A Hymn to Failure and Life on the Periphery, or, 考试什么的都去死吧


The end of semester exams at most English Training Schools in China take place in February and August. The kids are taken either singly or in pairs to a room adjacent to the classroom and asked questions particular to the level they’ve been studying, which questions vary in difficulty; for example: To the 5- and 6-year olds: Is this your pen? To the 8- and 9-year olds: What did you do yesterday? And the Middle School teenage kids: What’s the most important thing you’ve done this year, so far?


Some of the students, upon entering the room temporarily designated EXAM ROOM, exhibit a lot of the physical manifestations of fear: heavy breathing, trembling fingers, dilated pupils. And with the younger kids, the 5- and 6-year olds, it’s almost enough to make your heart break and want to hug them and say, Hey, look, this really isn’t that important, in the grand scheme of things.


Your reasons for wanting to say this are based probably upon the fact you’ve been in China and have been part of the country’s education system long enough now to be aware of the great and heavy and terrible pressure a lot of the kids live under. Pressure enough to make some kids crack; in some tragic cases, like the eighteen-year old girl my Middle School students told me about, hang herself.


Shame, though, so many of the parents seem unaware of the effects of their behaviour, which behaviour includes Big Demands of their kids, the effect of hours upon hours in classrooms, then additional classes, lessons heaped upon lessons, homework upon homework. Some kids only ever see the Outside World through the windows of apartments, cars, classrooms.


An example of this parental lack of awareness and heaping of pressure upon child which particularly bothered me was when one mother over exam weekend with her maybe 8- or 9-year old daughter in tow entered the teachers’ staff room and asked her daughter’s teacher if she (her daughter) could take the exam again. The girl had been awarded 45 points out of a total of 50. She got 45! the teacher said, That’s a good grade. The mother, however, having none of it, further pleaded with the teacher to allow her daughter, who all the while was standing silently in her mother’s shadow, a slightly nervous expression haunting her face, to resit the exam. About seven minutes of pleading and the teacher acquiesced. Later that day, the teacher said the girl got the same mark, 45, but that to prevent any further hassle he’d added an extra 3 points to her score. These mothers are crazy! he said, his voice on the last word – crazy! – rising to a higher pitch, indicating, among other emotions, incredulity; an incredulity shared by the other teachers, which incredulity’s cause – the mother’s dismissal of 45 points as not good enough, her subsequent and stubborn insistence her daughter must be allowed resit the exam – the teachers at English Training Schools are so familiar with they’re pretty much resigned to it, which makes it a sad kind of incredulity.

6. How grades in China are applied, versus the sometimes obstinate wishes of students’ parents:

Main point being: If the parents want their child to progress to the next level – from, for example, C5 to C6 – it usually doesn’t matter a damn what grade, no matter how low, the student was awarded. And this fact, which is real infuriating for the teacher, is especially obvious in the English Training Schools, facilitated, despite the requirements mentioned at monthly meetings that only kids who passed the exam can progress to the next level, that kids must be a certain age to progress to a particular level, by management who, above all other concerns, (above, even, the desire to actually educate the kids), do not want to upset the parents so much that the parents decide, Fuck it, 算了, we’ll take our kid to a different school, a decision which would result in less filthy lucre – and that’s the clincher, ultimately: money. Moloch, moloch. 我爱钱.

The experience is deeply dispiriting. The exams and the assessments of each individual student you’ve spent a good deal of your time on don’t really matter, in the end, if the parents choose to ignore them, and if the school’s management allows (they usually do) this turning-of-blind-eyes. A consequence is that classrooms, which could be healthy, often contain one, two, three or more kids who are in no way suited to the level they’re studying at, can’t grasp the language, don’t understand at all, and so don’t learn, and some of them, because they can’t understand and are therefore bored, disrupt the class.

The school’s management and also the Chinese teachers, whose job it is to ensure students re-sign for the next semester, are pretty scared of upsetting the parents; upsetting the parents might mean loss of profit.


Some of the language used by the school is Orwellian: if a student is not progressing very well and the Chinese Teacher feels she has to call the student’s parents to inform them of their child’s lack of progress, this call is referred to as a Happy Call.


Some parents, whose children are pretty intelligent, but who ignore their children’s intelligence and progress, ignore the 95% their son or daughter has been awarded and instead direct all of their attention at 5% their child missed out on. This, a pretty damn saddening thing, is easy enough to get a mental handle on. These parents, I guess, have been so hypnotised and blinded and possessed by the intensely competitive nature of Chinese society, of notions of Success versus Failure, that anything less than 100% is regarded as, well, a failure (95%? A failure?). And this is the world, hurdle after hurdle after hurdle of Crazy and Exhausting Expectations, some children wake up to everyday.


What most interests me about all this, however, is how a subcategory of parents manage, through a weird combination of cognitive acrobatics and obstinate insistence, ignore all the evidence – it’s written in their child’s Passport to Success, for heaven’s sake – that their child is not yet ready for the next level and should not progress, but instead plough on regardless, forcing their child like a round hole into a square peg up, up and further up through levels – C8, C9, C10, etc. – their English is not at all suited to, and that they (the parents) somehow believe this is the right thing to do, that this is helping their child’s Journey Through Life.

What most interests me and what I’d like to get a handle on, what I’d like to understand, are those cognitive acrobatics, the mental processes which guide the parents’ behaviour.


Rewind a bit: I said I could get a handle on the attitude of the class of parents who ignore their children’s intelligence and progress, but the thing is I still don’t really understand. I don’t really understand how the scowls they direct at their children after reading their exam scores – sometimes even 95%, I’m not bullshitting – are percieved by them (the parents) to be anything other than a real damaging thing, for the child’s growth and well-being and self-esteem and sense of worth, that is.

Then again, maybe this is an example of culture difference.

Here’s why: A group of Middle School students said that parents in China don’t express their love by encouraging their children, that parents in China believe you show your love by never praising your children for what they have achieved but instead by always demanding more. But I still can’t quite wrap my head around that explanation. Probably because I’d always thought (maybe I was wrong) that love, at least parental love, is – well, what is it? – a kind of balancing act between allowing your child enough room to become him- or her-self, encouraging them, cultivating their interests and talents, while, at the same time, advising them, guiding them through life…


Most parents unfortunately think they are responsible for their children and their sense of responsibility takes the form of telling them what they should do and what they should not do, what they should become and what they should not become.


How about this for a story: a student, a girl, say, who gets 100% on her exam and overall assessment, but her father, because others in the class have also been awarded 100%, is not satisfied, so petitions, successfully, to have the school raise the potential top marks to 110%, and has his daughter sit the exam again, and then other parents hear about this, and have their children sit the exam again, and not only the first girl but some of the others too are awarded 110%, so the first father again petitions, again successfully, to have the potential top marks raised to 120%, and this pattern repeats itself, 130%, 140%, 150%…

The children become pawns in a game played by parents.


Over one exam weekend and the following weekend of parents’ meetings, I was struck by the idea of celebrating failure, of writing a Hymn to Failure and Life on the Periphery. There needs to be more acknowledgement that failure is sometimes ok.


Wired magazine editor, Kevin Kelly, has explained that a great deal can be learned, in science, from things going unexpectedly, and that part of science’s success comes from keeping blunders ‘small, manageable, constant, and traceable.’ Kelly also warns against creating a culture that punishes falure harshly, because this inhibits the creative process, and risks teaching people not to communicate important failures with others.

What is also interesting is that Chinese culture has some useful proverbs related to failure, including: The great question is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with failure.


And so, the weekend after Exam Weekend, when handing out the certificates for Most Reliable, Most Interactive and Most Improved students, I said: Don’t be too sad if you didn’t get one and don’t be too happy if you did…


2 thoughts on “A Hymn to Failure and Life on the Periphery, or, 考试什么的都去死吧

  1. Amy Chua’s book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” is something of a paen to this style of parenting. Not that I agree with it but its an interesting exposition of the thought processes behind it

    • Yeah Bob I’ve been reading about that book but haven’t read it yet. Reading it would probably would be a good idea, at least to get some insight into the thought processes, as you said. I mean I can sometimes see the merits of that kind of parenting. Some kids here are damn good at piano, for example. But if you held a gun to my head, I’d have to say, No, I disagree. People, not only kids, need time to play, time to daydream, etc., etc.

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