Imperfect Lessons || Studying Abroad

Updated: Oct 21, 2018

When I first moved to the U.S., I noticed that students around me tend to write in letters that vary in size, and surprisingly, very little people paid attention to the aesthetics of writing. Even on the calligraphic level, what people admire is smooth precision and elegance, not artful improvisation or strength. This extends to poster design -- people generally do not care about the professionality of their words and diagrams, which dismayed me much at first.

I’m not talking about the model minority, I’m talking about international students from China, (who are apparently allegedly conducting espionage in the U.S.) In America, over 40% of the international students in the middle schools came from China [1]; with about 550 English-teaching international schools, making China one of the nations that have largest numbers of international schools. There are over 350,000 Chinese students in the U.S. [2], and some say the rates are slowing due to government policies restricting student visas. I’ve visited college campuses and people say that newly arriving Chinese students tend to huddle in their own group, which I’ve definitely seen at my own school. Unlike the college ones that have already mastered English, they had to rely on me for help. Even though I was embarrassed by the students who would only speak Mandarin to me in public, I didn't even notice how different my ways were from everyone else. I was unknowingly falling into the trap that immigrants often struggle in: loving one’s culture but fearing one’s difference. Upon my fourth year here, I can confidently summarize a few key lessons I learned. May this illuminate the model minority debate just a bit as well.

1. Online resources matter.

The glaring scarcity of online resources, especially video platforms, never hit me back then. We could download songs and movies for free, but when it comes to access to research material or random educational channels, I never even tried. This didn’t bother me as I produced competent writings and presentations (we were not required to cite); I did wish the super complex math problems had clean digital solutions though. The electronics ban was actually enforced at school, which is retrospectively impractical -- the digital age enables technologically integrated lives, and I am convinced that electronics could have boosted our (already sky-high) productivity.

Fast forward three years, I am using my laptop in almost all my classes, admittedly 50% of time multitasking in boring lectures (such as now), taking online classes for credit, and conversing professional matters with adults as equals on Facebook. Although studies show teens can spend an unhealthy 257 minutes a day before a computer [5], the result might be not all bad if we can find intellectual autonomy there.

2. A higher degree of personal responsibility helps elevate you out of the collective responsibility.

I was a class officer all throughout elementary and middle school, and I learned from my Filipino friends that they had a similar system of discipline and punishment. While corporeal treatment is deemed unethical, verbal and manual treatments are widely practiced in China in the form of recitation, copying text, and taking off conduct points. I was the one who awarded or deducted points, and while I had never been a rallying leader, I had power. In addition, the pride around which we act was artificial -- I remember competition between classes so intense we seemed like rival schools. Each class had its slogans, rankings, and accolades. This did motivate us to clean and improve the classroom voluntarily, but had I been following everyone for reasons I didn’t even understand?

In the U.S., school rules are not nonexistent, but what power students have they must earn. No teacher can appoint you to be the class president or nominate you to boost your chances. You must understand yourself, your identity, and your community before doing any kind of service. Community service, unlike school service I did for many years, brings one onto the world stage, and for this I am grateful.

3. American students are not “behind” in education; we must recognize a different kind of education.

When I visited the schools in So-Cal during a 5th grade overseas trip, I published an article in a school collection titled “There is more than one approach to education” that recounted the pleasant surprises I had when visiting a campus: sixth graders were analyzing the New York stock market with iPads, and three-category recycling bins dotted the roads. Issues of funding aside, this does play into the expectation that Americans focus on real-world preparation.

Does this justify America’s overall mediocre standardized testing outcome though [3]? While I had a happy childhood with all my weekend devotions to hobbies, I had witnessed peers spending entire weekends and after school hours taking extra classes that retrospectively are only geared toward higher test scores or academic contests. These contests are hot in China too, and the amount of awards I accumulated over two years in middle school is about ten times what I got in high school. There is a more complex aspect to the common belief that Americans are more practical, though. The “academic” awards I got involved the like of designing water collection systems and making plant journals. Admittedly though, this is a luxury that many Chinese students couldn’t have -- scores are the only way out when the battle of Gaokao comes on at the end of 12th grade. A huge gap in educational opportunities between students from rural areas and those from cities [4].

This is why while I didn’t win many prizes or become officers at school, I appreciate the opportunity to take community college classes, to get a driver’s license at 16, and to run three miles a day on a field breathing relatively clean air (yes, even in Los Angeles). While I still think there needs to be a shakeup about penmanship and aesthetics, maybe people are simply divesting from a cultural vestige and focusing on embracing innovations. We’ll find out.

Perhaps in college, my entire view on this matter will turn around as I meet my peers who had endured the College Entrance Exam. I will have to decide whether to return to China or to stay for my career. But I applaud this experience, this country, and its people.

\\Question of the week:

Why is open-source contribution still so scarce in the classroom, whether it is making things online or in the real world?







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