Wednesday, 20 August 2014 15:18

In Asia, Cheating to the Test

by Andrew Lam (@andrewqlam) in San Francisco

CNN recently reported that college applications from Chinese foreign students to the US sounded exactly the same. 

In fact, one admission officer read a phrase in one of the applications that sent up red flags: “Insert girl’s name here.” The number of Chinese students in the United States has reached 235,597 as of 2013 but admissions officers said that “as many as one in 10 applications to U.S. colleges by Chinese students may include fraudulent material, including phony essays and high-school transcripts.”

Cheating is a worldwide phenomenon, and is a challenge even here in the United States, but in Asia it has reached near-crisis levels. Last year, riots broke out when teachers at a school in Zhongxiang, in China’s Hubei province tried to stop students from cheating. Parents fought police when they found out their children were prevented from cheating. It’s only fair that their children should cheat, they reasoned, since everyone else was cheating as well. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]When you take into account that two out of three Asians in America were born overseas, it's no wonder that even the most diligent Asian students feel more comfortable in science classes than in English literature, where raising your hand to offer opinions is not only encouraged but counts toward the final grade.[/quote]

Can Asians think?

To do well on tests is the end point, not necessarily to learn. So much so that some years ago Kishore Mahbubani, a career diplomat from Singapore, posed this question in the title of his book,"Can Asians Think? Understanding the Divide Between East and West.” A rhetorical title surely since Asia, from Confucius down to dissident artist Ai Wei Wei (the creator of the Bird’s Nest in Beijing) to writer Haruki Murakami, abounds with philosophers, artists and thinkers. But Mahbubani does have a point: The majority of the population tends to fall into conformity and while a few are winning prestigious literary and artistic awards, the majority measures success via material gains and it begins with doing well on tests, ethical considerations be damned. 

Is this a uniquely Asian problem? Intellectual laziness is a major issue here in the United States too, and students buy homework online to avoid thinking the way they download music from iTunes. But America still values those who think outside the box, originality. We immortalized Steve Jobs for his inventions. We mourn comedian and actor Robin Williams’ passing for his unique, brilliant, and fierce brand of humor. Williams invents words without thinking, jokes fall out of his lips unrehearsed and we all roar in laughter, awed by his inventiveness. The inventor, the loudmouth, the class clown, the individual with a vision, the maverick – these are encouraged still in America. 

I learned to say “I disagree” to my father in English when I first came here at age 11 from Vietnam at the family table. In Vietnamese, it would have sounded harsh and unfilial (unbecoming of a filial son), and unthinkable. But the “I” fell off my tongue much easier in English. It allowed me to separate myself from the clan, the collective. It allowed me to think for myself. America encourages rebellion against the collective: follow your dreams. 

Alas, back in Asia the ego is still by and large suppressed. The self exists in the context of families and clans. It is submerged in the service of shared values and ritualized language. A student raising his hand to disagree with a teacher would make a rare sight, indeed, in Vietnam, and may in fact be seen as a direct challenge to authorities. You are measured by how well you do on tests, end of point. 


A professor friend of mine teaches Asian American studies at a college here in the Bay Area. Every semester she catches her students cheating, mostly in the form of plagiarism. “I said to the class, ‘three of you plagiarized,’” she once told me. “’But I’ll be nice for once. Just rewrite and slide the new midterm essay under my office and I won’t flunk you.’” Three days later, she found 11 new essays under her door upon the deadline. “A lot of them are foreign students or immigrant kids, and they are not confident with their own voice.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The inventor, the loudmouth, the class clown, the individual with a vision, the maverick – these are encouraged still in America. [/quote]

When you take into account that two out of three Asians in America were born overseas, it's no wonder that even the most diligent Asian students feel more comfortable in science classes than in English literature, where raising your hand to offer opinions is not only encouraged but counts toward the final grade.

Asia has become an economic powerhouse in the 21st century. China’s economy will soon surpass those of the United States and Europe. Friends of mine in East Asia are quite proud of this fact. But to them, I often ask, “What does all that mean?” Materialism, after all, is not an ideology, it’s selfishness writ large. To create a viable civilization it starts with clear moral values regarding pedagogy, a shared sense of purpose, and a critical mass of thinkers and inventors. That is, it usually takes a lot of thinking and imagining and re-inventing for a civilization to have its sphere of influence emanating beyond its borders. 

And my suspicion is that it usually starts in the classroom. 

Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media and author of the "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora," and "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres." His latest book is "Birds of Paradise Lost," a short story collection, was published in 2013 and won a Pen/Josephine Miles Literary Award in 2014.

Republished with permission.

Published in China
Friday, 14 February 2014 00:34

Jumping through hoops to become Canadian

by Vicky Tobianah in Toronto

The first significant changes to Canada’s Citizenship Act in almost four decades will make it more difficult for new immigrants to become Canadian citizens, seek to prevent immigration fraud and encourage Canadians to take more pride in their citizenship, said Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander. The new rules, proposed in the Conservative government’s bill C-24, the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act, were announced on Feb. 6 and will toughen the rules for those wanting to be Canadian.

But while the changes mark a new era for Canada’s citizenship rules, they’re leaving many Canadian immigrants with a sense of unease. “My parents immigrated to Canada from Grenada and one of the reasons they chose to come here is because they knew Canada welcomed and valued immigrants,” said Fabian Aird, 35. “Had these rules been in effect then, I don’t know if they would have been able to come, and I would never have been born here and living here now. Our lives would be very different.”

Others shared the same sentiment. “I came here from Lebanon over thirty years ago. My family knew Canada was supposed to be an easy place to get citizenship and that it was a friendly, welcoming country,” said Camille Romano. “But will today’s immigrants feel the same way? I’m not sure if these rules will actually help prevent fraud and immigration troubles. It might just keep good people out.”

Janice Urrelys Pérez Silverstein recently got married and is currently sponsoring her husband who lives in Cuba to become a Canadian citizen. While it isn’t clear how the changes will affect those who sponsor family members, she said the problem is the message that this sends to potential new immigrants.

“They make immigrating to Canada more and more difficult and people need to jump through hoops in order to apply. Raising the costs is obviously absurd, in my opinion, as it deters the applicant to want to apply,” she said.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“If they moved to Canada, the goal is to become a citizen and they have already been through a lot to be permitted to immigrate, and then they have to go through more hardship to actually become a citizen ...[/quote]

Tougher criteria

One of the proposed changes is lengthening the amount of time applicants need to live in Canada. Previously, residents applying for citizenship only needed to live for three out of four years in the country; now, residents would need to live at least four out of six years in Canada and be physically present for at least half a year, as well as declare an “intent to reside” in Canada and file Canadian income taxes for those years.

Another key change is the stricter language requirements. Previously, only adults aged 18-54 had to complete an English or French language proficiency test and could use the help of an interpreter. The changes would mean applicants aged 14 to 64 will have to demonstrate proficiency in either language, without an interpreter.

The new changes would also allow the government to withdraw citizenship from dual citizens convicted on terrorism charges. This is one of the most significant changes, and gives the government the power to revoke citizenship from Canadian dual citizens who are convicted of terrorist activities and deny citizenship to permanent residents who are involved in terrorist activities.

The changes also increase the government’s powers. According to the new rules, the Citizenship and Immigration Minister would have the power to revoke one’s citizenship without a court hearing if the application contained false information. Currently, applicants are given a court hearing.

To prevent immigration fraud (for example, lying on an application about how long you’ve been in the country or not declaring a criminal record), the new changes propose that those falsifying their applications be fined up to $100,000 and/or result in five years in prison, a major change from the current $1,000 fine and/or maximum of one year in prison.

As well, another hurdle immigrants will have to overcome is higher application fees.The fee to apply for Canadian citizenship, which has not changed in 20 years, would increase to $300.

Ending the backlog

While critics have pointed out that the changes — the first comprehensive reforms to the Citizenship Act since 1977 — make it more difficult to become a Canadian citizen, government officials like Mr. Alexander said it will help ensure that those applying for citizenship actually intend to live in the country and integrate themselves in Canadian society. Hence, he said, the need for stricter language requirements and to declare intent to reside in Canada. “Citizenship is not a right, it is a privilege,” said the Minister after the bill was brought forth in Parliament last week.

As well, he said the stricter rules will help shorten wait times for citizenship. There is currently a backlog of over 300,000 applications, with some applicants waiting as long as two to three years for an answer. The stricter rules will help the government process all successful applications in under a year, and prevent them from keeping thousands of applicants in limbo.

Whether the new rules will hurt or harm those applying for citizenship remains to be seen, and is of particular concern to new applicants. “I think a lot of people think it’s easy to become a Canadian citizen. There’s this general idea that the Canadian government will accept anyone and it’s unfortunately not true,” said Mr. Aird. “Increasing the application fees, making people wait longer for citizenship, and giving even more arbitrary powers to the government just leaves them with a bad feeling about Canada. Is this really what’s best?”

For now, many potential immigrants are just trying to focus on the positive and move forward with their applications — especially before these new rules are put into place. Thinking about the bleakness of the situation will just cause depression,” said Ms. Silverstein, whose husband has to wait in Cuba. “People just have to keep on with it.”

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Published in Top Stories

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