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Mina Choi Tenison

Mediocre Perfection

Perfection at all Costs

Every time my fifth grader son prepares for his final exam, I’m awed. I’m stunned at the 450-character essay that he has memorized verbatim, with not a stroke or a punctuation mark out of order, and how little time he has during the exam to write out this very serious essay. I always tell my friends, especially my non-Chinese friends, “You’ll be amazed when you see this essay. It’s at an incredible level for a fifth grader. I don’t think anybody in the U.S. is writing an essay like this at age ten.” Again, it is a testament to the rigors of Chinese education where the standard is high and expectations great. Of course the pressure is also great: keep up or fail.

When I was in fifth grade some thirty years ago, I was barely learning how to write paragraphs, and just starting to learn about topic sentences. So I've been duly impressed by my child's demanding Chinese curriculum.

But recently, I’ve stopped looking at his essays with him. I’ve handed over the work to his tutor. It is she who now helps him to structure and edit his essays. Partly, it’s because my Chinese is not good enough, but the other reason is that my involvement has become a nuisance to my son. Why? Because fundamentally, what the school asks of his essays is different from what I expect of his essays.

A few years ago, when he started coming home with brief 250-word essay assignments, I tried to help. If the topic was "Lessons I've learned from life," then I would ask him to think back through his life experiences and write about some of the events that were important to him. Then he would simply turn around and say to me, “No, I’m supposed to memorize these model essays that other people wrote and write something similar to it. What you’re suggesting doesn’t fit this structure.”

Then another time, he brought home an essay he had written with an excellent grade. I read it and my face flushed red. I almost ripped up the essay and shoved it back at him: “These are all lies! Nothing you wrote about happened. You made it all up! How can you do that?” And he replied, “It sounded good. My teacher liked the essay. This is what I’m supposed to write. And look at my grade.”

The issue became so charged that I even had a fight with my husband. His sanguine response was: “This is how Chinese culture has been for centuries—you copy model essays or model paintings over and over again and when you’ve mastered it, then you can finally acquire some individuality and style.”

His answer dismayed me: “Isn’t originality important? Isn’t honesty important? Isn’t telling the truth important?” Furious, I contacted a few of my Chinese friends and asked them: “Is this a cultural thing? Do you think it’s okay to copy other people’s essays or make up things just for the sake or writing a perfect essay?”

The answer was a toss-up. Some people said it was okay and other people said it wasn’t. But one thing that they all agreed on was: if the grade is good, then is it worth making such a fuss? After all, isn’t it much better to do what the teacher wants? This way, he can excel at school.

Once I sat down and finally started reading some of these model essays, I had to agree with them. The essays were well-written and perfectly structured with not a single mistake. But somehow they didn’t convince me. They lacked sincerity and were not age-appropriate, especially for a ten-year old. They seemed like perfect essays, composed by a student heavily relying on his parent or his adult tutor, no doubt memorized over and over again, and touched up with a few different customized details to suit the topic.

Often, as my son nears an important test, I now see him doing the same: Writing an essay, which is then heavily edited by his tutor or his teacher; then memorizing the essay verbatim – every character, every stroke, with not a single comma missing; and then regurgitating the essay during the test.

I stopped interfering with this process because I don’t understand it. I think the days and hours spent memorizing other people’s essays should be spent writing one’s own, even if it initially comes out raw, amateur, and rough. My son, too, has stopped asking me to help; he knows that I’ll only lower his grade.


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