Being an American student in the Chinese school system is a very… interesting experience. Take essay-writing for example.
Chinese students begin writing non-fiction essays in first grade, and you write about the dim, happy life of a first-grader – playing with friends, jumping rope, kicking shuttlecocks. But they start teaching you the real stuff in about fourth grade – how to write essays that make the teachers grading the tests happy.
A while ago, my Chinese teacher gave us an essay topic to write during class: “Sharing.” We were supposed to put our true feelings into it. While all the time thinking how stupid the topic was, I wrote an actually true story about going to an amusement park and being too chicken to go on a roller coaster, and how my sister shared her bravery with me by telling me all the reasons why I shouldn’t be afraid.
My teacher gave me 26 out of 40, saying that my examples weren’t relevant enough. Everyone with grades under 30 had to rewrite the essay. So this time I wrote an essay based on a little bit of truth – about sharing bubble gum and cookies on a plane with a stranger because both of us thought the food on the plane was disgusting.
I got a 28 this time. Apparently I complained too much, and I guess she thought there was no real need for sharing in this scenario. So I gritted my teeth and made up this insipid story about teaching my little cousin how to make fruit salad and sharing the happiness of making it and eating it together, and I finally scraped a 30.
Anyway, I’ve learned since then, and now I have several multi-purpose essays that I’ve been twisting and re-using for years. They’re 80% fiction, and are carefully designed to hit the right buttons.
Eventually I learned that any time I wrote about something fun, like birthday parties or pet hamsters, my essays would get low grades for the subject matter being not worthy enough or too self-indulgent.
So I learned to write made-up subjects like helping old people cross streets or giving my seat to a pregnant woman on a bus. Here, what you choose to write about is more important than how well you actually write about it. They don’t seem to be as interested in your ability to express your feelings about actual experiences as much as in seeing you get good marks on your high school or college entrance exams.
But somehow through the process of learning how to write this sort of essay, you start wondering whether the curriculum is trying to teach fiction writing through non-fiction writing. If they are, they’re succeeding. After all, with a few more years of this type of “non-fiction” training, I might become a great novelist someday.