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Dave Poyer: Beijing's Napoleon Dynamites

Expats: Voices from far away

BEIJING - As I enter my seventh month of teaching in China, I must report the fascinating things I find regarding my dear Chinese pupils.
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I've had the opportunity to see an amazing cross-section of the Chinese educational system, teaching English at every level from grade school to grad school.

The cultural differences shock me so severely, I must share them. I'll focus on middle school and high school, otherwise I could write a book on this matter.

Unlike America, where kids seem to be asked to grow up faster and faster, kids here are free to be kids. They are at liberty to enjoy their innocence without the looming specters of sex, drugs, and violence in their lives. The girls don't feel the pressure to look perfect, just like the boys don't feel the need to be macho.

I find myself wishing that some of these pressures could be alleviated for our wonderful guys and ladies in school back home.

Young women walk down the street holding hands with their gal pals. It's perfectly innocent. There's no shock value or "making a statement" involved. They have no worries about name-calling or receiving grief over their sexual orientation.

There's also no dating in high school. No students lament over not having a date for prom. They don't do school dances here. I still can't figure out how the country that once accounted for one-third of the world's population could have such conservative social practices.

Everyone wears the same school-issue two-piece tracksuit.

There's no pressure for kids to buy fancy clothes to keep up with wealthier classmates. If anything, the beauty pageant is over which girl can buy the fanciest turtleneck sweater, since that is only visible piece of personal clothing. The competition to look good is won by students who keep their outfits looking the newest.

You certainly won't see any Britney Spears clones walking around school with pierced belly buttons.

Schools even regulate the hair length for their students. Girls have hair that does not exceed shoulder length. Other schools demand pigtails or braiding for long hair. Male students must not have long hair. Tattoos or piercings are nonexistent.

Being nerdy in Chinese culture is not stigmatized.

I see plenty of big eyeglass-wearing, computer-game-loving know-it-all Chinese Napoleon Dynamites running around. Boys and girls. None get slammed into lockers or shaken down for their lunch money. Instead, they are respected and revered for their blatantly studious nature.

Even their lack of social skills is regarded with affection.

Being nerdy is to be cool here. I secretly wonder if the Chinese Napoleons have any nunchuck skills.

Kids here are very serious students. Many students will complain about class if they feel it was too easy. Some judge this by counting the number of new pages of notes they took during the course of your class.

Since 1980, China has enforced the One-Child Policy. So, 99 percent of people under the age of 30 are only children. Many are quite pampered and even spoiled. They have no siblings and therefore develop a close affinity with their cousins and friends.

The words "brother" and "sister" are often used to describe cousins. Almost universally, they speak fondly of their parents and grandparents; many often tell of the joy of having a family pet. My jaw drops when kids tell me they look forward to the weekend because they value their family time. Holy Brady Brunch, Batman!

Students have highly regimented school schedules. Not even college students have time left over to work part-time jobs.

There's no zit-faced teenager working the ticket booth here.

Also absent are intramural and varsity school sports. Chinese kids who are identified as talented athletes are cultivated from 3 to 4 years of age in separate special schools, part of the famed Russian-model Communist athlete training system.

But the garden variety student here will never know the glory of playing in or seeing the friday night lights of high school soccer, football or basketball games that are the staple of the U.S. high school and college experience. Not even club team sports outside of school have caught on here yet.

It's so strange to see a country full of slim, athletic kids who love sports so much, yet have no after-school varsity athletics in which to participate. It's especially striking since the competitive spirit among the students is so fierce. It makes me a little sad.

School is strictly a place to learn here. Not socialize. Not find yourself. Not play football. Not even to develop job skills. You learn and do little else.

I'm in awe of what I see, but I wouldn't trade my schooling experience for a Chinese education - ever. Couldn't work that hard.

Dave Poyer is an Albuquerquean who teaches in China.