An essay by Danwei staff writer Eric Mu.
When I was a kid, university graduates were as rare as unicorns, now they are more like popcorn: cheap and plentiful. No big surprise, considering there are millions of fresh ones every year to join a large pool of millions of existing graduates. All are desperate for white-collar jobs that are not easy to come by in China’s manufacturing economy. The problem of university graduates finding jobs has been debated in the media for at least a decade as a difficult social issue and it never improves.
My father is a cleaner at a local paper mill. In his mid-fifties without any professional skills, he works for 50 yuan a day. What can 50 yuan buy? Two cups of coffee at this not-too-fancy coffee shop in Beijing where I am typing these words. But if you are a college graduate and want to find a job in my hometown, you can expect to start with an even lower salary than my father. Earlier this year when I went back to my home village, my parents told me that a girl in the village had gone mad. Why? She went to college, where she studied English for four years, and the best job she could get was to peel shrimps with coworkers who had only finished middle school and were at least four years younger than her.
So, a college degree, once a coveted holy grail, a glamorous passport to a fulfilled and secure life, has lost its luster, right? So people are shunning it and pursuing happiness through a different course, right? The fact is that despite the bleak financial prospects and diminishing advantages of being a graduate, the competition to become one has never been any more severe.
My high school life, which was not so long ago, might give you a small glimpse into the real situation: How too much competition poisons people’s relationships, and how when you feel that the guy sitting beside you is your potential enemy who may rob you of a lifetime of happiness, altruism is not going to be your guide. Students hold to themselves and are reluctant to help others. If you have a math question you cannot crack, you keep it to yourself, because all the students are very proprietary about their learning. To offer your knowledge or even your questions for free is not only time consuming but an aid to your enemies.
I have to say that high school is a monastery and an army boot camp combined. Eleven classes every day. We had to rise before dawn and went to bed after 11. After the last class, we were encouraged to use any bit of extra time for study. There was one student who would go to read his lessons every night in the toilet, because that was the only place where the light would be kept on 24 hours. Everyone hated him, because his breach of a delicate equilibrium that is vital for us to live in peace with each other — he studied just a little too hard. The school encouraged us to be frugal with our time. It had a slogan hanging from the main building: “Time is like water in sponge; if you squeeze harder, there is always more.”
Even though you can always squeeze, even God may need to take a day off every week. For high school students, it was every four weeks. The day was meant for us to go home to pick up some spare clothes and money to sustain us for the next four weeks. But it also offered a rare chance of leisure. One day, think about it, ten hours of freedom, plus undisrupted sleep. How wonderful! I always anticipated the day so much that I kept planning and planning: Going to the bookstore to read the history book that I hadn’t finished? Going to the noodle place in the market to have noodles with lamb soup? When the day eventually came, not a single second passed without causing great anxiety in me like a stingy man counting every penny that he has to shell out.
Teachers are a mixture of army training sergeants and Amway salesmen. The former abuses, the latter promises. A teacher is not only expected to teach, he also needs to motivate. Some male teachers were very good at that, capable of evoking in their subjects the deepest sense of shame that even a Freudian would admire. They did it with verbal ingenuity that a rapper would envy. I remember a teacher once warned us that if we didn’t work hard we would “go and poke a dog’s teeth,” What he meant was that we would end up being tramps or beggars. Now many years have passed but the image of myself with a beggar’s pole trying to fend off a bunch of barking dogs still haunts me.
The first few days of my high school life I was pumped up by a sense of triumphalism and I was a bit stuck up. After all, I had just passed a very difficult exam, I thought. My teacher spotted that dangerous tendency and he talked to me about it. At first he was using metaphorical language, telling me how a full bucket cannot take any more water. When he found out that I was not improving, he called me an ingrate and a mistake of my parents. It was only later that I realized that the teacher didn’t say that only to me. He said it to most students with the exception of the very best and the very worst in the class. The top ones were treated with respect and the worst don’t deserve his time because it won’t make a difference anyway.
It was not only the students dealing with a lot of stress, but the teachers as well. A teacher’s salary was correlated by how many of the students that they were responsible for went to university. Even the school principal would be evaluated on such statistics. At my junior year, a girl committed suicide. Not a big surprise. There are always weak ones who just can’t make it. That is how natural selection works. The cause of the suicide was that the girl’s head teacher asked her to forgo the college entrance exam. Not that he hated her personally. He simply talked to all the students who were deemed hopeless and would only dilute the average results of the class. The girl refused. The teacher told the girl something that must have been very humiliating, and she drowned herself in the sea that afternoon.
Three years of running this strenuous marathon. The inevitable climax was more of an anticlimax. The test didn’t turn out to be as I had imagined it – a grand battle. I had been seeing myself on stage, with a war bugle blowing and bullets whizzing by and here I was, a soldier crouching in his trench and ready for a bayonet charge, to take my fate by its throat. The reality was much duller though. A room packed with 40 students huddling in front of their small desks, under the scrutiny of a surveillance cam and two chatty supervisors. We were no warriors but prisoners. If we were fighting for anything, it was just for our own survival.
During the few days prior to the exam, some interesting changes took place. My head teacher seemed to have a personality transplant. He appeared to be a different person. He was now such a nice guy that I barely recognized him. In our final class, he gave us his goodbye speech. He told us how pleasant it had been working with us for the past three years, that he had been proud of us and would never forget us. I had been thinking the exact opposite – that we were the worst class he had ever taught and that he had always hated us — particularly me, the sullen mean type who just won’t cooperate — and wanted to wipe us from from his memory as soon as we are gone.
He proceeded with his emotion-charged speech. “If I ever hurt any of you, it was not my intention. As a teacher , I always had my students’ best interests in mind.” Some girls were moved to cry. “One day as a teacher, a life as a father,” he quoted an ancient saying, which gave me a feeling of embarrassment for the hypocrisy.
All theatrics aside, the message was clear to me: “I know I abused you but I don’t want to be hated. Now, as you are about to leave, there is no point for me to be harsh any more. What can be done can’t be undone, and it is all the past, so let’s move on and forget it and be friendly to each other.”
“I love you.” was the signal for the end of the speech, a rather clichéd wrap-up. “We love you too.” The students yelled back. Liars!
But a ritual like this worked. Reconciliation was achieved. Damages were forgiven. Grudges healed. Even I, the most foolhardy, unrelenting hater, felt that it might not be fair to blame the guy for his offensive remarks about me. He was, after all, doing his job.
The morning before the exam started, I walked through a crowd of students’ parents. They were anxious and gazing expectantly at their children, praying that they would ace the test. My dad was there too. He brought me a can of Red Bull.
“Son, don’t be nervous.” My dad passed me the can.
How can I not be nervous seeing you wimpy like that? I was thinking, gulping down the liquid.
“Your teacher said you are good. He said you have no problem.”
My teacher? My teacher doesn’t care about me at all. All he cares about is statistics.
“We can try again next year if you fail.”
But next year. How many next years I am going to have?
But I just said bye to my dad, throwing the tin can as far as I could, and strode into the exam room, ready to take my destiny by the throat, or, be taken by my throat.
The three days of examinations proceeded without incident, except occasionally the kid in front of me snuck a look or two at my exam sheet and the teachers there pretended not to see it at all, or they were too involved in their chat. But how can I let my three years of hard work be stolen by this sneaky bastard? I stared back at him with my hard, venomous eyes, covering my sheet up. The thief turned his head back.
Then everything was over. I walked out of the room feeling like an abandoned condom, used and hollow. Exhausted too. All I wanted to do was to catch up on all the sleep that I had missed over the past three years. It was not only because I was so sleepy, I wanted to sleep away the horrible three years, to forget them like a bad dream. When I woke up again, I hoped that I would find myself a fresh person with a new life.
A month later, I got the admission letter from a university, my family was exhilarated. But I was only relieved to have my burden removed, if only temporarily. I knew intuitively that university would by no means be as wonderful as the teacher depicted to me. Compared with three years ago, I was now older and in no small measure, wiser.
My feeling was vindicated; university life was but another cycle. We would go through another round of anxiety, angst, boredom and disillusion, only with different tokens for goals: then it was about passing the exam and going to university, now it was about becoming a Party member and finding a girlfriend and getting a job.
See also on Danwei: Blowing up the school.