My uncle visited my family from the U.S. while I was in my second year of middle school. He decided to study engineering in the U.S. after graduating from college in China. Living abroad in a country like the U.S was definitely a unique opportunity for Chinese people at the time, and I was lucky enough to receive such an opportunity.
During my uncle’s visit, he told me a lot about the American education system. He said that Chinese students were facing more intense college admission requirements. Success for Chinese students was, and still is, purely based on their test scores. Special emphasis is placed on the gaokao – China’s college entry exam. Regardless of a student’s interests, his or her daily schedules are filled with math, science, literature and English classes since those are the subjects that students will eventually get tested on.¹ You can learn more about the experiences in Chloe Hou’s I Avoided the Gaokao article.²
Every morning, my desk was completely piled up with practice tests for every subject. Everyone was expected to practice problems incessantly. My evening schedules were also filled with personal tutors who would guide me through the subjects of math and science. The only thing that I was doing was learning strategies that would help me get higher scores. Expressing my personal interests in learning proved difficult. Through a combination of what my uncle told me, and the heavy workload I faced, I began to consider studying abroad. When I finally expressed my decision to study abroad with my parents, they agreed to have me go abroad, and experience something different.
After leaving China, the U.S. high school I transferred to had a peculiar set of demographics; over 90% of the students were new immigrants from China. A majority of students had a severe disadvantage in learning as a result of insufficient English skills, and culture awareness. To some beneficial extent, most of the school teachers were Chinese. I truly appreciated the supportive approach they took, and the help they gave me during my first year in the U.S. As I approached my junior year of high school, my peers began to consider their intended majors for colleges. Engineering and medical fields were the most popular majors. My friends would tell me those fields guaranteed a brighter future since they had solid backgrounds in math and science. My interests remained in the arts and humanities, but I was denied from applying to any such majors since they were not considered proper fields of studies for Asians. I felt depressed and realized that the frustration I experienced resembled the same feelings I faced with the Chinese education while I was in China. To me, the repetition of frustration was futile.
During the second semester of my junior year, a mock trial project was assigned to my ESL (English as a Second Language) class. The goal for our class was to reproduce a court trial. Roles were given to my classmates and me, and the roles ranged from defendants to prosecutors. I spent days attempting to write and rewrite my opening statement. I learned the procedures of court cases, and struggled to find strong evidence to support my defendant in order to tackle the prosecutor. This experience really trained my ability to think individually and critically.
My ESL teacher inspired me to turn my passion into a reality. Our mock trial was different from other ESL class projects because it didn’t follow a traditional way of teaching English. For example, students commonly memorize a huge amount of English vocabulary without any focus on other aspects of the language. The mock trial allowed me to understand the way English functioned as language. It gave me a chance to utilize what I learned, and apply it to real life situations by letting me further understand my weaknesses so that I could individually build up a solid approach to learning. Little would I have imagined, but that one moment changed the entire course of my life by giving me a firm reason to stay in the U.S. and continue my studies here.
¹ Sharon LaFraniere, “China’s College Entry Test Is an Obsession”, The New York Times (June 12, 2009)
² Chloe Hou, “I Avoided the Gaokao”, American FOBs (June 9, 2014)