It seems such a long time ago when I was faced with the choice of going to University and picking a subject. Four decades later, I am looking back, with a view to share with and hopefully to inspire a new generation of students. From the magic mirror of time, the past, the present and the future, I can clearly see my younger self, an enthusiastic and innocent 17 year old on the threshold of entering a brand new world. It feels like yesterday.
I was one of the first cohort of students to go to University, following the end of the Cultural Revolution when formal examinations were scrapped and universities closed for several years. From the excerpts of my debut The Same Moon below, you’ll find that my alter ego, Pearl Zhang, did not have much of a choice in picking the University she wanted to go to, or the subject area which appealed to her young heart and mind. Still, she was lucky. She ended up getting a degree in English. If you are in anyway following Pearl’s ups and downs in her Journey to the West, you will see that her first degree in China serves her well, well enough to earn her several more degrees in the UK. As time goes by and our protagonist comes to live in a different country, where she has her own pick of subjects and universities, but that is a different story which you can read in the book.
Currently I am involved with recruiting Chinese students for a Scottish University, and I know that many students face a similar dilemma in choosing a study destination and a course which will sooner or later determine their career, possibly their life path. Can they decide what to study and where to go, or do they have to listen to their parents and their teachers, just as it was in Pearl’s time? Is personal ‘choice’ still a western concept or has China changed so much that the 1990s and 2000s children can now have their say about their future?
Time moves on relentlessly, yet still there are many cultural and historical heritage which stay with us no matter what. In the 21st century more than ever before, the choices are increasingly wider and more varied; the students not only have to decide what subjects to study, but also many are blessed with the choice of destination overseas, the USA, the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and many Asian and European countries. There are over 3,000 HEIs to choose from within China and many more worldwide. The choices must seem limitless.
This post is aimed to help some of my young readers to think about the choices they are going to make. I am glad to be in a position with certain amount of authority and expertise, to advise, guide and support the students whom I’ve come in contact with, and sometimes their parents too. In life, it does not matter where we come from and at what stage, career and otherwise, we are constantly met with choices and decisions, big, life-changing ones, or smaller, perhaps less significant ones. We are not all masters of our fate, although some people may believe so, but we are given choices, hundreds and perhaps thousands of them, and if we are lucky, we will be able to make better choices, with an enlightened, informed and open mind.
All Chinese parents want the best education possible for their children. In Confucius’ words: Scholars reign while everyone else is inferior.
With the prospect of higher education, senior secondary school pupils were required to choose to specialise in either arts/literature or science/technology courses. Wide consultations with relatives and teachers resulted in a consensus that I should pursue medicine, because ‘girls are better suited to medical careers’. “Teaching is good for you too. It’s in your family genes.” In Mrs. Chen’s words, “You are more likely to make political mistakes if you choose to do a language course or the like. With scientific subjects, you will be safe and sound.” I was never consulted, naturally.
The decision to go to university and the subject choice had long been made, without my input. In my heart, I had harboured a strong desire to leave Sichuan and go to another province, where people spoke different dialects and cooked contrasting gourmet food. I dearly longed for an adventure, to explore places I had only read about in books, to experience new things. Without great fantasies about major cities like Beijing or Shanghai, a medium-sized city like Suzhou in the south of Yangzi would have been ideal in satisfying my emerging curiosity.
To my delight, I discovered that Suzhou had a medical school. I expected that I could at least be allowed to pick one of my own, among the six choices for key institutions and six for non-key institutions, which we were allowed. Status and rankings were distinctive, with so-called key national universities, mainly in big cities, followed by key provincial universities, teachers’ training institutes and hundreds of colleges of higher education. Admissions depended upon the grades in the annual national entrance exams. There was a possibility of getting extra bonus points if you excelled in sports or had musical talents; and to some degree if you had back-door Guanxi (connections).
“I’d like to apply for Suzhou Medical School.” I sounded timid and unsure, hardly audible in an attempt to make my voice heard, fearing rejection.
“No,” Mother’s reply was non-negotiable. “It’s too far away. You’re not going outside our province. We have more than enough to choose from within Sichuan.”
Subsequent and staunch arguments were put forward by other authoritative figures. “Why would anyone want to leave Sichuan? We have the best cuisine. You would not find it easy to adapt to another province.”
How do you know I can’t adapt? How can you be sure that our food is better, if you have never tried anything else? I argued with them vehemently but only in my head, because I had learnt that whatever I might have said would have been futile. In their minds, they had fixed ideas and they believed that they always knew what was best without understanding, or even trying to understand what it was that you really wanted. It was not in the rulebook.
The letter bore the official stamp from South West Technology University (SWTU). I had applied to SWTU, but for a totally different course; the Mechanical Engineering course for which the university was famous. Instead, the offer was to read English, which I did not even pass. My knowledge of English was limited to being able to read the twenty-six letter alphabet and repeat after the teacher, ‘Long Live Chairman Mao’.
“The course is brand new, especially designed to train teachers of English, due to the extreme shortage of foreign language teachers.” My acceptance letter explained. English, as the British and American imperialists’ mother tongue, had been banned from the school curriculum during the Cultural Revolution.
I was over the moon, elated and thankful. Among the two hundred pupils in my year, less than twenty managed to enter universities and colleges in 1978. Nationally, less than three percent of those leaving school went on to Higher Education.
Someone up there was smiling down on me, of this I was sure. No other explanation, except that fate had shown a deft hand in the grand scheme of my life.
Chongqing may not be a huge jump, nevertheless it was a great leap forward. A large city, known for its craggy location in the mountains, it was once so difficult to get into that the Japanese troops never managed to reach it, except with air raids during WWII. It was situated in the upper reaches of the Yangzi River, where one would be able to drift downstream, passing massive cities like Wuhan and Shanghai all the way to the Eastern China Sea.
Having survived a premature birth, then life threatening meningitis followed by a near-fatal head injury, my time had come – an adventure about to begin. For a wide eyed seventeen-year-old, endless possibilities lay ahead of me. The prospect of getting out of Hongxin, the anticipation of the new and the unknown was liberating. I had felt like a frog, trapped in a small well, confined to a tiny space and surrounded by narrow-minded people. This one lucky frog was about to be set free.
One day, my daydream began, I would be able to swim and see the skies and the seas beyond the Sichuan Mountains. My imagination took flight. The road to the future may have had many bridges to cross and unforeseen obstacles to overcome, but my eager heart had leapt long before the trip actually began.