Last Monday night, I was treated to a dining experience unlike no other. I had been told that we would be eating at a special hotpot restaurant only for people born in after 1980 – the so-called 80后 (ba-ling-hou) generation. I had been told that the restaurant was decorated to look like a classic Chinese classroom of the era, complete with posters of Party leaders on the wall, lists of monitors and their duties, and all the fixings. Having spent several years in a corner of the Chinese educational system that seems to be several decades behind the more developed areas of the country, I was interested to see what the post-80’s generation thought about the Chinese educational system – and how it was transformed from a kind of mandatory, universal torture into a cause for nostalgia. As such, I awaited this event with eager anticipation.
On the night of the event, my Chinese coworker and her friends, coming from a cafe in Nanluoguxiang, arrived early for the 7:45 reservation. At 7:46, I got a call.
“Where are you?” my coworker said. “You’re late, and the teacher will be angry!”
“What teacher?” I said. “We are about two minutes away.”
“OK,” she said. “You might be fine. But get here quickly.”
I was mystified, but by the time I could respond, my coworker had already hung up. All we could do was run to the restaurant. We walked through the door to find a man holding a wooden rod standing in front of a blackboard and berating a group of young adults sitting at battered, tired-looking wooden desks (albeit desks unusually outfitted with hotpot burners).
With the sound of our arrival, however, he turned around and faced us.
“You are late!” he said. “And you are foreigners! Why are you late?”
I had not expected a “teacher” at this restaurant; I found myself at a loss for words. He turned around and threw up his hands at the crowd for a laugh; then turned back and addressed us.
“You cannot be late! It is against school rules. Sit down.”
For the next 45-plus minutes, the Teacher (as I started to think of him, complete with capitalization and lack of quotation marks) berated the ‘class’ (including – and especially – us two foreigners) in a manner familiar to anyone who has spent significant amount of time inside a Chinese classroom. It was utterly distasteful, painfully insensitive – and absolutely hilarious. Even for me, not getting 100% of the cultural references that the Teacher was throwing out at rapid-fire pace, it was one of the funniest experiences I can remember. Class dynamics, teachers’ punishments, politically-sensitive classes like politics and geography, making fun of classmates, drinking in front of students – everything that the Teacher did was right on the mark, a completely accurate nostalgic satire of Chinese education, and one where (unlike many things in China) seemingly nothing was off-limits.
We eventually ate, ordering our food off of a menu designed to look like a gaokao (college entrance exam) paper, with both ‘single-answer’ (What kind of pot would you like?) and ‘multiple-answer’ (What types of meats would you like?) questions. When we called for the waitress (服务员Fuwuyuan!!), she would not answer; we would, however, get an immediate response when calling for the 值日生 (zhirisheng, student on-duty). Students were called out for classroom behavior, and the Teacher smoked and drank in the classroom. In other words, school in China.
After dinner, there were several trivia competitions relating to cultural icons from the 1980’s and 1990’s – all far above my head. The Teacher, however, continued mocking his class in a manner so reminiscent of an old-school Chinese educator that I was almost unable to breathe due to excessive laughter. Eventually, however, the class was over; the bell rang, and after some pictures we went out into the night, laughing and reminiscing on one of the funniest classes we had ever attended.
Additionally, however, I was curious that the Chinese school experience – a twelve-year Odyssey of almost Herculean (indeed, Odyssean) focused singlemindedness (gaokao) and hoop-jumping (tests, barriers to entry, costs) shared by untold millions of students each year – was something about which these members of the 80后 generation felt nostalgia. Why romanticize something that was so painful to the point of wanting to reexperience or relive it? Was it simply the powerful bond of shared experience – of having been through the wringer together, and, as such, having so much in common specific to this experience that the desire to be part of the group trumps the difficulty and pain of the experience itself? Is the Chinese educational system such a powerful form of control that it defines and shapes students’ lives long after they graduate – to the point that they feel compelled to return to this period in their life, live by and through this set of shared cultural reference points, and, in doing so, feel more intensively happy and fulfilled?
Who knows: perhaps the obsessive and occasionally mind-numbing rote and ritual and intensive, endless focus central to Chinese education is, in at least one aspect, more successful than the American system: I certainly feel little to no nostalgia for elementary, middle, or high school. Perhaps it is because my post-high school life has been extremely fulfilling; I’ve been inordinately lucky to have been able to share a variety of amazing experiences with many amazing people. But what, ultimately, does this 80后 nostalgia for school say about the Chinese and American systems of education? What values can be gleaned from each? And in my home country, how can we make Americans place greater value on (and show greater respect for) education?
Or maybe the 80后 generation was simply drawn to the restaurant by the hotpot. Perhaps we should simply provide hotpot in American schools. At the very least, we could teach American children to love (not fear) vegetables.