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Inside the Middle Kingdom

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Schools Days

I learned today that if I had been a high school student here in China, I would never have made it to the age of 18. Why? Because I am a person who gets super overwhelmed when there is too much on my plate and when 20 hours of my day are jammed packed with no time for me to breathe. Actually, I would think that such conditions are not healthy for anyone, yet millions of Chinese high school students experience such a demanding schedule.

High school education in China is so rigorous in order to prepare students for the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, or the Gao Kao, which is the sole determinant of entrance into Chinese universities. Since there are such high stakes in this exam, students have an extremely full schedule every day for four years. First of all, students have classes 7 days a week. Sunday is the only day that students have a half day. During the week and on Saturdays, students typically get up at 5:30 and start school at 6:15 am. They have classes until 11:45. There is a very short lunch break until 12:15. Students can then put their heads down on their desks and nap until 12:45. Every day at 12:45, students will have a math exam that lasts until 2 pm. Classes are followed from 2 until 6 pm; then a short dinner break and then more classes and exams until 10 in the evening. You would think that since classes go until 10 in the evening, there would be no homework (what more could be done??). However, students usually do have homework. My friend and student Happy admitted that she would not always do the homework (and can you blame her?). It is quite common for students to only have four hours of sleep a night.

Why so much emphasis on preparing students for admission into university? In a country of 1.3 billion, getting into university will not only determine your life for the next five years, but also your future career prospects, place in society, and your future economic niveau. Your parents as well as your future family will rely on your future job prospects and livelihood. Therefore there is a huge amount of emphasis and stress put on high school students. I’m told that it is similar in other Asian countries. Many of you reading this in the US many question how the importance of attending university in China is any different from the US. While it’s true that attending college and university in the US may sometimes afford one more opportunities than having a high school diploma, I have known many people in the US who have successful careers of their choice without the aid of a college degree. Also, while it is unfortunate that still many people in the US are shut out of attending college and university because of the cost, we are lucky to have excellent and affordable continuing education programs; technical and community colleges; and a higher education system that embraces lifelong learners and non-traditional age students (ie- students who are not right out of high school). Here in China, people’s sole opportunity to attend university is through the college entrance exam which is primarily taken in high school. Although there is no age restriction since 2001, students typically take the college entrance exam in their last year of high school.

The Gao Kao is the sole determinant of entrance in university here in China. No interviews, no college essays and high school record. It lasts for three-days and is issued nationwide across China once a year in June. I’ve been told that the exam is issued at the same time as well, so since China has one time zone (yes- one time zone), folks in Western China are get up at a ridiculous hour to take the exam at the same time as their counterparts in Beijing and other Eastern Chinese cities. The test encompasses everything students have learned since Kindergarten and includes mandatory tests in Chinese, math, and a foreign language (usually English in recent years but can also be French, Japanese or Russian). Other tests will include Chemistry, Physics, Biology, History, Geography and political education. There are different tiers of universities and a student’s score will determine her or his admission into certain universities. Students who do not perform well have the opportunity to repeat another year of high school and take the exam a year later. However, if the second test does not go well, a student may have to give up on the goal of attending university and look to alternatives such as attending vocational programs or seeking other career routes.

In addition to the student his or herself, the examination puts enormous pressure on the student’s parents. With China’s one child policy, parents put all their hope into their one son or daughter. In return, a son or daughter is bound by duty to their parents and is expected to provide a good life for their parents down the road in their golden years. Entrance into university will ensure that the child will have good career prospects down the road to thereby support their parents and future family.

The high competition for university entrance (ie, there are far fewer university spots than those who take the college entrance exam) has led to several phenomena in recent years. In recent years, many Chinese families have become wealthier and have more disposable income (perhaps the parents got into university themselves and have therefore had beneficial careers!). Students who have not performed well enough on the national entrance exam to get into the a highly selective university may have their parents pay for them to get a spot at a less selective university. This is the case at Nanjing University of Finance and Economics (NUFE), where I teach. I am at the main campus in the university district of Nanjing. However, NUFE has a campus outside of Nanjing where such students attend the first two years of college and then finish their last two years at NUFE’s campus in downtown Nanjing. I learned that my own beloved 2+2’s who will be going to Canada in two years also gained admission to NUFE and the Canada program because their college entrance exams were not high enough and that their parents paid extra for them to be admitted. I was saddened to learn this at first, as I was led to believe that my students were the cream of the crop. Also, it does not seem fair to me that students can be afforded such opportunities if their parents have the money to pay for them to be admitted into certain university programs. It remarkably resembles the role that money plays in college education in the United States. I find it ironic that income now plays a large role in college admission in China, a communist country, albeit only on paper.

In addition to families being able to essentially buy a spot for their child at a Chinese university, many Chinese students are now looking outside of the China for higher education. With the extra wealth and disposable income, many Chinese parents can now afford to send their child abroad for college (especially with the aid of scholarships) in the United States, Canada, UK, Australia and Germany. For American higher education institutions, this means a vastly growing market. Chinese students now represent the fastest growing group of international students at American universities. When I attended college in the early to mid- 1990’s there were probably fewer than 5,000 Chinese college students in the United States. A few of those students were my classmates at Mt. Holyoke. According to the Institute of International Education, over 26,000 Chinese students enrolled at US universities in the 2008-2009 school year. I expect the numbers must be at 30,000 for this year.

In addition to education institutions abroad being able to benefit from the tuition of an increasing number of Chinese students, native English speaker and educators are now in high demand here in China as well. Starting at a young age, parents pay a premium to send their child to foreign language schools; bilingual primary schools; and for private tutoring in English. Foreign certified teachers are in demand from Chinese middle and high schools as well as universities. This is no surprise with English (or other foreign languages) being one of the main tests on the national college entrance exam. Additionally, a new requirement since 2005 mandates that students pass a test here in China known as the CET, the College English Test, in order to obtain a bachelor’s degree here in China. More and more employers here in China also seek college graduates with the CET certification. With more and more students wanting to study abroad for undergraduate or postgraduate education, students are also eager to take tests such as the SAT, IELTS, TOEFL, GRE and GMAT. From my experience, it’s not uncommon for many Chinese students to know all these acronyms and be more familiar with them than most Westerners here.

Learning the ins and outs of the Chinese education system is one reason why I am excited to be here in China. While I never would have imagined even a year ago that I would be living in China and admittedly China was and remains to be a very foreign place to me, I appreciate the wealth of opportunities offered from relationships with our Chinese friends. I for one am glad that we are no longer in a day and age when the West and China are isolated from one another. I welcome the opportunity to learn from Chinese traditions, children, students, families, education systems and all that this land has to offer and am pleased that the US is also opening its doors more and more to our Chinese friends.

For further reading:

College English Test. December 21, 2010.

Levin, Dan. The China Boom. November 5, 2010.

Liang, Lu-Hai. Chinese students suffer as university entrance exams get a grip. Monday 28 June 2010.

National Higher Education Entrance Examination December 21, 2010.

Protecting your Email Account

This blog posting is not about living in and experiencing China. Rather I am going to use this forum to blog about another important topic right now- internet security. I feel strongly about this after a recent incident of my own when my email account was hacked into by some shifty West Africans in London. I was out of commission for a couple of weeks because Google went so far as to not only shut down my account to the hackers but me as well. I wasn’t able to access my gmail account, my google calendars, my google documents and this blog was also temporarily shut down. I appreciate everyone’s concern during this entire ordeal. Thanks to my friend Eva who called the guys and gave them an earful as well as my parents who actually called the London Police and Scotland Yard. They’ve got the guys at the crime lab working in shifts so I have hope that justice will soon be mine.

Sadly, I know that I am not the only victim of these amateur but crafty hackers. So from my ordeal I would like to offer a few tips on how to protect yourself from having your account and privacy on the internet compromised.

1) Change your email password- Do this especially if you are afraid that your account has been compromised.

2) Do not use the same password for everything. While it is easier to remember just one password for your email account, your online banking, Skype, and iTunes, etc., it is too easy to be figured out by hackers if you are using the same password over and over.

3) Check your account activity- If you have a gmail account, you can check the location/ IP address of each time you have logged onto your gmail account. That way if an IP address in an unfamiliar location shows up, you will know if your account may have been compromised. This function is in the middle and at the bottom of your gmail mail page (on the same page where you have your Inbox). It is small and says “Last account activity” and you should click on “Details” next to it. If anyone knows how to do this with other web clients like or, please share!

4) HTTPS websites- When possible, access websites that have HTTPS instead of HTTP. Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure or (HTTPS) creates a secure channel over an insecure network. Unfortunately not all web sites are equipped with HTTPS, however you can get an encrypted search engine through google and make it your home page on your internet browser. You can also download a free Firefox extension from HTTPS Everywhere which will allow you to have encrypted communication with a number of websites.
- Google encrypted
- HTTPS Everywhere

5) Use a VPN- For folks in China, having a virtual private network client comes in handy to access facebook, youtube and other blocked blogs here in China. However, in addition to your activity not being easily detected by the Chinese government, a VPN client will protect you to some level from hacking predators who just want to get your information and suck your blood. This is why I will aim to use a VPN connection even when I’m outside of China and can freely access, etc.

6) Download a free virus scanner- A virus scanner can work round the clock and detect viruses on your hard drive as well as any tracking cookies on your web browser. You can also schedule a full scan on your computer. I do scans every day now on my computer.
- I recommend Avast Antivirus.

7) Clear cookies and the history on your internet browser- I recommend doing this every three days or more often if you feel that you are vulnerable.
- Firefox web browser- You can do this under Tools on the toolbar on the top of the page
- Windows Explorer- I think it can also be accessed under Tools on the toolbar on the top of the page. Switch to Firefox!

So there you have it. I am by no means a tech savvy person, but I think these tips will help protect you and your information on the web. In a day and age when so much of what we do is wrapped up in us being able to access the internet and our own information, it really can be quite frustrating if not debilitating when you are suddenly cut off from your email account, your documents, your calendar, your contacts and your email history. Good luck and safe surfing and emailing!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

College Life

As of yet, I have not shared any of my experiences as a teacher here in China other than some earlier references about how helpful students have been here. Two months into this, I can now share some better insight into working with Chinese university students.

I teach three different subjects four days of the week. From the first week, I have been teaching Business English to sophomore students. This class is only half credit and I’m lucky if half of them show up. I teach four different class sections of this class Monday and Wednesday afternoons. The initial excitement and chemistry the students and I had has now run its course and I think it’s safe to say we all just show up to class because we have to. Not having any curriculum provided, I teach information, vocabulary and dialogues about telephone use, meetings and negotiations in a business setting. Try as I may, it is very difficult to make this subject material any bit interesting. I have tried to elicit conversations and I ask students about similarities in China. The problem is students do not respond. They do not raise their hands if I ask a question to the class. So the only way I can get a response to questions is if I ask students directly. Students will say “I don’t know” or just look at me. It’s a bit frustrating but I can’t say they are entirely to blame. From their previous education experiences, they may be used to only be lectured at and are not expected to share their opinion or participate in class discussions. Nevertheless, I can only be so understanding, especially when I catch students playing video games or talking on their phone when they should be giving a class presentation.

My saving grace and my pure teaching enjoyment has come from teaching my freshmen 2+2 students. They are called 2+2 students because they will spend their first two years of college here at Nanjing University of Finance and Economics and the second two years at Waterloo University in Ontario, Canada. Therefore, they have intense English courses for the next two years and have the incentive to take their English courses seriously. I teach Writing four hours a week and Oral English three hours a week to them. They are serious, motivated, and inquisitive students and they’re my babies. Every time I show up to class, all 43 of them are already waiting in their seats and they cheer or cry out when I enter the room (Thank you, thank you very much). I push them and give them a lot of work (which in turn is more work for me) but we are all learning a lot. The best thing is that it’s been a great teaching experience for me. It’s wonderful to have a class group of my own with whom I can establish a relationship and I have learned how to manage a class better as well as new teaching and assessment methods. All-in-all, they are helping me become a confident educator.

Go to college and you shall be set free
What mystifies me here is how much freshmen students are coddled. Sunday through Thursday nights, freshmen have mandatory study hall from 6:30-9:30 pm at different academic buildings on campus. By 10 pm, students must be in their rooms and as far as I know, lights have to be out at 11 or 11:30. Women especially have to keep their dorms orderly. Students also live all four years in the same room and with the same roommates (except for my 2+2s because they will go to Canada. Lucky them). The mandatory study time has proven a little tricky because I have wanted to organize an informal English conversation group at a café a ten minute walk off of campus. I soon found out though that they wouldn’t be able to go because of the study hour. I was able to talk to their teacher/ counselor who is in charge of their class. She told me that if students left campus, I would have to give a list to her the day before and then she would have to get the list approved by the dean or other higher ups. I would have to make sure I escort all of them to and from campus. Sheesh- it was too much work so I have agreed to now have dinner with my students in the cafeteria on Wednesdays nights before their study session begins. Freshmen are also not allowed to bring their own personal computers to school. Instead they must go to the library where the computers are quite old and slow. The university wants to limit their time socializing on the internet on Chinese social network sites like QQ. This has also been problematic as I have a class website where I post class notes. After I learned that students do not have easy access to the internet, I decided to stop using the site.

Impressions of love and dating
Students seem very innocent- especially when it comes to the opposite sex and the notion of love (Think 19 years old going on 11). In all my classes, the male students (by choice) sit in one section of the classroom and the female students all sit among each other in another section. Recently when showing the movie “Into the Wild”, there room was abuzz during a scene when the main male character went on a walk with a new love interest. Mind you, they were not even holding hands in scene! I think it was just the underlying sexual tension between the characters that put my students at unease. Still, they are intrigued about meeting the opposite sex. During lunch today, one of my students was checking a text message from a high school class mate. Her roommate exuberantly kept repeating to me, “He’s her boyfriend!” with my student vehemently denying her roommate’s claim. Perceptions of love also seem to be very naïve and innocent. The word love may be used very loosely and for a simple, innocent crush. During an oral exercise in class today, I asked my students a series of questions about interviewing people. One of the questions had to do with what they would ask a loved one if they had the opportunity. Even though I explained what was meant by “loved one” many of them misunderstood “loved one” and its connotation. After they were broken down into groups and were discussing the questions, several of them told me that it was just too personal of a question to answer. They thought that the question was asking what they would ask of a boyfriend or a girlfriend and only after I explained (again) that “loved one” could mean a family member, a good friend or anyone they care about, were they willing to answer the questions. During the same class session, when students were asked who they would interview if they could, I asked one of my students who is a huge fan of the book “Wuthering Heights”, whether he would want to interview Emily Bronte. “Yes!” He exclaimed. “She’s my lover!!!” This obviously got some snickers from the other students and I didn’t go into explaining that Emily Bronte is indeed not his lover. But who am I? Maybe he seriously believes she is his soul mate, that she speaks to his heart, and that they are really star crossed lovers through some strange time-warp dimension.

It's all in the name
Now a word about names. Thankfully for me, many of me students have English names which helps a little to avoid the embarrassment of mispronouncing a Chinese names (usually only embarrassing for me and the student whose name I mispronounce. Also I must admit that eight weeks into the semester, I am still having trouble identifying many of my students). The thing I like about English names is that students can pick an entire new name for themselves and can in fact have a separate identity if they want. Except for the fact that many of my students don’t know each other by their English names. So, for example, when I’m taking attendance and ask for the absent “Maryanne” and try to ascertain from the other students whether she is in fact in class and not saying anything (also common). I’ll repeat her English name 3 times only to get blank looks until I say, “Umm. Sorry. I mean is Zhan Xiu Chen here?” which is then usually followed by a laugh at my total butchering of her name and then the entire class’s recitation of the correct pronunciation of her name. “Um. Got it. Sooo, she’s not here, right??” Also quite confusing is that Chinese custom mandates that the family name (last name) be written and said first before a person’s given name (first name). This is to show respect to a person’s family and ancestors. For the first two weeks I probably called my students (who didn’t have English names) by their last names. I’m sure no offense was taken but I did have to spend some time explaining to my students that it is the reverse order with names in the US and many other countries of the world which may cause them or their foreign counterparts confusion if they ever end up working or interacting in a Western business or social setting.

English name choices are quite interesting. Many names are quite normal while others are quite unconventional. NBA basketball is quite popular here in China, especially among the male students. So it isn’t surprising that Kobe (Kobe Bryant) is a common and popular name. Students may also pick names from a favorite book or movie. My student who is Emily Bronte’s lover is called Austin Earnshaw (having not read Wuthering Heights before, I had to do a google search to figure out how Mr. Earnshaw came up with his name choice). Other unique names include Spawn, Sky, Circle, Arrow, Season, Lucifer and here’s the kicker… Nazi (not one of my students. I think Nazi’s teacher has advised his student to find another moniker).
Students engrossed and involved in group discussions.

More insights on student life in China to follow soon in Part II.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Chinese health care = Easy health care

Recently I had my first foray into the Chinese health system. As many of you may already know from previous posts, I have experienced several different physical maladies since arriving here in China. I’ll avoid going into the details of my recent malady, however I can share a glimpse into the Chinese health system and will also add that I was left completely satisfied from my first experience with it.

My recent malady kept me up all night one recent weekend so I had planned to go to the university clinic first thing in the morning. I was going to do my little pantomime dance and use recently acquired vocabulary from the massage place “Wo tang” (I hurt) and point to the part of my body that was feeling discomfort. I’m sure I would only have gotten strange looks and no help so thankfully, my wonderful Chinese friend and godsend Tien (this will probably not be the last time you will read about her) recommended that I stay away from the clinic. She said that they would probably just give me an aspirin and tell me to monitor my problem. What I needed was urgent and immediate care and real doctors to diagnose and treat my problem, so off we headed to the Xianlin Community Health Service Center, a short bus ride up the road. Now I would like to take a moment to clarify something here. This was a public health facility (hence the name Xianlin COMMUNITY Health Service Center). There were no lines going around the building. There were no numbers I had to pick and no ridiculous bureaucratic hoops I had to jump through to be seen by a doctor. In fact, when we arrived there, the waiting room was eerily empty. Okay, okay and the doctors were also on their lunch break so we did have to wait a little while since I did not have a severed arm with blood profusely dripping out. But other than that, it wasn’t bad for socialized health care.

To kill the time until the doctors returned from lunch, Tien and I walked a block away to “My Shop”, a little store about 100 square feet that sells American, British, Australian and German packaged and frozen food. It’s owned and operated by a Chinese man and not surprisingly, all the customers are expats anxious to stock up on items from home to cure a little bit of homesickness. I was actually on a different mission to get some cranberry juice for my current malady (and now some of you have probably figured out what I had. “I’ll take ‘Stephanie’s physical maladies in China’ for $300, Alex.”). After a German man depleted My Shop’s supply of granola bars, I paid the equivalent of a whopping $7 for my bottle of cranberry juice, a price I was more than happy to pay if it led to some sort of alleviation of pain and discomfort.

When we arrived back at the health center, I had to buy a medical record book at a window in the lobby. In this little booklet, the doctors make notes during any visits. This booklet should be kept and shared with any doctors at any hospitals during any future visits. Cost: 2.20 RMB (about 33 cents). I was then sent to the adjacent hallway with Tien and we walked into one of the doctor’s office. Tien explained my problem and symptoms. The doctor then said I would need to give a urine sample. So off we marched to the window in the lobby again (and still no line) to pay for that and get the cup. Cost: 26.50 RMB ($4). Three minutes later after a trip to the bathroom, another doctor or lab technician examined my pee sample in a very sophisticated, state-of-the-art, advanced microscope, computer machine. A minute later, she printed out a microscopic, computer-generated image of my urine. I then went back to the first doctor who looked at the image and then diagnosed and confirmed that I did have what I thought I had had. He then filled out a prescription for some tablets I would need to take twice a day for the next two weeks. Off we marched to the window again and paid for the prescription medication. Cost: 16 RMB ($2.25). We marched ten feet further to the pharmacy and I was then handed my two boxes of prescription. Total time (not including the lunch break when we first arrived): 15 minutes. Total cost: 44.70 RMB ($6.75)- less than the bottle of cranberry juice.

No deductible. No co-payment. No premium. No referral. No HMOs, PPOs or any other confusing acronyms. Just the doctors and the treatment. Health care was never made so easy…

PS: Two and a half weeks later, I am happy to report that I am now completely cured of my malady!