several times I wanted to rush onto the stage to stop them. I trembled at such shamelessness, and I am still trembling.”

I checked the time when he had sent the email: 4pm. At 4pm, he was still trembling.

He went on, “As soon as the show was over, I went to see the teacher. She was a little embarrassed, and asked me to talk to the Director of Academic Affairs. I am going to tomorrow morning.”

I read his message and hit the reply button. But for a long while, I didn’t know what to say. I knew all too well what he was talking about, I felt his pain, but I didn’t know what to say to him.

It’s like watching your child being poisoned but unable to stop it.

I have always wondered what parents in China, parents who are acutely aware of these things and pained by them, do to “detoxicate” their children. For example, what does my friend W do to undo what the school is instilling in his daughter? What does he say to her every day? I would very much like to know.

Every time I talk to my daughter, I also wonder how a parent in China would talk about the same thing. For example, now and then I would say to my sixth grader: “Treat your work with respect. Treat your teachers’ work with respect. Always give your best. It is from such respect and dedication that you learn to be a just, responsible and trustworthy person.”

More than anything else, I want her to grow up to be a good, solid human being. I tell her that she must not be afraid to take a clear moral stand. “If you see someone is being bullied,” I said, “speak up for that person.”

“Be the keeper of the good.”

Chinese parents would have to think twice, three times, or even lose sleep, if they are to instill these values in their children, because these qualities won’t serve them very well in the Chinese society.

When I was a child, there were two things that my mother warned me, and reinforced in me, tirelessly:

  1. Don’t speak your mind—calamities come out of your mouth (祸从口出);
  2. Beware of people—you never know what a complicated web exists among people and what trap you might step into (人际关系太复杂了).

When I was eleven or twelve, I once made a comment about the party secretary of my father’s work unit as I overheard my parents’ conversation about some unpleasant entanglement at work. All of a sudden, my mother turned around and dealt such a blow on my face that the lymph on one side of my chin swelled badly and hurt for days. Ever since, it has always been prone to swollenness whenever I am tired or not feeling well, and every time I am reminded of that blow against speaking my mind freely. Not even at home.

And that was the only time my mother had ever struck me.

I fidgeted and measured my words writing a reply to my friend. “Please don’t get into an argument,” I began. “I’m so afraid that they will mistreat your child in school as a result.”

I was angered by the fact that I was giving my friend this piece of advice. But in my mind, I can just see what some of my teachers would have done to her. She will be marked and excluded from a lot of things, to say the least, and she won’t fully understand why.

What will I do if I were W? I will tell you right here: Until I know how to protect my children from that system, I will have to swallow my rage and pain and everything else for their sake. If it’s too much for me to swallow, I will dice it up and wash it down with wine, curses and tears, one piece a time.

On Twitter, I heard some parents talking about homeschooling their children to avoid the churning of the system. If they do, a commitment logistically unthinkable for most, they will have to keep reminding themselves that to reject the system is to prepare their children to be outcasts.

In China, to be good is to be the other. (Of course my good is not their good, and vice versa.) And if you’re a parent deeply concerned about the upbringing of your children, you will find yourself in a hard-to-negotiate spot.

While a lot remains the same in China, obviously it is a very different country from the one I grew up in. Despite the system, there will be more and more “outcasts” by choice. The more the better.

My friend didn’t write back to tell me whether he went to see the Director of Academic Affairs or not, and if he did, how it went.

Who Is Chen Guangcheng – A Celebration of Life on His 40th Birthday

By Yaxue Cao, published: November 12, 2011


To say life didn’t start promisingly for him is a vast understatement. He was born on November 12, 1971, in the impoverished village Dong Shi Gu (东师古) in Yinan County, Shandong province, the youngest of five boys. He lost his vision to high fever when he was around one year old. He didn’t go to school until 18 years old. In the Chinese countryside, where living is at its barest, expectations are a rare commodity to begin with, and for the disabled, there are none. For most of the part, they are seen and treated as a family scourge that must be borne.

chen-guangchengA Naughty Boy

Despite blindness, he told friends he had a happy childhood. His father read to him centuries-old Chinese classics such as Outlaws of the Marsh (《水浒》) and The Three Kingdoms (《三国演义》). He helped his parents in the field. Of the two popular boys’ sports, snatching eggs out of bird nests and catching fish in the river, he exceled in both, using his hearing as guide. “I couldn’t see fish, but I knew where fish were and under what rock they liked to stay.”

Being blind, sometimes he got picked on. He couldn’t catch the offender, but he could remember his voice. Next time he heard it again, he would grab him and teach him a lesson.

He grew up to be a young man who liked to talk and liked to laugh, who was tall, strong and, by all standards, handsome.

At 18 years old in 1989, he entered Linyi Elementary School for the Blind. From 1994 to 1998, he attended the School for the Blind in Qingdao (青岛), Shandong. From 1998 to 2001, he studied in Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine. At the time China had only two universities that accepted blind students, and, nationwide, only 40-50 blind people were admitted each year, all studying Chinese medicine and massage, the only subject deemed suitable for them. Still, he was one the luckiest to have gone that far in life.

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School Food Poisoning

There are two major stories that have been grabbing headlines over the summer: the rising cost of everything, and a growing number of food safety concerns. As the school year begins, it seems these two issues have converged in a way that could have deadly effects.

In many parts of China school lunch prices are not actually set by the schools themselves, but by local gov’t mandates. This means that when the cost of pork, or other ingredients, increases for the school, the price to the students has to remain the same. Since actions to raise the price would not be welcomed (there have been mini-riots in schools that tried this, even when inflation was much lower), cafeterias are left with two options: one being to decrease the amount of food each student receives (or just the amount of meat, as pork prices have risen sharply over the last year); or two, seek lower quality ingredients and hope for the best.

At the hospital where I work there has been a noticeable decline in the quality of the food since I started here last fall (we are also resisting increasing the cost of the set meal for workers). My favorite dish, shizitou (狮子头), essentially a ball of steamed ground pork, has become increasingly disappointing. It now seems to be equal parts meat and flour, which leaves it with a gritty, pasty texture. Many of my co-workers have responded by bringing their own food from home. However, given the options, I’m glad the hospital has taken this route (although there are whispers of food safety problems even in the hospital’s dining room).

In many parts of China though, it seems that schools have opted to reduce the quality of their ingredients. It is scary to imagine the quality of ingredients in a meal that costs a student roughly $.50, and still allows a profit margin for the school. During the first week of classes alone, more than 185 students were hospitalized due to food poisoning.

While the government claims that inspections are being ramped up to limit food related scandals, I have relatively little faith in the inspectors or the schools to actually take the actions needed to prevent future problems (I say I am skeptical because at one of the university cafeterias where I worked in Guangxi rat poison was accidentally added to the food). More regulations and “inspections” do nothing to actually address the root of the problem: safe food is too expensive.

This is a worrying start, and a trend that I fear will become worse as the Chinese gov’t continues to struggle with rising food costs, and until inflation comes under control, China’s children are at risk.

A Typical Lesson in a Chinese School

I have been teaching in Chinese universities and middle schools for almost 4 years now as well as having observed classes at all levels in China’s educational system. So forget what you’ve read lately about China’s schools rating number one in the world, the educational system here is full of problems. Over these next few days I’ll be outlining some of the major problems with the system as well as presenting a shocking exposé of what may be the worst school in China.

I can already hear angry readers scrolling down to leave a nasty comment, so I think we should start by looking at a few things that they do very well before we look at the limits of such a system.

There are a few top schools in China that are much different from what I am describing below, but I would say that this description would be accurate for about 90+% of China’s schools. I have worked in rural schools, as well as in Chengdu (a large city in Western China) and currently am in a large City on the East coast. There are differences in the amount of content that is covered, but I would say that the method is largely the same throughout.

A typical English class with a Chinese teacher would include a list of 30-40 new vocabulary words, reading dialogues and listening to the teacher explain 4-5 new grammar patterns (this part would be in Chinese). Through most of the class the students are either reading along with the teacher, or scrawling notes in the margin of their textbooks.

I described an English class because that is what I am most familiar with, but it’s actually not too different from what a Chinese class, math class, or even art class might look like. The teacher lectures, and the students simply follow along, until they are prompted to give a correct answer.

This system excels at creating students who are capable of memorizing massive amounts of information. I was shocked to find that my students who could hardly reply to “What did you have for lunch today?” were able to recite an entire paragraph from memory after just a few minutes of looking at the text.

The same applies to mathematics, the teacher will have them memorize the steps for solving the problem, and they will be able to plug-in almost any numbers and find the correct answers. Or I’ve heard that art classes are simply making the same picture as the teacher, brush stroke by brush stroke.

The Chinese education system has changed little from the days of the Confucian exams, when students would memorize thousands of pages of text and be tested on their ability to recall specific paragraphs.  So it’s not surprising that when these students sit down to a standardized test they are capable of very high scores.

This system is incredibly effective at providing a basic level of education to a massive population, but leaves little room for creativity in the Chinese classroom, which is tomorrow’s topic.