“One third of the applicants get accepted in a given year; one third of the applicants get accepted in repeat applications, and the final one third of applicants may never see an acceptance from a medical school.” I was carefully explaining the rigor of competition to my parents while taking a walk in their neighborhood in North Carolina. This was in the summer of 2005. A couple years before that, I helped my parents driving all of their belongings across the country looking for a place to settle down. They picked Charlotte. They started a clinic from scratch with enough savings to last them about six month. If the clinic didn’t work out, they would’ve lost all their savings and found themselves jobless.
“It is really hard.” I added a pointless statement breaking a moment of silence hoping to elicit some sage advice and more importantly some sympathy. My dad nodded his head in agreement, but it’s my mom that I often have a hard time impressing. My tone was slightly more dejected than I had intended and my mom was too perceptive to have missed that. “It is not easy.” She said it in a way that I knew a “but” is coming, “But are you not confident that you are top notch among the applicants this year?” My mom is neither a traditional Chinese parent, who often resorts to criticism when it comes to a child’s academic performances, nor has she conformed to the American culture where parents often heap abundant praises on their children from a young age. “You know the odds that your father and I faced in getting into an university from the countryside in 1977?” She fixed her gaze on me asking me a question that I knew well.
Less than one in a thousand was the answer. In 1966, a socio-political movement was hatched in China by a mad man to maintain his absolutely power in a totalitarian regime and to cover up his shameful inability to improve the country’s economy. The movement was called Cultural Revolution and it absolute devastated the normal order of every single system in an already barely functional society. In the following decade, seventeen million teenagers were “sent down” indefinitely to rural regions in China for hard labor. Over those ten years, some of the sent-down youth “to receive re-education by poor peasants” were injured, beaten, or raped. Many of them never returned to their families again. It was a brutal and tumultuous time in China.
In a cold morning of early spring in 1977, when giant megaphones placed high on utility poles in the corners of every village, town and city across China broke the news of the restoration of University Entrance Exam system, the sent-down youth collectively saw a light at the end of the tunnel, a way back to the city and back to their families. Universities began accepting students for the first time in ten years, and everyone who were shut out from schools in the past ten years scrambled to pick up books to try to remember how to take a test. In Chinese, it’s called herding a thousand soldiers and ten thousand horses across a single wooden bridge. The University Entrance Exam was the single wooden bridge and on the other side there was a possibility of normalcy, a future that may have hope, a life that may be worth living. My parents, standing among the few that successfully crossed that bridge that year, were accepted by the same medical school.
The single wooden bridge got broader and steadier over the two decades after the end of Cultural Revolution but the competition to cross it remained fierce. In the fall of 1995, I entered sixth grade, the final year of elementary school. The atmosphere in our classroom was noticeably different from what it had been in the previous five years. Everyone was feeling the squeeze of the upcoming Middle School Entrance Exam which would take place on the same day across Sichuan Province in late May. Sixth grade was known as Zui Hou De Chong Ci— the final dash.
Chengdu had three top tier middle schools: No.4, No, 7 and No. 9, using a numbering system remnant of the planned communist era. Making it into the top middle school meant a higher probability of continuing onto a top tier high school, which would lead to an improved probability of attaining a rare spot in an university. University acceptance rates in China were very low back then making university students the elite members of the society. That status changed by early 2000’s when the central government pushed through several rounds of college expansions effectively increasing university student numbers up to 10 folds. By then, graduation meant unemployment.
In the early to mid 90s, the top three high schools (also No. 4,7, and 9 associated with their correspondingly numbered middle schools) in Chengdu had such phenomenal education quality that they had near 100% university acceptance rate. Entering any one of these high schools meant a guaranteed ticket to a university. However, even the top three high schools were only able to sent between 10 to 20 students a year to Beijing University and Qinghua University, the Harvard and MIT of China. That was the ultimate honor imaginable in the eyes of children growing up in Chengdu in the 90s. My little uncle, my mother’s youngest cousin, is an alumnus of Beijing University both for his Bachelor’s degree and his PhD. He was a god in my eyes.
My headmaster told me that my goal, unlike most of the other 300 students in my year, should be No. 4 middle school which was located in my district. My elementary school was sending 4-5 students to No. 4 middle school a year on average. The pressure was on the students as much as it was on the teachers, headmasters, vice-principals and the principal of the school. A poor performance in a year meant decreased funding from the district, loss of year end bonuses for the teachers, possibly disciplinary actions on the school leadership, dissatisfied parents and potentially the start of a vicious cycle that pushes the school down a spiraling drain until it becomes annexed by a nearby school.
While I was unhappy about spending more and more time in school– we starting the day at 8 in the morning and end the last period of self study at 4:30 pm, then had homework until 8 or 9 pm– it was even more frustrating to find no one available to hang out with when I was not studying. My parents have always encouraged me to spend an hour or so out of the house after dinner each evening. And somehow they held to that policy until the last few months in sixth grade when all my free time was devoted to studying. The problem was that from the start of sixth grade all other kids, who used to come out every evening for a neighborhood soccer game, had lost their freedom. Some kids disappeared in fifth grade. Funzer’s mom was on his back constantly, and he was prohibited from leaving his house except an occasional hour on the weekends. I ended up being the only sixth grader in our neighborhood still showing up faithfully every night to perfect my banana kick (laterally bending the trajectory of a soccer ball in the air by adding a spin in a free kick).
My grades continued to look good in sixth grade. I was consistently top three in math exams and top five in my Chinese literature. But Middle School Entrance exam grades were ranked across four classes in my year which meant I needed to be number one in my class to have a shot at No. 4 middle school. Some kids had a much harder time in school and corporal punishment was common in Chinese families in the 90s. My neighbor was a girl three years younger than me. When she came home with poor grades, she had to kneel down facing a wall and was beaten by her parents using a stick. I remember hearing her cry one time, begging not to be hit again, through the closed anti-theft metal front door of her condominium. It was a heart wrenching cry from a 9 year old girl, and it was terrifying for a 12 year old boy to hear. I pulled my keys out of my pants pocket with trembling hands and locked myself in my own room all evening. I remember having no appetite that night which was very rare. It made my mother questioning me sternly whether I had Malatang tsu’antsu’er (hot pot skewers) from a Gaibi’an Ley DiTanter (tiny street vendor) on the way back from school.
I have always been thankful that my parents do not condone corporal punishment. The only time that I remember my father beating me was when I brought home 75% on both my math and Chinese literature final exams in second grade. I watched my father’s eyes turning red looking through my papers with many bright red cross marks. Through his clenched teeth, he told me that I better remember what he was about to do. He looked around himself for a weapon and pulled out two thin knitting sticks from a bundle of yarn and my mom’s half completed hand knit sweater. He raised his right arm high and swung it down at my side swiftly. It must have hit me because the sticks were immediately bent but I didn’t feel a thing. I cried my lungs out from fear. I had never seen my father in a fury like that. And my mom found her hand knit sweater fallen apart that evening.
Sixth grade passed quickly. On a sunny day in early June in 1996, my school lobby was filled with kids and parents waiting for the final grades of the Middle School Entrance Exam to be posted. My mother was with me standing in that lobby. When the principal appeared in the lobby with a big smile on his face and a very long and thin paper in his hands, the sense of trepidation in the crowd was palpable even to a twelve year old boy. I felt strangely calm as if I hadn’t grasped the magnitude of the occasion: my life’s trajectory was about to be publicly announced. I watched the principal slapping thick white glue with a paintbrush onto one side of a square pillar in the center of the lobby and pressing the thin paper carefully onto the post. He turned around, face flushed in excitement and his hands clasped tightly in front of him, and announced, “We have seven students going to No. 4 middle school this year!” The crowd applauded thunderous to these words. The principal squeezed himself through the thickest part of the crowd receiving compliments, hand shakes and pats on his back. The crowd swarmed forward to inspect the list he left behind on the pillar. My mother and I waited for our turn to the front of the eager pack of parents and students. The list was long with tiny printed rank numbers, names, class numbers, student identification numbers, test scores in math and literature and middle school assignments. I scanned the list quickly and found my own name next to rank number 9 and middle school No. 10.