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Published on February 7th, 2014 | by BU News

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Chinese students dispute ‘learning machine’ stereotype

BU: Lili Gu recalls his initial trepidation when he came to America for 10th grade. The writing skills he arrived with, he says, would be at home in the fourth grade, though an English-as-second-language program made him comfortable after a semester.

Then his formidable Chinese secondary education kicked in.

Gu, an engineering major who graduated in May, says he breezed through high school, especially math, sprinting through the curriculum and into Harvard night school for advanced calculus. The easy ride ended, however, when he entered college. If Chinese high schools are more rigorous than those in the United States, the reverse is true for universities, Gu says.

Here, Billy Gu. Top image, Ying “Phoebe” Zhang.

‘As long as I have that diploma, I’m awesome’

Back home, “as soon as you step in the front door of a great university, it’s almost like your motivation ends, because in China, GPA is not a big deal,” Gu explains. “Whether I’m a C student or D student, as long as I have that diploma, I’m awesome. If I wanted to graduate from BU with Cs, I’d probably have had a very good time.”

Chinese students are the largest foreign contingent at the university (about 2,000 undergraduates and grad students, 6 percent of the total) in an increasingly international student body.

Chinese students say that as high school students, they bust butt compared with their American counterparts in pursuit of the Holy Grail of university admission.

“Failing the college entrance exam means the end of the world,” says Yijing Lu, a School of Management junior whose high school forbade dating because it was a distraction from studying.

Once at a university, however, many students in China slack off, either from burnout, or simply because they can. “Some of my friends who study in Chinese colleges tell me that they play the video game Dota day and night,” says Lu.

‘Learning machines’

“Schools in China equal boring and pure memorizing,” says Lu. “Schools in the United States are places of studying.”

Ying “Phoebe” Zhang, a junior in Arts and Sciences, says the Chinese have a phrase, “learning machines,” for students who pursue top grades out of obedience, and they’re not universally celebrated. “For my parents, they don’t want me to be a learning machine,” she says. “You have to learn how to be a human, how to get along well with others.”

Haisu Yuan, a senior in Arts and Sciences and the College of Communication, says that in China, though, “nerds are welcomed.”

Students say adjusting to the American system was not a huge problem. For them, the main hurdles were the language barrier and occasional xenophobia.

Zhang, who came to Massachusetts starting with 11th grade at a private school, remembers her uncooperative roommate announcing up front “that she hates Chinese.”

Overcoming her initial hesitation about speaking up—a reserve many Chinese feel when they’re just learning English, Zhang says—”I had a really huge fight with her.” The roommate eventually became Zhang’s best friend.

‘You have to think outside of class’

Like Gu, Zhang found high school “super-easy.” She was one of a trio of Chinese women who got their own special class in advanced calculus. She also got some teasing for her smarts. “At first, it really bothered me. Later, I was like, ‘OK, just let them say what they want. This is my life. I have the control.’”

Gu helped other Chinese students adjust to life and learning in the US.  He was vice president of the BU Chinese Students and Scholars Association (BUCSSA), which tries to ease the adjustment for Chinese newcomers. The BUCSSA uses social media to reach newcomers the summer before they arrive, offering to arrange airport pickups and transportation to dorms. Its Chinese-language orientation each fall offers guidance on things from cultural issues to keeping track of visas and other travel documents.

At college, Zhang’s biggest adjustment was learning to take outside-the-classroom initiative for learning, rather than being a passive receptacle of professorial lectures.

“Professors are there to help you out when you have problems,” she says. “They can give you some hint. But you have to think outside of class.”

“US schools are more about helping students to explore their individual power,” says Yuan, while in China, “study is only for exams, so all you have to do is just practice, instead of learning.”

“I would say half of the Chinese students here are happy about their life,” Zhang says. She estimates, with the other half “desperate” to return home after graduation. “They feel kind of hopeless. They really want a sense of hope, they want to feel welcome, with people they can talk to.”

“If you have a high level of self-regulation, it’s definitely a good idea for you to come to America,” says Zhang. “You can enjoy your life, and meanwhile you are actually learning something that’s useful when you are in society later on. But if you just want to get rid of the whole pile of work in China and enjoy a vacation…forget about it. Your life will be much easier there.”

via Rich Barlow/BU Today | Images by Kalman Zabarsky, Vernon Doucette/BU Photography


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