About mid-summer when the cucumbers in the garden were growing like kudzu, Grandmother would send the kids to the garden with all the buckets we could find. It was time to gather a large, fresh crop of cucumbers to make pickles. As you know, it is a labor of love to convert cucumbers into pickles. If you missed that time in your life, then you have missed something special.
When things in life didn’t go exactly as planned, Grandmother was fond of exclaiming, “Well, once the pickles are converted, they will never be a cucumber again!”
Her sage remark reminds me of the rise of the Chinese competitive culture.
Owning a home and a car, in that order, are two things today’s generation of Chinese aspire to. The problem is that the average 20- or 30-something in China cannot afford either item. This is more critical for young Chinese males, who greatly outnumber the female population. The one-child-per-family policy imposed by the government to control a population now at 1.4 billion led to the gender imbalance.
Incredibly, Chinese family ties are enabling the youth to cope with costs they could not afford based on the wages they earn. To buy a condo, you have to put 30-percent down. A Chinese child has an obligation to care for his or her parents, as there are no assisted living or senior care facilities in China. Parents routinely turn their life savings over to their children to make a down payment on a home, where the child will take care of the mother and father in their senior years.
It’s within this context that we can better understand the work ethic of the average Chinese student. Parents drive their children hard. The Chinese educational system is very competitive. The government provides nine years of compulsory education, culminating with middle school. Beyond that, students must take a rigorous high school entrance examination. About half of students are admitted into an academic high school. The same process takes place to get into college. Consequently, Chinese students go to class and then spend an inordinate amount of time getting tutored and doing homework. Without an education, they will never aspire to owning a home or car and finding a suitable mate.
While it’s true that a fraction of the Chinese population gets to go to college and earn a degree, these are China’s top students – and it’s sobering to realize this number is greater than our entire student population.
Shanghai has more than 6,000 brand-new gleaming skyscrapers. More people speak English in China than the entire U.S. population.
We can continue to take pride in being the leaders of the free world, but we should not rest on our laurels. China is a modern world power with the drive and ambition to match us, if not surpass us.
As Grandma used to say, “Once the pickles are converted, they will never be cucumbers again!”
Look out, the Chinese have been converted!
Dr. Steve Coker is Superintendent of the Houston School District. He can be reached at 456-3332.