Speaking of the Gaokao, I took the test 4 times. First when I finished high school, and three times after that. You could say I’m like an ‘old fox’—quite experienced in taking the exam. Even so, our school has some students who are even more experienced. There was one classmate who took the test for eight whole years. By the end, his original classmates returned to teach his classes. Unfortunately, he still failed to earn a passing score. In the end, no one knows what he amounted to, but his story is still famously passed down in our school for many years.
A decade or more ago up north in my neck of the woods, it wouldn’t be considered odd to find such ‘old foxes’ everywhere. What was unusual, however, was that every year during the Gaokao exam period, there would be these annoyingly funny moments — called ‘jiong’ in Chinese — where you didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. At that time, the term jiong had not yet become popular, so when people describe those kinds of situations, they would just say, those guys, or that thing is too funny, or hilarious.
The first year that I took the test, I was bewildered and confused. But it hardly mattered. A doctor from the school infirmary brought two oxygen tanks and went running throughout the dorms selling oxygen canisters to the students. He exclaimed that breathing more oxygen would make your brain more agile. Quite a few students fished out money for 2 mouthfuls of air, but I didn’t have money, I just had a stomach full of envious hatred. Instead, I went to a lush green tree and single-mindedly berated in a few lung-fulls of air, and then I set off for the testing room.
But after the test, there were rumors spreading that the oxygen tanks actually had no oxygen at all. At best it was just air, and perhaps it wasn’t even air at all, but industrial fumes. I had a malicious thought that, when you look at it, being poor has some advantages. You rarely get fooled into paying to breathe industrial fumes, for example. Of course there are even more disadvantages, the worst of which is only being able to eat cafeteria food. When you see someone else eating instant noodles, you want to get out of there fast, before you start drooling in front of everyone.
What really gets people excited during the Gaokao is when you are finally free to go and buy some savory treats at the cafeteria. But you don’t want to take too many chances, for fear that your stomach, used to a vegetarian diet, will not be able to handle the onslaught of greasiness and might act up by growling audibly. This made me read a very interesting paragraph from “An Ordinary World” about Sun Shaoping (Sun Shaoping is a character in the very popular novel An Ordinary World — he grew up poor in a village but aspired go to work in the city as a laborer).
A growling stomach during the Gaokao can definitely make you the focal point of a classic screw-up. One year one of our classmates had to make 3 or 4 trips to the restroom during one session. Every time he went, a proctor had to go with him. Due to his pacing back and forth, the entire test hall was filled with the noise of the student and proctor walking back and forth, and he drew fear behind him through the room.
The second time I retook the exam, there were two classmates, one with excellent math scores who would always earn 140 marks and another who was bad at math but alright in other subjects. These two were close friends, the kind where if you drank too much you can stick a knife in both sides of the chest. Coincidentally, they were placed in the same testing group and thus began plotting. In order to help out the other fellow, they discussed before the math exam that the guy with the better marks in math would pass on a slip of paper to the guy who wasn’t so good at math. They had decided that 4321 would stand for ABCD so that when the proctor came around they could deny cheating. During the exam, the slip of paper was passed on reluctantly and after the test, everyone gathered in the cafeteria eating steamed buns and talking about test answers. The guy who was bad at math was really excited and exclaimed: I’m really so lucky. After many twists and turns the answer paper finally got to me. 1234ABCD were all on there and I picked my answers accordingly, so I definitely passed the math exam. The classmates around him immediately said: Your head must be full of water! 4321 corresponded to ABCD, not 1234. This guy just happened to mix up the answers and bombed the multiple choice.
That day he didn’t even eat a single grain of rice at lunch. The following year, we were classmates again.
During one year’s exam, also in mathematics, it was just 5 minutes before we were to turn in our exam papers. Suddenly the entire examination hall with filled with the screeching of one of our classmates. Everyone went to see. It turned out that someone from the table in front of her had grabbed her exam paper and furiously began copying down answers. No one had ever imagined such a thing. The proctors just stood there dumbfounded for a good moment before they eventually stopped the student.
Whether or not it’s embarrassing or frustrating, the Gaokao is, however, quite an experience. Even if it’s the fourth time around of sitting the exam, it’s not like where a sweet potato gets sweeter the longer its cooked. In reality, people pay attention and talk about it not because it is just interesting, but because they think that the Gaokao decides one’s fate within just a few days. This kind of decision isn’t the difference between becoming an artist or becoming a scientist, but it’s the outcome that either dooms one to peasantry or provides opportunity to enter a different field and raise one’s family status by moving up in the world.
I will always remember how, shortly after I took the Gaokao for the last time, and finally received that letter of acceptance, my sheep-herding uncle said, “Finally, one of us will make it out of this poverty-stricken valley.” I only now realize his seriousness and only wish that more children of poverty would be able to find a way across this narrow bridge and find their place on the other side.