Last night I had so much fun meeting Lenora Chu, author of Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve (Harper, 2017). She was reading at Common Good Books in St. Paul, Minnesota, a super cozy bookstore in a fun area near Macalester College. (I was in the Twin Cities for the day thanks to some Southwest credit and was visiting my friend Christine and her son, Sam.)
Little Soldiers is a combination memoir/journalistic look into China’s educational system. Chu and her husband send their oldest son to a local Chinese school in Shanghai and it’s been an eye opener.
She spoke about the differences between American and Chinese classrooms in her son’s top-ranked Shanghai school, but also in the countryside. Her anecdotes were fascinating, like rapid-fire nonsensical WeChat messages between the teacher and parents that sound so daunting I would probably throw my phone out the window. Or the time her teacher forced her son to eat eggs when he first started at the school. Speaking from experience, that would have been a disaster in my family; my oldest detests eggs.
She also spoke about the grueling exam system in China and how there aren’t enough university places for the 200 million students there, so competition is fierce. Children with disabilities are mainstreamed, but ignored and usually fall behind quickly. There are no special ed services.
But the Chinese system has lots of benefit. Children learn to work in groups and listen to one another. There is less unruliness in the classroom. I bet teachers at my kids’ school would appreciate that. And the best thing I heard all evening was that the Chinese government has been increasing its funding for education each year by 20%, a lot of which goes to teachers.
I can’t wait to read the book and actually bought a second copy to give to my kids’ principal. It’s always great to support authors and indie bookstores and our educators. I don’t personally have experience with the Chinese education system, but would have if I’d moved to China in 1998 instead of San Francisco. Those were my choices back when I was leaving Hong Kong.