This late afternoon, I was waiting to talk to my IR professor (one of the smarter that I’ve met). Someone else was in his office before me, who, from the sounds of apologetic self-explanations that I overheard, seemed to be in quite an awkward situation. Suddenly the door popped open, and my professor signaled me in, even though they clearly weren’t done talking:
“Hey Anh, I just want to have you with us in this conversation. Here is [can’t-remember-his-name], a student from China . . .”
– Who (not a FOB), very unfortunately, decided to use historical knowledge learned since the days of Chinese high school in his IR paper (Example of his non-cited claim: U.S’s post-World War II trade policies towards Japan was exploitative.) I was summoned in, clearly expected by my professor to echo his sympathetic concern with Asian students’ struggling transition from an education that, unlike the American one, “discourage analytical skills and perpetuate distorted facts.”
And I was like: “Hell yeah. I bet this dude thinks Spratly Island is China’s, too.”
Nah, I didn’t. That’s for another time.
The point of this entry is to dispel the almost universally accepted stereotype, by Asians and Westerners alike, that somehow Asian students are indoctrinated with what I’ll call “submissive thinking”. The reasons offered are all too well-known: rote memorization, unquestioned authority, and culture of test-taking, to name just a few.
But the more familiar I become with the American system, the more disgusted I am by this complete myth. Never ever in my academic career do I wish that “Geez, if only I had the critical thinking that those American kids have.” Granted, I was surprised to learn that Ngo Dinh Diem was a nationalist. Granted, I never knew that the 1939 pact between Soviet and Germany was not to “strategically postpone confrontation” as our history book says, but to jointly invade Poland. A lot of you probably had similarly disturbing experiences as a VN student overseas too.
But mark this: all of those are merely factual discoveries, and thus are not intellectually disruptive. We never knew Diem was a nationalist, or Stalin a dictator, only because we were never taught so – and that’s all there is to it, completely non-indicative in any ways of our capability to think. This is a crucial distinction. One can possess excellent analytical skills, and yet retain a utterly distorted picture of the world, simply because he was introduced to false facts. And yet too often people erroneously equate biased world view with non-analytical mind, and count it as evidence against Asian students. (Who lacks the critical thinking now?) Indeed, we can only convict students of submissive thinking if they are taught 1) “Diem is a coward”, 2) “Diem defied some US guidance deemed too patronizing” and was still able to comfortably swallow both facts without questioning.
Some others argue that the culture of unquestioned authority does not encourage students to think. I admit the existence of “unquestioned authority” in Asian school. But I found its effect to be the opposite. The American system is highly protective of individual opinions, which seems like a good thing, but has the unexpected effect of encouraging stupid questions, especially in high school. (Yes, there are dumb questions – my apology for shattering your kindergarten myth.) Students ask questions compulsively, even about trivialities that they could have easily answered had they allowed themselves the chance to ruminate over. Or they share carelessly, invariably prefaced with “I just feel like”, and always concluded by “You see what I’m saying?”
For the millionth time, large-quantity talk is mistakenly prized over high-quality silence.
On the other hand, the stifling atmosphere of Asian school can be perversely conducive to critical thinking. For the 16-something-me, who was high on testosterone, and low on self-restraint, precisely the expectation to not question tempted me only more, in the relentless pursuit of being the rebelliously and masculinely cool. (Hence my high school moniker and gaming alias: Quốc hổ báo.) And the fact that a frivolous question will be readily dismissed only forces you to formulate your thoughts more carefully, fortifying it with logic so strong yet so clear that even a teacher with his privileged position still has to reckon with. Add to that is the challenge to clothe your irreverence in words and inflection whose sarcasm can be clearly felt and yet whose insolence can’t be convicted. The entire ordeal, for me, proved to be extremely intellectual and artistic at the same time.
As can be seen, Asian students may have a terribly misguided worldview, but are nonetheless a critical thinker. The fact that they can very quickly catch up – or, transition, I should say – and excel academically in the American schools is the incontrovertible proof that their problem is not an issue of defect thinking style, which is much more chronic, and only a matter of factual deficiency, which can be cured rather easily. I am indeed thankful that American college provides me with a fuller world view and ample research opportunities – but critical thinking, please, I learned it elsewhere.
So if anyone dares to tell me I am less of a critical thinker than American students, I swear to God, I will
beat reason the shit out of him.
Oh, and don’t feel bad for the Chinese dude. He ended up having a presentation before class to share his story, titled “How I quit being a misguided Asian student and you can too.”
At this point I had to hesitate a little. I wonder if my stated view and experience is typical, or you guys have it differently? May be I’m anomalously skeptical, even too cynical perhaps, that my conclusions are drawn from a non-representative sample. What was your transitioning experience?
Here is a relevant article by The Korean, one of the coolest Asians on the Internet :D. He lived in Seoul until the age of 16, moved to Los Angeles, and from knowing limited English, worked his way up to being a salutatorian in two years. He’s now working in a D.C. law firm. This guy anonymously started this “Ask a Korean!” blog during his years in Columbia Law School, intending to answer everything Korea-related.
Overrated/Underrated: The Asian Way: http://askakorean.blogspot.com/2010/11/overratedunderrated-asian-way.html
Update Nov. 17: The entire part on the VN system was way too sugarcoated. I apologized for reconstructing reality to fit my predetermined agenda of trashing the American system and praising the Asian one. I should have deleted it as a decent nerd does, but I spent freaking 3 hours (that should have gone into paper) into this entry, so we’ll keep it here for now LoL. Sorry. Check out the Korean’s article instead. It’s fairer, and use general examples other than personal ones.