Each day this week I’m posting a different story from the university I taught at in China; which I often felt was a kind of microcosm of the country as a whole. It’s hard to say to what extent the communist system has shaped Chinese culture from the top-down and what pre-existing Chinese values lent to the rise of authoritarianism from the bottom. I feel these stories each demonstrate a trend in Chinese culture that can be felt at many different levels. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether it’s politics, imbedded values or something else that enabled these stories.
Part 4: The Slackers
It’s easy to be impressed by Chinese students when you first come to China. The amount of dedication some of them put into their studies at the expense of their social life, and even health, has a way of putting you to shame. But then there are people like Jackson who make you second-guess a lot of the “hard-working Chinese” stereotypes.
Jackson was one of my undergraduates and it didn’t take me long to wonder just what the hell he was doing majoring in English. I couldn’t understand a word he said and his writing assignments looked like he’d randomly plucked words from the dictionary and splattered them across the page. He was a stark contrast to every other student in the class.
But then the others brought me up to speed. Jackson’s father was a famous rocket professor at the university and his mother was the finance president of the school hospital. And by astonishing coincidence, Jackson had been admitted to the university in spite of his dismal entrance exam performance.
But the astonishing coincidences didn’t stop with his admission. When all the students had to pass a listening comprehension test to move on to their junior year, Jackson was conspicuously absent – yet still ended up with a passing score. When it came time to write his final thesis, a teacher was dispatched to complete it for him. And he was never bothered to defend it like the other students. Upon graduation he went to get his Master’s degree in an English program in Sweden. How he managed that and how he fared when he arrived, I can only imagine.
All of Jackson’s classmates knew he was a special case and generally accepted it as a fact of life. But that’s not to say they couldn’t buy some of the opportunities he had. During their senior year everyone took the TEM-8, a certification test for English majors that’s usually needed to get a teaching job, and generally very helpful for other careers.
When the scores came out, several failed while some of the worst students had gotten the highest scores. A friend told me that they’d each bought the answer key beforehand for 3,000 yuan ($470) – a sum of money far out of reach for most.
I remembered a few months earlier when a graduate student was straddling his 6th story window threating to jump. His professor was holding his degree ransom – refusing to let him graduate until he did more research and completed a paper in the professor’s name. The student felt the threat of suicide was the only way to get the attention needed to get his rightful diploma.
So I was furious when weighing this against what my cheating students had done – ensuring that when recruiters came the following month they’d take the jobs away from the more qualified (albeit less affluent and dishonest) people. On my Renren (Chinese Facebook) account, I was friends with most of those I taught. I wrote a status update saying, “It seems many students cheated on their TEM-8. It also seems the university doesn’t plan to do anything about it. Disgraceful.”
The comment caused a sensation in the dorms. Apparently I had broken a taboo that everyone knew about, but wouldn’t dare mention in such a public forum. Later that night I got an email from one of my students:
“Thank you for your support for those students who have failed the TEM-8 because of others cheating. In fact, I am so miserable that there are only 2 scores I need to get the certificate. But many students like me can do nothing but to accept the reality and blame ourselves for the fate…”
The following year those who failed were allowed to take the test one more time. I later found out that that girl, and most others, saved up and bought the answers the second time around.