Xu Chao is not good at physics. She has been making an extra effort to improve her learning. But her progress has been so little that the father, Mr Xu, is not happy about it.


Miss Xu wrote in the journal:


My father lost his temper yesterday evening. He yelled at me. He banged his fist on the dinner table. My physics irritated him. Or rather my poor marks in physics exams hurt him. I feel very bad. When father is angry, he keeps talking and he does not allow me to speak at all, even when he is wrong.


I bet Mr Xu was wrong in scolding the daughter, for Miss Xu has been working extremely hard at her short leg (a very Chinese term). She is still groping for the right way with physics. She has a gift for languages but she has a missing finger for physics.






This is a very Chinese term. At Chinese schools, if a student has a short leg, he is weak in a subject. The subject he is weak in is his short leg. It is rare to find a student without a short leg. One student does English well but he might be poor at maths. Another student shines in maths but he might be struggling with chemistry.


How to cure it?


To perform well in national standardised tests like the National Matriculation Test, a high schooler has to improve his weak subjects. Usually a weak subject is where the student has no interest. And he would not spend time and effort on it. A consequence is that the long leg is longer and the short leg shorter.


The key to improving one’s short leg is to grasp the spirits of the subject. Each subject offers training in a specific academic field. With learning a subject, accumulating knowledge is the first step; it is no further than the first step. To acquire the learning of the field, a learner has to focus on the thinking that has to be done using the acquired knowledge. Different subjects take different forms of mental endeavour to learn. The thinking a learner does when learning maths differs from that he does when learning English.


Take English for instance. A poor learner spends a lot of time memorising words and grammar rules and reciting texts, yet he does not go beyond the mechanical memorisation. A good learner puts the dead words, phrases and bits of knowledge into practice by reading, listening, speaking and writing. The process of using the language itself is where the essence of learning English occurs. This process is one where the learner experiments with the language, makes mistakes, reflects on them and progresses. It is challenging and can be tiring, and frustrating and humiliating in the Chinese context, where FACE might bind the learner’s hands and feet.


Of course, without the build-up of the knowledge bits required, practising would be futile, as Confucius the thinker cautioned us.


A good English learner is not necessarily a good maths learner. Learning maths involves the accumulation of knowledge and the application of the knowledge to problem solving. But the way of thinking and the content of the thinking change when he starts to do English. A learner should be aware of the subtle differences between the two, which reflect the essence of the subjects.



 a chinese family at table

We parents expect a lot of our kids. Expectation does work wonders. However, in Chinese culture, parents’ expectations can pressure the kid too much and therefore hinder the proper growth and development of the kid.


I have heard a lot of Chinese parents say that they plan to put their kid in a certain university. When the time comes to choose which field to study and which career to follow, some parents make decisions for the kid. Their decision is based on their own judgement without taking into account the kid’s interest and preference.


We have been brought up to believe our kid is our extension. Is this the right mentality? And does our kid belong to us? Is he our property? Is he a pet dog who is under our control? Should he live a life we expect them to? Is his life our life?


HARD QUESTIONS. But look around and think and you will find this domineering attitude is so prevalent among Chinese parents. We are raising the kid as if we were raising a stupid animal, as if he had no intelligence and no personal choices.


Chinese parents do need to learn some positive elements from their western counterparts. I have been learning their English language and I am seriously interested in their way of going about their life. There is a whole lot we Chinese parents should learn from them.




Respect your kid.


Your kid is a human being enjoying all human rights. He needs your protection and nurturing. But he also needs his freedom. He enjoys doing what he likes and it is human nature. Nothing is wrong with it when your son is watching cartoon which is, in your eyes, silly and stupid. What you like is not necessarily his cuppa. Respect him from the bottom of your heart. Respect his choice. If his choice does go against some fundamental principles, like cheating or lying, the parents should step in and say no.




Family conferences are a good way to show respect for your kid. It is also a chance where the members of a family share opinions and wisdom. Important family decisions can be made by consulting each other at a family conference. For example, the kid wants to spend a big sum on a game player. Why not discuss the issue? By hearing different opinions and views, the kid will see the pros and cons of owning the gadget. This way would be much better than the father losing his temper and dictating his BIG decision to the whole family. The kid would feel wronged and bitterness would linger among the members.




Nothing teaches better than interest. A common problem with Chinese education and families is kicking away the kid’s interest in pursuit of some practical short-term profit. In so doing, how many Einsteins and Edisons in the making may we have killed? And do we sacrifice the kid’s happiness for something we parents wish them to do, or for our vanity?


I do believe that the lack of ingenuity in Chinese culture has to do the fact that many people are doing what they are not interested in. No interest, no efficiency and no originality. If we were pursuing our interest, we would not mind whatever cost it might take to reach where we desired to go.


If we forced the kid to learn piano skills because many other kids are learning them, what would be the consequence? Would the kid enjoy it? Why should we expect our kid to learn English and speak it fluently if he found English boring and dry? A Chinese teen, Miss Xie, once shared one of her miserable childhood experiences with me in her English journal. Mr Xie, the father, had her learn and practise the piano on Sunday when all her pals were playing in the community. Miss Xie said that she hated the practice. “I hit the keys with tears in my eyes,” she wrote. “Whenever I think of the practice, my heart hurts.”


A kid is happy when he is allowed to do what he enjoys. With proper encouragement and guidance, his interest will grow and his physical and mental development will benefit from it. However, if the parents impose their will on the kid, the outcome will be detrimental to his welfare.




On the whole, Chinese teenagers are well disciplined compared to their western counterparts. I read quite often and almost every day there is some news of teenage violence and crime reported on it. Of course, not all the British teenagers are that way. But on the British media I read daily reports of teenage binge drinking, gang fights, stabbings and Asbos (anti social behaviour order). It seems that British teenagers are running wild.


The strength of Chinese teenagers is distinct: they are obedient and in most cases work hard at school. We are not aware of this strong point because we are within this culture and take it for granted. On Five Live BBC, I heard a show on which a Brit working in China told the hostess that the British should learn from the Chinese. The Chinese students are well behaved and show respect for the teachers, parents and the elderly, the caller said.


However, Chinese teenagers lack something that their western contemporaries have a lot of—the courage to stand up and assert themselves. In both of my classes, most kids are not good at speaking to an audience. I have been trying hard to create opportunities for them to practise addressing an audience. I hope they do better as we progress along. Without the ability to communicate and express ourselves, how would we compete against others and work with them in the global arena?


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