Think back to your high school days and picture your most outgoing classmates, with their various sports and club commitments, their music and theatrical involvement, as well as their participation in student government. I’d always wondered how they could manage to find the time for baseball practice 5 days a week, running for student treasurer, and singing in chorus, all while getting good grades in our AP classes and without ever having ripped out any of their hair. By the time track season came around, I surely would’ve pole vaulted into traffic if I’d had that much on my plate.
Since coming to China to teach, I’ve become a whole lot less impressed with those sorts of people after witnessing how hard the Chinese push themselves academically. An American high school’s minority of star students and the additional activities that they undertake barely compares to even an average Chinese student’s workload, especially when most of the 6th graders that I teach are juggling busier extracurricular schedules than my senior year classmates were. You would think the high-school students here were grad-students from the way they spend day and night in coffee shops and public squares with their books piled around them, actively studying and writing, and it’s no wonder why so many of my high-school students list sleep as one of their favorite hobbies. Public schools have even needed to implement mandatory facial massage programs in-between classes in an attempt to curb the huge increase in eye problems that rigorous studying has caused for students. The Chinese learn at a very young age that academia is their one true route to success and financial comfort, and if a child were to ever start to forget this and slack-off, their city’s tiered middle schools and high schools, as well as the tiger mom waiting at home to inspect every grade they get, would be sure to slap the importance of education back into them.
The Gaokao, a test far more stressful and daunting than the SATs, complete with security checkpoints at its doors and armed guards overseeing its completed answer sheets due to shenanigans like these, determines not only which colleges a student could get into, but their entire academic path leading up to this test as well. Transitioning between the different levels of grade schools is dictated much more so by academic success and placement tests than it is by location and residence, and every school at each level is tiered and ranked, with a city-wide test to determine which school students will move up into. While some families have the resources to purchase expensive real-estate within the school districts of top-rated primary schools and give their children a massive academic head-start, the only option for most students is to move up the ladder by excelling within their classes and out-performing their peers. Students aren’t going to get into a decent middle school if they don’t first do well at their primary school, which would also demolish any chances they might’ve had at getting into a top-tiered high school, and possibly even a good college further down the road. Facing pressures comparable to those of Junior-High students in America, aspiring Chinese students begin their academic race to the top at the primary school level, with middle school placement-exams being their first major cut-off point.
The harshest part by far about the Gaokao and its middle school equivalent, the ZhongKao, is that students don’t just need to do well on them, they need to do better than everybody else; a 98.65 on one of these tests isn’t actually all that great if it only put you in the 89th percentile. 11th graders who decided early on that college wasn’t in their future and scrape by until graduation are one thing, but it’s pretty fucking disheartening to see 11 year olds who’ve already become pessimistic about their futures due to next year’s middle school. Most placements into high ranking middle schools are made before the school year actually ends, and last year I witnessed first-hand how suddenly listlessness and apathy had replaced the enthusiasm of so many of my sixth graders once they’d found out which middle schools they were destined for, or perhaps more importantly, not destined for. You would’ve thought they had just been told they’d never be good enough for pro-sports, or that they could never be an astronaut, the president, or even a doctor, no matter how hard they tried. And in a way, I guess they kind of had.
Preparedness is paramount when a single test can shape your future, and in order to stack the deck during their academic climb, Chinese students spend as much of their free time as their families can afford taking extracurricular classes. Expensive one-on-one tutoring, group review classes, test-prep courses for the IELTS or SAT’s, language courses, in-home teachers, secondary night schools… anything that might give a student a leg up on the millions of their peers that they’re essentially competing against, even if that means an extra 6 hours of classes on the weekend and multiple evenings during the week studying at education centers. English is almost always the most popular subject for private study and usually makes up about half of any student’s additional schooling, the remainder of which is spent reviewing and reinforcing their public school curriculum or learning an instrument such as piano or violin, with occasional class or two in art or dance.
The younger, working generations traditionally support and care for the older ones in Chinese culture, with multiple generations of a family living together under one roof, so parents are more than willing to shell out however much money they can to make sure their children receive the best education possible; a better education means a better job, and with that a comfier retirement down the road. Businesses dedicated to language training and extracurricular classes have arisen all across China to meet this need, and make money hand-over-fist preparing students academically. Whether it’s an internationally recognized institute with multiple 30-classroom locations in every major city, a small regional chain located in shopping centers, or a 3rd floor apartment with an LED sign in the window and fliers scattered around the community, there’s a training center for any family, rich or poor… as well as any foreigner looking to moonlight. This extracurricular obsession in response to China’s highly-competitive educational system is the reason why foreign teachers are in such high demand here, and there’s plenty of money to be made by us too for ensuring an advantage to the students studying day and night to get ahead.