Image from Pexels

Image from Pexels

“My English name is Candy. You are my first pen pal. Nice to meet you~~~
I’m 17 years old. Maybe my school is very different from yours. We should be at school at 7 a.m. every day and go home with a lot of homework at 8 p.m.That is all for the National Exam [Gaokao] which is something like SAT. I am very crazy and nervous about that.”

Since October of 2013, I have been exchanging emails with my Chinese pen pal, 李子纯, or Candy. I was paired up with her through my school’s Taiwanese Chinese American Association. As a senior, she has been preparing for the rite of passage universal to practically all high school students in China: the Gaokao. While the Gaokao is considered to be the “Chinese SAT,” there are major differences between the two standardized tests.

“Gooow…koow? Huh?”

The Chinese value of hard work is undoubtedly tied into the value of education, and in turn, the Gaokao. With the exception of extremely special cases (we’re talking nationally ranked artists, athletes, etc) it is the only factor in deciding admissions to universities in China. In Chinese, Gaokao (高考) translates to “higher test,” and is *considered* (more on that later) by many to single-handedly be able to determine the rest of one’s future; in a country that places such importance on education, career prospects are said to be heavily influenced by the prestige of the alma mater of the job applicant. Check out Steven’s article here for more information on the differences between the SAT and Gaokao!

While the Gaokao is considered by its proponents to be the ultimate device of meritocracy in China, more and more critics have been voicing their concerns towards the consequences of both an intensely competitive environment, in addition to a stiflingly rigid curriculum. Due to the obscene amounts of pressure to centered around performing well on the Gaokao, there have been many incidents of extreme measures being taken, from cheating with electronic devices hidden in erasers and bras arising from a warped mindset to succeed no matter the cost (see: “We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.”), to covering up the death of a family member, or even getting IV drips to study better.

“We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.”

(quote from The Atlantic)

And in the center of it all…

Amidst the swirling hurricane of all the controversy, the infamy, the call for reform/ complete abolishing of the test, the sensationalism (warning: graphic images), are the very individuals within the eye of the storm: the students taking the test. What about them? As Sophia Rubenfield said in her blog post about her experience with Chinese teenagers, “They are not the dull-eyed, spiritless drones that I — let’s be honest — have been throwing under the bus for the past year and a half as foils for high-achieving-yet-spunky tiger cubs…When [she] scanned the roomful of preteen faces, [she] saw quiet curiosity, excitement, impatience, incredulity — signs of life, not of submission.”

Candy’s high school, Changzhou Senior High, has a long track record of sending their students to some of the top universities in the nation. In order to meet the standard set by their predecessors, and continue the tradition of high achievement, Candy and her classmates, dedicate countless hours to dutifully studying. This was especially evident as she often expressed how busy due to having to study:

  • “Recently I have been busy preparing for a monthly exam.We grade 12 students only have one day off every week so I don’t have much time to do my own things.Maybe i can’t respond to you in time.
  • “Uh… I should go to finish my homework now.Tell me more about your school life next time…..”
  • “Sorry, I have to sleep now. Next week I have to study the whole week so I don’t have time to respond…..sorry again…”
  • “I feel it has been a long time since my last response.I really appreciate your understanding and supporting.Our school work was so busy and i have been studying for actually 13 days!”
  • “The winter holiday begins. I can have a long long rest afterthe busy school work.So excited!!!
  • However,we need to go to school to hand in our homework from time to time to show that we are studying during the holiday.”

In the scarce free time she did have, I was lucky enough to have her set aside some time to allow me to get to know her better and talk to her about life as a high school student in China.

Jessica Zhou: Hi Candy! What is your school like? What do you like to do?

Candy Li: I live in Changzhou,Jiangsu and study in Changzhou Senior High School now. To introduce my interests, I like listening to music! Especially the K-POP music. Do you know the group F(x)? I like their dance and music very much.Can you introduce some English songs to me? I also like doing sports,reading,watching TV and sleeping(haha).I used to play electronic organ.

JZ: I’ve heard of F(X) and I think K-POP is super catchy even if I can’t understand it! I like Lorde,The Neighbourhood, Imagine Dragons, Of Monsters and Men, Ed Sheeran, and Vampire Weekend. Props to you for staying so focused and dedicated, I truly admire that.  Since you’re in grade 12, do you know what school you want to attend? What is your school day normally like?

CL: My ideal school is Zhejiang University.I began to worry about the next exam in October.We have 10 lessons every day, including a 75-minute self-study in the evening. We 12th grade students only have 5 kinds of lessons,which are Maths,Chinese, English, Physics and Chemistry.

JZ: Best of luck to you with Zhejiang, 加油! I was surprised to learn how the Chinese college admissions process is super different from the American.

CL: Concerning the SAT, is the competition in the USA as tough as China? How many schools can you apply for in total?

JZ: For the SAT, competition depends on the school you want to apply to, the more competitive, the higher the SAT score. You can apply to as many as you want, however, it means you need to spend time, and sometimes money for the application. Are you thinking about going to an American university?

CL: I know Harvard University! It has a great reputation in China.One of my friends wants to be admitted to it.What you know is true.Most universities just pay attention to your exam results rather than your competence. What’s more,we don’t have time to volunteer or do things we like. American culture is very different from China’s.

JZ: When I was little I used to want to go to Harvard, but then I realized the only reason was for the name and prestige. I think the SAT is alright, but the writing section is iffy because you can totally write an essay by making things up, and get a good score. Why?!

CL: As you said,many students desire to attend it because of its name. So does my friend.But we really don’t know what Harvard is famous for……I have been thinking [about] why we want to go to good universities.For more knowledge? Or a well-paid job? Or something else….? For the exams, I really don’t like the writing test (including Chinese and English),either. The scores depend on the teachers’ preferences.All of us try our best to cater to them.

JZ: To answer your question, Harvard is considered a great school because of its superb learning environment and resources offered, but I also think that not everyone is suited for Harvard, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I can’t wait to graduate high school so I can meet new people from different parts of the world, challenge myself intellectually, and most of all travel, all of which I hope to do while attending a university that is a good fit for me. AHHH! I understand what you mean! I like writing, but I dislike writing for tests like the SAT.

CL: It’s hard for me too,especially the Chinese writing,you must finish an 800-word article on some topic in one hour. We can’t write what we really want to write.On the other hand,the subjects like Maths and Science have a strict standard.If you are right,you get scores.That’s simple. Last week,we had the mid-term exams. I did just so so but I am not depressed.I found out my English writing [is] getting worse.Do you feel my English [is] like Chinglish when reading my e-mails? It’s difficult for me to apply the words I know.

JZ: I read in the news that the SAT writing section is teaching students how to write terribly and is a useless portion of the test. I hope someday there is a better way to test writing. I agree, with math and science, it’s much more straightforward. Candy, I think your English is great! Is it the hardest subject on the Gaokao for you?

CL: Chinese is! I have been weak at Chinese for many years…when I was young, it felt difficult trying to understand the deep spirit the authors want[ed] to convey…and now I love to read beautiful novels. I like 变成 written by Shen Congwen,which conveys the beauty of life.

JZ: Final thoughts on taking the Gaokao this year?

CL: It [has] justice. Everyone has different feelings but the standard answers are fixed because the teacher decides your score just by your performance; they don’t know your name or what you look like. Persevering in studying and working every day is challenging. The fierce competition keeps me motivated…our school adds all the scores up after every exam and puts the rank up. I have many [happy memories studying] with my friends.

It was rewarding, being able to befriend someone halfway across the globe, and to learn more about a radically different education system. Despite our contrasting cultures and geographies, I still felt like I could relate to Candy, and really enjoyed talking to her. Conversations I’ve had with Candy changed my perception of high schoolers in China. Definitely, they study for hours on end, but that doesn’t mean they’re not anticipating the next episode of their favorite show, freaking out over a dream school, or simply gossiping with their friends. They also happen to be in a pressure cooker of a learning environment. Through numerous emails Candy and I also talked about our favorite Chinese shows, our love of sleep (self explanatory), the German exchange students from her school (“the exchange students from Germany in our school seem to like running ,too.When I am having lessons, they’re running,when I am doing my homework,they are running,when I am running,they are running…”), second language struggles (for the record, her English is 500% better than my Chinese), online shopping, and most of all, that unsettling apprehension of the future I’m sure most teenagers experience to some degree.

Along with millions of other year-twelve students in China, Candy will be taking the Gaokao from June 7th to June 9th. Wish her luck!



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the author

Jessica Zhou (say hi @itsjesszhou!) is a loudish introvert of high school student (aka thrift shop inhabiter, low-expectations foodie, sporadic dancer, avid reader, almost-as avid writer, button-happy shutterbug) with multifarious interests, currently residing in California. She was an editorial intern from September 2013 - June 2014, and wants to give you major props for reading one of the coolest high school/ college life-and-everything-in-between websites around. YOU DA REALEST.

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