From A to Ph.D. | Education in China
I knew prior to visiting China that the Chinese placed a heavy emphasis on education from a young age, but I didn’t realize how true that would be until I was actually in the country. One of the unique aspects of this trip was that I felt like I got an overview of the entire Chinese education system: I attended evening English school with 5-7 year old kids (who, after spending their entire day in school, went to even more classes in the evening—emphasis again on the fact that these kids are AGE FIVE TO SEVEN), visited a middle school with 12-year-olds who were nearly fluent in English and were about to start learning yet another language, and visited a university campus, where students gave me a tour and explained the rigors of college life devoid of extracurricular clubs and football weekends.
While I spent my high school years participating in music ensembles, playing ultimate frisbee, working a part time job, and hiking and hanging out on weekends, these kids spend their twelve years in school concentrating on one thing: academics. Unlike the United States’s college admissions process, which looks for some mysterious combination of good grades, standardized test scores, leadership positions, and extracurriculars, the Chinese education system cares about only one number: your score on one specific standardized test. This number, and this number alone, places you into a ‘tier,’ which determines the class of university you will be able to attend—essentially securing the success of your future. With such a significant focus on academics, it’s easy to see why so many Chinese parents hire after school tutors or send their children to evening classes starting at incredibly young ages.
Despite this, every kid that I met in China was just as fun-loving, creative, and silly as any kid in the United States. Yes, these kids endure a lot of hard work and discipline, but they’re just like any other kid. From the five-year-olds who played hide and seek and liked to show off their English vocabulary to the middle schoolers who teased each other about their “boyfriends” to the college students who bought us pea juice and walked around their campus with us, I was surprised both by how similar and how different China’s education system was from the United States.
An elementary school classroom
For as long as I can remember, bicycling has been one of my primary methods of transportation. I learned to bike at a young age, and, rather than taxiing me around in our gas-guzzling minivan, my parents encouraged me to bike to school, friend’s houses, appointments, and work. To this day, you’ll probably find me biking to at least 80% of the places I go, regardless of the weather, season, distance, and amount of stuff I have to load into my basket/backpack.
In the United States this is an anomaly.
I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find that in China, many people rely on bicycles or small motorbikes to get around. I can’t recall a city or place that we visited that didn’t have a designated bike lane, and the bike lanes were often just or crowded or maybe even more crowded than the motor vehicle lanes. It wasn’t uncommon to see an elderly Chinese grandmother whizz by on a moped or a father pedaling a family of four balanced precariously atop a single-rider bike. (I also got a kick out of the brightly colored wind covers/giant oven mitts that seemed to be popular with bicyclists.)
I learned that this is because cars are very expensive to purchase and maintain in China, even more so than in the United States. Because China has extremely high population densities, particularly in urban areas, driving a car is often not the most efficient way to commute, and traffic can be heavy. For many Chinese, a bicycle or small motorbike simply makes more sense: it’s inexpensive, easy, and convenient.
It’s also much more environmentally friendly. I won’t go into them here, but there are hundreds to thousands of research-backed statistics showing that alternative transportation such as bicycles, motorbikes, and public transportation can greatly reduce carbon emissions and help stem air pollution.
Another thing that I thought was really cool about the bicycling culture in China were the bike-sharing programs, which allow you to unlock a bike via an app, bike to wherever you need to go, lock it again, and leave it there for somebody else to use. While I didn’t get to use this while I was in China, I talked to a couple of Chinese people about it, and it sounded incredibly convenient. Making bicycles easily accessible is a brilliant way to encourage people to take this one small step toward greener cities.
I had the benefit of growing up in State College, a small town which is very pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly. However, most major cities in the United States don’t have infrastructure that makes biking easy or even plausible—so even if people wanted to commute via bicycle, they don’t have that option, as cycling on a street without proper shoulders, signage, or bicycle lanes can be dangerous for bicyclists and drivers alike. Bicycle sharing programs, which are widespread and incredibly user-friendly in China, are few and far between here in the States. As the United States take steps towards reducing their carbon footprint, I think we could learn a lesson from China and other countries when it comes to eco-friendly transportation and infrastructure.
Traveling on the sleeper trains (didn’t get a picture of the bikes, unfortunately)
Food & Culture Colliding
One of the most unanticipatedly awesome things we got to do in China was visit something which has no American counterpart: the snack street. We went to two snack streets in China, and they were both unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
The concept of a snack street is pretty simple. It’s quite literally a street for snacks: a bustling route lined with vendors selling almost any kind of food you can imagine. For just a few RMB, you could purchase a jar of yogurt, freshly sliced exotic fruit, sugary rice cakes wrapped in plantain leaves, or maybe something a little weirder, like fried scorpion on a stick,
Just walking down snack street was such a cool cultural experience. The snack street in Xian was lined with lanterns, colorful banners, and LEDs. Chinese men artfully stripped meat off fly-covered, suspended carcasses of what I could only speculate were pigs or lambs, skewered it, grilled it, and sold it on a literal twig. Vendors aggressively hawked free samples of their snacks with rapid-fire sales pitches, hoping to siphon some money out of me. The snack street we visited in Xian was primarily Muslim, so much of the food was inspired by a smaller sect of Chinese culture that maybe isn’t what you immediately think of when you picture Chinese cuisine, and many of the vendors wore more traditionally Muslim garb.
Another cool thing about snack streets was that there wasn’t just one demographic represented. Walking down the Xian snack street were wealthier and poorer Chinese, young and old, couples, families, gangs of schoolkids—basically everybody you could imagine was there. It’s almost as if the snack street brought together Chinese from all backgrounds for some really good snacks.
The snack streets are just one example of how food in China can be used as a microcosm for the Chinese culture. Just like each city had its own unique “personality,” each place we visited also had its own trademark dish: hot pot in Chongqing, cold noodles in Xian, sea cucumber in Dalian, and so on. In China, meals are often viewed as more of a social event than a perfunctory daily action, which is how we tend to see them in the United States.
Since returning to the United States, I’ve adopted some of the food habits I picked up in China. I still like drinking a pot of tea with meals (pro tip: if you visit a Chinese-owned restaurant in State College, they’ll give your table a pot for free if you ask). I’ve started utilizing my rice cooker much more. And I’m much more likely to go a restaurant, order a bunch of dishes, and share them with everybody, just like we did so often in China. I learned a lot from the Chinese about how eating can be more than a repetitive daily routine, and how food can play a central role in bringing cultures and peoples together.
Sharing some hot pot in Chongqing
The Muslim snack street we visited in Xian
Some delicious snacks available for purchase
Hongqin Village: Untouched by Tourism
It’s hard to pick a favorite place that we visited while in China, but Xinli’s hometown, which I believe is called Hongqin Village, definitely ranks in my top three. This experience was incredibly special for me, as it was something I never would have been able to do had I come to China on my own. While climbing the Great Wall, visiting the Forbidden City, and taking selfies on the Bund in Shanghai were undeniably awesome, getting to visit such a non-touristy location was fantastic.
I first knew that I was in for something special when we almost died trying to drive our massive bus through the crop fields into the village. Okay, that may be a slight exaggeration, but the road that we took into the village was clearly not intended for anything larger than a very small vehicle, was ridiculously bumpy and had steep inclines on either side. A couple of the villagers in the fields stopped what they were doing to watch us haplessly try to maneuver the massive bus into the village.
Thankfully, we didn’t die, and Xinli brought us to the village pharmacy, which looked like something straight from a fairy tale. While the pharmacy had modern medications, it also specialized in a lot of herbal remedies passed down from ancient generations. We then got a quick tour of the rambling village, including the house in which Xinli grew up. I was surprised to learn that the village had only gotten access to power in the last twenty years or so, and tried to imagine living without power in such an isolated place while I was there. One of the nicest places in the village was the school, located at the center of the village. I thought this was interesting, as it illustrates again the emphasis that the Chinese place on education.
The Anhui province where Hongqin is located had some of the most delicious food I had on the entire trip—which is saying something, because I had A LOT of delicious food on the trip (see my last post, haha). Every meal I had in Anhui—including the one we had with many of Xinli’s family members—was delicious, with a lot of similar foods that one of the locals later told me were traditional foods here.
After the meal, we got to see Xinli’s uncle (who is in his mid-nineties) write in beautiful calligraphy. Xinli explained that calligraphy is an ancient Chinese art—needless to say, this is much different from how we as Americans treat our handwriting studies!
In the evening, we explored the village, following chickens and dogs through the narrow walkways and playing hide-and-seek with the shy but curious kids that followed us and wading in the river that ran along its outskirts. We were sent off with a barrel of fireworks lit from the bridge, to end one my favorite experiences in China.
The village street, as seen from the roof of Xinli’s home
Toasting Chinese Hospitality
Since returning from China, I’ve gotten the chance to talk to several people who are from China about my experience there. One thing that has struck home to me is how welcoming and friendly the Chinese are to foreigners (which, I’ve noticed in my other international traveling, is not always the case).
When I’d attempt a feeble “xiexie” or “nihau,” I was always given a gracious smile, or sometimes even an encouraging thumbs up in support of my well-meaning butchery of their language. I exchanged We-Chats with a girl from the middle school who told me that someday she wanted to come to Penn State. A Chinese woman and I discussed the merits of Bruno Mars and Cardi B over milk tea. I raced bicycles against two students from Xian on the City Wall and ended up talking with them about our respective countries of origin. The employees of Rockwell Automation gave me my own Chinese name after graciously fielding my many questions about how the naming system works. Rather than acting annoyed or patronizing me, an obvious foreigner (I learned the Chinese for ‘blue eyes’ after hearing them so many times in reference to my own), the Chinese that I met were happy to share their knowledge of the culture and the beauty of their country with me, making my experience that much more enriching.
I’ll admit, there were multiple times on the trip when I became flustered, got totally lost, or left behind important possessions. In other parts of the world, that could’ve been the end of my smooth traveling. Instead, I was blown away by how gracious, kind, and welcoming the Chinese people were; going out of their way to make a bunch of ignorant Americans feel at home and navigate the confusion of a completely new country. While the structures, history, food, technological advancement, natural beauty, education system, and art were undeniably incredible, I think it’s the hospitality I encountered along the way that will leave the most lasting impression on me.
The Chongqing skyline