Teaching for China

Two privileged Chinese graduates go to teach in the boondocks


Li Site and Yang Xiao, both in their mid twenties, went to Peking University and Tsinghua University next door, China’s Oxford and Cambridge. A degree from one of those can set you up for life. It’s the castle on the hill for countless students hitting the books all over China, only a tiny proportion of whom will get in.

On graduating, instead of applying for a job or a PhD, they separately chose to teach for two years at hardship schools in the countryside of far southwest Yunnan province, as part of the Teach for China programme – through which they met and became a couple, and where they now work, with desks next to each other.

Li Site taught physics (she was the subject of a feature for the Beijing Evening News), Yang Xiao taught chemisty. I sat down with them in Beijing, to find out why they went, and to glean their insights into China’s education system having experienced the best and the worst of it.

Li Site, what were your plans when you got into Peking University?

Li Site: When I took the Gaokao [university entrance] exam I wanted to be a scientist, but at that time I didn’t understand in the slightest what it meant to be a scientist. It just seemed a very noble profession. So I studied chemistry at university. In my last year I was applying to graduate schools overseas, for a chemistry PhD, and I was writing my personal statement for the application. But I didn’t know if what I was doing had any meaning. I had doubts about its worth, so I decided to join Teach for China and go to Yunnan instead.


LST: I wanted to feel I was making a difference. I thought I could directly help the children there, change their lives – that sounded more cool.

Yang Xiao, why did you make the same choice?

Yang Xiao: At Tsinghua university, my subject was fluid mechanics. After I finished studying, I was recommended to continue as a research student. But although my marks were pretty high, I didn’t much like the subject. I realised I shouldn’t do a PhD, and should follow my interests. At that time, I saw a poster for Teach for China, which really drew my interest. At university I had done some education outreach work, so I was very enthusiastic about the programme. I thought I should give it a try, and maybe I would find a different way of life.

What were both of your expectations before going to Yunnan?

YX: I grew up in the countryside with my grandfather and grandmother, while my father and mother worked away from home, opening a small shop. So I grew up in a village, but in reality it was a reasonably well-off area, no-one was too poor. Before going to Yunnan I figured it would be about the same as the countryside I knew. I had never been to Yunnan, and had no particular concept or imagination of it.

LST: I just thought, as it’s the countryside, conditions must be a bit worse.

And were they?

LST: Actually, there were two and three storey buildings, and it was better than what I had imagined. In Chinese media reports, countryside schools are all shabby and single storey, so I was surprised when I arrived. But the toilet was really dirty. When school started, they didn’t even have a proper toilet.

What was your daily routine?

LST: Preparing class and teaching class took up a lot of time. On weekends, I would also go to teach at students’ homes. In my free time I would go online, and eat out. Yunnan food was hotter than I expected. I couldn’t stand it at first. But I could also cook my own food.

How did you two come to meet and start dating?

YX: The schools we were teaching at were pretty close, so the Teach for China teachers would often meet up on weekends to eat together, watch films, and talk. We [Liu Site and I] would also go travelling during the winter and summer breaks, for instance to Dali. Then after we knew each other better, for over a year, we started to go out.

Have your attitudes to education in China changed because of this experience?

LST: They definitely changed. I always thought Beijing students were very lucky. I knew my education was very privileged, to get into Beida. But later I realised how unequal resources are. Now I know how far removed the school conditions of my students in Yunnan are from what my own were. I realised that for children in the countryside, if they want to have a life like mine, it’s incredibly difficult for them.

A lot of them think there’s no point in studying. For me and other people who went to a good school, if you feel like that then that’s just because you’re lazy. But if you want a colourful life, it’s very easy. But for my students, there was only one choice of upper school, it’s really tough, and you can’t necessarily get into university. The education system in Yunnan has no attraction to it. So many of them choose the easier route, to work, and don’t study hard at school.

Yang Xiao, what are your thoughts?

YX: My own primary school was in the countryside, then my middle school was in a township, my upper school was in Changsha [a provincial capital], and I came to Beijing for university. I studied really hard. Every time you move up from a small place to a big place, it’s difficult. The more I thought about this, the more I felt it was unfair. The students in Yunnan are in a small place, like I was, and if they want to go study in a big city then they have to work very hard. From experience I know how unfair educational resources are to countryside students.

My upper school was a really good upper school, and I’m proud every time I mention it. It was because of that school that I had the opportunity to go to Tsinghua [university]. But now I think that having these privileged upper schools isn’t a good system or policy. The teachers there are all poached from smaller places. This means that good teachers never stay in small schools. When I was teaching in Yunnan, a lot of the regular teachers weren’t all that great, and I wondered why. It’s because the good teachers are poached by privileged schools.

Besides inequality, what are your opinions about education in China?

LST: Some people think that in our [Chinese] education, we were imbued with the same views too much. Now we’ve read more books, they think our previous education was a kind of brainwashing. They hope that future students have critical thinking abilities. That is, not to blindly believe everything you are told, but to be more critical or to look at it from different angles. [In school in China] no-one tells you to analyse something, or question if it’s rational or not. When I was little, when I learnt politics or history, my teacher just told me to memorise something and write it down. I never thought, is there another explanation or possibility? Is it right or wrong?

We want to pass on this idea to a new generation of students.

How did the experience change you personally?

YX: Those two years completely changed my outlook. Back in university, I was going to become an engineer. But now in Teach for China I’ve found a direction in life I like. I certainly won’t be going back to study fluid mechanics!

LST: I’ve realised how lucky I am. I see now that the kind of people I knew in upper school and university were all rich and urban. All my female friends followed fashions, chasing after designer labels and other dazzling things, or going abroad. But two years in the countryside made me realise what is most important in life. Now, fashionable things have no meaning to me. Before, if I saw some migrant worker in dirty clothes on the subway, maybe I would have backed away from him. But now, I remember the children I taught saying that their parents went away to big cities to work hard. That made them like heroes, and my students respected them, so I think I should respect them too.

What else did you feel when you returned to Beijing?

LST: That the air is really terrible! And that the ambience and rhythm of the city is so much quicker. Everyone’s in such a rush.

This interview also appeared on the Los Angeles Review of Books China blog