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English and arts teaching at Zhuhai No. 9—that’s how this program was characterized in its description. We are just past halfway through, but the teaching section of this program has come to a close, and though we technically still have three weeks left, the shadow of our departure has already begun to hang over us. Our students and host siblings constantly ask us when we are leaving, and it feels like we are already beginning to say goodbye. Irene and I took selfies with some of our classes this week, and we spent a few minutes after each class adding students’ Wechats (something that hasn’t happened with such frequency since the first week).
Three weeks sounds like quite a bit of time, but when you consider that we’ll be spending this next week in Shanghai/Beijing, that next week is the Zhongkao, the week after that is our Yunnan trip, and that our last week will be taken up by final exams and the final performance, it really isn’t that much time. I feel a sense of urgency to make the most out of what is left, and I sometimes wonder if I could have been more “present” during the first half. Being more “present”—that’s the advice a former DukeEngager (in Zhuhai) gave us, and obtuse as it seemed at the time, I’m slowly beginning to understand.
I didn’t know how or even if this trip would change me at the beginning. I didn’t know what the meaning behind this trip would be for me, and I still don’t know what it is. I don’t even know what I came on this trip to find! Throughout this trip, I’ve felt a little like a ship adrift, and I privately hoped I would find some meaning along the way. It hasn’t dropped out of the heavens, but something I saw yesterday unexpectedly reminded me of this topic.
My host sister, Vivian, asked to use my computer to watch a video. Initially, I thought she wanted to watch a movie, so I watched over her shoulder. It was actually a short movie made by the broadcasting club for the 9th graders, who are about to take their Zhongkao. A little about the Zhongkao, before I continue. Like the Gaokao (lit. high school examination), the Zhongkao (middle school examination) is a national exam all 9th graders take to determine which high school they can enter. Though not as much so as the Gaokao, the Zhongkao is one of the engines of social mobility within China—after all, the score you get determines which high school you can go to, which indirectly impacts which college you can enter, which determines what job you can get in the future. Basically, your grades actually do determine your future here in China (unlike America). Only 30% of Zhuhai middle schoolers will be able to enter an academic high school; the rest will go to vocational school or directly to work. So it’s very high stakes for them. Vivian is only a 7th grader (the youngest grade at No. 9) but she becomes quiet and looks away whenever the Zhongkao are mentioned. Anyways, back to the movie. The movie she showed me was to cheer the 9th graders on before their test, and featured clips of the students at important events throughout the year, clips of them during their classes (academic and extracurricular), and clips of each teacher giving them an inspirational message.
I can’t do justice to the video with my words here. It was an indifferent piece of filmography, and the teachers’ well wishes were pretty simple, but it conveyed the number of hopes and dreams pinned on these exams. Inherent was the message that you can make your own future if you work hard enough, and a sense of unity and purpose driving forward. The act of taking a test is itself meaningless, but it has been infused with meaning by the millions of parents and children taking the tests, and the way the system is set up to determine social standing.
Infusing meaning yourself–that is something I’ll continue thinking about as we continue in this program. Everything is still fuzzy right now, but I’m beginning to get a sense of what I will take out of this trip.