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In 'Little Soldiers,' an American Mom Explores the Good (and Bad) of Chinese Schools

Lenora Chu was hesitant about enrolling her child in school in Shanghai. But she says there is a lot Americans can learn from the Chinese approach to education.

by Lakshmi Gandhi /
Harper Collins

Journalist Lenora Chu said both she and her then 3-year-old son Rainey had a moment of culture shock just days after he began school in Shanghai about six years ago.

“The first week of school, he was forced to eat eggs in school. He hates eggs!” Chu told NBC News. “I was incredibly upset.”

 Lenora Chu A. Michael D'Ambrosia

She decided to confront Rainey’s teacher about the incident, but things did not go as planned. When Chu confronted the teacher, she received a response she didn't expect.

“She said I shouldn’t question her authority in the classroom,” Chu said.

That was just one of the experiences in her son's exclusive Shanghai private school, which he attended for about a year before switching to a state-run school, that Chu details in her new book, “Little Soldiers: An American Boy, A Chinese School and the Global Race to Achieve,” which was released on Sept. 19.

The book examines the Chinese school system, exploring both the good aspects — which helped Chu's son develop strong concentration and early math skills — and the negative ones, which resulted in him developing a fear of authority figures.

While she and her husband originally had some hesitations about prevailing Chinese attitudes toward schooling, they ultimately decided to give it a try. Chu said a large part of their reasoning was because Shanghai is considered to be the center of education reform in China.

The egg incident and others in which Rainey was disciplined for acting up illustrated the different approach Chinese schools took concerning individuality versus being part of a group, Chu noted.

Looking back at her own childhood as the daughter of Chinese immigrants who moved to the United States in 1970s, Chu said she had previously thought she understood the culture’s hyper focus on success and grades.

"There’s an expression in Chinese, ‘chi ku,’ which translates to ‘eating bitter. The Chinese get that there’s a connection between hard work and success.”

“I was not allowed to have anything less than an A,” she recalled.

But despite growing up in an immigrant family who stressed the importance of high test scores, seeing the Chinese educational system in action firsthand was still filled with surprises.

In the book, Chu details phenomenon like the extent to which teachers are revered — and gifted with luxury items like designer purses by well-off parents — and the focus on conformity over individuality, which she witnessed when she saw students being instructed to draw in the exact same manner during an art class.

But while these were aspects of the Chinese educational system that she disagreed with, Chu said there were others that American schools could learn from.

“When my son does poorly on a test, he’s not upset,” she said.

“There’s an expression in Chinese, ‘chi ku,’ which translates to ‘eating bitter,’” Chu added. She said the concept refers to struggle, hard work, and reaching outside your comfort zone in order to reach your goal. “The Chinese get that there’s a connection between hard work and success.”

Another strategy Chu believes U.S. schools could adapt is memorization, especially concerning basic mathematical and scientific concepts, though she is careful avoid the phrase “rote learning.”

“You [then] move on to thinking about bigger concepts,” she explained.

She noted that the Chinese style of learning has been virtually unchanged for about 60 years and that it is just being changed by more progressive schools now. She also often works with her son at home to make sure that he has artistic outlets and an appreciation for subjects like creative writing, something Chu said Chinese children often start studying much later than their American peers. To Chu, the question that schools in the United States have to answer is how to create a middle ground.

But as the parents of an American child, Chu said that she and her husband know they want to pull him from Chinese schools before the curriculum gets too political.

“We agreed that there is kind of a hard stop,” Chu said. “I feel really good that I got to give him this experience. But as you can see, there were bumps along the road.”

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