“No Pressure, Right?” Lenora Chu in Conversation with Michael Levy

While living in Shanghai, Chinese-American writer Lenora Chu enrolled her three-year-old son in a state-run public school. In Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve, she shares her eye-opening insights about the strengths and weaknesses of both the Chinese and American educational systems in this thoughtful and witty book that asks readers to consider what “education” really means. The booksellers who read for our Discover Great New Writers program couldn’t put Little Soldiers down.

Michael Levy is an educator based in San Francisco and the author of a memoir, Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion, which won the 2011 Discover Great New Writers Award for Nonfiction. —Miwa Messer, Director, Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers

Michael Levy: As a parent of two young children, I read your book with a lot of empathy. On the one hand, I hope to be able to give my kids a similar experience as Rainer . . . but the thought also terrifies me!

Lenora Chu: When we first moved to Shanghai from Los Angeles in 2010, I had very little idea of what to expect. Although my parents had emigrated from China, I was born and raised in America. Except for a college semester abroad in England, I’d never lived in a foreign country — much less tried to raise two young boys abroad. And, the day-to-day decisions I made would now affect two small human beings. It was terrifying at first.

ML: What was the most difficult part?

LC: We decided to enroll our oldest son in the local Chinese school system when he was three. Almost immediately, my cultural beliefs began to clash with those of my son’s teacher. But, how do you challenge someone who controls the daily fate of your son and who expects parents to obey as a matter of culture?

If you look at education from an academic perspective, the studies support bilingualism, grit, hard work in pursuit of achievement. Researchers have even come out and said learning two languages as a child makes you smarter. No pressure, right?

What’s missing from these grand statements is a nod toward how hard it is to actually try to reach these goals. Bilingualism is great in theory, but what does it mean for day-to-day life? Are we willing to sacrifice an hour a day drilling characters to acquire Mandarin literacy? Grit is great, but how do you get there? The Chinese are wonderful with discipline, but how much is too much? What happens when you start to lose trust in your teacher?

ML: What advice might you have for parents who are making a decision about taking their young ones abroad?

LC: Raising a family abroad can be challenging, but I feel great about the experiences we’ve been able to give our children. I’d recommend it to anyone with a sense of adventure and an open mind. Most important, I’d advise flexibility and empathy. I found myself daily in situations where old habits and customs didn’t fly, and they either got me in trouble or offended someone. Spend some time reading about the history, culture, and context of the place you’re moving to. And, make sure you befriend people who don’t look like you, who don’t speak the same language. That effort will pay off in spades!

ML: When I lived in Beijing, a lot of parents said some version of the following: the ideal educational path has kids in local schools in China until middle school (so they can learn proper Chinese, learn to be disciplined, learn to work tirelessly) and then international school or school in the U.S. after that (so they can learn to be creative and curious and learn to think freely). Did you hear anything similar in Shanghai?

LC: Yes! I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the right balance.

For those of us in the Chinese system fortunate enough to have choices — whether by passport or by resources — we like the discipline and early rigor of the Chinese way up through the end of primary school. My son packs his own bag for school, nods at the teacher with respect, and makes sure he’s never late for class. He was also doing triple-digit arithmetic at five. The Chinese begin instilling these habits early, and he’ll carry them for a lifetime.

On creativity and curiosity, you can never kill that in a child. Of course, the authoritarian Chinese classroom does a great job of discouraging their expression. We make sure our son is getting opportunities to explore outside of the classroom. Meanwhile, the Chinese are working hard at reforming these negative aspects of the system; the pace of change depends on the teacher and the school. For some parents, it’s not happening fast enough.

ML: What non-academic lessons did Rainey learn in school in Shanghai?  

LC: I observed something very interesting; my son has internalized the connection between effort and achievement. Work hard — and achieve. Slack off — and suffer the consequences. There’s no argument for innate talent or intelligence in Chinese academics, and as a result the Chinese don’t overly concern themselves with a child’s self-esteem.

I realized this when I observed how my son reacted to scores and rankings. In China, test scores and other performance measures are posted on classroom walls; when they’re not, rankings spread by the invisible scorecard of gossip. Sounds horrible to Western ears, right? Yet, to my surprise, my son didn’t internalize these scores in a negative way; when he did poorly he simply understood that he should work harder next time.

I love this. In America we tend to look at low scores and worry a kid will feel bad about himself; somehow we’ve come to believe that the kid just can’t do any better. We equate achievement with innate talent — some kids have it, others don’t.

ML: Of the many surprises in your book, those I appreciate the most are your observations on the effort Chinese educators are putting into making their system less stressful and more child-centered. I’m curious how parents at the school viewed these efforts. Do they approve of them, or do they worry that if their school becomes more progressive, their kids will fall behind in the sprint toward the gaokao?

LC: Parents in China, frankly, are stuck in an impossible situation. What good is play in kindergarten if your child needs to know double-digit division for a primary school entrance exam in twelve months? As much as principals and teachers try to lighten the load for students, the parents always complain: “The parents tell me, if you don’t teach my kid math, I’ll have to find an outside tutor,” says one Shanghai principal I interviewed.

The problem is those entrance exams. China’s government hasn’t yet fundamentally altered the way kids advance in schooling, and until that happens no one breathes easy. Society also suffers from an addiction to measuring worth through numbers and scores.

ML: A thought experiment: Imagine Rainer in twenty years. What will he say when he reflects upon this experience?

LC: He’s a gregarious, happy child, and I hope he’ll enjoy having his mom’s daily diary of his experiences as a young child! Ultimately, I think he’ll be well prepared for the future. To him, Chinese school isn’t necessarily an adventure or an experience — it’s simply life. He doesn’t know any different. I hope he’ll think it was a gift, a rare opportunity.

He’s fully bilingual, he navigates different cultures well, and he has Chinese, French, Spanish, and American friends at his birthday parties (who switch between languages seamlessly). His little microcosm reflects where the world is headed, and I’m glad he’s been able to get a taste of this.

ML: A friend of mine in China once said, “The fundamental purpose of American education is to train citizens. The fundamental purpose of the Chinese system is to sort.” Since these fundamental purposes differ, she thought the systems should not be compared. Do you see any wisdom in her thinking?

LC: The narrative of this book sprang organically from the fact that I had to make a decision about my son’s schooling, due to our circumstances of being Americans living in China. Did I want the Chinese way or the Western way? That meant weighing the pros and cons of one choice over another, to compare, so that I could make a decision.

On your friend’s remarks about sorting versus training citizens, I’m not sure one can categorize each system so succinctly. Education is messy and multi-purposed. The Chinese system is also very much about training citizens: I have a chapter about Chinese patriotic education; students are indoctrinated in China’s “five loves” — country, people, labor, scientific knowledge, and socialism — from primary school.

And, we Americans certainly like to think of ourselves as loads more egalitarian than the Chinese, but in fact education here is a sorting mechanism, too. Gifted and talented programs? Quality of schools by property tax haul? The college admissions process? That’s sorting.

I believe what your friend is cautioning against is the practice of testing students in dozens of countries and then ranking them based on their scores. Yes, these results and rankings have in some cases been twisted to draw conclusions that aren’t always helpful. On the flip side, it doesn’t mean that the British can’t learn something from the way the Chinese teach math, or that a Chinese teacher won’t benefit from observing a Montessori preschool in New York or California. The world is rapidly shrinking — we all have something to learn from one another. In fact, it’s imperative.

ML: Ultimately, what do you hope readers will take away from your book?

LC: When I set about trying to make decisions about my son’s schooling, parents and teachers would throw platitudes at me: “Oh, those Chinese kids work hard, but they have no creativity.” “There’s no freedom in the classroom anymore.” “I like rigor in math.”

Frankly, it was all meaningless. What does math rigor look like? How do you even define creativity? What freedoms? When I pressed further, I found most people couldn’t elaborate on their answers.

That why I started to dig deeper, to seek answers for myself by talking to everyone I could: parents, students, education experts, Chinese government officials. It took me a couple of months just to figure out the right questions.

I hope readers will come away with a better understanding of what’s happening globally in education, and the deeper meaning behind some of these hot-button topics. I also hope we’ll learn to have a bit more faith in our children — I did! They’re gritty and resilient, and capable of so much more than we give them credit for.