What can education bring you?

I discovered this wonderful website Why Poverty.  It contains a series of poverty independent documentaries on poverty-related topics. Among them, “Education, Education” by Weijun Chen (director of Please Vote for Me) focuses on private colleges in China. Highly recommended to anyone who wants to know more about post-secondary education in China. Here’s the abstract.

How do you choose a college when you’re the first person in your family who can read? Or pay for it when 4 years of schooling costs sixty years of income? What is it like to join the “ant-tribe”, the 2 million newly graduated Chinese who, every year, can’t find work?  And what if the only job you could find involved selling education to other students, even if you knew it was worthless?
Tell us what you think. Nelson Mandela once said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” but is its value undermined when, like in China, it becomes a commodity?

You can tell an information asymmetry story. Rural students are not as well-connected and informed as their urban peers. Most of them, when faced with college entrance decisions, simply went through the list of schools and picked whichever sounds nice. Private colleges can easily win the trust of parents through carefully designed propaganda. The high value of college degrees and the low probability of getting admitted to top universities drives a wedge between supply and demand of higher education. Without an underdeveloped market for professional colleges, private colleges (enterprises in nature) emerge as a seemingly good alternative. These private colleges extract money from uninformed students without teaching them useful skills.

The number of private colleges has increased 30 times in the last decade. Each year over 2 million graduates do not find jobs.

Just as printing more money makes money valueless, the increasing number of college graduates intensifies their competition for jobs. People are getting more education at higher ranked institutions, most often only to signal. Universities are categorized into several levels. Students from lower levels often have to get a master’s degree from a higher ranked university to increase their bargaining power in the job market. And those graduates from no-name private colleges will soon discover painfully that their degree is just a piece of worthless paper.

I would love to explore this topic more in the future.


A flavor of democracy

What is democracy? Many of us might struggle to come up with an answer. The documentary Please Vote for Me depicts a democratic voting process in a third grade class at Evergreen Primary School in Wuhan, China. Will a group of third graders know how to vote? Well, I started watching the movie with this doubt, and it fades away as the story unfolds. Afterall, voting in primary school classroom is really not that different from one in the adult world.please-vote-for-me-poster

As the teacher emphasized, this election of class monitor is designed to be democratic. Ironically, the first (implicit) round of the election seems to contradict this claim: three candidates for class monitor were chosen by the head teacher. Note: they are not nominated by the students. How the head teacher came up with these candidates is the single biggest secret in this election, although one can make an educated guess by observing the profession of their parents. The incumbent, Lei, was confident boy and always anxious to maintain the order of the class. He had been the class monitor for the past two years. Lei was faced with two challengers — Cheng, a chubby boy who was very good at public speaking, and Xiaofei, an introverted girl struggling to establish her self-confidence.

Not surprisingly, the game between the three candidates turned into a competition of maneuvers between their parents. Cheng’s parents taught him to play nice in front of his opponents while spreading rumors and creating chaos when necessary. He also fully utilized his outstanding public speaking skills, winning cheers and applause during his speech. By contrast, Lei adopted a “hands off” approach at first. “I’ll let my classmates make their own choice.” he said to his parents. But after he found out rumors were dissolving his power base, he felt the urge to make up for it. He invited all his classmates to take the monorail, which was a luxury in Wuhan then (I can testify as a native of Wuhan). Lei quickly won the support of many classmates by this sincere move.

The debating section was probably the most hilarious part of the movie. Somehow it reminds me of the American presidential debate. Well, of course you can argue the latter contains more sophistication and is (seemingly) more civilized. I remember Cheng criticizing Xiaofei:  “you eat too slow”. My reaction was: “What? As girls we are supposed to eat slow!”

The movie made me think about what I went through as a candidate internal vice chairperson of my undergraduate university choir. We twelve people, the newly proposed executive committee, went through a two-day overnight campaign to prove that we were capable of the job. Choir members and past executive committee members relentlessly asked us about our year plan (literally every detail of every single function) and our budget. This campaign was definitely a challenging and unforgettable experience. Two lessions were learnt: 1) You can never convince others if you doesn’t know your arguments perfectly well, and 2) you only need the majority of voters to win an election.

While the movie seems to focus on behaviors of the candidates, it records reactions from other students as well. I wonder what thought process the other students (the voters) went through to choose their future monitor. For the past two years they had been assigned one and they seemed to be doing just fine. When you place the “sacred vote” in their hands, will they hold onto it or disregard it? Will they know the importance of them — the voters — as independent entities affecting the distribution of power in the future? These are open ended questions for educators to reflect upon.

This movie is available on NetFlix. Thanks to Marc for recommending.

A heart devoid of love — thoughts on documentary Last Train Home

There are 130 million migrant workers in China. It is the biggest human migration in the world.

This is the opening sentence of the documentary Last Train Home . This movie follows a typical rural household in Sichuan, China for three years and tracks the changing migration and life decisions of household members.

Last Train Home

This is a typical family in rural Sichuan. Both parents were working in Guangdong province, a popular migrant destination in China. Once every year, they took the train back home to celebrate Chinese New Year with their daughter, Qin, and their son, Yang. Qin and Yang lived with their grandmother. Qin appeared to be very mature for her age.  Apart from school work, Qin also had to feed farm animals and tend to crops. She was also skilled in joking with grandmother and creating a warm atmosphere in the family. Since her parents have started working in Guangdong when she was a baby, she barely remembers the time they spent together — there is not much to begin with.

In the first year, the New Year dinner was peaceful. The parents brought Qin a brand new cellphone and Yang some new toys. They urged Qin and Yang to study hard:”You can get out of here and be successful only if you study hard and get good grades. Don’t be like us. We would have earned a lot more if we were more educated.” The children nodded absent-mindedly. Unfortunately, or maybe expectedly, Qin dropped out in the second year. She pursued the same path as her parents — migrating for work. In a manufacture factory in Guangdong, she sewed and packed clothes everyday, while making friends and dressing herself up at the same time. When asked about why she dropped out, she answered “I don’t find school interesting. It’s not useful at all.”

Conflicts burst out in the third year. When Qin was working in another city in Guangdong, she didn’t contact her parents often. Nor did she feel the need to. She dyed her hair, bought new clothes, and tried to make herself look as hot as other city girls. This year at the New Year dinner, she challenged her father, saying he had no power over her because he never cared about her. The family went through a serious fight in which both parties lose. Qin only became more detached from her family.

At the end of the movie, Qin became a bartender in Shenzhen, a metropolitan city in Guangdong. She was dancing disco in a crowd, with the usual absent-mindedness on her face. You can hardly tell her apart from the urban girls with heavy make-up and hot skirts. Qin’s mother was considering going back to home to take care of her son. But this would mean her husband will have to work harder and send more money back home.

I have relatives like Qin and Yang, who suffered and are still suffering from their parents’ migration. I remember a woman working in a charity agency for rural children’s welfare once talked about left behind children: “These children have never been loved. When they grow up, how can we expect them to love others? How can we expect them to love the society?”

I could hardly stop crying as I was watching this movie. If you are Chinese and you are away from home, you will find sentiments throughout the movie. I was especially impressed by the movie’s great depiction of the snow storms in 2008.  This movie is also a great source for people who want to know more about internal migration within China. Many thanks to Daniel Xu for recommending.

By the way, the title of this post is adapted from A Heart Full of Love in Les Miserables, one of my favorite musicals.

The source of happiness

The documentary “Happy” (trailer) investigates the wisdom of maintaining happiness and suggests ways to improve our emotional well being. The movie is available on Netflix. I’ve written down some thoughts about this topic and want to share them here.

Fifty percent of a person’s happiness level is decided by genes. Some people are indeed born optimistic. But a considerable percentage of one’s happiness–40%–is decided by intentional behaviors. The other 10% is decided by one’s circumstances, such as income and social status.

The encouraging  message is: we can become happier by designing our life better. On the one hand, we can participate in different activities and increase the variety of life to makes us happier. Doing exercises, on the other hand, is known to be producing dopamin and simulating happiness. We can also gain a sense of fulfillment and happiness through demanding work, as I always feel when I finish a difficult essay.

Scientific evidence suggests that people who pay more attention to the community rather than themselves are happier. When we are serving for a bigger goal, we gain the feeling of being needed and get recognition from others.

Not surprisingly, happiness is closely related to the goals you have in your life. People go after two kinds of goals: extrinsic ones, include money, image and status, and intrinsic ones including longlasting relationships and personal development. It has been shown that people who value intrinsic goals over extrinsic ones tend to be happier.

A phrase I like particularly from the movie is “in the zone”, which refers to the highly concentrated state of an athlete when he’s playing a game. Concentration improves efficiency and makes people happier.

Thoughts from documentary “Urbanized”

I was watching the documentary Urbanized (trailer) directed by Gary Hustwitt. The central theme of the documentary, as I see it, is how to reconcile the sustainability and the efficiency of the city.

The informal settlement is as important as the living conditions of the original cities of the city. In Mumbai’s slum area, 600 people share 1 toilet seat. The sanitation conditions are astonishingly poor for the disadvantaged. In Beijing, China, migrant workers sleep on the street or beneath the bridge because they cannot afford any housing. Similar situations are present in other big cities, although the degree of inequality varies.

It is important to incorporate the needs of local residents in the designing process of new urban infrastructures. The “participatory design” in Satiago, Chile, is a step towards involving citizens in the decision process. They provided funding of $10,000 per family, and left half of the house for their own design. Involving residents in the designing process ensures that the final product caters to their individual needs. When they are asked to choose between a bath tub and a water heater, many of them choose the former, which is probably the opposite preference with the richer population in the city. But since the tub represents privacy and better sanitation at a reasonable cost, while the water heater increases gas expenses and adds to the household’s financial burden, their decision is understandable. But I have some doubts on this practice. Where does the money come from? Is this practice generalizable? Personalized design takes time and labor, and I doubt if this can be generalized to more households than the very few mentioned in the movie.

Cities often evolve from trade centers. In the late 19th century, the garden city movement suggests to “separate everything apart”. While this makes the city look more spacious, things become unconnected and traffic jams become more often. To resolve the problem of traffic jams, cities adopt different measures ranging from parking restrictions to promotion of public transport. In Copenhagen, Denmark, bicycle lanes are built throughout the city and inside the parked cars, which provides security to bicycle users. Having the bicycle lane in place, 73% of the people cycle to work.

Another important question in urban planning is how to reconcile the physical space and social fabric of the city. Cities are invariably designed for economic activities, but often downplay the importance of livability. The word “neighborhood” should not be only about buildings and streets, but also be about parks which allow children to play, and movable chairs which let strangers talk to each other and become friends.

Thoughts from documentary “A Bite of China”

I have been watching a documentary of Chinese food: A Bite of China (link). Highly recommended to those who understand mandarin. The delicate filming and insightful illustration reminds of my childhood in Hubei province, and make me more aware of the Chinese’s deeply rooted attachment to the land.

The vast territory of China has endowed Chinese people with a wide variety of potential food sources: from pastured animals to home-grown plants, from the coarse northern wheat buns to the delicate southern rice balls. Generations of Chinese people have adopted methods suitable to specific geographical environment to make the best out of nature and sustain a large population.

China strides over four time zones and its land encompasses the most heated areas near the equator extending all the way to near Russia. Regional differences are huge, so are the diets in different areas. My hometown, Wuhan, is located in the middle of China. The province of Hubei (where Wuhan is the capital) is called “the province of a thousand lakes”. The abundance of water leads to the wide cultivation of rice as the main grain and fish as a major source of animal nutrition source. We have fried fish, boiled fish, salted fish, steamed fish, fish balls, fish dumplings, and even fish noodles! It was not until I left my hometown did I realize how much reliance I have on fish.

For northerners far from the open sea or internal river networks, fish is more of a luxury than an everyday dish. The cold weather in the north makes preservation of food an important issue. Vegetables are salted and preserved throughout the winter. But it also means that an average family can only afford a limited variety of vegetables in colder climate. This is less the case now thanks to the developed transportation.

In this modern era, mechanical production has substituted human labor in food processing, and the cultural elements along with home-made traditional food is fading. The making of traditional local foods can rarely been seen, with the majority happening among the elderly in the countryside. City dwellers have neither the time nor the interest to know the origins of our beloved food and I doubt if they appreciate the efforts by farmers to cultivate the land. Still, it is a relief to see the values of family and unity being passed down, with the delicate food we have.

Empowerment from Forrest Gump

I’ve heard about the film for long, but this is the first time I watch it, in the middle of coming finals and papers to be due. Today is the last day of teaching at HKU, and it feels like ending a chapter in my life and about to start a new.

I see in Forrest Gump the most important qualities for a man to success: faith and persistence. He firmly believes in what he is doing and does everything with his full capacity. When he was young, he was only good at was running. He also enjoyed it. So he ran at his best and got into the football team, which later led him into college. In the Vietnam war, he followed the Lieutenant faithfully and treated him sincerely, which earned him a valuable lifelong friendship. Moreover, he was able to retreat when he could not fight through. He memorized Jenny’s words well: “Never try to be brave”. When one’s in overwhelming danger,  the most optimal strategy is indeed saving up one’s energy for a better future.

It is impressive that Forrest Gump can always broaden his scope of life. When he was young, he never dreamed of visiting the white house because of his football talent or Ping-Pong skills. Neither did he expect to own a huge company and be worshipped by thousands for running across the country. It is his faith and persistence that are being admired. In the face of difficulties, giving up is a much easier choice than holding on.

Life is like a box of chocolate, cause you never know what you’ll get. Look ahead and try your best. When you really want something, the whole world conspires to help you get it.