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Macau University of Science and Technology

I

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I have heard several Americans jokingly remark that while living in other countries they would rather people regarded them as Canadian.

Not unlike my days as a soldier during Vietnam travelling with a blue passport generates discussion and often heated debate from non-Americans. Our approval rating Internationally may be lower than Bush’s at home, but I haven’t seen anyone hot-footing it to the consulate to denounce their citizenship–and who’d want Chinese students asking daily if you knew Dashan anyway?

Thinking about all of this I was dazed by an article in the Guardian last week that spoke of China’s enormous brain drain. The Sea Turtles (Chinese who have left China for study or temporary work and returned) do not seem to feel a biological or nationalistic imperative to head back to their motherland.

According to the Guardian, “China suffers the worst brain drain in the world…a new study that found seven out of every 10 students who enroll in an overseas university never return… ”

China is an economic eighteen wheeler without brakes and studies show that Despite business booming, government incentives to return,
and the odds of emerging from poverty being greater here than in the US, the the best and brightest are now staying away.

“The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences revealed 1.06 million Chinese had gone to study overseas since 1978, but only 275,000 had returned. The rest had taken postgraduate courses, found work, got married or changed citizenship.” The Guardian surmised it was a freedom issue. Imagine that. I regard it as symtomatic of a privatied educational system, exploding with students, run amock with greedy carpetbaggers who care little about their charges.

David, the Dreamblogue’s Sancho Panza, asked me during a recent trip to Hong Kong, where the Internet is uncensored, the food and medicine quality less questionable and the burgers not likely to have come from animal that barked during their previous incarnation. “and we don’t live in Hong Kong, why?It seems a lot of Chinese kids are feeling the same way.

Last year the numbers of students from China headed to the UK to study increased 20% to 60,000 and China has just poured several million into programs to increase overseas opportunities hoping no doubt to increase western trained innovators. But how well that will pay off is questionable because in 2005, 118,500 took to study overseas. By 2010, some 200,000 will be in schools abroad. Like my friend in a very low margin wholesale business once said: “What we lack in profit we make up for in volume.”

There was a very telling student quote in the Guardian article: “I am slightly hesitant because China is developing very fast and by 2030, its GDP will probably surpass the USA. But I am concerned that I might not get a good job if I return. America may suit me more because they judge you according to your ability, whereas in China your background and connections are more important.” In China it is definitely not what you know, but who you know, who your parents are, and where you went to school. And while there are some tremendous chools here like Beijing University, Tsinghua, and other regional institutions of lesser, but honest repute, the fact is that lack of uncensored material, Internet capabilities and antiquated facilities and poor teaching conditions make some great schools a tough sell.

Then, Students who fail or perform poorly in mainland exams, are flooding to newly created degree mills like the profit-mad Macau University of Science and Technology. Some of the degrees are Macau accredited and others are not. If you have money the school will find a way for you to buy a degree. It’s reputation is failing, but the enrollment numbers are increasing. Students with money will do a year or so at MUST and then attempt more credible pursuits in the US or at more authentic schools in Hong Kong or Macau. This year more than 15% of the MUST’s student body applied for transfer to western schools or other programs.

Yang Xiaojing, one of the authors of the brain drain report, was quoted as saying in the China Daily. “Against the backdrop of economic globalization, an excessive brain drain will inevitably threaten the human resources, security and eventually the national economic and social security of any country.” His fears are borne out in a survey this year which found that in Shanghai 30% of high school pupils and 50% of middle-school students wanted to change their nationality. THEIR NATIONALITY!

It is time for a Sea Turtle Preservation Society in China. A good start is to re-look at the corruption in newly industrialized mainland and Macau educational institutions, like MUST, who I see, through greed, declining standards, disdain for faculty, and lack of concern for a student’s ability to obtain work upon graduation, remove what should be an innate desire to return home.

II

Several years ago, there was an American dentist who was well known in alcohol recovery circles. He was frequently invited to speak about his circuitous and hard won arrival at sobriety because he was easily one of the most entertaining speakers ever heard on any subject. One story in particular remains with me: Having been told of the death of a colleague, and to preclude public contact while “paying his respects”, he visited the grave site where his friend would be laid to rest. As he leaned over the six-foot deep hole to bid a heartfelt, albeit inebriated goodbye, he fell into the hole. Unable to extricate himself he simply laid down for a brief nap.

When mourners arrived and gathered for the lowering of the casket there was a collective gasp of horror when a figure attempted to rise up from the grave. The dentist mused, “A normal man would have been embarrassed.” But, habit had been a great deadener and he was beyond shame. It would be many years later that he actually reached a “bottom,” deeper than the aforementioned six foot resting place, that acted as a catalyst for recovery. More on this in a bit….

Two weeks ago, amidst finals, I had to quickly return to my office to retrieve a forgotten document; en-route, I passed the classroom of one of the younger Chinese teachers. The brilliant and beautiful Ph.D graduate of one of the top schools in the world was asleep at her desk while her students chattered, used cell phones, applied make-up, read books, dozed, and smoked cigarettes. It looked more like a scene out of Chalkboard Jungle, Stand and Deliver or Freedom Writers, but without hope for a happy ending. In retropsect, the most astonishing part of the experiece was my lack of surprise and concomitant emotional indifference. I guess I have seen this too many times in too many Chinese and expat led classroom–while the teacher was awake.

Students in China, unlike students in Japan, are no longer adherents of Confucian principles. Since the days of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, where teachers were shamed, beaten, jailed and even killed (1966-1976), reverence for teachers is, at best, an arguable ideal. The average Chinese college student in many schools (there are exceptions), who thinks himself respectful, would still manage to incur the wrath of most American Professors because they have not had modeled for them the manners and etiquette expected of a western scholar.

Last week the Chinese media and the Internet were alive with rumors of this incident captured on film:

Stories abounded about the perpetrators, whose names and school were quickly made public on bulletin boards nationwide, and they had to be secreted away because a bounty had been placed on them. Allegedly 100,000 RMB (about 120,000 USD or 5 years of a school teacher’s gross salary) had been offered to the person or group that would literally beat them into respectfulness. The students, who finally apologized to the teacher, reportedly are back at school and neither the school or the teacher will further comment.

What is most disturbing to me, other than the physical attack and threat of harm to the teacher, is that the scene is all too typical of what many pedants are asked to endure in China. The industrialization of education has led the spoiled offspring of one-child families (Little Emperors), especially the newly prosperous, to believe that they have a right to lord their rich consumer status over low-paid, poorly prepared, and administratively unsupported educators. Teachers are expendable, and salvaging tuition is a higher calling.

Many of us who have been here for several years manage our classrooms with strict discipline and genuine concern for student well-being. Eventually, our sincerity is belied and that, in turn, generates a certain breeds measure of respect. This allows for a reasonably manageable classroom where the handful of students serious about language acquisition and cultural gain can actually glean something useful.

In some rural schools, where teachers might be as paid as little as $50.00 USD per month, educators sometimes resort to brutality against students in a quest for control. There are laws against such behavior, but they are not often enforced. The students, I beieve, are rebelling against a system heavily reliant on memorization, humiliation and devaluation of self. I do not absolve abuse teachers of any negligence or liability by believing that their behavior is part-and-parcel of a dysunctional system. “Chinese education has a long history of corporal punishment,” says Thomas Gold, a University of California-Berkeley sociologist who studies China. Teachers’ “social status remains low, so they may be taking out their own frustrations on laggard kids.” I could not agree more.

My last school, the one where I just resigned, caters to wealthy, underachieving children from privileged families. The school virtually sells advanced (and unaccredited) degrees to business and government leaders from the mainland; accepts known plagiarized theses from students who may or may not have attended classes; admits almost any undergraduate (these programs are accredited) with a healthy bank balance; hires raw mainland talent, looking for a foothold in teaching, at a fraction of the wages paid by government established schools, and with only ten-month teaching contracts containing no provisions for retirement; they protect a registrar who holds American and Chinese Passports and the deanship over five departments who brags about hiding his income from the IRS via a Hong Kong bank; they pad their website faculty list with professors from famous universities who are not active teachers; have investors on their board with government ties who shower the school with land and facility donations; and have a turnover rate for staff that is higher than the local McDonalds. The teachers, though better paid, feel no more self worth than those in rural environs.

It is hard for students to command respect for an education entity, such as the one I left. It is blatantly greedy and inept. But, many, many other Chinese schools, especially privatized ones, have also abandoned functional educational models in the pursuit of profit. And with only 1/3 of graduating seniors assured of work this year many students cannot muster the motivation to respect a system that does little for their future, less for their net worth and still condemns their teachers to social contempt.

It is no wonder that 40% of my former school’s Freshman class applied for transfer. And 20% of the best, brightest and ethical at the school were accepted by other institutions and thankfully will leave. Others wish they would have followed suit because they will be left behind with an even further demoralized and unruly student and faculty population. Only 40% of those students educated abroad will return to China to share the skills they will acquire. My guess is they will avoid the teaching profession if possible.

Any normal system would be embarrassed. It is necessary to examine ways to curb profiteering, improve classroom conditions and teaching methodologies by educating educators and then rewarding them accordingly. It is time to foster respect for those entrusted with educating China’s new managers.

In a country now increasingly pressured to compete globally in business–via skills and quality and not price–while tariffs, environmental concerns and increasing production fees lower profits, one would think China would sober up and ask for a ladder to be lowered to rescue a system now forty years stranded nearly six-feet under.

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