An education on a foreign land

SUN JOURNAL

China: Books related to American schooling are popular among the Chinese, who find the subject fascinating.

April 02, 2002|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - When Kuangyan Huang returned to his hometown in southern China last year to promote a book about his experiences as a student in America, the teen-ager was mobbed like a movie star.

More than 1,000 students and parents turned out to buy signed copies of his book, New Heights in America: One Chinese Boy and Seven American Teachers. The provincial TV station, Guangxi TV, followed him on part of a seven-city tour.

"There were a lot more [people] than I ever expected," says Kuangyan, a 17-year-old junior at Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati.

It's difficult to imagine education generating such buzz in the United States. Chinese society is different: not only is education highly important, but the Chinese find American schooling fascinating.

"Some of the things I wrote about are things they have never seen," Kuangyan says.

In the United States, Kuangyan writes, instructors might use game shows to teach history. For a class project on the Civil War, he designed a computerized Battle of Antietam.

"I get hundreds and hundreds of e-mails from people saying, `I wish I had teachers like yours,'" the young author says.

Kuangyan's book, which sold about 50,000 copies, struck a nerve with Chinese students who complain that the nation's education system is sterile, relying on memorization and doing little to encourage critical thinking. Reforming Chinese schools to foster more engaging teaching methods and a less test-based curriculum has been a hot topic for years, generating an interest in writing on the subject.

Books related to American education are especially appealing in China, where admission to a top U.S. school represents the brass ring for the nation's educated elite.

In fact, Kuangyan's father has published his own enormously successful book here. Quanyu Huang, adjunct professor of Chinese language and culture at Miami University in Ohio, has sold 320,000 copies of his book, Quality Education in America, which compares U.S. and Chinese education.

Another big hit is Harvard Girl: Liu Yiting, an account of the method a Sichuan couple used to rear their child, now a Harvard junior. The book, which has sold more than 1 million copies, has made Yiting a household name here.

The hunger for information about U.S. schooling is fed by the competition that comes from living in a nation of 1.3 billion people. Higher education is a privilege in China, where traditionally fewer than 10 percent of young people ages18 to 22 have attended college.

Schooling is the route to success and a degree from a leading U.S. university carries enormous prestige. During the 1999-2000 academic year, more than 54,000 Chinese students were studying in the United States - more than from any other country.

Chinese students found Kuangyan's book engaging largely because of his colorful portrayals of teachers, whom he variously describes as funny, imaginative and caring.

One Spanish instructor named Mr. Benedetti gave new meaning to the term pop quiz by hurling a blue rubber ball at students until they answered questions correctly. Another teacher, Ron Henrich, approached students with compassion, adroitly defusing a fight between two boys and sparing them a mandatory three-day suspension.

"Mr. Henrich always thought about his students," writes Kuangyan, who composed his book in English and had his parents translate it into Chinese. "Of course he could see such things where other teachers, who didn't care as much for their students, won't even try to."

Such concern about student welfare is unusual in Chinese classrooms, usually dour places where boys and girls traditionally learn by rote and toil away preparing for the nation's dreaded college entrance exam. In an attempt to improve conditions, Chinese newspapers have published numerous articles about teachers who beat or publicly humiliate poor students as well as youth who crack beneath the intense academic pressure.

Many young Chinese readers are so enthusiastic about what Kuangyan has to say about his instructors that they post comments to his online guest book.

"Your teachers are really great," writes "Yancy" from Sichuan province. "I really admire your art teacher! I wish he could be my teacher as well."

"The book you wrote will make Chinese kids jealous," writes Ye Yunming, a student from Guangdong province.

Kuangyan, who left China at age 4 when his father took a position as a visiting scholar at York College in Pennsylvania, returned here for the first time in 1997 and again last year. He found striking differences between Chinese and American students.

He was stunned, for instance, that so many young people would turn out to meet a first-time author. He partly attributed the warm reception to the popularity of reading among Chinese youth, who have fewer pop culture distractions than American teen-agers.

"If we get some extra money, we don't go out and buy a book," says Kuangyan, speaking by phone from his home in Ohio. "They [Chinese teen-agers] actually do that."

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