I sit on graduate student examination panels in China. There is a terrible burden felt by most students here that is rarely felt by students in the United States. In many cases in China, the extended family including grandparents on both sides have invested and sacrificed heavily to support their child or grandchild’s education. Four grandparents' and two parents' security in old age often depends on the student's success.
If the Chinese student fails their masters or doctoral defense, the whole family fails. Instead of going ahead into a well-paying job in industry, government or education, that failed student will return to the home community and likely earn less money for the rest of his or her life. Education in China makes a huge difference in income. Unable to provide a secure retirement for parents and grandparents, failed students will live in an extended family where it will go unspoken, a silence that will remind them of their failure every day.
Contrast that with our American attitude toward retirement and education.
"My children will never have to worry about taking care of me when I am old," is a common saying of our older American generation. We are proud of now having a retirement that provides. We are not a burden on our children. With social security in place for over 70 years, the elderly in the U.S. are no longer the largest pool of the American poor.
But this statement—that we see as a message of freedom for our children—contains another unconscious message for our children as well. As much as we may praise them for good schoolwork, we are telling them that their academic success is not important for our survival. "Just as long as you are happy in life" is the message they hear. And that frees some American students from a motivation to work hard in academics.
American colleges and universities count the number of first-in-family to go to college; today most have college-educated parents. In China, many are first-in-family to finish high school, and well over 90 percent of Chinese students are first-in-family to attend college.
Taking care of parents when they are old is an obligation in Chinese society; it is a cornerstone of an ancient philosophy that has survived for two millennia. China envies our U.S. social security system, but has not been able to establish it widely in China. Aside from the limited state enterprises where income is measurable, it is difficult to intercept and tax income that often passes hands as cash at the end of each day.
China has brought over 600 million of its people out of poverty in the last 25 years, but has more to do. Recently, thanks to their new economy and a tradition of saving 40 percent of their income, more parents here are gaining the resources to tell their children that they are independent in their old age. Yet the culture of responsibility remains. The grandparents are helpful in babysitting the grandchildren and they have traditionally resided in the extended household.
But in the undeveloped countryside, the uneducated parents will still need support from their children throughout their life. Many without children will work far into old age. And many villages are losing all of their younger families who are migrating to the cities.
It is from the poor undeveloped zones of China that the students feel the most pressure. And failure can lead to suicide, something that almost never happens to a failed student in the West.
Our "G.I. Bill" worked wonders for young adults returning from World War II because their parents and grandparents were closer to the Great Depression and knew hunger. More American families lived with their elderly family members amongst them. There was a greater sense of responsibility then than in modern America today. Back then, being economically poor did make better students in America as well.
With growing affluence, each generation of Chinese students becomes less burdened and less likely to jump from rooftops if they fail their exams.
But is it a better fate to fail and not care, and live the rest of your life in your parent’s basement playing computer games?