Wednesday, December 21, 2005

What China has that North America doesn't

I am currently the director of graduate studies for my department. Applicants for graduate study -- and there are hundreds each year -- must complete a personal statement that describes their interests, and I get to read them. One thing I've noticed is the contrast between the statements written by Chinese and North American applicants.

The personal statements by North Americans tend to be fairly prosaic, listing their interests and achievements. But the statements from China are often unabashedly passsionate. Here's a typical example:

The important thing in life, I believe, is to have a great aim, and the determination to achieve it. After developing a strong connection with the world of computer science while still in high school, choosing computer software was the most natural step to me upon enrolling in college. During my undergraduate studies, as the world of computer science began to unveil before me, I felt that every step I took within this world served to deepen my interest in scientific work and my commitment to becoming a scientist. As I accumulated more knowledge and skills, my confidence in working with cutting-edge computer technology was strengthened, and the time and efforts I have put into these studies have helped build my current aspirations -- I am now eager to climb to the heights of intellectual achievement through pursuing Master and Ph.D. in computer science, which, I hope will enable me to push forward myself to the forefront of computer science and technology.

Some may find this flowery language laughable. I find it wonderful. The Chinese applicants are determined. They are passionate and not afraid to show that passion. A North American student expressing similar sentiments would be worried that people (even those who read the applications) might laugh at him (or her).

Intellectual achievement just isn't cool in North America. Is it a relic of the frontier society, which respected brawn over brains, or a result of fundamentalist religion that stresses revelation over reason? I don't know. But I do know that unless North America makes it possible for people to passionate about mathematics and science without being ashamed, we're in deep trouble. While we're arguing about whether to include intelligent design in schools, the Chinese will be pursuing genuine scientific research and reaping the fruits of that pursuit, and we'll be left behind.


Bronze Dog said...

Darn straight!

Geeky and proud of it.

Anonymous said...

Last year, when I applied for a fellowship, in one of my essays I aimed for a tone of serious about the work but not about myself. One line in the essay referred to my research in long-term scalability of Internet routing as "saving the world." A reviewer gave me 4/5 on the essay, scribbled it out, replaced it with 0/5, and commented that I had not explained how my work would save anything, let alone the world.

The lesson I took from that is, next time, I should stick to a prosaic list of interests and achievements. Maybe a better idea would have been, don't try to pass cheap snark as a serious proposal.

Anonymous said...

Hey, nice idea of blog.
Since I am supposed (I guess) to write something
else, here it is: you said "fundamentalist religion
that stresses revelation over reason"; well, depending. In judaism for example, comments and
comments of comments, and comments of ...
(hey RECURSIVITY...) are welcomed and recommended.
You can even bargain with God! (remember, oops I
mean go and read Genesis 18-23 to 18-32 when
Abraham tries to convince God not to destroy Sodom). Uh actually the city was destroyed.

By the way the blog instructions appear in French on
my computer!

Anonymous said...

I've had similar experiences with Chinese students and Indian ones as well. There's a huge cultural difference between how the sciences are perceived in Asia, with a school culture that seems to treat scientific achievers as well as American schools treat sports stars.

p.s.: Could you add an Atom/RSS feed for your blog?

Anonymous said...

I completely agree. I hate the "too cool for school" wherever it rears its ugly head... but maybe this is just a matter of tone-as-dictated-by-culture? I mean if there's one kind of hyperbole that Americans are really given over to (vs., say, Germans) it's describing things as "fantastic!" that are really merely good.

Anonymous said...

Consider how smart people are portrayed in movies. There's the "nerd" archetype, and then there's the "evil/mad genius" archetype. The "smart, charismatic hero" archetype is rare in American film or television. I don't know what it's like elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

There's an article called "Greetings from Idiot America" that I came across that deals with your post. It was written in Esquire, in Nov '05.

It's long, but it's one of my favorite articles of the year and addresses the issue of, well, Idiot America.

The last paragraph of your post really resonated with me & reminded me of the article. Thank you for saying it.

Zeno said...

When I took English 1A at the community college in my hometown, the adjunct professor who taught the class was a local minister. A very conservative one, as his choice of readings made clear (one was a scathing attack on Kinsey's research). Curiously, he was dead set against what he called "pretentious grammar", exhorting us to use straightforward journalistic prose rather than flowery language. As a big fan of adverbs and adjectives, I was quite taken aback, especially since I assumed he waxed floridly eloquent every weekend with his congregation.

In thinking about it now, I believe he thought English 1A was a utilitarian course designed to turn us into efficient little essay writers. Our future teachers would no doubt give thanks that our writing was easy to read. I don't think he did us a disservice and perhaps it was even a useful corrective at the time. Still, teachers like him were no doubt contributors to the idea that prose and poetry have a sharp demarcation between them and woe betide anyone who forgets. (Geez, how would I be writing these days if I hadn't had him in my freshman year?)

Robin St. John said...

Damn, that statement by the Chinese kid brought tears to my eyes.

Science and mathematics are really hard work, and it is generally love for the stuff that sustains us. Love and passion for science isn't communicated well in our culture, and much of our mythology denies it exists, except maybe as some form of dementia or psychosis. No wonder kids are turned off.

I remember a story from a sidebar in my high school chemistry book about Humphrey Davy- when Davy isolated sodium and placed a small piece into water, and observed the flame, and the tiny fragment dancing and burning on the water surface, he himself danced in glee. An image like this probably could serve to reinforce the image of scientists as nutbags, I guess, but the fun and excitement are manifest, too.

Anonymous said...

I can appreciate the enthusiasm of that statement, and actually the language is perfectly fine as far as I'm concerned.

My main criticism is that it has kind of a boilerplate feel to me. I'll assume there is real passion there, but it'd be nice to see an example of what in particular interested the applicant about computer science other than the idea of cutting edge technology in a generic sense.

I forget what I wrote in my own essay some years back. I think I said something about the need (perhaps premature, that) for massive parallelism, which was a trendy topic at the time. I was genuinely excited about those computational models and the algorithmic problems they posed, though I'm not sure it was ever what I was best at. I can't say for sure if I conveyed my passion. Whatever I said was OK to get me into a reasonably good program.

I agree, though, that's it's refreshing to hear someone say they are eager to embark on a course of study to learn interesting new things. I'm actually a little surprised to hear that North American statements of purpose would be especially unenthusiastic sounding. I think there's a certain post-industrial Western pride in being jaded and cynical. The reason I am surprised, though, is I would have thought that a North American with such an attitude wouldn't be applying to CS grad school in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Agree with you fully. I teach mathematics at the university level and have done so in various places. Most Americans in general lack motivation and vision and seem to be only interested on things that can yield financial gain, sexual rewards, fun, etc... Orientals give the impression to being driven by something other, more like a vision.

Let me add, that I have found working class rural Americans attending college for the first time to be more possesed of vision that the average middle class kid, but often attending college for them is a bit difficult, as many have to work in order to pay for their education.

Terramoto, Terramoto

M@ said...

Isn't it also the attitude of the university system at fault, though? Even as a grad student in English, the prevailing attitude seemed to be avoid emotion, avoid putting your personality into the work. Don't get me wrong -- that suited me fine -- but you'd think by the grad level they'd be encouraging students to really become writers.

Then again, you look at the academic journals and they're reinforcing the same aesthetic -- plodding, pedestrian prose, strolling along the well-trodden avenues in the currently fashionable topics, with the addition of a pun in the title to make it all "edgy". There were a few writers who were really inspired (James Kincaid comes immediately to mind) but they were extremely rare.

Great to see the blog, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it is time to start teaching Chinese as well as algebra to my mathematically inclined and scientifically curious ten year old...

Anonymous said...

If the students are coming straight from China, I would suspect that these statements are bought.

Arun said...

I don't know if this is relevant. It is from a customer review on of "Theorising Chinese Masculinity : Society and Gender in China" by Kam Louie. I haven't read the book but have read about it.

However, it is fascinating to see how honored Chinese masculinity differs from its Western counterpart. In China, body and mind matter and mind usually trumps. In the West, we worship the Stallones and condemn the nerds. In the West, the knight always wins a maiden. In China, men who distanced themselves from romance and sex with women are praised for their self-control. If I were more skeptical, I'd be shocked that such a differing world could exist.

The attitude towards intellectual achievement in men in China apparently is that it does not make them nerds. Could this be part of the reason for a seeming lack of passion for math. and science in North America?

Anonymous said...

As a fellow Asian Student, I needed to point out that there are many institutes in Asia that wirte these SOPs (or make a draft) for the client(student). You can tell if that is the case by looking up old resumes of people already at your department and there present writing. The passionate style of writing is a common occurence in Asian schooling and has nothing to with the emotion attached with "learning computers".

Anonymous said...

That's odd. I find Chinese students to be just as prosaic about their goals in life and career goals as North Americans. They steer clear of flowery statements as much as North Americans do.