Once I decided that civilisation is evil. The revelation came when a student told me what she wanted to be when she finished high school. “I want to travel the word as a translator, helping people learn all about Chinese culture,” she said, beaming with excitement. Just thinking about her dream job made her eyes light up. As she elaborated, she couldn’t help but smile. Juxtaposed with her usual, quiet self, it was a little surprising. At first I felt pleased for her. After all, she was undoubtedly my best student, and more than capable of studying English at university level. Her dream should have been easily within reach, but it wasn’t.
For the sake of her privacy, let’s call her Jia.
Jia had a pretty rough upbringing. When she was about six, her family began to be targeted by police. Her father, a practitioner of Fulan Gong, was outed by the local news. Overnight, the family became pariahs. After years of being treated like a criminal, just prior to the Beijing Olympics, he was finally imprisoned.
While he rotted in China’s brutal prison system, his family back home was shamed. Jia’s mother struggled, eventually being reduced to selling handicrafts on the streets for small change. At school, Jia lost much of her self confidence.
This became evident to me during an English language speaking competition. Students from all classes were invited to participate in giving speeches before the whole school. Some tried songs, others would tell a short story or poem. Many, however, simply chose to memorise passages from their textbooks. Knowing most of the students, I could tell the students who were simply reciting by rote. They had no idea what they were saying; they were just reciting a series of foreign noises, with appropriate spacing added. Jia was one of the few who not only prepared her own speech, but also presented it reasonably well. But, without a catchy song or dance to back her up, the crowd quickly lost interest. Within a minute or two of her taking the stage, the audience was louder than her.
It turns out that I was the only judge who felt her performance was a winner (I was also the only native English speaker on the panel).
A few moments after she told me about her dream, something jolted me to the realisation that it was impossible. The realisation hit me like a bucket of cold water. A quiet girl from a poor rural family with a leprous reputation had no hope of ever escaping poverty. I didn’t know what to do, so I gave her some cheesy encouragement, and acted as though she had a bright future.
Later that day, I saw agricultural workers labouring in the rice paddies. They were covered in mud and filth, labouring under the hot afternoon sun. I imagined what it would be like for Jia to one day realise that this was her future. After finishing school, how long would she spent knee deep in mud before it dawned that this is all there is for her. Perhaps her classmates that simply memorised their speeches would find this fate easier to cope with. For them, language was just another rote task assigned to them.
Schools in China are like factories, designed to churn out docile, unquestioning workers. I suspect this is the objective of schools the world over, but I think it’s only so glaringly obvious in places like China because of the nature of workers required by society. As the world’s factory, the vast majority of jobs happen to be in low skilled manufacturing or agricultural work. In other words, workers need to be trained (preferably from a young age) to consign themselves to long hours of repetitive, seemingly purposeless tasks. Like, for example, memorising and reciting meaningless foreign words. It’s not about gaining knowledge, it’s about learning how to keep quiet and endure mindless banality.
By the time I returned to the school (I lived on site), it was dark. Opposite the grounds was a massive chemical factory. It belched stinking smoke and flames all day and night, while across the road students studied more than twelve hours a day. The furnaces blazed endlessly. A cacophony of heavy machinery screeched and roared like hellspawn. Menacing flares shot violently into the starless night sky. After my depressing revelation earlier that day, it seemed like a joke in poor taste. Many students probably graduated from high school, only to cross the road and get plugged into the factory. Like a production line leading into the mouth of hell. So many promising children, dragged into that flaming pit for eternity.
Amazingly, Jia proved me wrong. She’s now almost finished her tertiary studies in Beijing. Last I heard, her mother has a steady business going, and her father was finally released from prison. In Beijing, Jia often suffers discrimination because she comes from such an impoverished region. However, it doesn’t seem to bother her so much anymore. Now she’s in love.
I love being proven wrong.