Says Gary: “That is what the education system does to the students.” From what I gather of his words, it seems the children are allowed to play, imagine and pretend clean on up to the time they get in school. After that they are required to abandon all thoughts of fantasy and apply themselves strictly to practicum and academia.
Says Tony: “See? That is why I don’t like the schools in China, why the schools in America are better!” It seems that Tony also believes the education system is at fault.
Says Tristan, a last-year college graduate recently entered into the job market, on the subject of role play: “Most students have never experienced flying. A plane crash scenario is unrealistic for them. Give them something they are familiar with.” Tristan also could not fathom role playing exercises and imagination games. And, he seems to have completely overlooked the ‘what if’ aspect of role play. What if I were on a plane? What if it crashes? What if I am lost in a jungle?
It seems people who are Chinese are inept at playing ‘what if’.
Seeing as two of my three interviews so far concluded that the education system is to blame for students’ lack of imagination, I interviewed the one person in the education system who I believe would give me an uncensored opinion on the matter.
Sam says: “What they dislike is just what they lack in: creativity.” According to Sam, creativity is stifled at an early age to make way for the reality of daily life and the rigors of education. Neither parents nor educators encourage innovation or creativity, unless emulating an existing art form or object can be called creative. No new dances, no new visions, no new tropes, themes, or designs. In fact, the entire society bears down on these formerly imaginative minds and forces all vestiges of vision and creativity out. According to Sam, that is why most foreign teachers prefer to work with elementary grade children. Apparently, they still have a shred or two of imagination to cultivate.
Please bear in mind that I did not interview anyone who is officially knowledgeable on the subject, say, a psychologist. Nor did I pursue this line of inquiry with anyone higher in the education system than Sam. Also, my interview subjects are limited by language barriers. I could only interview those who have higher than average English language skills because my knowledge of Chinese is not broad enough to embark on such a conversation in that language.
I am getting a picture though, and it is not pretty.
The centuries old way of life: because tradition is good or because no one has imagined a better way? Traditional building methods: because it works or because nothing new has come to anyone’s mind? The masses, the millions who hold their head down and shoulder their life’s burden: because they accept that is their lot in life or because they cannot envision anything better for themselves? Those inscrutable miens: because they wish to hide their feelings or because they have no thought or idea or feeling about a situation? Or do they simply lack the ability to express themselves? And, speaking of expression: nobody breaks into a spontaneous dance when they hear music: are they too shy, or have they never been taught to appreciate music to the point that it fills their being with joy?
Even the remarkable fact that, in the two years and hundreds of students I have taught here, not a SINGLE person in any of my classes is left handed takes on a new meaning. If a young child shows to have more left-handed tendencies, his parents and later the teachers will ‘correct’ that tendency to make the child right-handed. I believe that forcing the children to be ‘right hand/left brain dominant’ serves to encourage their analytical propensities at the cost of the more ‘left hand/right brained’ imaginative and visual capability is a manifestation of this society’s need to exorcise creativity.
I am reminded of the eerie video of the song by Pink Floyd, from The Wall concept album: We Don’t Need No Education, in which the students, dressed alike and wearing identical, waxen, expressionless faces march lockstep along a platform into a vat that boils them down and crushes them into a paste, to be squirted onto a conveyor belt for further shaping.
There is an anime called Kino’s Journey, a story of a traveler who goes from country to country to learn about their customs. The episode titled The Land of No Imagination talks about a young girl who tells Kino that, on a child’s 13th birthday he or she is taken to the hospital for The Operation that will turn him or her into a pragmatic, practical grownup. When grown up, one accepts their lot in life, debates the most efficient way to deal with a situation, accepts all things, lives emotionally bereft but perennially cheerful… like a robot. After talking with Kino this little girl wonders if having the operation is indeed the best way to do things, whereupon her parents declare her damaged and try to kill her. Kino jumps in front of her, taking the fatal knife wound. While the population debates the irrationality of Kino’s action, the little girl flees her country to commence her life’s journey, becoming Kino.
There is no official operation that kids here undergo. Simply by training and indoctrination their childhood is removed at an early age, making way for sensible, practical, tradition-abiding adults.
The Chinese of today live a torn life, caught between tradition and emulation. Much of what a modern Chinese does or believes to be societally advanced, such as acquiring status, eating out, sitting in a café and chatting with friends is emulation of what they’ve seen of western life in movies. Shopping till dropping, Starbucks and newfangled gadgets are all concepts that have been presented to them, not a lifestyle they have evolved to or innovated for themselves. Once a Chinese person comes home (to his/her apartment or to his/her village), the old traditions – cooking, cleaning, living prevail. Many references to such are peppered throughout this blog.
In my opinion, of all the human rights violations justly or unjustly ascribed to China, depriving a people of imagination, creativity and feeling is the cruelest torture a human spirit can endure.
Is there hope? Fortunately, yes. It seems that, while America is embracing China’s Drill and Kill method of learning, or, as some call it: teaching the test, meaning that curriculum is targeted to meet the No Child Left Behind standardization test, China is racing toward America’s former ‘problem-based’ learning approach that allows for visualization and creativity. While this does not mean a significant change for students who are university age, it certainly means that new generations of students will receive the benefit of more imaginative, progressive teaching methods.
Is there hope for the kids in my classes? If I continue to demonstrate that learning can be fun, teaching can be creative and a person is allowed to dream, maybe that occasional Tony, or the infrequent Gary who has bucked the system and followed his own path, or another Tristan, who is defying the current societal model with all his might will catch a spark, and carry that flame into the next generation. And, if these three fine men continue to be as charismatic and full of life as they are now, maybe they can lead their generation by example. I hope so.
In the meantime, I have rooms full of… : “When I watch a movie, it does not affect me. I know it is just a movie.” “Well, what about when you read a book?” “I do not like to read.” “Well, what if you’re on a plane, and it crashes and you are the only survivor?” “I don’t know.” “Well, what if you wake up and find yourself in a strange country where you don’t understand the language and everybody looks different?” “I don’t know”.
My friends, this has been a ponderous topic for me and, I’m sure for you as well. It has literally occupied all of my free time in research, observation and interviews. Sharing this with you has been cathartic. I can now lay this burden down and accept my new challenge: influence my students to a new way of thinking. Maybe even the teachers to a new way of teaching. Why not dream big, if I’m going to dream at all?
I’m ready to write about light-hearted observations and doings again. Something to make you smile and wish you were here with me to see and experience the things that I do. But, I realize that, the longer I live here the more apt I am to see deeper subjects, like this and want to share them with you. This one has been a doozy! I hope you were enthralled and appalled, as I was. And I hope you carry hope in your heart for this people who do not seem to have the ability to hope for themselves.