Speaking of the zhongkao, I also can't help thinking that even if the kids here did well enough to get into a good high school, that's no guarantee of their friends coming with them. I can only imagine what a tough experience that must be. It broke my heart when a student who used to invite himself into my office and excitedly speak English (he was good at spoken English) all the time messaged me to say that he hadn't done well enough to get into high school and that his mother would now have to call around to arrange for his high school education. He said what hurt most was that he didn't do well in his favorite subject. In America, there are certainly debates going on about education but you do get more room for second chances. I've heard a rumor that it's possible to retake the gaokao, but I get the feeling that a number of people look at the time and money they would have to invest into preparing for a second gaokao to get into college and feel that option is blocked to them. I don't know if it is possible to retake the zhongkao. The best I could say was something weak, "Test scores can change with many things. How you're feeling when you take the test, the particular questions, the wording, a lot of things. I know you are an excellent English speaker". He said he was going to study harder and do more to improve his English. I have not heard much from him since and I feel a little sad when I don't see him with the marching students, thinking about how much he wanted to be here with his classmates and certain of getting a good education for his future. I knew this was the system when I signed up my first year here, I've known for a while that there's a lot of competing in China. I know it's not my place to change what is in place right now, but it is hard to now have a name and a face for someone who has not come out well so far (I keep my fingers crossed for other options that may come his way). Before I first came to China, someone said "You're not going to change the world. You're just going to teach English". Sometimes I bear that in mind as the thing that keeps me sane, on other days the part of me studied intercultural communications remembers that meeting someone from another culture is one of the most effective things against prejudice. It's not really in my power to hand each kid a round the world plane ticket but having traveled myself it is in my power to bring pieces of a different life to my students in some way. If nothing else, they have a class where for 40 minutes the zhongkao won't be the teacher's primary concern.
Sometimes I think back to elementary school when I was worried about how if I got up to sharpen my pencil, then the chair sliding back might be noisy, my feet on the floor might be distracting, the pencil sharpener wasn't always quiet (or reliable), then I'd have to walk back and make more noise as I got into my seat and the idea of distracting people or being a nuisance when everyone was focused on classwork bothered me. I bought my own portable plastic sharpener, which was quiet, so I wouldn't have to get up and cause trouble. I know how weird that is now, and sometimes I wonder how many choices and actions I've made so I could design my life around not making noise, not taking up space, not bumping into or causing any inconvenience to others. China has changed me. Sometimes I worry about table manners when I leave China because I've gotten comfortable asking kids about their day in the cafeteria where the goal is to eat as fast as possible and go study or play. More seriously, in a place where people seem to sense how many other people are trying to get train tickets, are driving cars to somewhere, and have other things to do I find myself becoming more assertive. Not aggressive, but certainly the kind of physically assertive where I stand with my nose practically in someone's hair because I have a train ticket to buy and I have waited. The man trying to shove his way in from the left side to get to the front will have to wait too. Sometimes I worry I've become too self-centered, but I guess I'll just have to spend more time sorting out the difference between assertion and ego. I'm getting better at accepting that I take up space in the world and that it's not wrong for me to do so. It reminds me of my first year back from college when I thought I had become impatient, but I realized that I had new experiences and saw a different life. I expected different things, there were things I no longer had to tolerate the way I used to (and maybe I never should have).
In sum, things are well here. I'm adjusting and preparing for the next year. Despite what people say over and over about how I've never changed in all my 24 years, I have changed and I think I'm beginning to understand what it means to be more confident (more than understand, begin to live it and put more faith in myself). I wish my students the best, though there's much out of my hands. I still think it'd be nice to go back to California, but suddenly the desire to go doesn't burn as badly as it did during this last semester. It's summer vacation and I think of how much China I still haven't covered now that I'm free to move around with my new visa. I think of the north, other central provinces, the East coast, and sometimes I think of going back to Zhongshan to probe around the Pearl River Delta a little more on family related things. Reading some of the family documents has become my new language goal, but it's going to be a hard one to meet.