Fun and Games

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To my chagrin, just paid $20 for a space upgrade so I could upload more pics…here you go

One morning last week, a recently graduated student called me at an hour that, by the standards of most, was unreasonably early, early enough that, to quote a college friend, it would be “scandalous in mixed company.”

The student sounded worried, frantic; her sentences were coming out in short, grammatically abortive bursts; her tone and pace of speech betrayed a tight coil of hyperactive stress, of fear and anxiety and a desire to simply do something – and to have control over that something – in short, a messily confused bundle of emotions which, to me, instantly revealed the subject of her call. My covert analysis soon proved correct.

“Teacher!” she said. “It’s the last day to choose schools – and with my gaokao score, I have no idea what to do!”

Unfortunately, I told her, I didn’t either. For a foreign teacher in China, I am unusually involved in the gaokao process. I am responsible for preparing my students for this nastily difficult test. I teach my students much of the vocabulary and grammar needed for the gaokao, as well as test strategies like “Write beautifully! They may not even read your essay!” and “If you’re short on time, skip the error correction and work on the reading section!” But gaokao preparation is not only about teaching students what is on the test and how to take it. Due to the stress involved in this exam – an exam which, lasting for three days, will determine to great extent their future life trajectory; an exam for which they have been preparing throughout the twelve-year entirety of their academic careers; an exam for which parents in eastern China regularly put their students on IVs and other medications, rent separate “study” apartments, and proposition deities with exorbitant offerings; an exam during which policemen are stationed outside testing centers, and small blue signs – asking drivers not to honk – are placed in the middle of traffic on nearby roads – given such an exam, a great portion of my time is spent as a gaokao counselor and psychoanalyst.

This role is clearly necessary before and during the test. During the school year, I show movies intended to inspire students to a vision of life where excellence and material success are not always interconnected, an idea of existence in which each individual must strive to be the best person that he or she can, all while staying true to oneself (so American, I know – but some of these movies are Indian, so I can partially justify the cultural imperialism). I also try to help the students relax, providing activities in and out of class, office hours in the library, and a mixture of gaokao and non-gaokao-related subjects in the classroom. And I have numerous one-on-one conversations with students about how they feel, what they’re worried about, and how they can deal with their emotions.

But the psychiatrist role is also important long after the test is finished. This is mainly due to the college admissions process, which, like many things here, is arbitrary and absurd enough to drive even the most self-importantly image-conscious of my students to tears.

On June 26, all Qinghai students’ gaokao scores were posted on a website – which, of course, quickly crashed. Then their scores were posted publicly outside of the Prefectural Bureau of Education. And then, the madness began.

Each of my students has two different gaokao scores. The minkao min, used for admission to nationalities universities, counts their Tibetan and Chinese scores but doesn’t include English, while the minkao han, used for admission to ‘normal’ Chinese universities, counts one-half of their Tibetan and Chinese scores and all of their English score.

The China Education Bureau then publishes tables of university entrance standards based on gaokao scores (these scores are the only determinant of university acceptance). These standards are different for each province, for different “levels” of university, and for the “literature/arts” and “science” tracks of high school. For Qinghai and other minority regions, these standards are also different for minkao min and minkao han scores. It’s all complicated enough that I’m not even going to try to walk you through an example.

Then comes the application process to the real schools. Each year, each province publishes a book containing a massive list of every university in the country – and how many students from that province they are planning to admit. These numbers are fixed, and – for any given university – are predetermined by major. So if Beijing University is planning to take five literature/arts students from Qinghai this year, the majors of those students-to-be-enrolled have already been chosen. From Qinghai and want to attend China’s top university? You might need to major in Russian or Business Management. Want to attend Yunnan University and major in English? Sorry, bud, out of luck – no spots available this year. Try Arabic or National Studies instead.

Additionally, each university recruits disproportionately from their own province. As such, students from a place like Beijing – a place with a high density of universities – have a wide range of opportunities to attend higher education. Students from Qinghai, with only three B.A.-granting universities within the province, are at a distinct disadvantage.

Some universities take it a step further and publish height requirements. Male students entering a university in Hubei had to be at least 180 centimeters in height, while females had to be 160 centimeters or taller.

But even if you meet the height requirements, choosing appropriate universities for a given gaokao score is an art.  Even if students may be above a certain cutoff, there is always the danger that the two universities they list on their “Aspiration Form” (for this is how the application is completed – a simple form on which they list their top two choices of university and major) will not accept them. In this case, students enter a secondary process, reapplying to schools which, as they have already taken the majority of their applicant quotas, are able to take few more. As such, students who may have attained the cutoff for first-tier universities may apply to second-tier programs instead simply to avoid the risk of not getting chosen.

In short, the whole process is nasty and stressful and messy. The first round of acceptances will come out in a week, and the students are understandably jittery. It is also arbitrary and riddled with patronage schemes. When I asked a university administrator how to help one of my students attend an excellent English program – which is only taking three students from the province -he said, “who do you know?”

Which brings me back to my student’s early-morning phone call. This student, with one of the highest scores in the class, was confused – and lost. Some people were telling her to go to a better university, regardless of major, while others were telling her to put her major first. Some people were telling her to aim high, while others suggested she avoid the risk and choose a university to which her admission would be guaranteed. Some people told her to stay close to home, while others suggested she go far.

“Who is going to university?” I said.

“I am,” she said.

“Are your teachers going?”


“Your headmaster?”


“Your parents?”


“So,” I asked, “For whom are you choosing a university?”

She paused, her hesitation and self-awareness and stress and worry, finally, realization, almost palpable over the phone.

“For myself.”

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