Opinion / Blog

Gaokao and SAT: One country, two paths

By Yifan_Zhou ( Updated: 2015-06-11 14:23

I was on my way home from the airport on the morning of June 7, Sunday, after taking Scholastic Assessment Test or SAT in Singapore, when more than 9 million senior high school students all over China were entering examination rooms for perhaps the most important exam in their life. The June SAT had just finished; the annual National College Entrance Exam, or gaokao, had just begun.

Had I chosen to study in a regular high school within the Chinese education system, I would follow the exact same path one year from now. Created in the 1950s, suspended during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) and resumed in 1977, gaokao has changed the lives of almost 100 million people in China. Among them are my own parents. Thanks to gaokao, they were able to come to Beijing for the first time and eventually have a family here.

Even now, gaokao forms some of the most important, unforgettable parts in a Chinese person’s memory of his or her youth. Staying up late going through endless exercise books, sweating in the classroom during summer watching the teacher write on the blackboard, putting on earphones during each and every break to practice English listening…A class can be as united as a legion, preparing for “war” with gaokao. Such is the experience that, when they look back, it would appear so happy and warm. Such is the experience I would never have and could only imagine.

But gaokao has changed over time. Back in my parents’ days, taking gaokao and going to a university was almost the only way to change one’s fate and achieve future success, and it was perhaps the fairest way as well: anyone who studied hard and got high enough scores could move on to the university of his or her dreams. At that time, university graduates were not so common and they didn’t need to worry about their career: they were assigned jobs. Now? More and more students are taking gaokao, more and more students graduate from universities every year, simply finding themselves not favored in the job market any more. At the same time, cheating and going through the backdoor have made gaokao not as pure and fair as it was years ago.

Facing the new situation, some Chinese students are looking for an alternate path. As I said, I was just coming home from Singapore after taking SAT More than a year ago I decided not to stick to the traditional Chinese education system, and instead went to an International Curriculum Centre at a Beijing high school, which offers A-levels, AP and IB (International Baccalaureate) programs. In effect, I gave up the chance of taking gaokao to attend a Chinese university.

Going abroad to study is an alternate path towards the future for our generation. It became possible after China opened up and its economic reform and development created wealth for its people to support such a path. It is a path that has emerged inevitably as the result of increased globalization. We want a college education that is open minded and innovative. We want to be part of the exchange of cultural values as society marches forward toward a diverse yet inclusive society.

On the other hand, we know there will be - must be - lots of challenges along the way. How do we cope with cultural differences? How do we adapt to a new living environment? Are we going to stay abroad or come back after university? And what about those who go abroad early, before high school or even middle school - how should they identify themselves? How should they balance themselves, caught between two different worlds?

Everyone chooses their own poison. They choose to bury themselves in exercise books and test papers and take part in an exam that would determine their future in two days. We choose to sleep with our word lists, write lots and lots of essays and fly outside China several times a year for the SAT. Last Friday only two students in my class were in the classroom: the rest have gone either to Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea or Japan. Neither path is easy.

The freedom to choose between gaokao and SAT represents one of many opportunities and challenges brought about by social evolution in China. Whatever the choice is, our generation shall take on the responsibilities of living up to the challenges of our times for a better future, pushing society forward.

Until our paths cross again.

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