Thursday, January 13, 2011

Laiwu No. 1 Middle School

During the winter of my senior year of high school, 2007-2008, my school joined the Connecticut-Shandong School Partnership [.pdf description] and became one of a growing number of national high schools building sister school relationships in China. Our partner was what we would call the "high school" of Laiwu No. 1 Middle School (莱芜第一中学) (the Chinese use "middle school" to designate grades 6-12) in Shandong (山东) Province, which is on the east coast of China and is probably most famous back home (if at all) for Tsingtao (青岛) beer and maybe SEZ-fueled development in Tsingtao and Yantai.

At the time, I was allowed some limited contact with the visiting administrators; this was mostly the doing of my wonderful history teacher, as our school administration was afraid that, being a particularly troublesome member of the new and independent student press, I would embarrass them. (Even given my extremely limited knowledge of China at the time, the ironic parallel with press freedom in that country were not lost on me.)
Administrators of the two schools exchanging gifts, January 2008.

Three years later, mid-November 2010, I found myself exiting the train station in Jinan (济南), an hour away from Laiwu City by car. I was hoping that I would recognize Mr. Zhang, a school official who had probably left Laiwu at 4:30 AM so that he would be on time to greet me. Zhang was a senior teacher when he visited my school in 2007, and we both vaguely recalled my interview of him that winter; by 2010, he had become a high-ranking Director in the school administration, commanding his own office and the deference of most of teachers I was to meet. For the trip to Jinan and back, at least, he also commanded one of the school's five cars and a driver, and after a breakfast in which I embarrassed myself thoroughly (you try using chopsticks to eat what I can best describe as a floppy baguette), we cruised down the highway toward Laiwu.

I, like Zhang, had moved up in the world, at least in their eyes: I was now a student at Yale University, and the equivalent of nine semesters of Chinese study had had some definite results. Equally important, I was the first student representative of my high school to visit Laiwu: student exchange is all well and good, but public schools can't be expected raise budgets during economic downturns, so after the initial visit of teachers and administrators in Spring of 2008 (which I dearly hope was privately funded), Laiwu had not seen much action on the part of its sister school. They very much wanted to treat my arrival as an exchange symbolic of the sister school relationship, so there I was, a de facto representative of the high school I do not expect to visit ever again. And, judging from students' 2008 questions, to the Chinese delegation, of which I recall one being about abusing animals and one about eating monkey brains, it's a good thing the role fell to me.

My first impression of the school was that it was big. I shouldn't be surprised: Laiwu is a boarding school, and the number of students living on campus, 5,440 as of last year, is greater than the total Yale undergraduate population and around four times that of my own high school. I was led on a tour by Lily, an English teacher and a very dear woman with twin daughters, both attending Laiwu No. 1. I remembered Lily from a few years ago: the principal does not speak English, so she had served as translator during the Laiwu representatives' 2007 and 2008 visits to Connecticut.
Lily standing at the entrance to the Laiwu campus

The functional areas of campus, newly constructed in 2005, were more compact than I expected; the architecture, very utilitarian.
Model of Laiwu No. 1 Middle School

The facilities that I toured included:
  • The administrative building: Large, as were the offices within. No public-school cubicles for this administration; each of the top administration's offices boasted hot water and a plush couch, must-haves for entertaining visitors. Frankly, though it may well be important to them as an indication of status, much of the space seemed empty and wasted - and, in November, it was cold.
  • The cafeteria: Two floors, with seating very reminiscent of my old high school. I can't speak to the quality of the food, as they weren't serving when I stopped by, but they did boast one feature that my secondary-ed alma mater could certainly have used: an anonymous comment box. (And that was put up even before this happened.)
  • Student dorms: Shockingly ascetic. The model student's dorm, pictured from a few angles below, consists of the following amenities: six well-made metal-frame bunk-beds; one bank of small metal lockers, presumably for valuables; various small posters and slogans; and one small outer room for the hanging of clothes and storing of supplies. No access to computers except through the media labs on campus.

    4 of the room's six beds. The poster with green and blue text reads: "First Ph.D., Then Profits." 

    View from the only window. The Chinese wash and dry their clothes by hand.

    One-half of the six roommates' personal effects, mostly stored in milk boxes. Study materials not included.

    Students return home once every two weeks.

  • The science facilities. Laiwu No. 1 puts a lot of resources toward the sciences, which two-thirds of students choose to focus on before they start to spend their entire final (third) year preparing for one or the other (science or humanities) of Shandong's versions of the national college entrance exams (高考).  In brief, the chemistry facilities I saw would put my old high school to shame, and the experiments being done on a regular basis seem comparatively frequent (once per two weeks), hands-on, and advanced.
    Proving something about electricity that I don't know how to say in Chinese... and probably not in English, either.

Upon my request, I was allowed to audit two different classes; explaining that I knew little about science and certainly wouldn't understand it being taught in another language, I secured a position at the back of a class on Chinese (language and literature) and one on history. Because of the fairly impromptu nature of both my visit and my classroom audits, I was able to take a brief but honest look at two average classes of a well-funded and well-performing school with fairly typical student demographics, located in what is said to be the leading province in terms of education. (Among others, innovations practiced at Laiwu include a uniform curriculum for all first-year students and a choice of "leaning" toward sciences or humanities in the second year, instead of a split into two cadres immediately upon matriculation.)

A cursory glance around the classroom showed, first of all, that class sizes were somewhat larger than those that I was used to; roughly 40 students seemed the norm in humanities classes, with over 100 per lab. Also, Chinese students generally do not move from class to class: they sit at the same desk for literature as they do for history, and for math. Their books and other study materials are stored on the desks themselves and in lockers at the back of the room. When they come back to class for planned study/homework sessions after classes end (which they must do, for hours every afternoon and evening), they will sit at the same desks and use the same materials. Teachers move between classes to teach - a very efficient move from a logistical perspective, which probably also instills the virtue of patience and the pain of infinite boredom on the students themselves. Besides teaching their subjects, instructors, who live on campus, also take responsibility for their classrooms - think "homeroom teachers" with many more duties - and will, for example, put in many more hours than usual every three years to support the students as they engage in directed preparation for the national exam.
Chinese Language and Literature

Upon actually listening to classes being taught, one thing I noticed is that, true to stereotypes, there is a lot of rote learning going on in the Chinese education system. The group activities that filled my high school years - sometimes with bad memories - are conspicuously absent, except in the rudimentary form of "sharing" activities. (E.g., 'Take five minutes to share your favorite book or article with the classmates sitting near you.) Material seems much more limited in depth and breadth than I am used to; for example, first-semester second-year history runs something like 170 pages, many of them complete with photos and sidebars. At the same time, students are asked to grasp it much more firmly than we ever were: material is reinforced with recitations of poetry (by memory, with appropriate intonation) and in-class readings of textbook passages, and as mentioned above, the entire third year of high school is spent reviewing and preparing for the national test. I think this explains a phenomenon that I noticed more than once during debate preparation, that is, one of the graduate students would bring up a relevant theory or quotation, and most if not all of the other students in the room would be able to recall it. This sort of high school background, I'd hypothesize, gives Chinese young people (at least, those of roughly the same age) a kind of limited common vocabulary of both proper nouns and ideas, which they will often draw from (and largely agree on) later in life.

My high school memories are already cloudy - possibly because I spent the last year or so no more than half-awake in any given class, something I now profoundly regret. But from what I can conjure up, I would say that teachers in both schools spend roughly the same amount of time speaking per class; on the whole, the Chinese lectures seem to be much dryer.

One of the main differences between the two systems lies in that the time that in my high school was spent on exercises, discussion, and group activities is in Laiwu No. 1 put toward a kind of "consider and report" task. Several times per class, the professor will lay a question before the entire class for consideration. She (or he) will wait for two to three minutes, as students silently scribble notes. When time is up, invariably there are few or no volunteers, so every student must be prepared to stand and give what I can only describe as a brief dictation or oral report to the teacher. The report is meant to be serious and thoughtful; this classroom model, and the six "report halls" on campus, seem to reflect an institutional emphasis on formal, prepared public speaking.

The teacher will sometimes ask fellow students to pronounce judgment on a student's report, but will always give it final approval or negation herself. The teacher's response has a very final feel to it, and while I can't tell you what exactly about the literature instructor's tone made her pronouncement of "我不大认同" ("I don't really approve/agree") seem so much more doctrinal and accepted than similar comments that in middle and high school got me into numerous arguments with my own teachers, the difference was palpable in the classroom dynamic. The content of students' speeches, too, was at times extremely doctrinal: as I listened, I heard phrases like "This reflects the spirit of the Chinese race," and "My favorite article is, 'Why Taiwan Yearns to Return to the Motherland's Embrace.'" The surprising part to me was not so much that these sorts of words were spoken - I long ago became used to the fiery nationalism that exists among many youth, even among cynics, and I felt it was possible that a student or two chose nationalist expression as a way to "show off" in front of me - but rather that the teachers and students treated such responses as acceptable, correct, and very normal. There was no talk of the "foreign devils" (洋鬼子) like you will hear every time a video of a drunk foreigner doing something embarrassing is posted online, and I guess I should have expected that nationalism doesn't come from the media alone, but all the same I was a bit taken aback.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of my great victories on the trip to Laiwu was the receipt, also upon request, of a copy of the history textbook being used by the students in the class I audited. I hope to have it translated into English by the end of the first two months of my time in Beijing.

Outside of the classroom, the second obvious difference between students at the two schools is that Laiwu No. 1 has a school uniform. (The first, of course, is that Laiwu is 100% Chinese.) Uniforms are useful in that one can immediately identify a student's grade by the color of his or her uniform; and although I come from a school where we would have risen up in revolt had uniforms been suggested, I must admit when Laiwu No. 1 students get together for mid-day exercises, the effect is impressive.
Do the boys and girls run in separate groups because they're told to or because they're afraid of cooties?

It seems to me that uniforms naturally build unity and serve as a reminder of the group, and may be a very small part of the special sort of collectivism which I am now willing to admit does exist in China. (More on that in a much later blog post.) That sense of the collective is both reinforced and used in other initiatives throughout campus: for example, the bulletin boards listing the top students in each class and the students most respectful to teachers, or the public rating system and perks allowed to the residents of model dormitories.

"Make the Standard, a Habit."

Laiwu is located in the inner part of the province, and many of the students come from the countryside, where roughly 60% of China's population still lives. Unlike suburban America, in China "the countryside" does not tend to mean, "We had enough money to get out of the city, or if we do farm then we own vast tracts of land." The countryside is rural, and rural tends to mean poor and undeveloped; as a rule, Chinese farmers own very little land or capital. Their families rarely have the money or impetus to travel any great distance, and the odds of foreigners (who congregate in places like Beijing and Shanghai) arriving in any given village during any given 10-year time span are pretty low.

This is all by way of explaining that when Lily asked me to make a speech in one of the report halls, I found myself facing more than 600 very curious and excited students, many of whom had never before seen a Westerner their age, and nearly all of whom were overawed at the fact that I hail from the type of school continually pushed by every one of their role models as the standard of success. (That Lily played up my Chinese ability didn't hurt either.) During the speech, which I was told to give in simple English, I fulfilled my second and third role of the day: the fact of the speech itself served as a big advertisement for the importance of studying English, and (on the administration's not-so-subtle prompting) a good portion of the speech's content was devoted to playing up the work I did inside and outside of class prior to being accepted to Yale. The latter message was the most important to the teachers and administrators, and they would have loved it if I had been willing to say outright, "High school is hard in America too!" (I wasn't. Because, comparatively, it's not.) The article about my visit retroactively titles my speech "The Road to Yale University," and states (emphasis mine) that I "described to students his (my) high school campus study life, personal ideals, and story of striving... Provided students with great encouragement and impetus. Using his own personal experience, he told students: As a student, whether in America or in China, if one wants academic success and seeks to realize one's ideals, one must work hard and shed sweat, blood and tears before one realizes one's dreams. It's the same in America as it is in China: 'Meat pies don't fall from the sky.'"

Now doesn't the fact that the word in our corresponding idiom is "money" just sounds crass and consumerist in comparison? Give me meat pies!

When I had concluded my report, I answered student questions, many of them embarrassing. I have never studied English as a second language, and most of my suggestions about how you can study it better involve time and access to the internet; and no, to my enduring shame, I have not memorized any classic Chinese poems... but I'll sing you a song!
I think this was the jackass who wanted me to recite a poem.

Then came one of the strangest 20 minutes of my life, during which 90% of the students left to go to class, while the other 10% stayed behind to mob me and beg for my autograph. It was very much a feeling of undeserved fame, and at first I tried to beg off, but there was no hope for it and I figured out that Lily was just saying no to try and spare me - so in the end I took out my pen, insisted that the principle of single-file line-making be respected to a reasonable extent, and got to work signing notebooks and slips of paper. I felt like a massive fake, but I won't lie - I can't suppress the murmurings of glee that come with knowing that my name is on notebooks, textbooks, and little papers as gifts to friends.

By the time Lily invited me to see her apartment in the evening, where she lives with her husband and the two aforementioned daughters, I felt we had gotten to be on more friendly terms, but I felt very much like "the visiting foreigner" to everyone else. The teachers and staff were very good about it, though: they generally treated me as not as celebrity or a curiosity, but instead as an honored guest. And honored I was. They put me up in the best hotel in the province, took me out to a fantastic dinner of hotpot, and were infinitely accommodating of my requests and my very tight schedule.
Lily, in her kitchen
Breakfast at the best hotel in Laiwu City
Hotpot fixings. 好吃!

My entire stay lasted 28 hours - a brief but unique respite from a rarely relenting regimen of vocabulary and debate, and a reminder that my efforts have not been entirely in vain.


  1. I have a HUGE smile on my face thinking about this experience, which closely resembles some of my fondest encounters in Korea. You're really making amazing use of your remaining time, and I'm loving these posts. =)

  2. Hi Ethan! I hope you remember me from Light SAC haha! Alan from the Light Fellowship office pointed me in the direction of your blog after I expressed discontent with schoolroom learning in terms of the development of advanced ability in Korean, and I'm glad he did - your plans for the spring sound AMAZING. You're far more courageous than I am...I hope you'll be posting frequently so we can all see how this works out for you!

    Also, I found this particular post hilarious because I spoke at a Korean leadership conference over the summer where I was asked (like you) to talk principally about what, exactly, I did to get into Yale. And (like you), after the conference concluded, I was mobbed for the better part of an hour to sign autographs and take pictures with students. It was bizarre and fascinating and I was kind of gleeful about the whole thing because in all likelihood, no one will ever treat me like a person of such importance ever again.

    Lots of luck and good health to you in 2011 :)

  3. Interesting post! I was raised in Laiwu and spent six years in No.1 Middle School (the old campus in the west side of Laiwu).

    Thank you and will come back later.