Little Soldiers: Big Questions


The education of children can be a controversial and emotional topic, especially for parents of children in the K-12 system. As a parent and teacher, I’ve been on both sides of the equation in the U.S. and China. For Westerners, teaching and parenting in a predominantly Chinese environment can intensify these emotions in disconcerting ways.

It sometimes seems impossible to find things in common between the Chinese and the West: Confucianism vs. Age of Enlightenment, introversion vs. extroversion, democracy vs. communism, censorship vs. openness. The two countries are, in many ways, opposites. When it comes to how education should be delivered to kids, American and Chinese parents are deeply invested in platforms that fall on polar ends of a spectrum. Chinese parents want content and test scores. Americans are more concerned about their child’s experience. As with most things in life, the middle path probably points a way forward.

This idea, combining the best of both the Chinese and the American educational systems, is the earnest conclusion of author Lenora Chu in her book, Little Soldiers, which explores the successes and failures of the Chinese State system, and recounts her family’s choice to put their son into a Chinese primary school. If you’re a parent or an educator, (doubly again if you’re in China), the book can sometimes deliver an especially volatile emotional experience. More than once I found myself chucking my copy across the room.

Like my family, Chu and her family are American expats in Shanghai; we live on the same road, Changle Lu, in the Former French Concession. (I have never met Chu). Unlike my family, however, Chu is ethnically Chinese-American, and has the unbelievable benefit of speaking fluent Mandarin. Likewise, her husband, Rob Schmitz, an NPR China correspondent, learned Mandarin as a Peace Corp volunteer in his twenties.

I point out this fact about language skills – an acute advantage in China – because as partial memoir, Little Soldiers explores the challenges Chu faces adjusting to the Chinese way. For much of the book, Chu wants to have it both ways, which is perhaps a side-effect (or benefit) of being cross cultural. On the one hand, she makes clear that her Chinese-American heritage “made the Chinese and their behaviors immediately familiar,” on the other, she regularly milks her American readers’ sympathies when her family faces an educational system that is, by her own accounting, authoritarian, corrupt with cheating and bribery, test-obsessed, intentionally unjust, and, occasionally, psychologically questionable.

As an expat who chanced a move to China without speaking the language, without cultural attachment or ethnic familiarity, and with much older children (teenagers), I was suprised at my level of irritation when Chu expressed her personal frustrations about China. When she complains that her Chinese ethnicity makes her a “special kind of foreigner . . . deserving of unique disdain,” or alludes to the fact that she doesn’t understand Shanghainese, I found myself hissing, “Oh, boo hoo!”

I was only on page twenty-nine.

A third of the way through Little Soldiers – after recounting a tense conference with her son’s Chinese teachers – Chu launches into a strange polemic against the foreign expat community whom she identifies as “Americans, Brits, French, Germans, and Japanese.” Although she ignores the fact that the students in many Shanghai international schools are predominantly Chinese, she announces that these fickle expats “might have fled to the nearest international school,” rather than allow their 3-year-olds to endure the discipline, threats, and forced egg-eating of Soong Qing Ling Kindergarten.

The Chinese State school system asks everyone to march to only one beat

But not Chu! She’s committed to keeping her son in Soong Qing Ling because, dammit, he’s going to have math test scores just as high as the rest of Shanghai. His fluency in Chinese seems important too, but Chu’s primary focus in the book is math. It doesn’t seem to strike her as strange that she came out of a Texas public school, not a Chinese school, with exceptionally high SAT scores. (Full disclosure here: my husband runs the oldest and largest international school in China, and I once taught high school English there as well).

Anyway, I kept on reading.

Chu continues her critique. Many foreigners in Shanghai like to “dine out at European and Mediterranean restaurants,” she reports, and furthermore, they take “escapades” to Thailand or Bali! Shame! She concludes by throwing a couple of American women under the bus for “rarely” leaving their apartments “without their driver’s air-conditioned protective pods.”

Perhaps that’s when I threw the book across the room.

Certainly, the expat life she describes does exist, in spades. The convenience and affordability of travel to nearby destinations in Southeast Asia are great benefits of living in Shanghai, and I’d be shocked to learn that Chu and her husband are not traveling with their young family to nearby countries like Vietnam, or visiting exciting cities like Chengdu, Hong Kong or Tokyo. Afterall, Chu cited the affluent, well-traveled parents of Soong Qing Ling as one of the school’s primary benefits.

Furthermore, the Shanghai location in which both Chu and I reside is the most international neighborhood in Shanghai. Most of the areas where expats find themselves living in Shanghai, from Hongqiao to Jing’An, have enough Western influence to make living there comfortable enough. I don’t believe for a minute her family doesn’t crave a pizza from Bella Napoli or a Western-style salad from Element Fresh. Maybe she isn’t brunching at Jean Georges or M on the Bund, but they’re eating Western as well as Chinese, I guarantee it. In order to be, as she says, “another type of foreigner in China altogether,” one would have to move to a very different part of Shanghai, with fewer Western influences (and fewer expats). Her comments give the uncomfortable impression that she’s slightly envious of corporate packages that pay for international schools and personal drivers.

Contrary to Chu’s portrayal, most expats I’ve met who live downtown, even ones with drivers, also use the metro or taxis, buy street food, shop locally (including in wet markets), and learn the basic Chinese phrases needed for polite interaction. Most are quite adventurous (that’s why they’re here) and take advantage of extensive opportunities to learn how to cook local food and educate themselves about the surrounding Chinese community.

Many expats also have greater cultural hurdles impeding their full integration into China, including but not limited to: Chinese xenophobia and entrenched racism, older children (which make transitions more difficult), children with learning needs, and the language barrier. As Chu points out, Chinese has over 40,000 distinct characters and can take as long as eight years to learn. Yet most people I know who arrive with very young children want them to become bilingual.

There’s no question Chu’s son faces a cultural challenge in a Chinese school, but I was frustrated again by her dismissive suggestion that international schools offer a cushy escapist alternative to State schools. She seems unaware that many international schools in Shanghai have predominantly Chinese students (though not necessarily PRC passport holders). Western students who attend these international schools can also struggle to adjust to a Chinese culture that is sometimes insular – devaluing peer relationships in favor of tutoring and test preparation.

Navigating a school culture where students perpetually compare grades, angst over their low SAT scores (1400), sometimes ingenuously promote Asian and White stereotypes, and manifest a pathological focus on prestige colleges, has jaded my teens in ways I could not have predicted. It certainly has not been the smooth international experience we naively expected—and just to be clear, neither of my kids is a slouchy student with slouchy “American” test scores.

In Little Soldiers, the principal of one Shanghai high school tells Chu, “At least ninety percent of my students cheat.” Many people try to account for this paradox in China (read Gish Jen’s Girl at the Baggage Claim). There is simultaneously a greater emphasis on hard work and a greater emphasis on cheating. I can relate, perhaps as well as Chu, to the ways the cultural environment, with its widely different view of cheating, can be a hard pill to swallow. Alas, $500 worth of Coach handbags (Chu’s teacher gift) is not an option. To live with a high-schooler in China is to live in fear of a continental cancellation of SAT and ACT scores thanks to compromised tests. In short, I should naturally have experienced empathy for Chu’s situation, but her tone managed to alienate me instead.


Speaking of SAT scores, Chu feels compelled to inform us she was a national merit finalist and had rocking high SAT scores. Apparently, we can’t be trusted to infer the information from her Stanford education. What we can infer from Little Soldiers is that despite (or maybe because of) her upbringing, Chu is slightly obsessed with her 3-year-old son’s future math scores and has dreams of academic superstardom – even though she laments that her own SAT score was offered up as “a measure of her worth as a human being.”

Does the end justify the means? After recounting the lingering negative effects of the Chinese parental authoritarianism of her childhood, the answer appears to be a resounding, YES – as long as teachers take the rap for producing a well-behaved, mathematically gifted model child, leaving room for Chu to be the kinder, gentler parent at home.

So, yes, Chu’s book put me off. But like a gritty Chinese student, I persisted!

Although the bulk of her book implies that the negative emotional effects and deep inequalities of the Chinese school system are not necessarily working in China’s favor, her ability to whitewash these attributes at times surprised me. When a Chinese high school student named Amanda describes profound discontent, recounting the misery of feeling trapped in a relentless rat race, Chu responds: “But something is working . . . you say competition has ruined your mind. But if you look at just the academics, you’re a star.”

Chu cites statistics showing three-quarters of Chinese students suffer from yanxue, or hatred of study. She recounts how Chinese students are externally rather than internally motivated. She reveals that Darcy, another Chinese high school student (on the Communist Party track) learns to hide the inner, independent workings of his mind.

When Amanda describes the soul-killing effect of the ‘official’ Chinese interpretation of Merchant of Venice – comparing it to the passionate, inquiry-based reading of Merchant she did at an American independent school – I wanted to ask Chu, Now are you going to say something nice about American education? Are you still so impressed with China? But Chu offers no real praise for American tactics. Her reporting on China’s rigid and high stakes gaokao points to its problems with inequality, test stress, and cheating, but neglects to mention Chinese teens who are leaping off tall buildings over test scores.

Everyone needs to be in lockstep in China

Chu’s admiration for aspects of Chinese schooling is interesting when viewed through the lens of Jack Ma, China’s golden boy co-founder and CEO of Alibaba. Ma followed a path to success far more common in the U.S. than in China. He failed all of his required educational exams multiple times and then he failed the gaokao twice. He graduated from Hangzhou Normal University, a run-of-the-mill Chinese school.

Somehow, Ma succeeded outside China’s rigid system of academic mobility, without high test scores. In her pursuit of academic achievement (which I have a feeling translates into future elite college admissions), Chu never seems to ask herself if academic achievement is one-in-the-same with life success.

The best chapters of Little Soldiers shed light on the vast majority of rural Chinese children who are left behind by China’s system. (When people talk about China’s “test scores” they are talking primarily about Shanghai and Beijing). But Chu does not give socio-economic status appropriate weight and attention in accounting for high test scores in both China and the U.S. This primary fact – the correlation between high academic achievement and socioeconomic status in both countries – isn’t overtly addressed. Whenever Chu mentions the American system, she offers asides about mandated inclusivity without reflecting on the greater social benefits, a glaring oversight given that the Chinese shuffle off kids with disabilities to some very dark corners.

If we arrive back at Chu’s own math success (despite) her Texas public school education, we see that her parents took on the ultimate responsibility for some of her learning. In college, she majored in engineering, of course, but she became a writer. What if she had been encouraged to major in journalism at Stanford? Would she have been happier? Does it matter? The fact is that Chu’s parents didn’t leave everything to the teachers, which seems to be what Chu would rather do when she places her son in Soong Qing Ling. We all want schools to be solely responsible for test scores, but when it comes to academic achievement, families (and money) are probably more important.

I actually agree with much of what Chu says. Kids are resilient and are capable of far more rigor than many American educators generally believe. Memorization has been too quickly discredited by American educators — it’s a type of exercise for the brain, like crunches for the abs. Children must learn to do things they don’t like, and I’m not sure academic comparisons are all that emotionally scarring, either. The American overemphasis on self-esteem has erected some terrible obstacles for both parents and their kids. Life’s not fair. We might as well learn it early and learn it well. Yet the American focus on creativity and on building relationships between teachers and students is a distinctive characteristic of international (and independent) schools, and one still sought after by Chinese parents who hope to see their kids attend colleges in the U.S.

By the time I finished Little Soldiers, it was clear that my beef was mostly with the more personal aspects of her book. The best of the book is about China. At the beginning of Little Soldiers, Chu refers to Confucius as a homunculus residing inside the head of every Chinese, promoting harmony and dedication to the larger community. But when I closed the back cover, I was left with a question: How is the Confucian emphasis on harmony compatible with the insane competition spawned by post-Maoism and by China’s sweeping social inequalities?

Chu’s profile of the inequalities in the Chinese education system is impressive and fascinating, and the book is well worth reading. Despite the expat irritants, I learned a lot. If you’re a Western educator who deals with Chinese students and parents, the book provides invaluable insight into cultural forces that shape the Chinese view of education. Chu can’t address the paradox of Confucianism and competition, but I’m not sure anyone can.

Ultimately, in her quest to mitigate the behavioral effects of her son’s Chinese education, Chu does what anyone who feels conflicted does: She searches incessantly for signs to validate and affirm her decision to keep him in the State school for his elementary years. To me, her intense and reoccurring search for affirmation hints at a larger problem. Perhaps it’s the shape of her own education that is really in question.

Further Reading: The Atlantic (October 2017) Why Parents Make Flawed Choices About Their Kids’ Schooling

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Ellen Hawley says:

    As I read this, I kept thinking that only half of all Chinese (or any other group of) students can be in the top half of their year. So yes, kids are capable of far more than the American system asks of them, but if it’s all about competition, what do we offer the kids who aren’t the superstars? No competitive system can move them all into the top half of the class.


    1. Chu doesn’t really address that idea. Many Chinese students are heading to the U.S. or Europe for school — avoiding the Chinese system. There is a flood of high school students in the U.S., propping up the U.S. boarding school system. They fan out. On the whole, I think American educational philosophy is built around bringing up kids who are not superstars (not that it’s working — the American system is also riddled with inequality). As Chu points out, Americans can be uncomfortable with academic achievement. For example, you’ll see reading programs developed and created for kids who are reluctant readers, based on the challenges faced by reluctant readers, and an an American school might take that approach and apply it to all students including to their top students. Chu spends the entire middle section of her book highlighting the massive inequality of China’s system. Most Chinese students are still left behind.


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