I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was this chubby, blond, sumo-looking kid growing up in Hong Kong. As you can see in the picture opposite, I looked very different…
As if looks were not enough of a distinguishing factor, I was also being raised very differently from the Chinese norm. From an early age (about 3), most kids in Hong Kong would start kindergarten and begin study in what was quickly becoming one of the most competitive educational systems in the world.
Competition for jobs and higher education in Hong Kong was (and is) fierce and linked closely to educational rank so there was a huge emphasis on educating children as quickly as possible.
This may have been the case in Hong Kong but my mother was of an altogether different, Swedish persuasion: kids should be kids and play outside for as long as possible. They had their whole lives to be formally educated. So while my Chinese friends were running through math drills I was tearing around the neighborhood in my classy red pedal car.
I have come to look at this classic East/West division as the difference between the “pressure cooker” and the “crock pot” approach to childhood education.
There were definite advantages to the pressure cooker style of education. Kids were pushed through school as quickly as possible. My Chinese childhood contemporaries were WAY ahead of me in reading, writing and math. I mean there was no comparison because I basically couldn’t do any of it until I was seven years old. I remember going over to friends’ houses and asking if they could play. And nope, they were studying. It was an early experience in rejection and I took it stoically, as a Swede:)
The Swedish model that I was subjected to was different and fell more in line with the overall Western style of education where you start educating kids a little later. Education then takes place at a more gradual (crock pot) pace. Western kids don’t catch up with their Asian contemporaries educationally until late high school / undergraduate studies. I was almost seven when I started first grade and until then I had only gone to kindergartens that basically focused on socializing kids rather than giving them an academic head start.
Which System is Better?
I was happily surprised to meet some of my childhood friends from Hong Kong when I was in university in Michigan. A few of us ended up at the same school and by then it looked as though the educational gap had closed some (although I am sure they could still run circles around me in math and the sciences). The fact that each of us had chosen to come to the United States for college education, was, to me, significant.
Many of the Americans and Brits that I have talked to are completely convinced that their universities are the best in the world. Maybe that is still the case. Certainly Western tertiary educations are still in high demand and are well-respected around the world. The fact that English is very definitely the world language probably has a lot to do with this. However, front runner status in terms of world educational systems will likely shift East as the balance of economic power shifts toward Asia. So the pressure cooker may win out over the crock pot in the end. For now, maybe a hybrid of the two approaches is the way to go…