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Lesson from a Pool in Wenzhou: Opportunities for Chinese Students in American High Schools

“Wait!” commanded the Chinese teenage boy as he stood and came towards me. I was heading for what I hoped was my daily exercise, a quick swim in the hotel pool, while traveling through China. However, on this particular day in Wenzhou, the young man responsible for guarding the pool clearly wanted to stop me before I jumped in. I glanced his way with a quizzical look before he added, “You must have a swimming cap.” I responded with the typical American response, “Why?” Having obviously studied English, he offered a more extensive explanation, “We don’t want hair in the pool.”

To fully appreciate this story, you must have the whole picture. On top of a nearly 6’4″, slightly over 250 pounds frame, my clean-shaven, bald head makes for a hard-to-miss image, particularly in China. Nevertheless, the absence of head hair apparently did not register with the young man.” So, I repeated my question and quickly got the same answer with even more conviction. I decided to try a universal form of communication practiced during many years of China travel. I pointed directly to my bald head and offered a look that was intended to say, “Does this make any difference?” Our cross-cultural, multidimensional communication effectively ended when he said definitively, “It’s the rule!”

I deferred to the pool standard, grabbed a swimming cap and got my exercise. The end result was he was happy and I guarantee you I left no head hair in the pool. Still, I often wonder if the boy working at the pool will ever grow up to own the hotel. Actually, we know he probably won’t. One of the essential skills of a well-educated individual who becomes a leader or person of significant influence is mastering the ability to think critically and apply important principles to new situations.

The pool experience reminds us that each educational system, and culture for that matter, has its strengths and weaknesses. Some teach us to learn the rules and follow them religiously; others to challenge the norm and ask “Why?” Some require enormous discipline and focus on a prescribed curriculum; others allow for freedom of choice and pursuit of interests. Some require extreme mastery of foundational information; others focus on application.

One of the strengths of the American Christian educational system is the emphasis on the following key attributes: communication, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, cultural awareness, computer literacy and leadership. WAnet, an international student placement service, calls these attributes the “6 C’s plus Leadership.” The young man working at the pool was educated to follow rules but not to think. He does know the end goalno hair in the poolbut doesn’t know how to apply this principle to a new situation. Without the key attribute of critical thinking, our Chinese teenager may be trapped and destined to remain at his current job indefinitely. Most research tells us that students that possess the “6 C’s plus Leadership” attributes will likely be successful in the twenty-first century.

So, what developmental opportunities exist for international students in Christian high schools in America? I believe that international students, particularly from China, with both the strengths of their home culture and educational system plus the implementing of the “6 C’s plus Leadership” learned in America, will eventually become the leaders of tomorrow in their country. Logically, meshing the strengths of two disciplines should be better than one. I believe deeply that the American Christian school movement has a unique opportunity to invest in the Chinese teenager who can lead one of the most important countries in the worldand our emerging American partnerin world leadership. How then does that young man working at the pool become a leader of tomorrow?

First, we must find a starting point by evaluating the needed areas of growth for the Chinese student’s success. Throughout my varied experiences with Chinese students, I have noticed some very distinct patterns. While the Chinese teenager is often very disciplined, focused and hardworking, the “6 C’s and Leadership” are often missing. Identifying the areas needing improvement gives direction for building change that will greatly supplement the disciplined work ethic.

Developing independence in the American teenager is one of the goals of American parents and teachers. This independence and building of self-sufficiency in daily decisions empower teenagers to challenge themselves in and outside the classroom. The Chinese culture, however, has taught that academic studies (memorizing and reciting on exams) are the most important, and often, the only thing that matters. Frequently, Chinese parents have made most of their child’s daily and life decisions for them. Summer schedules are full of ACT and SAT preparation courses, and often involvement in cocurricular activities is discouraged for fear of cutting into academic study time. Chinese education trains students to memorize, memorize, memorize. Their world is one of preparing for tests, and especially the testthe senior year test that determines placement in the Chinese university. If an American university is an option, many Chinese parents determine, or have a great deal of influence on, which one their child will attend. Often, the goal is a famous American university like Harvard, Yale or Stanford with very little tolerance or interest in anything perceived as less distinguished. The pressure for Chinese teenagers to be extremely successful is often enormous.

The American education system promotes the development of social skills, academic responsibility and confidence. Because decision making is done primarily by Chinese parents, students often lack the confidence to assert themselves when stating a position or an idea. Now granted, speaking in a second language can minimize one’s confidence, but the fact is, most Chinese students do not sound or look prepared to be persuasive. They have not yet been taught to stand with confidence and share their thoughtful opinions and ideas in a convincing fashion. In fact, the most common answer to one of my questions to a Chinese teenager often starts with the word “Maybe .” This indefinite response implies the student might not be sure or know what he/she is talking about. American high schools and quality summer programs can, and do, instill ever-so-valuable confidence. One of my favorite educational experiences is to see young Chinese students gain “their voice.” The air of “I’m important, me, yes me” and “I have ideas, good ideas that I want to share with you” is what I love to see.

Confidence also is developed by adapting to a culture that a student has learned to navigate. Recently I conducted an experiment to test the Chinese student’s experience with cross-cultural communication and exposure to diversity. Standing in a heavily populated shopping area in Shanghai, I counted seven hundred Chinese people who passed me before I noticed a non-Asian looking person. The second time five hundred. The same experiment in an American shopping mall resulted in every third or fourth person with a non- traditional American appearance (Anglo Saxon, Western European, Hispanic or African American). Even our traditional American appearance has diversity! The non-scientific conclusion: the Chinese teenager has often been raised in a less diverse culture producing less experience addressing new situations or different people groups/cultures. The American Christian high school and community offers enormous opportunities for Chinese teenagers to practice adaptability.

How to best learn about other people and cultures? If only one out of every seven hundred individuals is different in my culture, then there is no substitute for actual interaction in someone else’s world. I can read about Chinese culture, but until I am actually pressed into a Chinese elevator or subway, I will really not understand the different cultural standard about personal space. Until I share a dinner in a restaurant in China, I won’t really understand how respect is shown in a different culture. Spending time in America gives Chinese students the cultural awareness they may need for greater global understanding and development.

There is probably no better place to learn how to adapt to American culture than living in a family community that emphasizes cooperation, collaboration and leadership. Most Chinese teenagers have obviously been raised in a single-child home which has its own predictable outcomes. The ability to collaborate, share and think from another person’s perspective is typically still in the developmental stage. Social skills may be underdeveloped due to a lack of opportunities. With less time spent outside the classroom or away from studying, the Chinese teenager has not had as many different people interactions to give them the ability to discern appropriate social skills. Additionally, many Chinese children have not had the benefit of a father physically present in their lives on a daily basis due to business schedules and work requirements that often take the parent to other cities.

When a Chinese student is in a boarding situation in the U.S., many schools do an outstanding job carefully selecting, training, educating and providing ongoing supervision for this setting. This allows Chinese students access to wonderful experiences. However, one of the enormous, additional benefits a Chinese student can glean from an American educational experience comes from living with a high quality host family. The opportunity to eat dinner with the whole family present (both parents and siblings) on a daily basis and discuss the day’s activities and world events is educational; more importantly, it provides for a daily transfer of values. Living in a home instead of a dorm affords homework help and supervision. The student who does not feel well has a mom available. Participating in an active American Christian family life is exciting and nurturing whether it is running to the supermarket together, taking the car in for repair on Saturday morning, catching a movie or attending church on Sunday. Being a part of a big active family not only enhances language ability at a faster pace but develops all kinds of social skills and grows confidence. The daily interaction with an American host mom, dad, brothers and sisters can actually be one of the most important developmental tools for a Chinese student in America.

Students can also be taught to work together. Living with three brothers and sisters for fifteen years is the easy way, but not everyone has that benefit. Studying in community in American schools also creates opportunities, and American teachers incorporate this model of education quite frequently. Requiring students to depend on someone else for part of their results is an important life skill and necessary requirement of adult life. Better to practice and learn now.

I also love to see Chinese students finally realize they are capable of creativity. They don’t have to be stymied by roadblocks; they don’t have to be limited by the single method of straight ahead, brute force or more effort. Through problem-based learning, students begin to accumulate the tools of imagination. They can be taught the world of problems is waiting to be solved if only they will learn to “think outside the box,” to look around the corner and ask, “What if?” Couple this creativity with group dynamics, problem-solving activities and the Chinese student begins to experience synergistic results.

Finally, what about values? Are young people born with the tendency to tell the truth, to share, to think about the needs of others? Anyone who has watched a self-centered young child, or many adults for that matter, knows the answer. To be good is not innate. In fact, history constantly reminds us the tendency of man and child is to lie, steal and be selfish and unkind. Values must be taught and, more importantly, modeled. Development of values takes time, it takes teachable moments and it takes the patience and modeling of quality parents who have had these important values carefully passed on to them. Values also must be taught or reinforced by schools with good values. Christian schools, regardless of one’s personal religion, do offer the young student a value education that is both taught and modeled. The partnership of a quality host family with the Christian school has a pronounced capacity to build a value system that empowers students to become respected adults of strong character capable of confidently collaborating with others and becoming leaders in their circles of influence.

What is the opportunity we (teachers, staff, host parents, leaders) in the American Christian high schools have as Chinese students enroll in our schools? We have been invited and entrusted by wise Chinese parents to help finish the construction of what I believe will eventually be one of the greatest forces for good in the worlda generation of amazing Chinese leaders. These leaders in turn will take their places of influence in one of the largest people groups in the world and will then further influence the rest of the world from their emerging platform.

Young Chinese students who come to us with a determined passion to work hard and a commitment to truly learn are allowing us to pour in that little extra (the “6 C’s and Leadership”). Students who accumulate the strengths of both educational systems and cultures are destined for greatness. They will be of strong and good character, persuasive communicators, critically able to apply principles in new situations, able to generate new ideas and solve problems creatively, work together effectively and collaboratively, effectively understand and appreciate other people and cultures, use technology for good and, ultimately, lead and influence for the universal good of our whole world.

We are privileged to add value to one of the most influential and important generations of leaders in the history of the world! What an amazing opportunity. Let’s get to work!

Image Credit: Justin Van Dyke

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Jon Keith

Jon Keith

Jon Keith, MBA, CAS, is Chief Operating Officer of Wheaton Academy (Wheaton, IL) and also serves as administrator of WAnet, a nationwide association of schools with HomeStay boarding programs. He directs the Summer English Institute (SEI), works daily with Chinese teenagers, their host parents and home parents.  An active speaker, …View Full Bio