The entrance to our campus office looked like a military base yesterday. A soldier guarded the front door, special IDs were needed to get in, and the perimeter was cordoned off with plastic tape.
The tight security wasn’t the result of a bomb threat or a visiting dignitary. It was because teachers were inside marking the all-important gaokao, the college-entrance exam that determines whether and where a high-school student goes to college.
Teachers from Henan Province have been brought in to grade the stressful tests, which have been known to cause nervous breakdowns and suicide. According to one of my Chinese colleagues, the teachers will spend the next two weeks grading the science section of the exam.
Chinese authorities don’t allow anything to interfere with the gaokoa. During the two-day exam, which was taken by 9.4 million students last weekend, construction work is halted and traffic is rerouted to make it easier to get to the test sites. This year one city banned outdoor dancing, a popular activity for the elderly, because it feared the loudspeaker music would distract the test-takers.
My ability to speak Chinese hasn’t improved much in the past 10 months, but I have made great strides in another area: pingpong.
I’ve sharpened my skills by playing regularly against top-flight competition in the teachers’ lounge. When I first got here, I was baffled by the wicked spins and slices used by my opponents. But I gradually learned to handle them and now I can compete with some of the best players in the English department.
I played doubles yesterday for about an hour, and my team won most of its games. Afterward, I got this supreme compliment: “You don’t play like an American anymore.’’