Archive for March, 2009

The popularity of smart kids

Monday, March 30th, 2009

This article in the Guardian on how smart kids can’t be popular reminded me of this from the New York Times on why more girls don’t do math – particularly at the highest levels where the numerical arts are most creative.

Key quote from the NYT article:

“Kids in high school, where social interactions are really important, think, ‘If I’m not an Asian or a nerd, I’d better not be on the math team.’ Kids are self selecting. For social reasons they’re not even trying.”

And from the Guardian:

One girl told the researchers: “My friends are all really nice people and have [a] really good sense of humour, and they’re all really pretty and stuff, but because they do well in school they’re not popular.”

As far as I can tell  this situation — common in both England and America — does not  apply  in China. I’ve had to explain the negative associations of a ‘teacher’s pet’ to teenagers here and from what they tell me smart kids are the popular ones.

Ingenious Innovations

Monday, March 30th, 2009


Why hasn’t this caught on in the West? The pinned handkerchief is called a shoupa 手帕 and is mandatory attire for all preschoolers. Surely this is so much better than running around the playground with a handful of snotty tissues?

Learning Mandarin

Monday, March 30th, 2009

The other day, after school, in the park Max taught me a new Chinese phrase. He was running around wildly, waving a stick and shouting “wo gei ni sha si le” “我给你杀死了“ . I asked him what he was doing and he told me he was imitating one of his tongxue (classmates) . “Wo gei ni sha si le,” I found out later, means “I give you death.”

Women’s Day

Sunday, March 29th, 2009


They taught the kids a special song for women’s day. The holiday is a big deal here. All the mothers and grandmothers were invited to school for (another) special open day. After show and tell the kids served us oranges and honey water and thanked us for all we do.

I can’t figure out all of the song’s lyrics but the main part translates as something like: “I have a good mother, She works so hard. Come sit down and let me give you a cup of tea. Come sit and let me give you a kiss. I have a good mother.”

Max knows that it’s my favorite song. (How could it not be?) His strategy is to start singing it whenever I look pissed off.

Teaching Ethics

Sunday, March 29th, 2009


One of the first songs Max learnt in Chinese translates as follows: “Mother, father go to work. I go to kindergarten. I don’t cry. I don’t scream. I say hi to the teacher.” In China this type of overt behavioral propaganda is an intrinsic part of education. Since China is an atheistic culture, morality is fundamentally humanistic. To learn to act ethically, to distinguish good and bad, Chinese children are told ancient parables whose form is exemplified by the story: ‘The older brother gave the younger brother the bigger pear’. However inconceivably to the Western mind, no reason, justification or reward is attached to such model behavior.


Sunday, March 29th, 2009


A few months ago Max began his superhero phase. It started with spiderman and batman, but the obsession seems to be mutating. Today we spent the day researching the elaborate — and still pretty much incomprehensible — world of East Asia’s favorite superhero: Ultraman.

Though in almost all schoolyard games it is the Japanese that are the enemies, Chinese pop culture is heavily under the influence of Japan – nowhere more so than in the immensely popular realm of cartoons.

So this is what we have to look forward to:


Friday, March 27th, 2009


One of the most widely held clichés about China is that it counters American individualism with a deep routed collectivism. Supporting evidence ranges from the dramatic – the great mass gatherings of the Cultural Revolution where oceans of people would hold up the little red book and chant in unison ‘long live Chairman Mao – to the mundane –in Shanghai’s many wonderful parks one is almost never allowed on the grass. This annoyance is justified with an appeal to individual sacrifice in favor of the common good. There wouldn’t be grass if everyone were allowed to tread on it goes the all too common refrain.

The arguments are compelling but – after more than 6 years in China – I am beginning to suspect that the idea of Chinese collectivism is massively misunderstood.

China’s education system is intensely competitive. Overt expressions of favoritism from teachers and even parents and grandparents are commonplace. Students are publicly ranked. Count the number of stripes on a child’s school uniform and the well initiated instantly knows how well he or she has preformed. Every question has only one right answer, precisely because this is the only clear and fair way to determine who is best.

2 million minutes

Friday, March 27th, 2009

I haven’t yet gotten my hands on this – undoubtedly controversial – film, but I am deeply intrigued by the trailer:

For more info check out

Morning Rituals: Part 1

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009


Just inside the gates of the historic French Concession villa where Max’s school is housed is a child sized sink with 4 taps, a bottle of soap beside each. Next to the sink is a large basket of folded white towels. The children enter and wait for a spot. Once their hands are washed and dried they line up for inspection. A woman wearing a white lab coat sits at a table checking the children one by one. She feels their throat to see if there are any swollen glands, places a hand on their foreheads to check for fever, beams a flashlight down their mouths to see if there are blisters and carefully inspects both the front and back of the kids’ hands. Having passed inspection each child is handed a red plastic token which they carry up to the class and place in a little pocket hanging on the door. One day, last year, Max was handed a yellow ticket because his fingernails were too long. There are also blue tickets but we haven’t yet figured out what they are for.

Update: A knowledgeable friend has informed me that the blue tickets are given to kids who need to take medicine. I knew I would learn something from writing this blog.

Another Update: This morning, for the first time, Max was handed a blue ticket. The apparent reason was that he had forgotten his shoupa . Hmmm

Learning Chinese Style

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

learningHoward Gardner’s “Learning Chinese Style” is a classic text on the issue of global education. It’s hard to find online so I’ve posted the whole thing after the jump.