下课！ (Xià kè) These two magic words signal the end of class. In a way, they also speak to wider characteristics of the Chinese educational system. In Chinese classrooms, students don’t even entertain the idea of packing up before the professor utters these two long-awaited syllables. Teachers hold their students’ attention until the last moment of class. This demands no particular effort either from teachers or students; rather, it’s a deeply embedded cultural tradition, and it demonstrates Chinese citizens’ unshakeable respect for education. Here at ACC, our teachers treat the program’s gaggle of American college students no differently, and hold us to the same standards of respect and commitment to our education.
Although I have experienced a Chinese classroom before during a high school exchange program and have studied Chinese language and culture for ten years now, I have not escaped the culture shock. At Georgetown, I am guilty of quickly checking my phone or emails during class and sometimes simply zoning out, certainly in addition to other types of classroom petty crime. Coming to ACC, however, quickly shakes students of those habits. In language classes of six or seven people at their largest (at their smallest, nobody but you and your professor), there is no room for mistakes beyond vocabulary and grammar structures (which are inevitable and even welcome by our teachers). In class, teachers call on students at will, leaving us no choice but to follow our class’ progression. And, sure enough, that split-second when you think about the dumpling restaurant at the center of your lunch plans will coincide with one of the many times your teacher asks you to use a complicated grammar structure in a sentence. 请再说一次。。。
Teachers here expect much of us, the least of which is paying attention in class. ACC students’ regular workload includes a variety of assignments and strict respect of a language pledge to speak only Chinese at all times. The language pledge and our teachers’ high expectations that we will respect it also highlight the importance of education in China. Obviously, it functions on the honor system, since we are not always around our professors. However, ACC’s pledge is stricter than other programs run by Americans who simply don’t believe students will stick to it. ACC students are expected to participate because they are serious about improving their Chinese. A logical way to promote that is complete language immersion. Thus, the program administrators and teachers expect that we will bring the same level of respect to our education as Chinese students. This expectation is never clearer than when they hear students speaking English with each other. In these cases, teachers express not anger but genuine disappointment and often confusion. In China, lacking respect for education is simply unnatural.
In many ways, however, the importance of education also helps ACC promote an innovative way of helping students learn Chinese. While teachers always expect respect from their students, the relationship between the two groups is incredibly relaxed and often fun. Skipping the formality of emails, teachers and students use WeChat, China’s widely used substitute for Facebook (among other things), to communicate. Our teachers send us emojis and laugh at (and with) us when our grammar or characters are off in the class group chats. Our teachers also accompany us to meals and trips into the city, offering much-appreciated explanations. With regards to academics, they hold office hours every evening for two hours, and give students recommendations on the best nightlife in Beijing after cultural lectures on Chinese New Year traditions.
So, 下课 and the context around it helps explain a lot about the Chinese educational system. It ends the class during which teachers expect 100% of our attention, and marks the beginning of the period during which teachers are student allies, working to help them continue their education of Chinese language and culture in a multi-faceted way. The way I see it, these aspects all stem out of a deep respect for education inherent to Chinese culture. So far, ACC has been the perfect place to explore that aspect of Chinese culture.