Is China so different from the west? Emma Wind, an English language assistant based in Tianjin, argues that despite the forces of globalisation, the world’s most populous country remains culturally distinct.
I’ve been teaching at a foreign languages school in the city of Tianjin for the last three months. Like many big cities around the world, Tianjin is full of McDonald’s restaurants, Starbucks coffee shops, impressive skyscrapers and fancy malls. And just like every other school I’ve known, the boys in this school refuse to sit next to the girls, loud students complain when you move them to sit apart from their friends, and the word ‘homework’ is met with a groan. But in spite of the many similarities with the west, the longer I work here, the more I’ve come to believe that China has a distinct culture all of its own.
1: Hierarchy is important
‘Lǎo shī hǎo’, (老师好）or ‘hello teacher’ along with a little bow of the head is the greeting that all Chinese students give their teachers. This isn’t exclusive to the classroom but extends everywhere on campus, making the journey between lessons a little longer than usual. In England, no one but the biggest ‘suck-ups’ would say hello to teachers in the hallway. From what I remember of being a pupil at school, the usual approach was to avoid eye contact and any kind of interaction until forced to in the classroom. The very polite behaviour of these students is a perfect example of the overall importance and respect for hierarchies in Chinese society. Teachers are to be respected because they are above students in the hierarchy – simple as that.
2: You need to connect with the right people
I’ve been trying to find an orchestra in which to play my violin. Usually, the first port of call for these things is the internet or a visit to a local music college. However, after a long trawl of the internet, it turns out this isn’t really the best way to achieve anything in China. Eventually, a friend halfway across the world gave me the phone number of her sister’s friend, who is a professor at a local musical institute. This professor then gave me the phone number of a local violin teacher. Despite this rather tenuous new connection, the teacher and I are meeting next week to discuss finding me an orchestra… possibly. This way of doing things is a reflection of the importance of community — essentially, a stranger cannot be trusted until vouched for. People treat you not as an individual, but as someone embedded in a web of mutual connections. The Chinese call these networks of influence guānxi (关系), and it’s a central idea in Chinese society.
3: Young people take their education very seriously
The maturity and realisation of personal responsibility among lots of my students can be mind-boggling. A couple of weeks ago, I asked my students to describe their ideal school. One of them, after some preparation time, stood up and said: ‘In my ideal school, students and teachers should respect each other as equals. In addition, both teachers and students should respect those who clean the toilets and the floors’. He then went on to explain that he believed strict teachers were necessary to achieve anything. The speech was impeccably delivered. This sort of thing might be impressive from a sixth-form student at home but these students are 13-14.
Students are also expected to be in school between 07.30 and 17.00. Any free time is generally thought of as an opportunity to study. Students have a greater awareness of the importance of education and have a firm belief that hard work translates into success. I would argue that students in the UK understand this too but I know quite a few who, by being naturally intelligent, were able to coast their way through their school years.
4: To ‘join the party’ means something a little different here
Perhaps related to ideas about hierarchy is the importance of the Communist Party in everyday school life. A couple of weeks in, I started noticing that some students wore a red scarf with their uniform while others didn’t. At first, I assumed it was part of the uniform for everyone but only worn by those with strict parents. However, when I asked some students about the scarves they said ‘Oh, they are in the party, they are young pioneers!’ They continued: ‘Everyone should aspire to have a scarf!’
Well-behaved students with good morals and good grades are recommended by teachers to join the local party representatives. These kids are given a red scarf and then elevated above the rest. They can lead group exercises, and they are often the most helpful ones in class. The expectation is that everyone should aspire to the red scarf and becoming a young pioneer by the end of middle school.
What sums it all up for me is the way the school wants to see itself. At the entrance to the school, on a wall, is the quote: ‘absorb both eastern and western cultures, cultivate worldwide competitive students’. Despite China’s massive economic growth and globalisation, the expectation has been that it will globalise and westernise. In the school, those students who get into universities in America and England are venerated above the rest. However, looking through the lens of the school system, my impression is that the country remains culturally very distinct.
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