A Zoe's Tale: More Reasons to Hate the Gaokao

I’ve written before about how much the gaokao, China’s college entrance exam, is archaic, unfair, and even sexist. However, at this time in China, if one wants to go to college, one must take the gaokao. While one can hope for improvement in the future, in the meantime one must simply take the test. But I wanted to share what was happening in our family so people can realize that it is hardly the end when it comes to the stress and unfairness that continues to plague China’s youths even after the gaokao is over.

My goddaughter Zoe has, like millions of other youths, prepared for the test her whole life. In the weeks leading up to it she went through a whole range of emotions. One day she would message me, “mom, I’m so worried. I can’t sleep.” And the next, “I just want to get this over with!” Finally, the day arrived, and I recieved a message from her I never thought I would get: “Mom, I’m done. It was so easy! I can’t believe that was the gaokao!” So things were looking up. She was still nervous about her final grade, but we were confident she would do well enough to get into a good college.

This week, Zoe got her results back. She did really well. I’m not going to reveal her score since she doesn’t know I’m writing this post, but according to my Chinese friends who have taken the gaokao in the past and have gone on to college her score was very high, good enough for one of the top 20 schools in the country. But we are being faced with the real possibility that she might not go to any college. Here are some of the reasons why.

Zoe didn’t go to a public high school. She attended Lanjiang Zhizhong, a technical school. Because of this she cannot choose any school she wants, regardless of her grades and gaokao score. There are only three schools in Hunan who will accept students from her school, and they really aren’t very good schools. My friend Mingzhu was able to rattle off the names of six other schools in Hunan better than Zoe’s few choices. Mingzhu called Zoe’s options “second-tier schools” (the Chinese tend to rate things in “tiers”). Two of those schools only have openings for less than 30 students; the third school has more openings (not sure how many), but is very expensive by Chinese standards. The chance that she will get into the first two schools is very slim. Her score was good, but did she have one of the top 60 scores in the province? Not likely. But I told her to think positive and apply to all three schools. If she gets into one of the cheaper schools, great; but if she only gets into the expensive school, we will cross that bridge when we come to it.

But here is what really, finally ticked me off. She decided to only apply to two schools, one affordable one and the expensive one because the “top” school on her list is so competitive she is sure she won’t get in. “Try anyway,” you might think; “it can’t hurt to try.” Oh, but that is Western thinking. Apparently, in China, trying and failing certainly does hurt you. If she applies to her “top” choice and they reject her, it will hurt her chances of getting into the other two. “Oh, you aren’t good enough for the Agricultural University,” the admissions office snidely says, “then you must not be good enough for our school either.”

She sent in her applications today and we won’t hear back for a couple of weeks. I have no idea at this point what her chances are of getting in, but I’m not really optimistic at the point. I’m simply disgusted at the way the Chinese education system evaluates, judges, and punishes China’s youths.

The China Daily (the official mouthpiece of the Party) recently published an idiotic article defending the gaokao and stating that despite the “thousands of loopholes, it defends the bottom line of social equality.” BULLSHIT! You cannot have a system that is both full of thousands of loopholes and upholds social equality. The loopholes exist to give the privileged few a advantage over the average person specifically to upset social equality. Then you have real life examples of people like Zoe, people who work their asses off and gain high scores who are still kept low and denied an education simply because of where she lives and where she went to high school. The system is broken, infuriating, and profoundly unfair. This is why anyone who can afford it sends their child to school overseas. This is why America needs to stop looking at China as some kind of educational role-model. This is why I’m going to spend the next few months looking for scholarships to send Zoe to college in the US myself. Her own government isn’t going to help her; someone has to.