Eye of the Tiger Mom: For Chinese Kids, Overscheduled is an Understatement

A Chinese classroom. (Photo: MIKE CLARKE /AFP/Getty)

A Chinese classroom. (Photo: MIKE CLARKE /AFP/Getty)

One night after my Cantonese class, a fellow student approached me to let off some steam. Like me, Jean-Baptiste was struggling mightily with the tonal language. “These evenings,” he said in a thick French accent, “would be much more enjoyable if I stayed at home and was a potato couch.”

I couldn’t have with him more agreed. Our instructor, a 60-something former “office creature,” is decidedly old-school. She follows the textbook to a T, and asks us to repeat after her. It’s immensely boring.

Sometimes I imagine that my classroom experience has been a little like my wife Wendy’s when she was in school here. She’s often told me about her teachers, who spoon-fed her information and seldom asked for her opinion.

From a young age, we in the West are encouraged to speak up in class, to voice our opinions and ask questions, but that’s not the case here. Despite some recent curriculum changes here toward more inquiry-based learning, a teacher friend of mine told me, schools are slow to change. For one thing, teachers were taught to feed information to kids; for another, students fear that they’ll ask stupid questions and embarrass themselves. Not to mention that in a place that respects Confucian values, it’s considered inappropriate to challenge your elders.

Thankfully, the parallels between my classroom experience and Wendy’s end at dry lecturing. During the week, when I fumble around for the right Chinese word, I have nothing to lose but my pride and everything to gain by amusing people with my botched Chinglish. “It’s like a game for me,” my friend Indy once told me. “Trying to figure out what it is that you’re saying.”

For Hong Kong kids, however, education isn’t a game at all. They’re saddled with a heavy workload from a very young age and face enormous family pressure to get good grades. Consider that Wendy often went to school on Saturdays, knew her class rank as early as kindergarten and had to have her parents sign any test she failed. While she was suffering through all this, I was attending a school halfway around the world that gave extra credit to students who attended basketball games.

It’s hard to believe, but since Wendy graduated in the ’80s, the pressure on Hong Kong kids has only increased. Seemingly every second of a child’s day here revolves around school, tutoring or lessons of some sort, all of which are exam-based.

This emphasis on testing has been around for a long time in Chinese society—roughly 2,000 years, in fact, since the origins of China’s Imperial Exam System, which the writer Justin Crozier called “a glorious attempt at intellectual meritocracy.” This civil service test was a grueling exercise in rote memorization of Confucian classics. As Crozier put it, “Texts of a total of over 400,000 characters had to be thoroughly memorised if a candidate was to have any hope of progressing to a civil service position.” He added that “the pass rate was only 1 or 2%.”

Even though China abolished this system in 1905 (Hong Kongers started receiving instruction from Western missionaries after British rule was established in 1841), there’s still a belief that the path to success starts with good grades.

Hong Kong Tiger Parents do anything and everything to ensure that their young children will “win at the starting line.” Many speak only English to their young kids, hoping to pass on vital language skills at an early age. Others enroll them at learning centers like “Little Academy,” which offers Little Bachelor’s, Little Master’s and Little Ph.D. “degrees” for kids aged 4 months to 6 years. While most of these tutoring centers offer instruction in English, Mandarin, math and the arts, some provide wealth management instruction for 5-year-olds and prep classes for kids hoping to nail their kindergarten interview.

All of this emphasis on tutoring squeezes parents (one estimate places the average monthly outlay at $1,000 per kid) while making some tutors rich. Buses are plastered with ads for young, attractive “star tutors,” and a silly online video produced by the team at “Super English Force” promises that studying with their native English speaker, Charles, will give you “an unfair advantage to [sic] your upcoming examinations.” A bunch of star tutors have become rich cramming kids into their numerous lecture halls. The genre’s pioneer, Richard Eng, earns more than $1 million a year and drives a canary-yellow Lamborghini (vanity plate: “RICHARD”).

In New York, there’s currently a standardized testing backlash among parents who fear that the city’s emphasis on testing and prep comes at the expense of more meaningful schooling. Last summer, New York City parents and children picketed outside exam publisher Pearson’s Avenue of the Americas headquarters with placards that read “Testing is stressful” and “I’m more than a test score.” One group, called Time Out From Testing, fears that “Bubble tests lead to bubble minds.”

And while it’s true that Hong Kong kids don’t have nearly the individualism of your average New York student, the schools here, for all their spoon-feeding and emphasis on tests, have produced some outspoken youth whose daring and intelligence would impress even a sign-waving New Yorker. Last summer, after the government tried to implement a pro-Beijing National Education curriculum in local schools, a group of teenagers formed a social action group called Scholarism. The students—cheeky, subversive and uncommonly bright—staged sit-ins, rallies and even a hunger strike. A little over a month later, largely as a result of their actions, National Education was scrapped.

Bubble minds? Not at all.

editorial@observer.com