And Another Thing! Heels Over Head In China

Yes, and sometimes they ARE upside-down. And BENT.

I posted, a few days ago, about the ways in which China is upside-down, at least from a Canada-centric point of view. I missed an obvious one.

Here’s the ‘nother thing: people here don’t sing sentimental anthems, a la Bryan Adams, or make nostalgic carpe diem speeches to adolescents, saying that university and especially high school are “the best years of your life”. (Lies the Adults Told Us. I could go on and on, and often did with my students  back home, but let me say this: high school is a painful and confusing period for many Canadian kids, and those early-bloomers for whom those really were the best of times are doomed to chronic disappointment.) China is really upside-down about that whole wish-I-was-young-again thing. They don’t miss high school a bit!


HE didn’t peak at 17, though he did make a bundle off those who either did or wanted to.

Sure, adults may want to be thinner if prosperity has brought them a belly, the supreme leaders dye their hair jet-black, and recreational surgery is popular among upwardly mobile women. In China, for those lucky enough to attend a “good” one, high school is hell. The university entrance examination, the gao kao, is massive and massively important, and students spend their entire last year of high school cramming madly for it: no proms, no dates, no drama club or track team, no weekends. The stress is incredible. Students here wax nostalgic for their high school fellow inmates (middle school, too, where they madcram for entry into the high schools with the best gao kao numbers). It’s fondness of the we will always remember how we suffered in the trenches together kind, though I’m not sure they even know each other that well outside the study hall. Some have a moment of severe disillusion, in fact, midway through their first semester of university, when they realize that college life is not the colourful canvas of interest and leisure time that their high school mentors sometimes painted for them. (Lies My Teachers Told Me.) Still, university is when the lads, for the most part, start to act out their love affair with basketball, and girls sharpen their shopping skills. (Pardon the cliches; wish there wasn’t so much truth behind them.) Pressure remains high, there are always more testing hurdles to climb, but they can make a few decisions about their time usage, pretty much for the first times in their lives.

The upper years of schooling, to a depressing extent, are about as far from mind-expanding as I can imagine. What is your goal? I ask them. Where are you going in such an all-fired hurry? The answer is always the same. “A comfortable life.” You know, in China, the competition is very fierce, and so we must… To a much greater degree than in North America, where mere “credentialling” (as the visionary writer Jane Jacobs calls it) is also increasingly a substitute for genuine learning, university is where you get the resume-building document that the comfortable-life job requires, and the death-march of high school fact-memorization is how you get there.

So yes, the Chinese tend not to sentimentalize, to worship adolescence as we do in popular North American culture. I’d bet there are no sappy pop songs about high school here. I wish there was a more noble reason for it, but that is the joy of  beating yourself about the head with textbooks: it feels fine once you stop.

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