When I was 12 years old, my family moved across the ocean to the United States of America. I was enrolled in a public school, where I entered the 7th grade in January, and left halfway through the 8th grade to return home to Singapore in November. Although I had made a similar move when I was 8, for just half a year that time, this would be the first time that I was attending school in America.
I entered class on the first day, a shy, timid, quiet girl. What stood out to me the most from that first day was how actively American students participated in class. Raising my hand and volunteering to speak in class was a completely foreign idea to me. At home, you were seen as either an attention-seeker or a “suck up” if you spoke up in class, so, naturally, as a child learning to find her place in the world (which usually means “fitting in”), raising my hand was a behavior I learned to avoid. I did occasionally (rarely) speak up in class, but it was through my written work, the good grades I received, and a form of divine grace that my teachers grew to like me, even holding me up as an example to others. I left the American schooling system feeling no different than when I entered, save for the fact that I had now personally experienced the infamous “cafeteria food” my friends and I so often heard and read about on our favorite American television shows and in our Sweet Valley High paperbacks. I left, as Rodriguez might say, without having developed a public identity (Rodriguez 1982).
Although I wouldn’t have known it at the time, I suspect that I viewed adaptation to the new culture (assimilation, perhaps) of volunteering to speak a betrayal of the culture I was so familiar with and would be returning to in a year. Yet, I could not shake the nagging feeling that I was missing something.
I grew up struggling with the idea of what it means to be educated – a struggle that continues to this day. The society I lived in, and that I still call home, viewed education as the way to “the good life” (having a job that pays enough for you to live comfortably), and my generation learned that it should be the goal of every student to go to college. With a father who holds a PhD and a mother who holds a Masters Degree, this view appeared, for the most part, to be echoed at home. I grew up assuming that I would be going to college – it was only a matter of how good a college I would earn a place at.
Each stage of schooling preceding college was often reduced to nothing more than a stepping stone, designed to bring you one step closer to receiving that glorious college acceptance letter (and then degree).
The mark of a good student was good grades and high rankings – this was, supposedly, evidence for one’s ability to think critically across disciplines and one’s possession of the skills necessary to succeed in life; evidence for one being ‘educated’. The purpose of going to class was to learn the information that would enable one to excel in the school and national examinations. The results of these national examinations, given at the end of each stage of formal schooling, determined which school you could attend next. Unlike in America, where one’s school from K – 12 is determined largely by location, in Singapore, students compete academically to get into the best school possible.
The result of such an education system is that the typical student, resembles, uncomfortably closely, Rodriguez’s description of the “scholarship boy” (or girl): One who “tends to over-stress the importance of examinations, of the piling-up of knowledge and of received opinions. He discovers a technique of apparent learning, of the acquiring of facts rather than of the handling and use of facts. …He begins to see life as a ladder, as a permanent examination with some praise and some further exhortation at each stage. He becomes an expert imbiber and doler-out; his competence will vary, but will rarely be accompanied by genuine enthusiasms” (Rodriguez 1982, 71). The examinations and curriculum, which often required memorization and then regurgitation of facts and formulae to excel, encouraged the rote learning that the “scholarship boy” is so adept at.
I, too, became more skilled at memorization and test taking, not knowing how else to go about learning. My extended family members congratulated me on my good grades, on my being “intelligent” and “so clever”. Aunts and uncles pointed to me as an example for their kids (my cousins), much like my teachers in 7th and 8th grade did. Meanwhile, I was trying to understand what it meant to “do well”, convinced that it was about more than just grades and achievements on paper.
My struggle with the idea of education arose largely out of the conflict between the way I was being schooled and had learned how to learn, and the ideas about education that I was exposed to, ironically, in school, through various books and readings. The education system, in theory and vision, was not as backward as I may have made it out to be. There was always talk of the ideals of developing well-rounded students who are not only book-smart, but are also able to think critically about issues, involved in extra-curricular activities, and active in the community. In practice, however, the message that I, along with my fellow students, was sent was that grades were all that mattered. It was assumed that we were being taught to think critically, and yet I would often find myself feeling as though I did not know what that meant, much less know how to do so. Despite ‘doing well’ and being a ‘successful’ student in the eyes of the system and society, I often felt as though there was no purpose in what I was learning and that despite knowing so much, I knew so little.
I wrestled with this incongruity, and joined in endless debates about the Singapore education system and what it was and was not (mostly the latter) doing correctly. One learns to engage in these conversations from an early age. My friends and I would complain about the amount of work and stress piled on us, and then, learning the rhetoric of speaking about education, complain about our system’s failure to produce open-minded, intelligent thinkers. The ability to engage in such conversations that appeared to involve critical thinking about the system we were in convinced us that we were the exceptions – the exceptional few who, despite the rigid system of education, were developing the critical thinking skills that truly defined an ‘educated’ person but were missing from our classrooms. This naïve thinking was obviously misled, but, at least personally, it was the best that I could do, and also what I had to do in order to think of myself as a learner, as a student capable of moving forward and moving upwards to the next grade.
I carried this struggle into my first year at Carleton College. Here I was in one of the best institutes of education, and yet I still felt as though I was not learning anything new or useful. If I was admitted to this school and was as intelligent as I had so often been told, why was it that I continued to feel so thoroughly uneducated? My second experience of schooling in American classrooms resembled, with too much similarity, my first. I went to classes where I did not speak, diligently completed my readings and assignments, and earned the grades I was expected to earn – good enough to place me on the Dean’s List. Throughout it all, I was continually plagued by the question of what it all meant. Seeing my name on the Dean’s List at Opening Convocation this year left me wanting to claim that as a victory of sorts, yet knowing that there was still something missing, and to do so would be to delay my finding that missing thing.
It was only in class the other day that I realized, with newfound clarity, what I had perhaps been grasping at all along. We discussed the fact that most of us identify ourselves as either primarily a “talker” or a “listener” in class and spent some time sharing about how we became a talker/listener and how we can learn to be a bit more of the other. Unsurprisingly, I did not speak. As I listened to the talkers explain why they talked, I was surprised at how strongly they felt that talking helped them to engage in class. It had never really occurred to me, at least not at the forefront of my conscious mind, that speaking up in class was a means and a method of learning.
It seems it had always been more of an issue of identity and culture for me, wanting to fit in by not standing out. It had long lost its educational value in my mind. It occurred to me, however, that to fit in here in America was, it seemed, to adopt the practice of speaking up in class. Could this be Rodriguez’s idea of the public identity (Rodriguez 1982)?
I had grown so accustomed to thinking of it as a requirement – something the teachers wanted you to do, more for the sake of doing it than anything else. To complicate matters further, I remember being an inquisitive child, but there came a point where I kept hearing, “Don’t ask so many questions. Just do.” This continued into adolescence, in school as well as at home. There is so much more that I could say about the impact of my Chinese culture on these values and ideas of learning, but suffice to say that we are taught deference to elders, which often means that your elders are always right. Such values stand in stark contrast to the American college culture of asking many questions and challenging even the most established scholars in their views. I am not always consciously aware of it, but that must be a culture shock of sorts for me, and an area in which I find it difficult to adapt. I think that the struggles I faced (and continue to face) with regards to education resulted largely from growing up in an education system that tried to model itself on Western models, but failed to fully take into account the impact of the predominantly Chinese culture it existed in.
It is a difficult task to reconcile two different cultures. I am urged to think of Rodriguez’s assertion that education brings about a necessary change (Rodriguez 1982). I sense that he is right, at least in my case. The changes I have undergone are far subtler than his, yet the very fact that success in the world of academics appears to contradict cultural values I have grown up with shows that I must, if I have not already, allow myself to be changed by education, in order that I may become educated.
I have always considered myself lucky that my parents were educated in the West and are hence a lot more open to Western ideas about education and life in general. I realize now, however, that a large source of the confusion in ‘switching between cultures’ as I move from Singapore to America is that the lines are extremely blurred. This confusion extends to Singapore in general – we are heavily influenced by Western culture, be it the types of food we eat, the media, or the education systems. It is thus difficult to distinguish between the two, and difficult to identify the reason for the disconnection (culture shock) I sometimes feel both between life in Singapore and America as well as within Singapore itself. Therefore, in a very important sense, my home and community life connected with my schooling experience, in that I was encouraged and supported in my pursuit of an education, but in an equally significant way, that connection was also a very confused one, arising simply from the self-conflicted, cross-cultural nature of all those areas.
Rodriguez, Richard. (2005). Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, An Autobiography. New York: Dial Press Trade Paperback.
 In Singapore, the K – 12 years are broken down as follows: Kindergarten (2 years), Primary School (6 years; the equivalent of 1st – 6th grades), Secondary School (4 years; the equivalent of 7 – 10th grades), Junior College (2 years; the equivalent of 11th and 12th grades)