"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Chinese Are Smarter Than We Are

Rosa was our Salvadoran nanny who lived with us for over ten years.  We helped her get her Social Security card, working papers, Green Card, and citizenship; and helped her buy an apartment under DC’s favorable first-time homeowner program.  She was the ideal employee and ideal immigrant hoping to assimilate enough to work productively, educate her children, and remit money back to her family in El Salvador.  What she could never learn was English.  No matter how she tried, she could not quite get the hang of hitting all syllables in a word, mastering her plosives, labials, and fricatives. She would start all right, pronouncing the Hech in Hechinger’s, a nearby hardware store, but then trail off in a weak slurring of the last two.  I tried to explain – In English we bang each of the syllables: Hech-in-ger – but as hard as she took on the first syllable, the second two slid into a kind of breathless whisper.

Through one of the Salvadoran volunteer agencies in Washington, she enrolled in an English-as-a-Second Language Program.  In her class were Latinos, Hmong, Vietnamese, Ethiopians, and Chinese.  All were from modest backgrounds and were nannies, cooks, parking lot managers, and laundry workers.  As much as Rosa tried, she couldn’t learn.  After six months she was still whispering ‘Hechinger’ rather than pronouncing it, and could barely manage the simplest phrases.  She always ran our car down to stone empty because she was afraid to ask the attendant to fill ‘er up and could never figure out the grades, pump directions, and options she would have to negotiate to pump gas. 

“The Chinese are smarter than we are”, Rosa told me once after more exasperating months at English school.  Apparently the Chinese learned faster, more competently, and more accurately than any other ethnic group.  They were no better off economically, were engaged in the same type of professions as Hispanics or Africans, and surely had as many demands of family, work, and worship, but quickly rocketed out in front of all the rest.  After her reasonable analysis of all the factors that play a role in learning, and her logical rejection of them, she concluded that native intelligence was all that was left.

I tried to explain that the Chinese were very disciplined.  Learning and education were very high priorities in their culture.  They were very ambitious, and in every country in the Chinese diaspora, the Chinese outperformed the natives.  They sacrificed, relied on family for support, and very seldom deviated from their goals.  The Chinese didn’t seem to have a lot of fun, I explained, but they always succeeded.

A few years later when my son was in high school, we invited a Chinese exchange student to stay with us for a semester.  It would be a good opportunity for the boy to get to know American life, and for my son to practice his Chinese. We rarely saw Ming Ho. As soon as he got home from school, he went into his room to study.  He emerged for dinner, then retreated back to study until just before midnight.  Weekends were more of the same.  I was able to pry him out of his room for occasional walks, but otherwise he was a scholastic hermit.  He learned nothing about American family life, and my son got to speak no Chinese.

We were not alone.  All families who had taken in Chinese exchange students had the same story.  They were recluses, grinds, geeky one-track study machines.  Many parents took it personally.  “They just want to come to America and take all we have and give back nothing.  They don’t give a shit about us”.

On the day that the SAT scores became public, Ming asked me to call up Princeton and get his results by phone.  His English, although improving rapidly, was still not good enough for so important a call.  After I got through the formalities and niceties, I put Ming on the line to hear the results.  As the voice on the other end of the line gave a result, Ming Ho would nod, smile, and wait for the next one.  Three nods and then a frown.  He hung up.

“So”, I said. “What’s the news?”

“Eight hundred math, eight hundred chemistry, eight hundred physics…”  Here he paused.  “Two-hundred fifty English.  No better than flipping coin”.

Three perfect scores and one very understandable failure. I told him not to worry. He would soon learn good English.  His hard work and brains paid off.  He won a complete scholarship to Harvard, then went on to Columbia Business School and then back to Shanghai “to take care of aged, respected parents”.  All his goals had been achieved.

David Brooks writing in the New York Times (3.1.13) contends that it is because the Chinese study according to moral precepts rather than practical, pragmatic reasons, their learning has more meaning and purpose.  He cites the recent work by Jin Li, a naturalized American of Chinese origin who wrote Cultural Foundations of Learning: East vs. West

The simplest way to summarize her findings is that Westerners tend to define learning cognitively while Asians tend to define it morally. Westerners tend to see learning as something people do in order to understand and master the external world. Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.

Whereas American universities like Harvard and Yale have the mottos “Truth” or “Light and Truth” that suggest the purpose of a great university is to enable the student to decipher the world around him, to reorganize it in a better way, and to leave the mark of his higher learning.

Chinese universities usually take Confucian sayings that emphasize personal elevation. Tsinghua’s motto is “Strengthen self ceaselessly and cultivate virtue to nurture the world.” Nanjing’s motto is “Be sincere and hold high aspirations, learn diligently and practice earnestly.”

Perhaps a critical difference, Lin observes, is the very approach to learning itself:

In the Western understanding, students come to school with levels of innate intelligence and curiosity. Teachers try to further arouse that curiosity in specific subjects. There’s a lot of active learning — going on field trips, building things. There’s great emphasis on questioning authority, critical inquiry and sharing ideas in classroom discussion.

In the Chinese understanding, there’s less emphasis on innate curiosity or even on specific subject matter. Instead, the learning process itself is the crucial thing. The idea is to perfect the learning virtues in order to become, ultimately, a sage, which is equally a moral and intellectual state. These virtues include: sincerity (an authentic commitment to the task) as well as diligence, perseverance, concentration and respect for teachers.

This is where I part company with Lin and Brooks.  From my experience with Ming Ho and that of the other exchange student parents, the Chinese students were studying to get ahead, to maximize the expensive cost of a private high school education, to leverage that education into admission into top universities, and finally to get a technical or professional degree a top-flight Masters or PhD program.  In many ways, study for the Chinese was part of a business plan to minimize expenses and maximize profits.

Most of the parents tracked the trajectory of their Chinese exchange students and few if any fell off the flight path.  They all got generous scholarships from top schools and went on to respected graduate programs.  Those parents who tracked further found out that their students all gone back to China where they worked for international management consulting firms, banks, or multinational corporations.

They may have worked according to Confucian ideals and had operated according to some internal moral code, but to me they were no different than the Jews in America of a century ago. They came poor, placed the same emphasis on study, learning, and above all success.  Families may have had some Talmudic perspective in their insistence on learning, but there is no doubt that “My son, the doctor” was the mantra.

Popular books today herald the Chinese model of child-rearing.  Tiger Moms badger their children to do their homework and not leave the room until they have finished.  Success at all costs, they hector, and shepherd, monitor, and propel their children upward.  While there may be some internalized Confucian mechanisms working away in these Chinese Americans, their eyes are on the prize.

Recent studies have shown that not only to Chinese and other Asian students outperform whites, but their dropout rates and delinquency are near zero.  Few Chinese students give up, and no truant officer will have to go looking for them.  Chinese families, with their vision to clearly and determinedly focused on performance and success, discipline their children within this perspective.

This is not to say that Confucian values are irrelevant.  On the contrary, they are still at the heart of Chinese culture and provide the philosophical context within which success can be pursued:

One should obey one's elders and superiors and treat rulers, parents, and even those who were not one's social equals with respect. One should also respect ritual, cultivate wisdom, be trustworthy, and strive to do the right thing in any situation (www.patheos.com)

These are the fundamental principles of Christianity and Judaism as well.  They guide the individual but understand that social harmony and cohesiveness is the only environment within which he can succeed.

The conclusion is not that innate or interiorized Confucian values are unique and should be replicated or imitated in non-Chinese students; but they will contribute to a well-balanced, just, and equitable society.  In other words, the children of parents who adopt a Jewish-Chinese approach to learning – hard work, diligence, discipline, focus, and determination – are sure to succeed regardless of their culture.  The Chinese students, however, may get to their goal more honorably, honestly, and respectfully.  There have been cheating scandals at a number of top ‘exam schools’ like Stuyvesant High in New York City.  I would be very surprised if there were any first-generation Chinese students who cheated.

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