Comparing Cultures of Education in Asia: Anthropological and Ethnographic Perspectives

Title: 1208 | Comparing Cultures of Education in Asia: Anthropological and Ethnographic Perspectives
Area: Border Crossing and Inter-Area
Stream: Anthropology
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Zachary Howlett, Yale-NUS College, National University of Singapore, Singapore (organizer, presenter, chair)
Kristina Göransson, Lund University, Sweden (presenter, discussant)
Chun-Yi Sum, University of Rochester, United States (presenter)
Tomoko Tokunaga, University of Tsukuba, Japan (presenter)
Yoonhee Kang, Seoul National University, South Korea (presenter)


Across Asia growing social inequality is leading to rising educational competition. As social mobility becomes increasingly difficult, anxious parents pursue diverse strategies to groom their children for success. This rising fever pitch of educational competition and meritocratic credentialism raises burning questions about access to education, the meaning of merit, and the politics of cultural belonging. This panel employs fine-grained, intimate ethnography to provide an anthropological perspective on these questions. Moving beyond a tendency in recent anthropological scholarship to consider countries in isolation, the authors take an unabashedly comparative perspective. Identifying cultural commonalities as well as differences, their research projects span Korea, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, the Philippines, India, and China as well as the U.S. Important dimensions of analysis include gender, ethnicity, class, citizenship, generation, and ability. Individual papers analyze the breakneck efforts of parents to secure educational advantages for their children, the pained search of university students for “real virtue,” the emotional burden of students with stigmatized disabilities, the efforts of immigrant children to create cultural belonging, and the contradictions between the ideals of meritocracy and the realities of social inequality. Key questions include the following: What is education and who is it for? What should education do and how do we achieve this ideal? Do educational systems reproduce inequality? Is education a tool for social control by hegemonic groups? How can we understand the emotional and moral dimensions of educational work and merit? By addressing these questions ethnographically and comparatively, this panel contributes much-needed in-depth contextual knowledge to contemporary debates about education in Asia and beyond.

Panel Abstracts:
Fateful Rite of Passage: The National College Entrance Examination and the Myth of Meritocracy in Contemporary China
Every year some ten million high-school seniors take the National College Entrance Examination in China. For many, the exam, known as the Gaokao, represents the best opportunity to “change fate” (gaibian mingyun) by achieving social mobility. In particular, the exam provides the only viable pathway to full urban citizenship for many of China’s hundreds of millions of rural residents and rural-to-urban migrants, who are denied equal access to education, welfare, and healthcare by the country’s two-tier system of household residency (huji). In a society dominated by social connections or guanxi, many see the exam as the “only relatively fair social competition.” But meritocracy is largely a myth: Skyrocketing social inequality has produced great chasms in exam outcomes between different regions and socioeconomic groups. Why do people nevertheless allow the examination to recruit them into the ideology and social practice of meritocracy? This paper argues that the Gaokao is a fateful rite of passage: an event that is both consequential (that is, creates or destroys value) and chancy (that is, has an undetermined outcome). Other fateful events include high-stakes gambles, risky business transactions, athletic competitions, and warfare. Such events form trials of merit in which people strive to personify high cultural virtues, which in China include diligence, grit, composure, “filial piety” (xiao), “quality” (suzhi), and divine favor or “luck” (yunqi). Focusing on the moral dimension of exams, the author compares the Gaokao with China’s imperial-era civil examinations (960-1904 CE) and with standardized tests in other countries, including Taiwan, Singapore, and India.

Ambiguous Aspirations: Parenting Strategies around Young Children’s Education in Urban South Korea and Singapore
South Korea and Singapore are widely recognized for their competitive education systems and for consistently topping international student assessment tests. They also share a ballooning private tuition industry, fueled by parents’ anxiety over their children’s academic achievements. This paper is based on a comparative ethnographic study on parenting strategies around young children’s (aged 4-12) education, and how these strategies intersect with class, gender, and generation. Our findings indicate that there is a predominant assumption among parents that a child’s chances of succeeding in school and future professional life depend directly on addressing possible “learning gaps” in early childhood. Parents fear that their children will fall behind academically if these learning gaps are not addressed, and moreover, that the failure to perform academically would have a life-long negative impact on the child’s self-confidence. Simultaneously, this paper points to a more complex and ambivalent diversification of parental involvement in education, which can be conceptualized as a tension between the ambition to secure conventional career paths (academic achievements) versus the nurturing of the child’s own needs, interests and emotional well-being. We propose that parents’ attempts at balancing these seemingly paradoxical aspirations must be understood in relation to an expertise-based approach to parenting and a shifting perception of children, in which children are seen as vulnerable to all sorts of risks (cf. Faircloth 2014). By comparing and contrasting South Korea and Singapore, this paper seeks to understand and contextualize urban middle-class parents’ ambiguous aspirations in relation to notions of risk, fear, and responsible parenthood.

Neither Red Nor Expert: Navigating Meritocracy on a Chinese University Campus
Susan Shirk (1982) uses the term “virtuocracy” to characterize 1970s China, when life chances were awarded according to one’s moral worth, rather than one’s professional or intellectual merits. University students I interviewed in 2011 and 2012 aspired to developing a better selection system that is more fair and transparent. This paper examines students’ efforts to realize a meritocratic order in a Chinese university and the reflections and disappointment that their experiments provoked. Specifically, this paper analyzes test and interview questions that students designed in order to rank their peers who sought officer positions in a prestigious extracurricular organization. While students considered professional demeanor and entrepreneurial spirit to be important types of cultural capital, the structure of the selection procedure, conversations during the interviews, and students’ rationale when deliberating the results show that obedience and commitment were in fact the primary selection criteria. In spite of changing and diversifying notions of “merit” (youxiu), my analysis shows that loyalty and social connections have not diminished in importance in postreform China. The intensity of competition has also remained high. Virtuocratic principles, taking the guise of meritocratic competitions, continue to justify unequal access to resources and opportunities, structuring interactions and hierarchies among students who championed expressions of fairness and individual talents. This analysis echoes findings from other Asian societies—including India (Gilbertson 2016, Lukose 2009) and South Korea (Abelmann, Park, and Kim 2013)—where “cruel optimism” (Berlant 2011) about meritocracy in a purportedly flourishing neoliberal economy burdens middle-class youth with impossible expectations of themselves.

Is Japan Home? Is the US Home? Diverging Paths of Asian Immigrant Girls in Japan and the US
While various scholars have unpacked the concept of home for adult immigrants, fewer studies focus on the meaning, negotiation, and (re)creation of home for immigrant children and youth. These young people do not passively inherit home constructed by the adults around them but have agency in cultivating home as they negotiate transnational lives. This presentation, based on longitudinal multi-sited ethnographic studies of working-class Filipina immigrant girls in Japan and Asian immigrant girls in the US, explores the ways in which these young women experience and (re)construct home as they transition into young adults. Through examining the commonalities and divergence of the experiences of girls in Japan and the US, I explore how their constructions of home change from their late teens to their twenties. This study reveals that in the midst of negotiating marginalization in host societies, both groups of girls actively build multiple homes globally and locally. They agentively create imagined homes in countries they have never traveled to or carve out localized spaces of belonging with friends in their neighborhood. While their process of constructing home was similar in their teens, their life paths diverge as they grew older: Girls in the US attend colleges or start working full-time, while my participants in Japan dropped out of high school, juggled several part-time jobs, and followed in their mothers’ working-class footsteps. I analyze the difference of host societies in accommodating immigrant youth, specifically how each country supports youth to cultivate home in a new land (or not)

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