One of the original goals of communism was to create a classless society where everyone would be equal. That might sound great in principle, but in reality, it doesn’t work. Like anywhere else in the world, China has the filthy rich and the very poor.
Most of our students come from well to do families. Our university students pay approximately $500 per semester over and above their regular tuition for 70 hours of instruction with a native English speaker instead of attending the university’s regular English classes with Chinese teachers. In China, that’s a lot of money; more than one month’s salary for many people. Then there are our full time English immersion students who are preparing to study abroad. Only the wealthy can dream of giving their child that opportunity or afford the more than $8000 that this year of preparation cost.
With a mark of 95% on the final exam, Grace ended the year at the top of one of my university English classes but she won’t be back in this program next year. Her family simply can’t afford it. Grace grew up in the countryside where her parents own a small plot of land. In addition to growing rice and oranges, they both work seven days a week in a factory.
Grace’s birth was a disappointment. She wasn’t born a boy. China’s one child law allows rural families to have a second child if the first one is a girl so her parents tried again and Grace has a younger sister! She says that her father has accepted the fact that he’ll never have a son but as the oldest, responsibility for her family falls squarely on Grace’s shoulders.
Though her parents have very little formal education, Grace excelled as a student and graduated at the top of her high school class. Unfortunately, coming from a rural school, she didn’t do well on the university entrance exam that students across the country write during their final month of high school. Once again, she was a disappointment.
Just like the people, universities in China are not all equal. Students can’t freely choose which one to attend or even which major to study. Those who do best on the entrance exam are admitted to the most prestigious universities while those who don’t do as well end up at lower tier institutions like the one where we teach.
Grace dreams of being a primary school teacher but she’s studying accounting. She’s doing extremely well. Well enough, in fact, that she’s been recommended for an upcoming exam that could win her a place at a better school of finance but her heart isn’t in it. She’s only studying accounting because her parents feel that it will lead to a better job; one that will pay a higher wage and enable her to pay off their debts and take care of them in their old age. It’s normal for Chinese parents to make these decisions for their children so she doesn’t feel that she has a choice in the matter.
How do we advise a girl like Grace? She isn’t the only one of our students who isn’t able to follow her dream. David loves the Chinese language and wanted to train to teach it but his mark on the university entrance exam was too high for that! Instead, he’s studying physics. It doesn’t help to tell these kids that life isn’t like this everywhere. It is like this in China!
What we did tell Grace was that education is never a waste and that being fluent in English will open many doors for her. Sadly, it may not open the door that she most wants to walk through. I also told her that life’s not fair but I think she already knew that. After all, if she’d been born into a wealthy family, her parents could simply buy her a good job! Yes, life’s like that in China too.