Journalist Lenora Chu’s new book, Little Soldiers: An American Boy, A Chinese School and the Global Race to Achieve is being called one of the most informed on Chinese education to date. The nonfiction work attempts to parse out the complexity that is schooling in China in order to paint a picture of the broader culture. To tell the story, Lenora follows a handful of students, including her son Rainey, as they make their way through the system. What follows is a balanced, amusing look at Chinese education, the culture that surrounds in, and where it fits in a global narrative.
Lenora will speak at M Talks on November 11. Ahead of the event, she sat down with SmSh to talk about her book, the investigative process, and Louis Vuitton.
SmSh: It was an incident with your son Rainey while he was in school in Shanghai which sparked the researching and reporting that led to ‘Little Soldiers.’ Can you tell us a little more about how that process got started and what his school was like?
Lenora: It’s an elite school* with a waitlist a mile long, the Chinese jump through all kinds of hoops to gain a spot so I thought it was going to a be a great experience and was surprised [at the reality]. I started to think, how do parents make school choices? A lot of times we don’t really have a lot of data, we're just going on instinct or things that we've heard...I was also working as a freelance journalist when all this was happening with my son, and at the same time international headlines about Shanghai education being number one in the world started coming out. There was this sort of dichotomy, you had all these people saying this is the world’s best schooling and then you had all these other folks saying they're rote learners with no creativity.
There was so much being said about Chinese education, but what’s the real story? I felt I was equipped with the background to try to answer that question.
*School is kept anonymous
Lenora's son Rainey looking real cute (age 5)
SmSh: So when you first entered the classroom, did you go in as a curious parent or did you let the school know you were a reporter interested in writing on the topic?
Lenora: It was really both, I told them I was working on a book about Chinese education and that’s how I got into the classroom. But most of the access I got was through people who really believed in my mission, because it’s hard to get access to schools; unless you’re a teacher but even then, even if you’re a foreign teacher the visits are usually chaperoned and prepared. And so to be able to sit in the back of classrooms unsupervised was a gift and that’s how I was able to cover the stories I did.
SmSh: In ‘Little Soldiers’ apart from chronicling your son’s journey, you give readers a closer look at students of various ages, confronting various struggles. Do you have any favorite anecdotes from students who you felt taught you something about education in China?
Lenora: One character, in the book I call him “Darcy” I describe as “the boy with secrets.” He looks perfect from the outside, top math scores, teachers love him, he’s the class monitor, and he joins the party at 18 which is rare for high school kids. Even his hair is perfect, his bangs look like an ocean wave always.
Lenora and Rainey at Jing'an Temple
SmSh: Your research took you from Shanghai to a classroom in Boston. I've heard you say it seems like American parents are valuing math much less, especially when compared to Chinese parents. Did your time comparing third grade math confirm that?
Lenora: Studies show for family [early] education at home the Chinese will emphasize math and reading. In my book there’s a scene where a Chinese mathematician is telling me that you’ll see it in the park; grandmas are counting with their kids, moving pebbles from one pile to another. In the U.S., the focus is on reading before school and that accounts for the cultural difference and the achievement gap. I found a research study that showed by the age of 6 the Chinese are showing competencies that Americans don’t have.
It’s also true that the curriculum in Shanghai is more rigorous. They memorize what needs memorizing and then they move on to deeper conceptual learning. And I love that my son’s getting that.
Celebrating Halloween with the crew
SmSh: In terms of education China, you've concluded they know what they're doing well and know what needs to be improved on. What evidence do you see that points to this? How are educators and larger systems working to improve?
Lenora: If you look at the latest National Education Reform Plan, it says: create a fine environment for independent thinking. They know their kids are crushed with academic pressure and they worry about social and emotional competencies, as well as intrinsic motivation. It's clear [reformers] think it’s important for their kids to have these skills if they’re going to compete globally. Another thing they’re working on is expansion of the system. High school’s not compulsory yet and they also want universal preschool for at least one year. They’re increasing the budget about 20% each year, and it’s going towards expansion of the system.
SmSh: Why should readers in Shanghai, who maybe don’t have a stake in the education system pick up your book? What can it teach us?
Lenora: It’s a typical fish out of water story in China. They'll appreciate at least the first two-thirds where I need to give this gift and I don't get it right...but I think most of all if you have any interest in understanding this country, you need to understand education because it’s culture at its most foundational, it’s society at its most foundational. 260 million school kids, what's happening in that classroom, and what does that tell us? That’s what this book does, you'll come away with a much better understanding of the people you are interacting with.
Yeah, education is society at its most foundational. And also it answers the question: what's a better gift Louis Vuitton or Tory Burch?
Check out M-Talks on November 11 at 4pm, Lenora will be discussing her book and other juicy stuff. She'll also have some copies with her for purchase. Entry is 85rmb, 40 for students. Get your tickets right here.
To learn more, you can listen to Lenora discuss her book on the Sinica Podcast or read her recent op-ed in The New York Times, Will The Next Steve Jobs be from China? (VPN on). Look to her website to find Lenora's collective work.
Photos provided by Lenora Chu