A day in the life of a Taiwanese student

Meet Wang Chi Ming.  He is a 13 year old Taiwanese boy.  His hero is Jeremy Lin.  He likes to play baseball, basketball and computer games.  His current favourite is Special Force, an online video game.  If he had his way, he would be on the computer 24/7, but is limited to mostly weekends (by his evil parents).  He is very outgoing with his friends, but gets shy and awkward around girls.  And no, he NEVER wants a girlfriend.

His schedule for a regular weekday is:

  • 6:30 am – Wake up.
  • 7:15 – 7:30 – Sweeping and picking up garbage from his school grounds along with his classmates.
  • 7:30 – 11:45 – Classes and lectures.  Everyday starts with a test to review yesterday’s work.  He’d better do well or his dad will skin him alive.
  • 11:45 – 12:15 – Lunch.
  • 12:15 – 12:30 – Classroom clean-up.  Wiping desks, garbage etc.
  • 12:30 – 1:00 – Nap time.  Seems relaxed, but he really needs it because he is always tired.
  • 1:00 – 4:15 – Classes and lectures.
  • 4:30 – 6:00 – Get home, start homework, eat dinner.
  • 6:15 – 8:15 – English class at a cram school.  He wonders why he has to learn this foreign devil language.
  • 8:15 – 9:15 – Math, science, Chinese or some other subject tutoring at another cram school.  Or violin/piano/singing/calligraphy lessons somewhere.
  • 9:30 – 10:30 – Get home, watch TV, play on the computer.
  • 10:30 – 12:00 – Continue school homework plus cram school homework.
  • 12:00 ish – Fall into bed and wonder why he needs to study so much stuff.

As you can see, this little guy has a pretty packed schedule.  Besides these busy weekdays, he also has various tutoring classes and extracirricular activities (swimming, guitar etc etc.) on the weekend.  No wonder he always feels like this:

Wang Chi Ming’s schedule is very common.  These kids work harder than an anorexic seal trying to survive in the Arctic ocean.  I was aware of the stereotype of hard-working Asians, but not of the degree.  Also, the ages surprised me. Kids as old as 7 and 8 have busier days than OJ’s lawyer’s used to have.

Compared to this, my days at school were a breeze.  There was no need for a scheduled nap time.  The homework was negligible and the evenings consisted of arcades and basketball.  Paradise when contrasted with the meat-grinder of education here.

Now, I know that parents everywhere want the best for their kids, but here that seems to translate into stuffing as much education into them as possible.  But one has to wonder, with the deluge of class to attend, when do these kids have time for a childhood?  It seems that they never just get to be kids.  Instilling a hard work ethic is great and all, but taking away a childhood to do so seems pretty horrible.

Not only are they overloaded with work, they are also expected to perform superbly at everything.  Parents want to see nothing less than high 90’s.  This mentality pushes the kids to study hard, but only for the tests.  The goal is a high mark instead of comprehension and retention.  This is clearly evident with a lot of my students.  They are getting fantastic grades, but ask them something simple out of class, and you get blank, vacant stares.  This drive for high marks also kills any interest that they might have had in the subject.  By the time they get to the cram school after their regular school, their caring for the subject matter has dropped lower than Hitler’s chances of being canonized.

Another result of these expectations is the lack of willingness to try new things and take risks.  Some Taiwanese people have told me that they really envy the ability of westerners to go out on a limb and just do things.  When I was in school (a millenia ago!) I remember being told that mistakes are ok as long as one learns from them and carries on, but here the mentality is “never make a mistake”.  If you do, you are stupid and a failure, and, as with all things here, you lose face.  This, of course, kills any sort of entrepreneurial spirit.  None of the kids want to risk losing face and looking dumb in front of their peers.  Because of this, they don’t develop the confidence that comes with taking risks and learning from mistakes.

A simple example of how detrimental this can be is evident when they are trying to learn English.  Part of learning a new language is  using what you know to try and express new things – thus learning more.  When you do this, you are going to make mistakes and it’s natural to feel a little self conscious, but it’s necessary.  Contrary to that, a lot of the kids just refuse to talk beyond the phrases taught in class because they don’t want to take the risk of making a mistake and looking stupid.  So, they don’t try to expand their use of the language, and end up retarding their learning process.

It seems that while education in Taiwan is great at producing highly skilled and adept engineers, doctors and other professionals (people with vast amounts of knowledge), it’s not so good at producing Henry Fords, Richard Bransons or Bill Gates(s?) (Visionaries and risk takers).

When I see the kids here trudging along with their oversized backpack and glum little faces, I can’t help but feel sad for them.  I’d hate to have been put through the educational system here, but I guess that’s because I have perspective.  If this was all I knew it wouldn’t be so bad, but I’m really glad I went to school in a place that encourages not just absorbing knowledge, but also developing as a person.  Just glad I wasn’t in Wang Chi Ming’s shoes.

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