As the end of the Chinese semester approached there was an emphasis on preparing for the end of term performance. Emphasis is an under-exaggeration, a better phrase would be a concerted military effort to drill four to five-year-olds.
In Britain we have the nativity play; in China, where Christmas is not an official holiday, they have an end of term extravaganza featuring synchronized dances and short plays in both Chinese and English.
My role was minimal, but in the weeks leading up to the big day my lessons were disrupted by last-minute practices and fine-tuning. This echoed my own memories of school, but I had the nativity play when the main attractions were the child that forgets his line; the one that waves to his parents; and, my personal favourite, the child that drops the infant baby Jesus. While the 'quest for perfection' is sacrosanct in both countries, the route differs.
If any Chinese child is out of time or does the wrong move, Victorian punishment is administered. Loud commands are bellowed in Chinese and I got a sinking feeling; it was as if I was watching The Deerhunter. Russian roulette aside, the performances gradually took shape.
Maybe I am easily impressed, but watching 30 kids aged four do three-minute routines in makeup and full regalia as a dress rehearsal rivals the efforts of Britain's Got Talent winners Diversity.
Colleagues in other sections of the school have seen similar things. When an American teacher friend of mine questioned the value of such drilling, he was told in no uncertain terms that the parents would only be impressed by perfection.
My opinion is mixed. I find it alien, but cannot fail to be impressed although the educational value must be questioned. China's drive economically and socially to match the West could be seen in these end-of-semester performances. Mistakes are not encouraged, they are castigated; the children are not free thinking individuals who can improvise if there is a mistake. They are drones whose sole quest is to show their parents that their school is teaching a collective identity and can put on one hell of a show.
Since I arrived in China, the foundations of Western democracy and longevity have been shaking. At the same time Chinese achievements have counterbalanced Western failure. A few weeks after I arrived, China launched its third-phase space rocket in its attempt to establish an international space station by 2020. At roughly the same time Britain fell out with its European partners while Middle America was trying to find a worthy rival to Barack Obama.
Chinese growth slowed down in the last quarter of 2011. By the end of the year it was expected to fall to around 9.4% compared to 10.4% in 2010. If you are familiar with these statistics I apologise, but if you are not, please believe me. This is no George Osborne rhetoric; this is a salient fact (although the government-run Chinese media cannot be trusted completely).
On The Huffington Post recently there was a debate from the Cambridge University Union titled 'This House Believes the West is Not Prepared for a World Dominated by China'. If you have not read it, I urge you to do so.
For someone like me who is actually in China assisting in the education of future international businessmen and women, I believe that the system is not preparing its youngest and brightest well enough to succeed on an international level.
Creativity is lacking, ingenuity happens, but spontaneity is suppressed. Without these attributes, which the best schools in the West have at their core, China cannot turn its economic power into a hegemony to rival the United States after the Second World War and Great Britain before the First World War.
My teaching will not serve to improve this and if I suggested change I would be politely declined and answered with the phrase, "it is just like this in China." These quests for perfection are not a bad thing, but in order for it to help this giant country become more than a Western conundrum, more magic individual moments are needed.
As Chinese New Year approaches I hope everyone in the West had a fantastic Christmas and New Year. Please let me know how you feel about the quest for perfection. If you want more information let me know, even if you disagree with everything I've said!
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