By Lynne Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
I was part of a select team of sixteen teachers chosen to give a taste of an American-style classroom to Chinese students in a two-week winter camp just prior to Chinese New Year. Some of us were in Panjin, China, a coastal city about 350 miles north of Beijing. My role was to teach a Model United Nations (MUN) class to Chinese students familiar only with rote memorization and intense study required to pass China’s dreaded, all-or-nothing college entrance exam called the “gao kao.”
After gentle encouragement and much explanation about how the UN operates, high school students summoned their courage to attempt for the first time the cut-and-thrust of a debate about climate change, the subject of the MUN class.
“My country will be flooded and my people will not have a home,” said a petite Chinese teenage girl as all eyes in the classroom were trained on her. “My country is one meter above sea level.” Representing the Maldives, the student asked the US delegate, “Can your country help my country buy another island, some place to live?”
The US delegate, a Chinese teenage boy with a warm smile and a small swagger, responded, “No, we don’t have the money.”
“Your country is a big polluter and you should help,” chastised an unexpected voice from a younger Chinese boy representing Germany.
Smiles broke out as excitement rippled through the classroom.
“It’s not only about money,” interjected another Chinese girl. “What country wants to give up its land to another country?”
In an American classroom, this exchange about the impact of climate change would not be unusual, but we were not in the US.
These are elite students attending one of Panjin’s best high schools, a huge, imposing building with sweeping grounds, multiple basketball courts, and it is the academic home to 6,000 students. To be eligible to go there students must pass an entrance exam and their parents must buy, not rent, a home within the vicinity.
But challenging opinions—the mainstay of a Model UN class, which functions much like how the real UN operates—is not a common practice for Chinese students who are much more accustomed to writing down what teachers say without questioning it. In the classes, the students collected many facts about their specific countries, but had limited or no research experience in compiling and organizing only facts relevant to their countries’ positions. And the college entrance exam does not test English-speaking abilities, resulting in teachers not emphasizing its importance and students too shy to talk.
Despite their academic hurdles, the students’ work ethic and curiosity were formidable. They didn’t quibble about having to translate extensive English climate change vocabulary and they were eager to learn about international controversy, whether it was the Ukrainian crisis or the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
They were also fascinated to learn about the diplomatic role that the British actress Emma Watson who played Hermione, the smart, bossy best friend of Harry Potter from the film series of the same name, has assumed. She is now the UN Goodwill Women Ambassador representing women’s empowerment. About half of the students had vivid memories of her as Hermione.
By week’s end, student efforts to understand how to discuss their countries’ positions on climate change in English paid off and the kids began to have fun. One grinning, bespectacled Chinese teenager representing the US yelled “No way!” when a Chinese girl asked for financial aid to help Mexico buy new technology to clean its air and water. After realizing she could bargain, she retorted that Mexico would discount its oil exports to the US if the Americans agreed to pay for purchasing clean technology.
The students’ relentless drive to succeed comes at a very high price. In the school’s plain, stark corridors the only pictures posted were of those fortunate individuals accepted into Beijing and Tsinghua universities, China’s two most prestigious schools. Students’ days are long and stressful, beginning at 7:45 am and ending after study hall at 9:00 pm with little time for extracurricular activities.
But the “gao kao” juggernaut runs on, even as passion and creativity still bubble under the surface. After lunch, a quiet, thoughtful MUN student raced off to squeeze in a few moments of playing the piano in a nearby recreation room. Asked if he takes lessons, he shrugged, “I used to. I’m too busy now. I’m studying for the ‘gao kao’ and don’t have time.” (end)
Lynne Curry can be reached at email@example.com.