What We Can Learn from Education in China

As of late, I have begun taking Mandarin classes again as to prepare for the HSK 5 (a standardized test for speakers of Mandarin as a second language).

WeChat Image_beijing.jpg

Looking at Beijing’s Central Business District with clean skies.

This class, while not my first exposure to the Chinese style of education, has gotten me thinking again about the differences between education in China and America.

Generally speaking teachers in China and America are focused on very different things. Chinese teachers are very, very detailed oriented and mostly lecture students without leaving space for many questions.

This has been hard for me because I am the kind of student that likes to challenge teachers. I was brought up through the American education system, in which teachers are more open to questions and actively seek to encourage this kind of behavior from their students.

When my career first began in China as a teacher, I considered the Chinese style of education very short-sighted and often felt superior to my colleagues because of my own educational background. However, I have come to deeply respect practices and attitudes towards education in China.

The Chinese education system helps students in very practical ways: teaching incredibly large sets of information, helping students perform well on tests, and instilling a sense of discipline.

Furthermore the interest and enthusiasm for education in China is incredible. To the average Chinese, providing a quality education for their children is one of their top priorities in life. This attitude is so valuable because education can not only serve people on an individual basis, but also as a rising tide for society as a whole.

A quality educational system creates well educated people. This, in turn, benefits society. 

The opposite being a group of people who receive a substandard education. Such a group can easily become problematic for society, although the problems they create are in many ways systemic of the education they receive.

While there are certainly areas of the Chinese education system that I could criticize, there are a lot of positive things too. As someone who often encounters Chinese students and teachers in both his professional and personal life, I can testify that my own conception of education has certainly morphed and become more nuanced as a result of these interactions.

It is through these experiences that my own ideas about education have changed.

I believe that in the future, those who figure out how to take the ideas and sense of discipline surrounding education in China, and combine them with the creativity of the American system will be most successful.

Perhaps that is why we see so much success from those students with more international experience, and in particular the rush of Chinese parents to give their children the second half of a 21st century style of education in foreign countries.


Unable to Get Lost in “Walden”

Henry David Thoreau

A few weeks ago I decided that it was finally time to read the novel Walden by Henry David Thoreau. This decision came on the back of hearing yet another sterling recommendation for the book (literati members often like to show off their sophistication by  making such recommendations). Unable to resist turning my nose up at others via superior knowledge of the American literary cannon, I was finally convinced that it was time to read it.

So there I was … a freshly brewed pot of black coffee and an entire weekend blocked off for “personal reading time” at the tail end of another summer in Beijing. I lay on the couch and clutched my Kindle, excited to enter the world of Walden Pond in 19th century Massachusetts.

However, as I read, I found myself constantly looking up to check my phone. Dismayed and somewhat ashamed that I wasn’t “getting lost in Walden”, I pushed on and grudgingly plowed my way through the first half of the book.

I am somewhat ashamed to say that I was never able to finish reading Walden. I just couldn’t bring myself to concentrate on it. I found his prose too long-winded and Thoreau himself to apt to make references to Greek mythology. Furthermore, and perhaps slightly more of a personal difference, i found his arguments slightly naive.

Whatever the case, I hold no qualms with Thoreau. My failed attempt to read Walden was illuminating. It provided clear evidence that my ability to read long pieces that I did not enjoy, (a prize of my undergraduate education), had been significantly damaged in my post-graduation years (approximately four years in total).

Today I work as an editor at an IT company. I have held this position for a little bit more than a year.

As a consequence of this position I am on the computer with an internet connection throughout most of my day. This has drastically altered the way that I read and my ability to concentrate. I now find it much harder to focus on one thing for a long period of time. I also enjoy reading shorter texts.

Although I was unable to finish Walden, I devoured The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. A Pulitzer finalist in 2011 for General Nonfiction, Carr presents research and a well-crafted analysis of why I was, and still am, having a hard time reading these types of books (aside from, of course, my basic reservations).

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

(trying out Amazon’s affiliate link service)

Fast Is Slow but Without Interruptions

“Fast is slow but without interruptions.” I was riding my scooter into work today when this quote came to mind. It is a good one and encapsulates much of what I believe today.

I came upon this proverb for the first time in my early twenties. I had just moved to Beijing and a lot of things felt wrong. I was a “tortured youth” and got a kick out of feeling sorry for myself. Everyone seemed to have it better than me.

Proverbs, taken out of context, have the risk of coming off as platitudes or misconstrued biblical snippets. But this one was different. I could instantly see the connection between it’s wisdom and the people who were leading lives around me that I looked up to.

These people, whether they knew it or not, embodied the proverb’s spirit. They had a vision. They had taken small, incremental steps towards the actualization of their visions. And they had persevered through life’s often painfully slow moments in spite of themselves and others.

I felt so disappointed. Like I had ruined everything. But that’s when I realized that it wasn’t too late to start living my life this way. It’s never too late.


Dog Days of Summer

Summer is winding down and I know that because when I go running at night in the park near my house it feels colder. It’s still warm enough to wear shorts and a t-shirt, but the temperature has definitely dropped.

Children wearing yellow visors and red scarfs now crowd the elevator on my way out the door each morning. It’s September and school has started.

All of the parents are worrying about their children and all of the children are doing their best. I don’t have children, and even if I did I wouldn’t know where to start.

This time of year reminds me of when I was younger. The dog days of summer. Back then running was soccer practice with all of my friends. Late nights that ran into October and sometimes even November if we played well enough.

Those were the days.

Learning a Language= a Useful Waste of Time

Learning a language is a waste of time because…

  1. The best jobs don’t depend on knowing multiple languages. 
  2. There is little economic incentive to language learning. 
  3. Polyglots have an eccentric, if not somewhat negative reputation.

Learning a language makes you look smart, but it’s not going to land you that C-suite job. The most useful language you can learn in terms of business is English, and if you’re reading this blog, chances are you already have a good handle on that. The best jobs go to people who are able to use a diverse skillset when solving a complicated problem. Fluency in another language is useful, but it’s not a golden ticket to the East India Trading Company.

It takes an incredible amount of time to learn a new language. From an economic perspective, you could most likely learn a different set of skills faster, and then simply pay someone to handle the translation into English. In short, it doesn’t make much business sense to learn new languages. 

People tend to think that the kinds of people in language learning classrooms aren’t exactly “walking the party line”. In America, we often associate a foreign language student with a green Che Guevara t-shirt with a leather-bound notebook in hand. This isn’t the kind of reputation you want outside of Vermont.

Learning a language is a solid investment because…

  1. Learning new languages expands a person’s world-view.
  2. Discipline and long-term thinking are essential characteristics of successful language learners.
  3. People that can speak multiple languages better understand what it means to be human. 

Learning another language will force you to travel, either physically or mentally, to a place outside of your home. You will be forced to engage with new ideas and models for understanding the world. This is why people that like to learn languages have a broad world-view. Moreover, the specific of languages you learn will shape your personality and help others to understand you.

People that achieve a high level of competency in a foreign language are often disciplined and long-term thinkers. This is because reaching this level takes such personal qualities. Learning a second language is a grind that will test you, but ultimately the best language learners can push through these difficulties by using a variety of strategies and techniques. Many of these are transferable skills that you will be able to apply in other areas of your life.

When you learn another language you are, to a certain degree, rewiring your brain. Or, perhaps more accurately, learning how to momentarily rewire the part which manages language. When you rewire your brain, you begin to understand at a very deep level how a particular group of people think. Therefore your ability to achieve competency in another language enhances your ability to understand another group of people… in the most subtle of ways.

On Community and the Internet: Silver Surfers Beware

What’s the difference between a sad man and a happy man? The sad man is lonely, while the happy one has a few good friends.

It’s so easy for us to think that joy comes from the amount of zeros on our bank statements or the types of brands that we buy. I guess it’s because these things provide a dopamine kick. However in the end, we all know that money and status means nothing in comparison to a close-knit group of friends.

I don’t mean to glorify poverty, only to suggest that people are always more important.

Today its very easy to feel alone. The internet, instead of bringing us closer together, has in many ways amplified our differences. This is to say, things like Facebook and Instagram are more like tools we use to draw comparisons between each other than to make connections. Everyone knows where they stack up on the internet class hierarchy.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m crazy. But doesn’t it seem that way?

Everyone knows that the best way to connect with someone isn’t to send them a DM, it’s to meet them face to face, or at least to give them a phone call. The internet can take that away from us. In many ways, it already has.

I love the internet. I think it’s so interesting and the possibilities are infinite, but is it everything? And if it’s not everything, then what is? I think community is everything. I think that in the future, small groups of social networks will dominate over large ones. Big pools like Facebook will become even more desolate than they are now.

The power of the internet means that you can communicate with like-minded people positively, like a community. The inherent danger is that such groups become too large like a shark pool, and everyone becomes too scared of dripping a little blood into the water.

My “99% of Life is Just Showing Up” Rule

I have spent the better part of my twenties worrying about things.

It seems like my worrying always involves the combination of some distant, uncertain time in the future, and “now”. That is, I become anxious thinking about what I am doing “now”, contrasted against what I imagine myself doing in the future.

So, how do I get over this?

I focus on habit building over perfection.

One of my favorite blogs out there is Seth Godin’s. I’m attributing this idea of habit building to him, although I couldn’t find the specific post (he posts like every day). I believe I first read this concept there. 

What’s habit building? 

Habit building is the idea that 99% of life is just showing up.

I’m interested in many things outside of work. I like to write here, study Chinese, get good physical exercise, etc. But oftentimes when I go about these things I begin to get caught up in the “loop thinking” that I mentioned above (present reality vs. future expectations).

Examples of Will’s loop thinking

  1. I want the blog to come off as very literary and sleek.
  2. I want to speak and read Chinese fluently.

When I have these kinds of expectations I get upset because it feels like the distance between today and the future is too long and I will never get there. This becomes self-destructive thinking and essentially sabotages my ability to concentrate on the task at hand.

The healthy response to this, for me, is to just focus on the habit. I don’t have to be the best. I just have to put in the time. If I do that, then I consider it a win. It’s my “99% of life is just showing up” rule.

This might mean that sometimes I write a crappy blog post, or that sometimes I study Chinese for only a short period of time. But because I make a conscious effort to build the habit, I always know that there will be another chance to improve. This let’s me relax and sink into the groove.  If I can fall into the groove, well, then the rest is gravy.