Little Soldiers/ posted in: Book Review, Reading Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve by Lenora Chu
on September 19th 2017
Genres: Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs
Published by Harper
When American mom Lenora Chu moved to China with her little boy, she faced a tough decision. China produced some of the world’s top academic achievers, and just down the street from her home in Shanghai was THE school, as far as elite Chinese were concerned. Should Lenora entrust her rambunctious young son to the system?
So began Rainey’s immersion in one of the most radical school systems on the planet. Almost immediately, the three-year-old began to develop surprising powers of concentration, became proficient in early math, and learned to obey his teachers’ every command. Yet Lenora also noticed disturbing new behaviors: Where he used to scribble and explore, Rainey grew obsessed with staying inside the lines. He became fearful of authority figures, and also developed a habit of obeisance outside of school. “If you want me to do it, I’ll do it,” he told a stranger who’d asked whether he liked to sing.
What was happening behind closed classroom doors? Driven by parental anxiety, Lenora embarked on a journalistic mission to discover: What price do the Chinese pay to produce their “smart” kids? How hard should the rest of us work to stay ahead of the global curve? And, ultimately, is China’s school system one the West should emulate?
She pulls the curtain back on a military-like education system, in which even the youngest kids submit to high-stakes tests, and parents are crippled by the pressure to compete (and sometimes to pay bribes). Yet, as mother-and-son reach new milestones, Lenora uncovers surprising nuggets of wisdom, such as the upside of student shame, how competition can motivate achievement, and why a cultural belief in hard work over innate talent gives the Chinese an advantage.
Lively and intimate, beautifully written and reported, Little Soldiers challenges our assumptions and asks us to reconsider the true value and purpose of education.
The author is the first generation American daughter of Chinese immigrants. She had a hard time reconciling her parents’ attitude toward education with her American school experiences. Now she and her American husband moved to Shanghai just in time for their oldest child to join the Chinese school system at age 3. Should he go to the state school or should they send him to an international school?
The book follows the first few years of Rainey’s Chinese education. It both affirms and challenges what the author thought she knew about Chinese education. From the first days when the children are continually threatened by the teachers with arrest or not being allowed to see their parents again if they don’t sit still to the teenage years and the national obsession with the college entrance test, she examines the effect of authoritarian teaching. The results surprised her.
I come from a family of teachers. What I learned from this book is that being a teacher in China is way better than being a teacher in the U.S.
- Teachers are to be highly respected. The proper response to a request by a teacher to a parent is, “Yes, teacher. You work so hard, teacher.”
- Bribery and gift gifting to teachers are both expected and illegal. These aren’t little gifts either. Vacations, gift cards with a month’s salary on it, and luxury goods are considered appropriate.
She talks about the other downsides of Chinese teaching, besides the threats.
- Force feeding children
- Public shaming
- No help for special needs kids
- Crushing amounts of homework and additional classes with tutors that start as young as age 3
- Indoctrination in Chinese nationalism and communism
- Rote rule following and stifling of creatively
On the plus side, there is:
- Well behaved children who respect their elders
- Fluency in written and spoken Mandarin and English before high school age
- Advanced math skills
She talks to migrant parents who have left children at home in the rural areas of China in order to be able to afford their education. She talks to teenagers who are preparing for the college entrance exams and have differing takes on how to get ahead.
Ultimately she decides to leave Rainey in Chinese school up until 6th grade if he is still doing well. He will learn Mandarin almost fully by then and be strong in math. He will escape the pressures of the high school and college entrance exams that can crush students. They will continue to preach thinking for himself at home.
I did enjoy this look at education across China. I’d recommend it for anyone interested in educational theory. The narration was very well done in both Chinese and English.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- Books Set in Asia
- POC authors