From China to Delaware: The Chinese Education System, and Why Students Leave It
May 22, 2019
Schools in the United States attracts hundreds of thousands of international students every year. The bulk of these students come from China, according to a study conducted on Chinese students in the United States by Chiang-nan Chao for the Journal of International Students. These students must transition from a vastly different system of education and forge new friendships and connections in an often unfamiliar country.
Chinese Students at Padua
Tingwei Shi, a senior from China, first heard about a program that would allow her to come study in America when she was in seventh grade. Like juniors Elizabeth Lin and Crystal Zheng, Shi left left China to study at Padua, grappling with the differences in education and culture along the way. She struggled to leave behind her home and friends in China, but does not regret her decision.
“Sometimes I do miss my friends in China, I have lost a connection with them,” she said. “We haven’t had contact for so long. Part of me always wanted to come to America. In high school, I convinced my mom, and she found an agency in Beijing that had contact with an agency here.”
Shi did not speak extensive English when she came, but learned quickly.
“I didn’t talk much when I first came,” she said. “I did well in English when I was in China, but it was different when I got here.”
Lin dreamed of coming to America as a child, but the transition to America has been difficult.
“I [thought] with study abroad, I [could] get away from my home and meet many girls here. After, like, half a year, I found that I was wrong. I’m here alone, not too many friends. Well, I do have Crystal and Tingwei,” she said with a smile.
Shi’s school in China was strict and difficult, but her decision to come to America was mainly motivated by her own desires.
“I always wanted to be here,” she said. “After one year of high school in China, I decided that this was not what I wanted in life. Every day was study, study, study. I did learn a lot, but I was kind of lost.”
Lin, who attended boarding school, echoed Shi’s statements. She described schools in China as “very strict and very stressful.”
“I would go to class from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.,” she said. “It was exhausting, but it was always like that. When I was in middle school, I’d hear people talk about it and I’d think, ‘That’s crazy, I don’t know how I’m going to do that.’ They always wanted us to be fully motivated and focused, otherwise you’d be left behind. You’re competing with so many people.”
Zheng studied in Australia for a year before coming to America. She feels that Padua is stressful as well, but not as much so as school in China.
“In China, all students focus on is studying,” she said. “Here there’s activities, sports, volunteering… I think that’s good.”
Shi described her school in China as “very different” from Padua.
“We don’t use block schedules, we sit as a whole class,” she said. “The teacher switches [for] different classes. You don’t know people outside your classroom, but here it’s common to know everybody.
“We also have a test, the gaokao, you take at the end of senior year. It basically determines where you’re going to end up in college. Here you have GPAs and extracurriculars… In our system, it’s just a test. Because the test is so important, we don’t do a lot of activities.”
Shi explained that because of the intensity of the test, many students also have tutors after school. However, she took an American college class last summer, which she felt was much harder than colleges in China.
“It’s very hard to get a good enough score on the gaokao to go to a good college,” she said, “but the college classes in China aren’t like that. I think that’s when people start to do activities and do what they like, maybe have a boyfriend or girlfriend.”
Zheng and Shi currently live with Mrs. G.
“Mrs. G knows everything,” said Shi. “When we see anything, she always tells us the story behind it, it’s really fun. With a different family, you end up with a very different experience, but we definitely have a lot of fun with her.”
Lin, who also lives with a host family, had to adopt different living habits as she adjusted to life in America.
“We eat different things, so I had to adapt to their foods,” she said. “We mixed two cultures together.”
Shi will be attending Northeastern University in Boston in the fall.
“I feel like a part of the reason we’re here is to attend an American college,” she said. “American colleges are kind of famous in China.”
Lin and Zheng, both juniors, have not yet solidified college plans.
“It’s hard for us to just go back to China,” Lin said. “College here is also a challenge, we need to work hard for it.”
Chinese Students at the University of Delaware
Jizhi Zhang is a sophomore art history major at the University of Delaware. She enjoyed her junior high school in China and the variety of activities from which she could choose, but felt that coming to America was the best choice for her.
The pressure in high school was intense for Zhang.
“There were so many things you need[ed] to remember,” she said. “Although you have rest time during school, you need to study all the time. Everyone studies.”
Grades for the gaokao were posted on a board at Zhang’s school, which made it a more stressful experience for her.
“Everyone will know your scores, so there’s really high pressure,” she said. “If you get a really bad grade, you may feel hopeless and try [the gaokao] again to get a good job.”
Maggie Deng, a freshman majoring in math, explained that not everyone in China takes the gaokao.
“Everyone went to junior high,” she said. “Some people gave up high school, and in my school, the top, maybe, 50 percent went to high school.”
Deng expressed that the zhongkao, similar to a high school entrance exam, may be harder than the gaokao in some ways—getting into a good high school is a crucial step to getting into a good college. Zhang agreed.
“If you can go to a good high school, you can go to a good college,” she said. “Then you can change your life.”
Deng came to America for high school before she had to take the gaokao, and enjoyed the freedom she was not given at school in China.
“I like that I choose my classes here,” she said. “Studying was all you had to do [in China], we didn’t have activities. You cannot be in a relationship, you cannot do makeup… you have to study. For most people in China, you don’t know anything except studying.
“In America I went to archery club, I never had that in China. You can have more experiences. I went to a private school in New York where you don’t have to be focused on studying all the time. I think about the future more here, all they can think about in China is getting a job. Here, it’s choosing your dream.”
Despite her love for Beijing, Zhang feels that Delaware is a good location for her.
“After my gaokao, my mom suggested I go to America,” she said. “Delaware is quiet and peaceful, it’s a really good place for studying.”
While Deng plans to stay in America, Zhang will likely return to China to find work.
“There’s a really big market in the arts in China right now,” she said. “It’s my familiar area.”
A Professor’s Perspective
Yuanchong Wang is an assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Delaware, specializing in Chinese history. When he first matriculated to high school in China he had two weeks of military training, and then had to choose one of two groups of disciplines: engineering or humanities. He chose humanities.
“At the end of the third year there was the college entrance examination, the gaokao,” he said. “When we got our [scores], we were excited but very nervous as well—so many classmates of mine immediately burst into tears after they saw the scores posted on the wall. In many ways, their lives were doomed.”
The pressure to succeed on the gaokao can be immense and even traumatizing for students, Wang said.
“You can’t imagine, your entire fate being in one exam,” he said. “I remember one girl, she got nervous right before her exam the year before. She literally could not take it, she collapsed. So she took it again, we wished that everything could be fine with her when the exam came, but when it came she collapsed again. It’s a case I’ll never forget.”
Wang explained that the philosophy of the education system in China has changed minimally over the years.
“This kind of meritocracy, the rationale behind it, will never change,” he said. “If you take the gaokao in one province, it would be very different from another province. [The government] gives a quota to a specific area in an individual province. For example, my area is part of a big province, and each region received a quota of how many Bachelor’s degree students they would accept that year. If you think about that, it’s really about discrimination. This is a kind of state-sponsored inequality.”
The system has been the same since the Qing dynasty, Wang said, which lasted from 1644 to 1912. Each province would be given a quota based on the economy of the region.
Today in China many students attend tutoring after school to increase their chances of scoring well on the gaokao.
“When I was in China, this was not popular,” Wang said. “Back then it was fair in many senses—if you worked hard, you could be successful. But not today. If parents have more money, students have more opportunities, creating this inequality.”
Before 1905, Wang said, China had Imperial civil service examinations. Confucian scholars who scored highly would be selected to serve in the bureaucracy. The system was abolished and eventually replaced with the gaokao. In America, students can supplement their applications with extracurriculars, awards, and other aspects of their life that make them stand out. In China, the exam is the only chance students have to show their skills to universities.
“It’s always been exams, not applications,” he said. “If you failed your exams, you theoretically cannot go to any universities because you need a good score. In the U.S. this is not the case.”
Wang feels that this system, in which education is based on economic opportunity, is growing closer to the American education system.
“In Mao’s period and the Deng period, it was compulsory education,” he said. “It was really fair to everybody. Now people say that the inequality starts in preschool, which I agree with.”
Despite the core system of meritocracy remaining unchanged, Wang explained that in recent years the system has shifted to become more competitive and discriminatory in the name of economic development.
“China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 and a lot of people got rich,” he said. “But many young parents do not trust the conventional Chinese educational way, and many of them send their kids to the U.S., the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, or Canada for education. They don’t want their kids to have what they experience, especially the corrupt politics.”
The movement to send children abroad for education increased in popularity after the financial crash in 2008, he said.
“After 2008, the University of Delaware got more and more Chinese students,” Wang said. “The U.S. universities, they needed the Chinese money. The Chinese students coming to this nation certainly will not stop.”