I read a book recently called The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi. It was one of the most well- written books I’ve read in a long time– an intense page turner that combined believable characters with shocking situations, leaving me with something to think about long after turning the last page.  I don’t recommend it for young teens or people who are squeemish about violence.  But if you are up for a well-written, emotionally tough read that will leave you thinking, I highly recommend it.

(Note: It is a companion to the book Ship Breaker, another beautifully written book which takes place before The Drowned Cities and is much less intense. If you’d like to read Ship Breaker first, and I recommend you do, check it out here.)

The Drowned Cities is futuristic, and in it Chinese peacekeepers are trying to stop waring tribes in North America from exterminating themselves. The author took, in many ways, the situation today between the United States and some sub-Saharan African tribes and moved everything west. An interesting concept, and one that made me think a lot about the future of the United States and China.

Like so many, I’ve been disturbed for years by test scores of American children and how they are falling steadily, especially in math and science, compared to other countries, in particular, China. Combine that with the US’s financial situation, and things have been looking pretty grim. I can see where Bacigalupi came up with his ideas.

This past week and a half, my family has had the pleasure of hosting two Chinese foreign exchange students– Emma and Jessica. (Not their real names, obviously.) They are 14 and 15 and are from, according to them, the best school in their province.

I have been impressed by several things about these two young women. First, they are very polite and offer to help with things around the house. They are well-dressed and groomed and speak English quite well.  Every now and then we pull out Google Translate, but for the most part we can communicate easily without any outside assistance.

I was amazed to learn that Emma began attending boarding school at age 4, and Jessica at age 6, and since they told me this, I have been trying to wrap my brain around what this would do to young children and their social and emotional health. My family did quite the opposite of boarding school– although technically it could, perhaps, be termed boarding school. We home schooled. I tried explaining this to them and they looked as horrified at our school choice as I felt about theirs!

Without ragging too much on public schools, I’d like to say a few things I’ve noticed about differences between home schoolers and public schoolers in America. These are generalizations, of course. Individual children vary greatly in just about every way.

Generally speaking, public school kids are way better than home school kids at getting into line quickly, being quiet in halls, sitting still at desks, and dealing with imposed boredom.  The last is a valuable skill in this world, and my own kids’ lack of tolerance for all things dull has been a concern. (For example, one of my children, in response to a college assignment: “This is boring and stupid. I’m just not going to do it.” I’m sure you can imagine how well that went over.)

Homeschoolers, on the other hand, are generally better at being self-motivated, working quickly, and finding creative solutions to problems. This is a natural consequence of the fact that, unlike public school children, homeschoolers have the option to finish their school work quickly followed by time to go do something creative that they enjoy.

Having the bulk of your time filled with tasks that are assigned by someone else leads to a lack of motivation and an inability to entertain and educate yourself.

In Emma and Jessica, I am seeing an extreme example of this. When I asked what they like to do, they didn’t even understand the question. “I go to school,” was their response.
“Yes, but what about when you’re not in school?”
“I go to boarding school. I am always in school.”
“Well, how about on weekends? Or after class is over?”
“I am in class from 6:30 in the morning until 10 pm. When class is over I go to sleep.”
After a moment of stunned silence… “How about weekends?”
“I study. My math tests are very difficult.” Jessica indicates a 4 inch thick test and Emma nods.
“What do you do for fun?”
They stare at me, and then at each other. Google Translate is not needed. They simply have never had the opportunity to entertain themselves. Later they tell me they don’t even pick their own classes. The government does that for them.

So, here they are in America for a month, and shockingly, they have free time!  But I have never seen kids with less of an idea of how to self-direct in any way. They sit on the couch and play games on their phones.  For hours. And hours. And hours. And sometimes they sleep during the day. When we get out a card game, they are quickly bored. When we go to the park, they climb with my teens for about 5 minutes, then wander listlessly or sit and stare at nothing. We were told it would be illegal for them to accept any reading material from us– which explains why they looked like I asked if they’d like to snort cocaine with us when I offered to let them read the books in our home library. They came for a month with no novels to read, no knitting projects, no stories to write, no sketch pads. Nothing.

I’ve seen this kind of behavior before, but in a less extreme way– public school children in America are notoriously poor at finding ways to entertain themselves and they, too, become bored quickly. (Thus their parent’s rush to get them back in school in the fall) They, too, rely heavily on electronic games and have often not developed any true interests outside of school. But typical American teens are like Da Vinci compared to what I’m seeing in these two, undoubtedly very, very smart Chinese girls.

Emma said something interesting to me yesterday. “I think your daughter, E, is very smart.” I agreed, but thought this was kind of an odd statement. “She made a movie?” asked Emma. I said yes, she did. Both girls nodded. “She is a genius.”

Really?  They have 4-inch thick math tests, but filming a movie makes my daughter a genius? I mean, yes- it’s impressive, and I happen to agree about E’s IQ, (not that I’m biased or anything, as her mother) but this conversation intrigued me. I’m used to thinking the Chinese kids are the geniuses.

And then, after putting that together with their over-the-top amazement that another daughter writes songs and that I write books, and with their own apparent inability to muster an ounce of self-direction or creativity, things began to fall into place.

They are impressed with our ability to think for ourselves. I’m witnessing Democracy v Communism in my kitchen. We are impressed with their math skills, and they are impressed with our ability to be creative.

Chairman Mao Zedong

Chinese schools are, as far as I can see, an extreme example of American public schools. Theses Chinese kids aren’t just good at standing in line, they don’t seem to know how to get out of line. They aren’t just good at sitting in their seats, they don’t know what to do when they don’t have a chair pointed out and an assignment plunked in front of them.  And they are so accustomed to the state dictating their every move, they are not able to even comprehend the question, “What do you like to do?” When I ask questions about their homes, their country, or their thoughts on why Facebook is not allowed in China, they answer like robots, repeating government-fed propaganda. When I ask for an opinion or idea, they are confused and unable to respond.

I used to be concerned that China might take over the world. And while I still have serious concerns about the US economy and our public school system, I am no longer afraid Chinese students will grow up to dominate the world. Because in order to do that, they’d have to get outside the box of government controlled thinking. And from what I can see, they are sitting firmly in the box, brilliantly waiting for someone to hand them their next math test, while Americans are coloring outside the lines.

PS. Should you want an excellent and very readable book about how the Chinese got to where they are today, (aka- about the Chinese cultural revolution), please take a day or two to read Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jang. It is truly amazing, and is one of those books I keep thinking about for years.