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Earlier this month, more than ten million Chinese high school students sat for the two-day national college entrance examination, or gaokao. Every year the country’s attention is captivated by the ordeal of these students whose entire education up to this point has been solely geared to preparing them for this exam, and which in turn will decide not only their college placement, but will likely determine their future career prospects as well.
Yet behind each child immersed in study stands his or her parents, for whom the ordeal of the gaokao is no less nerve-wracking and arduous. The results of the gaokao will not only be a judgment of their child’s scholastic ability, but will judge their own aptitude as teachers and caregivers. All their hopes and struggles to provide the best for their one and only child have all led up to this one deciding event.
And so it is natural that parents are eager, even frantic, to do whatever they can to help their children succeed on the gaokao. In the days and weeks leading up to the test, parents are bombarded with advice from newspapers, magazines, and websites on how best to support their children and maximize their chances of success. But for many parents, this ever-growing list of dos and don’ts can be confusing and exasperating, particularly when the experts agree that the best thing to do is often to do nothing at all.
Success Begins in the Stomach
A large portion of parental support comes via the kitchen. Moms and dads are eager to feed their children the best foods for keeping them at their mental best throughout this academic marathon. To help them make the right choices, nutritionists across the country offer up advice, ranging from general principles – stay hydrated,; don’t forget breakfast – to complex formulas balancing just the right amount of proteins, vegetables, and grains.
In a country where food and medicine have been intertwined for centuries, nutritional advice often reads like a prescription. Shi Zhiqiang, a specialist from the Guangdong Institute of Traditional Chinese Medicine, has publicized an array of recipes for “gaokao soup,” with each variation boosting a different scholarly faculty or treating an exam time complaint. One soup is said to improve memory, a second cures insomnia. For the fashion conscious examinee, Professor Shi has even devised a soup to clear up the skin and erase dark circles under the eyes.
For parents who have no time for such complicated formulas and mixtures, however, there are plenty of promised shortcuts available on store shelves. Beginning in early April, medicine shops throughout China see a sharp increase in sales of health supplements, particularly those marketed as enhancing brainpower. As one pharmacist in the northeastern city of Baishan told a local newspaper, “Parents all consider their kids’ pre-exam nutrition to be the most important thing, and they’re willing to pay for it.”
Of course, doctors have been particularly vocal in cautioning against such a reliance on supposed quick fixes. Zhang Shoujie, Vice Director of the Shanghai Jiaotong Medical School, warned parents that even natural herbs such as ginger can be harmful if eaten in excess, causing shortness of breath, stomach pains, and insomnia. Rather than search after miracle foods, parents are most frequently advised not to make any drastic or sudden changes to their child’s diet, but instead to focus on ensuring that he or she continues to eat well-balanced, regular meals.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
When the day of the exam comes at last, the parents’ role in their child’s preparation comes to an end, and the future of each student is now in his or her own hands alone. And so, parents are often eager to squeeze as much last-minute help as possible into their final contribution: accompanying their child to the testing center and saying their last goodbye at the gate. Afterwards, many parents remain waiting outside, and their huddled anxious faces have become an iconic image of the annual gaokao drama.
But some experts caution that this final display of support could do more harm than good. A recent survey of students preparing for the gaokao conducted earlier this month by Changchun’s City Evening News found that a sizeable majority of students would prefer that their parents didn’t accompany them to the testing site. One college student who took the gaokao last year suggested one reason why. He recalled that as he sat for the exam, the thought of his parents waiting outside was a nagging distraction, constantly reminding him of their high hopes and steadily adding to his fear that he would let them down.
Other students consider their parents’ presence at the gaokao to be an unwelcome vestige of the childhood they’re leaving behind. City Evening News interviewed a researcher at the Jilin Provincial Academy of Social Sciences who suggested that going to the testing site alone or with friends was a powerful way for students to reinforce their own sense of maturity, giving them a much-needed boost of self-confidence right before the exam. The presence of their parents, by contrast, might remind them of their dependency and powerlessness.
But wherever they must say goodbye, parents are anxious to send their child off with a final word of encouragement. In the days leading up to this year’s gaokao, newspapers such as Beijing Examination News offered lists of sample phrases for parents to specifically avoid. With a poorly chosen phrase, the newspaper reminded its readers, well-meaning parents might inadvertently saddle their child with last-minute pressure or turn their thoughts to failure. Included were such obviously stress-inducing farewells as “Jiayou! Mom and Dad will be waiting for you to return with success!” and “The whole family is counting on you!” But also included were seemingly innocuous phrases such as “Your Dad and I know what you’re going through, so you mustn’t be nervous. Just relax!”
In fact, any suggestion of fear or frazzled nerves is frowned upon. Parents are instead advised to simply convey their love and support for their child, not even mentioning the dreaded test itself. “Be careful” and “Stay safe” are two recommended goodbyes. Such words may seem to be ignoring the elephant in the room, but as City Evening News reminded its readers, they also send students an important message: your parents care about you, not just your grades.
Pictures of the parents waiting at gaokao sites
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