Zhibo is a weekly column in which Beijing-based American Taylor Hartwell documents his journey down the rabbit hole of Chinese livestreaming app YingKe. If you know nothing about the livestreaming (直播; “zhibo”) phenomenon in China, start here.

A few weeks back, I got this amusing question:

Translation: Your Chinese is really good, are you a nerd?

The pure accuracy of this cracked me up; there’s no doubt voluntarily subjecting yourself to the study of Chinese on a daily basis qualifies you for some kind of nerd-throne. But beyond a quick laugh, I didn’t really think much of it at the time. 

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about how differently studying and *nerdiness* are perceived in China and America.

Studying is a natural and frequent topic of conversation with my Yingke audience. After all, my primary appeal is being a foreigner who a) is here to practice Chinese and b) is available to help with English; as such, discussions of my study habits (or lack thereof) and English study methods are pretty constant. But what the *nerd* comment has me thinking about is how even on a silly time-wasting social media app populated mostly by people my age and younger, everyone seems to agree that studying hard is a good thing.

This is not normal. “Everyone seems to agree” is just about the last phrase I would think to use when talking about a live chat on the internet. Frankly, I thought “universal” online was limited to things like cute cats and slow-motion videos of watermelons exploding — and even then, there’s usually a fight in the comments about free trade and the globalist conspiracy to cause the death of the domestic watermelon industry.

Even on a silly time-wasting social media app populated mostly by people my age and younger, everyone seems to agree that studying hard is a good thing

 

Wake up, sheeple

But in China, “studying is good” is right up there with “more red is always a solid design choice” in terms of universally agreed-upon notions, and Yingke is no exception. Despite having a large demographic of Chinese high school students (people with more logical reasons to hate studying than just about any demographic on the planet), I’ve never seen a bad word about studying in the messages. Complaints about time and effort and difficulty, sure. But no one ever points and laughs at the person with their nose in the book.

And as I’ve mentioned recently, this community — while overwhelmingly friendly — isn’t free of nastiness. There are trolls who are experts in the fields of xenophobia, sexism, classism, general-practice mockery, etc. And yet, when I answer every question about why I’m in China with “because I want to study Chinese, u guyz,” no one ever even jokingly calls me a nerd, let alone any serious mockery. Instead, I usually see this phrase:

好好学习,天天上

(Study hard and you will improve every day)

But we all know that accurate, natural-sounding translations are boring. Anyone who’s spent any time in or around Chinese schools is probably familiar with the literal (Chinglish) translation: good good study, day day up! (好 = good, 学习 = study, 天 =day, 上 = up).

For your benefit — really, the world’s benefit — I’ve turned it into one of those office motivation posters for you.

You’re welcome

This isn’t some pearl of Chinese wisdom, of course; every culture has their own “study hard and be rewarded” phrases. Whether you’re reading Confucius or Plato, our foundational philosophers all basically agree that learning is good, that the wisest people are those who understand how much they don’t know, and that the best life generally involves some kind of never-ending pursuit of knowledge and/or wisdom.

And yet… our modern daily realities are so very different.

This is where stereotypes start coming out to play. Caveat time: I’m not here to tell you that all Chinese kids pop out of the womb ready to hit the books or that all Americans are lazy. Those stereotypes are dumb and unoriginal and can be disproven with example after example by anyone with Google/Baidu and five minutes of free time.

I am, however, prepared to admit that stereotypes exist for a reason.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to simultaneously own and consume this cake

It’s hard to dispute that China has a very pro-intellectual/academic-achievement-worshiping culture. I don’t mean that everyone here is naturally that way. I don’t mean that they necessarily always ACHIEVE their lofty ideals. This isn’t meant to sound like over-praise (or criticism). But studying hard — like, REALLY, uncomfortably hard at a very young age — is widely viewed in China as a non-negotiable virtue. Teachers are deeply respected and often feared. When kids first get to school — I’m talking kindergarten and even preschool here — they have the idea that they WILL be quiet and study hard put into their heads with a power drill.

It’s less “silent coyote” and more “shut the fuck up dragon”

That’s not a stereotype. I’ve seen this happen with thousands of new grade-one students. Hell, I’ve participated in it. The study-hard imperative isn’t just a mentality of the elite; the upward mobility factor of imperial examinations (the gaokao being the modern incarnation) has been the basis of China’s claim to meritocracy for centuries. Leaving aside how accurate that perception might be (that’s a whole other thing), there’s no question that “study hard and go far” is deeply embedded in Chinese culture from top to bottom.

Now let’s consider American culture.

Even this potato isn’t as loaded as that sentence

If you’re a regular reader, you know that I’m not a China Cheerleader. I think there’s a lot to love and a lot to hate. When it comes to big sweeping cultural differences — the roles of children and parents, attitudes towards marriage, xenophobia, etc. — I usually come down somewhere in the realm of “yeah sure America has plenty of problems but I’m essentially in favor of our basic ideas and philosophies over the Chinese way.” This topic is more of an inner conflict for me.

I think American children are taught a great many positive lessons. Hard work is good. Upward mobility (again, not judging the reality, just the principle) is within your reach. Being creative and thinking for yourself is not just acceptable, it’s encouraged. Being open to other people’s viewpoints makes for a better world. I think it’s wonderful that we teach our children this stuff.

But there are other lessons that we learn: Being smart is lame. Doing your homework sucks. Teachers are just the worst. Being the kid who wants to sit in the library during recess reading a book makes you a f@#king loser.

We — good teachers and parents, at least — don’t tell kids these ideas are good, but we do well-meaningly encourage the instincts that give rise to them. Kids want to run around and play. When you sit them down with math homework for the first time, they’re not gonna like it or understand why they have to do it. Every elementary school in America is covered in posters extolling the virtues of reading and doing homework, and yet we all have the same stereotype in our minds of a little weirdo sitting in some corner with a book while the normal kids play football.

Now look, I’m the proud survivor of an all-boys primary and middle school education. I was short and quiet and un-athletic and loved books and hated sports. I had a predictably awful time there but am a big believer in the whole *go through fire to become steel* thing. If we were just accepting some additional childhood teasing in exchange for avoiding the brutal pressure-cooker/dream-squashing effect of a Chinese-style education, I’d call that a good deal.

But I don’t think that’s the only price we pay for not pushing studying a bit harder. We have an increasingly obvious anti-intellectual culture in America. We make semi-serious jokes about being proud of not knowing or caring about any other countries (or speaking any other languages). We’re terrible at math*. We dismiss as pretentious and/or worthless any idea that can’t be immediately and simply understood. Despite boasting many of the best educational and research institutions in the world, we love mocking their graduates as Ivory-Tower Elitists who don’t know a thing about *real* America. And — moving closer to my real point here — we HATE experts. We hate being told what to do. We repeat the mantra *it’s a free country* so many times a day that we use it to reject anything and everything we don’t like — even ideas.

Pictured: freedom

From the admirable philosophical starting point of all people being equal, Americans quickly make the (questionable) logical leap to the idea that no one is better or smarter than anyone else — not even if they work to get there or, yes, are just naturally more gifted. People can be more successful than us, yes. Richer, no question. More powerful, without a doubt. But damn it, they’re not better than us.

Hence our presidential hopefuls throwing on dad jeans, trying not to order the too-fancy kind of mustard on their burger, and pretending to know something about sports and/or guns in order to convince us that they’re just one of the guys. One of the guys. This is how Americans prefer people that run for the most complex, difficult, and powerful position in history, a position that by all rights we should want the most brilliant/organized/willpower-having human in the country to have.

And not to put too fine a point on it, look where that attitude has brought us:

Let’s not let one illiterate tangerine-in-chief blow this (too far) out of proportion, though. I’m not saying that we should be screaming at five-year-olds about letting down their families and the nation. I don’t think it makes sense to post test scores up in the yard Starship Troopers style. And I certainly don’t think that teenagers should — realities of China’s college admittance situation aside — be forced to skip all the normal experimentation and rebellion that helps transform us all from moronic kids to slightly-less-dumb-adults.

After living in one system and working in another, I can’t help but wonder how America might be different if our early education involved a bit more tough love

 

But frankly, after living in one system and working in another, I can’t help but wonder how America might be different if our early education involved a bit more tough love; if teachers were a bit less Elmo and a bit more tough mentor. I wonder what my own math skills might be like if I hadn’t heard about how stupid and pointless math is all the time — if the first time I f@#ked up a simple multiplication problem, I had been ordered to do a 100 more like it until the rules were burned into my brain.

And at the end of the day, I wonder how much of a balance is really possible. Yingke makes me feel warm and fuzzy about China’s approach towards studying because it’s a bunch of adults saying that a good thing is good. But sitting in a Chinese middle school classroom watching a roomful of teenagers with (seemingly) no ability or even inclination to question anything their teacher says — that scares the life out of me.

Similarly, seeing Americans be creative and have all kinds of varied interests and exercise their freedom to criticize whatever they want is a definite warm ‘n fuzzy for me; but seeing half the country decide that science doesn’t exist and traveling around other countries where it’s expected that Americans are incapable of speaking other languages or reading a map — that bums me out.

Honestly, I don’t have a clue what the perfect Goldilocks-style education system would look like. But hey, I’m an American. It probably already exists in one of those Scandinavian countries like…um…

I wanna say Asgard?