“Why aren’t you eating your noodles? Are you anorexic? You should see a doctor.
“Chinese people don’t care about mental health that much like Americans do. But if you’re in my school and you skip lunch, the consultant definitely will suggest therapy…”
I grimaced and slapped the chopsticks on the table. Shaking my arm fat that hung like a cow’s dewlap, I tilted my head at my twelve-year-old, American-born cousin and asked, “Does it look anorexic to you? Or did you just learn the word anorexia in a health class before school was over and fear that you might forget over the course of summer unless you throw it at someone?”
“You interrupted me!” she said, flaring a sincere rectitude in her eyes as she rolled them.
I know I’m not supposed to hit a child, but in the moment, all I wanted was to grab her by the neck and smash her head into her bowl of noodles.
At first, I thought that it was just my cousin, and a single case cannot represent a horde; then I moved to Canada and found that a lot of Chinese children brought up in North America are as competitively obnoxious, who demand immediate attention, praise, or even presents whenever it is inappropriate. Where their parents seem proud of their downright rudeness that substantiate a privilege in a linkage to their American or Canadian-ness, parents from a more affluent background in Chinese first-tier cities are beginning to exhort their children to be more like their distant relatives on the other side of the Pacific. Gone are the days when we endorse docility as educational gospel; the receiver-oriented culture is transitioning to be more speaker-oriented.
What exactly constitutes or justifies such a revolution? How far along in in this process is China, leastwise for more advanced, major cities?
In his bestselling work, “Outliers: The Story of Success”, Malcom Gladwell refers to studies in sociology and compares the different styles of parenting between the well off and the less privileged. Whereas the latter are more often intimidated by teachers’ authority when their children have low performance at school, the former challenge teachers and petition the school.
In a case study, sociologist Annette Lareau recounts the story of a child who was disqualified from a gifted program. The mother challenged the school and intervened on behalf of her child. She arranged for her to be retested and got her admitted. Lareau’s study shows that wealthier and more powerful parents inculcate their children with the impression of an entitlement. They encourage their children to question authority because, as the privileged, silence is never expected of them. By contrast, the less privileged parents are timid; they react passively and “stay in the background”. Where the rich voice demands, the poor listen and comply. Amid the unprecedented expansion of the Chinese middle class, the education of entitlement hence infiltrates Chinese families, at home and abroad.
Social economy aside, entitlement also plays an instrumental role in success. Drawing references from wide-ranging studies, Gladwell opines that intelligence, talent, and hard-work have only a qualified effect on success. The reality is that a man who scores over 170 in the IQ test does not strike a remarkable difference in work performance than does his colleague, whose score ticks around 120. What makes someone more successful is the understanding of the power dynamics and how to turn it in his or her favour. That is to say, other than genetics, the successful succeed because they know how to negotiate with authority and own the negotiation. But to own it, first, they ought to be confident and comfortable in making the demands to which they genuinely believe that they are entitled. That entitlement does not equate hubris but ushers us to success has enlightened many of us to readjust our own values and parenting approach.
Meanwhile, the awareness of active learning also constitutes our shift in attention from listening to speaking. Back in the 1960s, American scholar Edger Dale posited that the effectiveness of learning hinges on how active we are involved in the process. Based on theory, Dale created a model known as the Cone of Experience. At the top are passive learning methods, such as reading and listening, whereas at the bottom, learning methods, incorporating role play, debates and simulations, are more active as they require learners’ reactions. According to Dale’s study, active learners are more likely to retain the memory of what they have learned than passive ones. Many conclude, therefore, that we should talk more for the sake of active participation.
But does talking necessarily calibrate the active level of our involvement?
Talking alone does not constitute active learning. Rather, blind encouragement of talking deprives students of their participation as an active listener. Latest research in education evinces that as an important component to speech, silence is prerequisite for meaningful dialogues and learning. Unfortunately, however, it has long been downplayed in the western philosophical canon as a negative response.
Where democracy consecrates the belief in authenticity and making our true voices heard, little scholarly attention has been paid to the genesis of self, or authenticity; that is, an ongoing process of learning what we could become, becoming, then recreating. The myth of authenticity that self must be pure skips the initial stage of learning and wreaks havocs on classroom, where children are expected to be self-conscious of their uniqueness while the self is still under construction.
In addition, that which is unique does not warrant meaning or merit. Even Rousseau, the father of Romanticism who touted authenticity, confessed that being different does not guarantee being better. Granted, the importance of building unique characters is self-evident, but we should not verify the virtue of subjective experience in an overlap with objective learning. Professor at the University of Toronto, Lauren Bialystok, argues, “If truth claims are not verifiable by reference to external standards, then learning process emphasising student experience can risk sliding into a more global form of epidemic anti-foundationalism, according to which there is no truth or falsity beyond subjective interpretation”.
While the west is revising and rebalancing its approach, we probably should not be jettisoning our wisdom and plunge from one side of the extreme to the other too soon. Perhaps then we will not have that many imps, whose more pervasive presence is both galling and alarming.