VERMONT — Last Monday, 30 students and two teachers from China arrived in Vermont to experience a way of life and learning different from anything they’ve ever known — very different.
Coordinated by Burlington-based SPIRAL International and the Stilwell International Student Exchange Program, the students and teachers from Guizhou province and Chongqing municipality are part of an inaugural exchange program with Middlebury Union High School. The students will spend one more week in Vermont, and, as part of the exchange, 16 Middlebury students are slated to visit China next summer.
The program has already given the Chinese students and teachers a taste of Vermont life, sending them on scavenger hunts through Middlebury last week and roaming across the Vermont countryside on visits to Lake Dunmore in Salisbury and the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream factory in Waterbury.
While the program aims to give students a sense of Vermont culture, coordinators also want to give the students an idea of what it’s like to learn in a drastically disparate education system. For that reason, the Chinese students have been taking language lessons and learning about different subjects in a hands-on environment.
Sitting in the MUHS cafeteria one day last week, English teacher Melody Qian of Chongqing said the difference between the U.S. and Chinese education systems couldn’t be starker.
It’s a well-known fact of modern Chinese life that high school students are under enormous pressure. They attend class from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., they rarely have a day to rest and their entire high school career comes down to one test at the end of their senior year. The test is known as the gaokao, or high test.
The high stress and lack of free time has created a hostile learning environment for many Chinese youth. For the past five years, the Chinese government mouthpiece China Daily has regularly reported that suicide is the number-one killer of Chinese teens.
And Chinese teens don’t have much time to sleep, as 16-year-old Lingyun Zhang, who is staying with Middlebury’s Sarah Kearns, pointed out.
“In America, high school students can sleep in late,” said Zhang. “But in China, since we’re high school students, we have a lot of homework and we go to bed very late and wake up very early every day.”
With little time to sleep, Chinese youth can also forget about extracurricular activities, said Qian.
“American students have a lot of time to play and do extracurricular activities,” she said. “Chinese students don’t play much. They spend most of their time studying chemistry and physics.”
While MUHS summer school might not be the best indication of the average American high school day, Qian said that it’s very clear to her how the two dissimilar methods for raising children and cultivating citizens are affecting the two countries’ youth.
“China’s education and America’s education has created two very different types of child development,” she said. “In America, students are much more creative. Although Chinese students are much better than American students at taking tests, their ability to innovate isn’t as strong as American students.”
Qian thinks the U.S. education system might explain why Americans take such pride in the tasks that they undertake, which she said is an American attribute she first noticed when the group arrived in California on a two-day stop.
“I’m really impressed by the attention that Americans pay to detail,” said Qian. “Americans are also very energetic about their jobs. At Disney Land, for example, every employee from custodial staff to the performers takes pride in the work they do.”
Another element of teen life in China that couldn’t be more different from the U.S. is teen dating. Students who are caught dating can be expelled from many schools in China because young relationships are viewed as a distraction from schoolwork.
“In America it seems parents are very willing to let their kids date because if they don’t, the kids might revolt and get into bad things like drugs,” said Qian.
“Every coin has two sides,” she continued. “Perhaps kids who can date at a young age have greater freedom and will feel better. And when they get married, they might better know who is better suited for them. But on the other side, kids might waste their time and do worse in school. It might be bad for their careers.”
Regardless of what Chinese students do, said Qian, one topic parents aren’t willing to breech is sex.
“In China, parents won’t discuss anything related to sex. They’re too embarrassed and they feel too awkward. But in America it seems parents are very willing to discuss these issues so that their kids know about safety.”
With one week left in Vermont, a group of Chinesemiddle school students exclaimed that they and their peers are excited to stuff their faces full of maple syrup, summer berries and cheeseburgers.
After that, the Chinese crew will head to Washington, D.C., for two days, New York for two days and then back to China.
Reporter Andrew Stein, who previously studied and lived in China, translated many of the quotes in this story from Mandarin Chinese into English. He can be reached at [email protected]
Updated July 31, 2012