The Chinese Tradition Trap – Failure Is Not An Option

This is part [part not set] of 4 in the series Dream Traps – What’s Stopping You?

It’s taken for granted that at least once in your life, you will do a whole lot of soul searching and wonder “Who am I and what am I doing here?” Sometimes this crisis happens very late in life (the “mid-life crisis”), sometimes people are really pro-active and start asking as soon as they can talk. These days, it’s often happening to people in their twenties or what’s been termed a “quarter-life crisis“.

I first heard this term about a year ago from a colleague as her twenty-fifth birthday was approaching and she started questioning whether she was in the right career. Myself, I started questioning where I was going back in 2007, after I had finished my Ernst & Young internship and during the final year of my Bachelor of Commerce degree. I was 20. Either I got to an early start or my colleague is going to have a much longer life!

At the time, my colleague and I commiserated, discussed our options and gave each other a few suggestions on what we could do about our situation.

One year later, my colleague has taken full advantage of the opportunities which opened up to her and she is now working in the Ernst & Young London office, in a completely different capacity (i.e. not an audit senior).

One year later, I’m still here, working as an audit senior in the Ernst & Young Sydney Office.

We both had comparable motivations, education and skill set and opportunities. Why was she able to change her situation so completely in a year and why am I still here, one year later?

Chinese Tradition in Ancient Times

Disclaimer: This is a purely anecdotal account based on my own upbringing and the upbringing of my family and friends and not intended to be held as a historically or statistically accurate statement of fact.

Ancient China was a scholastic meritocracy, where education was the ticket to a better social position. By studying hard, you were more likely to pass the Imperial Examinations, which meant you could gain a position at court, even if you were born into a poor peasant family, bringing honour to your family. That is why to this day, Chinese people believe white collar jobs are better than blue collar jobs and see only four generally acceptable career paths: doctor, lawyer, accountant/business person and teacher. That is also why Chinese people believe jobs at big prestigious companies or governments are better than jobs at small- and mid-sized businesses.

Chinese culture also has a very deep rooted respect for elders. Your elders have lived longer than you; they have more life experienced because they’ve “crossed more bridges than you’ve walked along roads” and “eaten more salt than you’ve eaten rice” and so they are wiser and more knowledgeable. You do not disrespect or dishonour your elders or your family. You do not disobey your parents.

Chinese Tradition in Modern Day Society (20th/21st Century)

While there are no more Imperial Examinations, in Hong Kong and China, the university entrance exams have taken over instead. Getting into a good university can make a huge difference.

As a result, many Chinese parents demand academic perfection. Chinese kids are brought up very differently to their peers.

  • They are sent off to intensive after school coaching classes very early on, as early as primary school.
  • They don’t have play-dates with other kids; they go to piano or violin lessons or go home and do extra homework.
  • Because of physical build, Chinese kids generally play sports like badminton, table tennis or gymnastics, rather than track, field, football, or cricket.
  • Chinese kids don’t take non-traditional subjects or subjects which don’t to either one of the allowable career paths or a white collar job.

Failure is not an option. Admitting defeat by quitting is not an option. Also, the definition of “failing” is not the same as the school’s definition or the standard definition of below 50%. “Failing” in modern Chinese culture is a flexible term which can refer to any or all of the following:

  • Not equalling or bettering your previous result in that subject
  • Getting a lower mark than your friend, or your parents’ friends’ son/daughter/niece/nephew
  • Not being at or near the top of your class/grade

I am very lucky and blessed to have Chinese parents who don’t adhere blindly to Chinese Tradition. They never sent me to coaching class after coaching class; they never told me I couldn’t do subjects like Drama; they supported me when I wanted to do an insane array of extracurricular activities; and most of all, they never demanded more than me giving everything my best effort.

I’ll illustrate with a flashback to a Year 11 Parent/Teacher Night. I was taking Extension I Mathematics with the intent to take Extension II Mathematics in my final year. I had never failed anything before my life but on my last class exam, I got 4 out of 32.

Completely. Unacceptable. By any standards, let alone Chinese Tradition. My parents weren’t furious, they were only concerned. But even with my awesome parents, I was still affected by this Chinese Tradition mentality. Failure. Unacceptable.

I’ll never forget sitting in front of my maths teacher (hands clenched in my lap, face burning with embarrassment and trying to hold back tears) as she told my parents that I was better off dropping out of Extension Mathematics altogether and just stick with plain Advanced Mathematics. I did not like maths. It was not my favourite subject. Being Chinese and failing at maths (well, failing at anything, but particularly failing at maths) is like dishonour. I felt I had to prove my teacher wrong and prove it to the world. So I never dropped that class. I refused to “quit”, took Extension II Mathematics and got a great result in my HSC exams.

Escaping The Chinese Tradition Trap

The Chinese Tradition Trap is rooted in an unwillingness to “admit defeat” because “failure is unacceptable”.

While companies use internship programs to screen candidates for permanent positions, it’s also a way to see what a particular career path is like. Probation periods also work along similar lines. Usually by the time you’ve been in an industry for anywhere between three to six months, you have a good idea of whether you like being there. At any point in time I could have decided that auditing and accounting is not for me. Many of my peers did – only 5 of my intake of 13 interns still remain at Ernst & Young; the rest figured out the internship wasn’t what they wanted and made their moves.

Similarly, going through high school, there was a huge perception that you had to get your subject choices right so you could get into the right degree for the right job; and if you didn’t get all of that right, that was it. Having gone through university now, I know that’s not true. You can change your subjects, your majors, your university, even your degree. You can choose alternative pathways like vocational education, summer school and short courses or pursue further studies after your undergraduate degree with graduate diplomas and masters degrees. There are an incredible number of ways to get to where you want to go.

My colleague had a very different upbringing so I don’t think she ever got stuck in the Chinese Tradition Trap. She was able to view her options objectively and consider them on their individual merits without automatically associating one of them with failure. As a result, she didn’t hold back and she was able to fully pursue the opportunities that came her way.

But for me, quitting the internship, changing degrees, majors or even subjects was unthinkable. On some level of my mind, I equated that with admitting failure, and it was unacceptable to fail. Thus, I never seriously took up any of the opportunities that came my way.

Not for a minute did I consider that the true failure was being unable to say to myself “This is not for me” and spending a lifetime doing something I don’t like.

One response to “The Chinese Tradition Trap – Failure Is Not An Option”

  1. June Avatar


    I found your experience very interesting. I am a teacher at a school that promotes traditional Chinese dance and culture. I came to your site while looking for stories about failure from traditional China.

    In my research I have found that in traditional China a person’s virtue or high moral character rather were considered prerequisites for learning; i.e. if one was not a good person, one was not fit to learn.

    Since the cultural revolution when the CCP “made black into white” and removed as much tradition as possible from the culture, literally cutting people off from the traditional way of thinking by removing the inner meaning from written language; the modern Chinese have been left with a hollow shell of culture which this has engendered the current phenomena of fierce competition we see in contemporary schools.

    Here is one article on educating for virtue in ancient China.

    Regards, June

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