The Importance of Student Uniqueness in China

The Unique Chinese Student

I‘m very lucky to live in a pretty nice apartment block located on a housing community just across the road from my school in Beijing. It’s a fascinating place. What strikes many newcomers when they cross my community, is not the wonderful manicured gardens with their magnificent magnolia trees or the groups of Chinese women practicing their plaza dancing en masse or  even the sight of the odd elderly person confidently running backwards.  No, it’s the sporadic sounds of violins, pianos and flutes emanating from pretty much every apartment block most evenings. Even more fascinating is that, if one stands in the right spot with the wind in the right direction these sounds will occasionally ‘meet up’, giving a sense of an impromptu orchestral performance, albeit chaotic. The whole experience can be rather beautiful but haunting at the same time.

Of course, behind every one of these instruments is a Chinese child looking to shine like no other, flanked by parents whose heavy expectations can be felt through every vibrato. These school children will practice endlessly at all hours and they will think nothing about cracking out a less than polished version of a Chopin waltz in B minor at 3.00am, believe me I know. Yawn.

Walking through the community as I do every day, it’s possible to chart the relative progress of each young musician as they clamour through their scales and offer up their renditions of whatever sonata it takes to attain Grade 8 Music. I’ve become very accustomed to the sounds over the years and the instruments have been fairly regular, but last Saturday it all sounded very different indeed. Mid-lunch, walking through the community gardens I nearly dropped my banana when I heard a very unusual sound. Of all things, a trombone! Its delightful glissando tones made me stop in my tracks. Its up and down ‘brrrrring’ sliced through the ‘orchestration’ and in an instant, the usual resident instrumentalists fell silent.  And, as the piano lids slammed down and the violin strings snapped, a collective realisation immediately dawned across the community – this ‘new kid on the block’ had something special, something very very different from the crowd;  a trombone!

Chinese students who aspire to study overseas in an increasingly competitive University application market, know that they have to find their edge. Being good at Maths and great at Physics is clearly not enough because it’s not so much about rising to the top of the pile (because that’s where everyone else is) it’s more about creating a different pile. Trombone trumping piano and violin is perhaps an exaggeration of the point, but establishing uniqueness is crucial.  

Subject choice is a great place to start. Students who select subjects which might seem rather less traditional for Chinese students to study could be a deal breaker when it comes to securing that top university place.  A Level subjects such as English Literature, Psychology, Environmental Management, Global Perspectives and Computer Science are becoming more popular amongst students. These subjects allow students to demonstrate broader skills whilst at the same time allow them to benefit from an implied understanding that these subjects require a higher level of English. When making comparisons between applications, admissions officers like to see that a student has trod a different academic path in a zone that doesn’t have the comforts of a mathematical formula.    

Then there’s the extra-curricular dimension. Teacher: What will you do this holiday? Student: My friends and I have set up a charity called ‘Happy Sunshine Children’ and we plan to visit a poor school in the poor countryside to give extra tuition to the poor children who have poor books.  Teacher:  How many friends will be doing this with you? Students: Just my class.  This seemingly altruistic approach to extracurricular activity is not uncommon and parents have cottoned on to the fact that this could make a difference. The problem is that if everyone else is doing it we now have students that are good at maths, great at physics and good at caring about others who are less fortunate than us. To make matters worse educational agents have well and truly put fuel in this bandwagon and  set up all kinds of schemes for parents who are looking to keep their son/daughter gainfully occupied over the summer months.   Whilst this type of activity has some value, Chinese students are recognising that extra-curricular activity related specifically to academic study is the way to go. More and more students are looking to create opportunities where they can become involved in an internship over the summer months in a vocational field akin to their personal career aspirations. I have seen an increasing number of students create links with Chinese University Professors who have mentored them through a mini project and also offered to contribute a line or two to their University letter of recommendation.   

Educational Agents have a role to play and most are first rate and wholly professional in terms of how they go about turning a ‘remarkable’ student into a ‘truly remarkable’ student. The worry, of course, is when ‘average’ becomes ‘truly remarkable’ overnight allowing parental expectations to be well and truly remarkably cashed in! For some, where money is no object, parents can pay for one to one intensive SAT/TOEFL training from ‘celebrity’ trainers complemented by coaching interview sessions from ex-Ivy League university admissions officers.  For the equivalent price of a top of the range family car, parents can forgo that leather interior and cruise control for the best line of turbo charged promises money can buy.  

Top grades don’t really count for much when everyone else has them and creating ‘space’ between you and all the other students is not formulaic, despite what Chinese parents might think. In an education system based on batch processing it is often difficult for Chinese students to find themselves and to also have the confidence needed to express their individualism. 

Personally, I’d love to meet that trombone player so I could ask him or her – How did you do it?