A few weeks ago, my Economics teacher showed us the movie “Million Minutes”. The documentary follows six students – two each in America, India, and China – through their senior year of high school. It is meant to illustrate the differences in culture, priorities, and study habits between “us” and “them”.
High school students in China and America rarely come into contact. The media and pop culture form our perceptions of our Chinese counterparts. Most sources emphasize the same academic stereotype: Chinese students are more driven, work harder, and experience much more pressure than American students.
I asked four high school students from Francis Parker, one from each grade, to write down what immediately comes to mind when thinking about a Chinese high school student.
“I generally think of very driven students that are highly motivated to achieve academic excellence.”
The Chinese student stereotype is not a bad one. In fact, many of the attributes that commonly appear in descriptions of Chinese high-school students are desirable for American students as well. Our Chinese counterparts are thought to be smarter, more diligent, and better at time management. We assume they have clear academic priorities and perhaps value their families a bit more than America’s youth.
“I think of a very smart, hard working student who is under a lot of pressure to do well by his parents. A student who works hard to honor his family.”
American students generally feel that the academic differences between Chinese students and those studying in the US are the result of increased pressure. We think that high school students in China are under greater pressure from their families and society, and that they therefore have a greater desire to succeed.
“A very disciplined student that works non-stop”¦”someone who values his schoolwork and family very highly”¦”a person who is usually under a lot of pressure to do well in school”.
Perhaps this perception is true for some students in China, but it cannot be used to represent the country’s total youth. Extended conversations with any person roughly our age will reveal striking similarities in perspective and interests, no matter the region of origin. China possesses the same diversity of students as America does. Students in both countries have similar potential. So why do we think Chinese high schoolers are better students?
“Hard working, under pressure, disciplined, devoting much time to working hard to achieve success. Little wasting of time (at least less than here).”
American students only see a microcosm of Chinese culture. Our perception of our counterparts overseas often comes from our experiences with wealthy businessmen from Beijing and brilliant college students. Pop culture only serves to cement these views, often portraying young East Asians as hardworking students who are concerned about grades more than sports or other interests.
Our perception of Chinese students also reflects foreign policy fears. In the classroom setting, we are constantly reminded of the fact that China will soon surpass the United States in money and power. We are told that Chinese students who grow up half a world away may one day compete with us for jobs and wealth. Our generalized perception is fueled by our parents’ exaggerated fear of our future competitors.
It is absolutely necessary to change the way my generation views youth in other countries. We should not immediately identify differences, but rather acknowledge our similarities. How can we expect to create a diplomatic atmosphere of cooperation and understanding if our entire lives have been an imagined competition against students thousands of miles away? The only possible way to erode accepted stereotypes is to increase interaction between Chinese and American students. Finding common ground now, as young adults, will make cooperation between the two countries much easier in the future.
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