When I took off my shirt in front of the mirror, I was scared by my reflection. Pits carved deep into my skin between my neck and clavicles; my belly was as flat as an exhausted balloon leaving my chest hanging on my body like a pair of high-relief sculpture; and each one of my rib was covered tightly under my skin protruded so hard on my chest that I could count them one by one. I wasn’t in concentration camp or the military, I was just graduated from high school, a high school of hell. Here is just another day there.
5:20 The morning rush
I woke up automatically. The world was dark and quiet even the rooster was still sleeping. The stars were still shining and trucks roaring by occasionally on the highway not far away from the campus. Looking around our room, most of the guys were still sleeping tightly. But the bed on my left was rocking and the guy on the upper deck had already made his bed, got dressed and now was putting on his right sock.
"You son of bitch woke up so damn early!" I whispered to him, "What’s the time?".
"5 seconds before it rings", he answered.
"4!", he counted, shooting his left foot into his sock.
"3!", I grabbed my sweater and put it on.
"2!", as I stuck my head out of my sweater he moved to the rear of his bed, ready to jump from his upper deck.
"1!" He froze there excitedly. I had never seen a guy high, but if I ever see one, it would be like him.
"Go!" the bell rang and he jumped down, landing on his shoes magically and charged out of the door. The noise of his landing and charging, the sound of people running and cheering in the corridor and the insanely roaring bell woke the entire room.
"Shit", "Ahhh", "Another fucking day", that’s how we greeted the new day. While swearing, no one was slowing down what they were doing: getting dressed, making the bed and washing up. Grabbing my history text book, I was the third to rush out of the tiny 8-person room. The building was boiling, people rushed out as if there were earthquake. Everyone was wearing their dump and tired looking morning face and morning hair which looked as if an explosion had took place on their head. Some looked excited, some looked angry but all were very fast. I stopped by the bathroom between the dorm and the running field where everybody was rushing to. The bathroom in dorm must be full by now and I don’t want to waste a second on waiting so I rushed out and peed there. That’s right, I had a plan for where to pee.
5:28 Mini military parade
The running field was right in front of me. It was still dark but the field was lit up by two giant sport field light and our teachers and a few students were already standing there. Streams of students kept pouring in forming squads of each class. I found my class, took out my history book and started reading. "I am the number 5 to be arrived at the running field today! Yeah!", I thought to myself.
"The Zhou Dynasty was founded in 1400 BC and was destroyed by barbarian from the west in 700 BC. Its doom is the start of the first chaos era of Chinese history", I recited the history facts while steam came out of my mouth in this cold winter morning, and it flowed up in the air and disappear in the sky still lighted by the moon.
"Hey, do you still have anything to read?", a classmate asked me. It is a must to study in the squad before we are ready to do the morning running. He would be punished by our teacher if he was found doing nothing while waiting. So I tore off the introduction page of my history book and gave it to him: he just needed to pretend he was reading. As I finished the Zhou and Qin dynasty, we were ready to do our morning exercise which was running around the field in an extremely neat squad of 70 people and yelling out loudly our class slogan. It looked pretty much like a military parade only no generals were watching and we were holding textbooks instead of guns. This ritual was so famous that it was reported by many different media and became viral videos on the Internet. We ran so close to each other that one’s chest was only inches from another one’s back. It was dangerous too. If one tripped then the whole line of students would fall down like domino. A true break leg field (I will introduce more break leg field later). That’s also why guys want to run behind girls. I was once a lucky bastard who had a cute girl running in front of me. This made every morning the most desirable time of my long day. Her scent would go into my nose, her hair would flirt with my face and in some rare and extremely lucky occasion I would get an accidental “hug” when the running took a sudden stop, which usually happens when someone falls down. The spots behind girls were very limited and every guy wanted to be in one. They would come very early to stand behind girls. If you are late it is hard to say "Hey man move, this is my spot because I like to be close to chicks". I gave up mine and now I was two people away from that girl. "That may be better after all", I comforted myself "thinking less of girls help me focusing on my study."
5:45 Shout out loud
Three laps of running and shouting in the 400-metre running field later, we ran right towards the classroom none-stop and started our "morning reading". As everyone was entering I pulled out my toothbrush and face wash in my jacket bag and started washing by the tub in front of our classroom. I was the only guy doing this. The cold water washed away my sleepiness and sweat from the morning run. As I walked to my class room, a serious looking young man stopped me. He’s my class director, the teacher who was in charge of the whole class, a mixture of head teacher, parent and slave owner.
"Why are you brushing your teeth now? Didn’t you see everyone already started studying? Can’t you do it after the morning reading?" He shouted loudly like chopping vegetable and afterwards his lips were still shaking. He glared at me so hard that his eyeball behind those thick glasses were going pop out any second. Hell, he was like this every day. When you have seen enough horror movies, you just won’t get scared.
"Then I won’t have enough time to buy breakfast.” My favorite tea-boiled egg and stir fried to-fu -skin sell out very quickly.
"Then can’t you do it before the running?"
"The bathroom is always full in the morning and I don’t want to waste my time waiting. So I can only do my washing before morning reading."
"OK whatever, now get back to your book", my teacher sighed, "Be disciplined!" Walking towards my seat I could still feel his eyes gazing at me which made me feel as if my back was catching on fire.
After a few weeks here everyone had developed a system for morning routines: when to pee, where to wash, how long should each take. Though our morning routines were different, the goal was the same: to get things done as quickly as possible.
I grabbed my history books and started reciting. There was so much for us to memorize: English words, grammar rule, Chinese classics, communist party principles, what happened in French revolution and climate characteristics of North Africa and the exact names and locations of all the banana republics. I don’t remember a thing of them after the exam now but back in high school memorizing this stuff meant high score. Our teacher told us that reading out loud would help memorizing so everyone was shouting hysterically: “school! S-C-H-O-O-L! school! 学校! student!, S-T-U-D-E-N-T!, student!, 学生! ” A girl shouted; “Communism is a stage of historical development that inevitably emerges from the development of the productive forces that leads to a superabundance of material wealth!” A guy yelled, “Confucius said ‘never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself” Another guy read out loud. I didn’t know whether this way of reciting really work or not. But it surely looked stupid so I just read my history book quietly. As I was trying to memorize the three effects of Qin dynasty’s uniting the country, our class director walked in, I suddenly turned up my voice. I would rather look stupid than being yelled at “Why can’t you read it out loud? Can’t you even try hard enough in the morning? How can you get into a good university with this kind of attitude?” While most of us were still deeply committed to the shouting a few turned up their heads and looked at the door when he came in. The class director walked to them and told them to go outside with him. Then came the loud yelling from the office next to our classroom: “Everyone is paying great attention on their study but only you three get distracted so easily. What’s so funny about someone entering the room? Do you have to waste your time to take a look? Don’t you know the college entrance exam is in months and there is so much to study? What kind of university are you expected to end up in?” The class became quiet for a second then the noise of shouting English spellings and history facts continued. I surely know it and got distracted when someone was entering the door. But I would never look up because who doesn’t want to appear to be so engaged in study?
6:30 Break leg lane
It was time for breakfast. Although a lot of people were still yelling but I charged out of the classroom immediately. The class director was standing by the class room door staring at me as I stood up and moved to the door. He would probably stop me and scold “Why can’t you stay longer in the class room? Is food more important that your future?” Should I just sit here for a few minutes until everyone is leaving for the canteen? Fuck no. I was done with the cold fried egg and the crappy celery salad. If you are late to the canteen, they are all you can have. I took a chance and run to the door, he didn’t stop me, “Yes!” I say to myself and headed to the canteen. There is only one narrow entrance to the entrance but thousands of students come and go in full charging speed. We called this place “Break leg lane” because every once a while someone would fall down on the way to the canteen and break a leg. I would love to break a leg here, I thought to myself, it was the only way to take a few days off. Unfortunately, I didn’t break any leg and arrived safely. Normally I would only take a cup of milk and a piece of bread for breakfast. But here in High school I was so hungry from the morning running, half an hour of yelling history fact and charging from place to place that I needed a full-sized meal for breakfast.
7:00 Math Class
The first class was math, one of the "big three" subjects. Math, Chinese and English each counts 120 point in the college entrance exam and the other three, geography, politics and history each counts 100 points. The big three count for more points so they are taken more seriously than the other subjects. They filled the prime class time: the first two classes in the morning. Their teacher get treated differently: math teacher is the leading role and history teacher is the supporting role.
"I am handing out the quiz we did last night. I can’t believe there is not a single full mark. You know your neighbor class has two! I always thought you are the best among the three classes that I teach so don’t let me down next time!" our math teacher started class, "let’s take a look at the first problem of solid geometry on the test paper. We have seen this type of question many times. No matter how it changes they all can be solved by adding an auxiliary line here and here. This time remember it!.". One thing I learned from high school is that you don’t have to be smart to be good at math, at least in Chinese high school math. You just need to do tons of exercises and keep in mind the patterns of solving different kinds of problems. It is a test of familiarity rather than creativity. But who cares? After all, our goal is to get the math problems solved. It is true that generally Chinese students are good at math but it is also true that we do not have many great mathematicians.
At the end of the class our math teacher started to talk about something else "Guys you really need to learn math well, it can make you smarter and help you with your career. See the people who are ruling China now? They were all science or engineer major!" With this, she left the classroom.
The first class was over but everyone was still studying, some were still staring at the math problems struggling to understand it, some took out their English text book and started reciting words. I went to the bathroom "Everyone is studying! Why the hell do you have to go to the bathroom? Are you this special?" my class director must be scolding me this if he were here now. I ran into my classmate in the tiny bath room, peeing right next to me he asked me "Do you know why people ruling China now are mostly science majors?"
"Beijing University has the best art departments and Tsinghua has the best science departments."
"These high ranking officials have to attend the best universities in order to climb high and most of our officials are from Tsinghua."
"So why students from Beijing University didn’t make it."
"Because they run slowly."
"You see. Tsinghua requires its students to run 5 miles every day so they run faster than Beijing U students."
"What does running fast has anything to do with being high rank official?"
"We better get back to class room before that asshole scold us for wasting too much break time. I will tell you the story for our next bathroom talk." many guys use asshole as our class director’s nickname.
8:30 Cold Call
The third class was history, taught by our class director. It was the scariest class because he would have cold call at the beginning. He would randomly call up someone to recite a piece of historical fact in detail. If you are lucky he would tell you to sit down when you don’t have the answer. If you are not very lucky you may have to stand in shame for the whole class and if you are truly unfortunate you may even be yelled at by him in front of everyone. The result was that everyone can remember the history fact by the most specific detail. We knew the sign, reason, key stages, affects, key persons and time of each historical event in our textbook. We even knew what gesture the national hero who bravely banned British opium in Qing dynasty, Lin Zexu, posed in his portrait or how many angles were on the star of the hat of General Li Yuanhong, the democrat revolutionary who contributed the end of the Qing dynasty and the start of the Republic of China.
"You", he points at me.
"Oh my God! This is how I am gonna die!", my hands were shaking and my heart was jumping like a basket ball.
"Tell me the cities the red army has been to on the long march." Thanks God! I knew this one. I was just reading this part!
"Li Ping, Zun Yi, Wu Jiang…" shit! What is the forth stop?
"Didn’t you recite it? The long march is very likely to be covered in this year’s exam. Sit down and listen carefully!", I couldn’t believe my ears and was still standing.
"You prefer standing up?"
"No! I was.. Sorry", I sat down, still could not believe what had just happened. He must be in a really good mood. The guy sitting on my left glared at me. He got scold and stood for the entire class yesterday. What can I say, sometime people just get lucky. A few more cold calls the lecture finally began. You can hear a brief sign of relief in the room. He was covering long march this time. "The long march’s significances often appear in exams so you need to memorize the five significances in your book clearly. I have another 5 points to add, copy this on your textbook! The sixth significance of the long march is that it helped spread the revolution to a larger area…" We copied them down as if they were wisdom from God and try to memorize them hoping to see them on the college entrance exam paper.
12:20 Food Rush
Time passed quickly on classes like these where I was so engaged in carefully listening, reciting and copying. Before I realized, it was noon and I was starving again. I needed to have that pepper beef right now but this dish also sells out very fast. I still needed to charge out of the classroom leaving most of my carefully studying classmates. I still feared that I may run into my teacher and get scolded for not being inpatient. I still needed to run very fast to the canteen and meanwhile not to cause any accident on the break leg lane. At lunch time the whole school was rushing to the canteen from their classrooms. All the young, energetic and hungry boys and girls who had been caged for the last 6 hours in the class room finally got to get out for a while. They ran to the canteen wildly, like deer on the east African safari, bison on the North American plain and goats of the Tibetan mountains. The canteen was noisy, full of noise of people running around, giving orders and occasionally fell down and dropping plates. But rarely can you hear people talking. It was not because we didn’t get along well, we were just too busy of stuffing food into our mouth and swallowing them down through our throat. Speed eating competition occurred on every table. We have 20 minutes for lunch break and if we eat fast enough we can save as long as 10 minutes to study. Can you imagine what 10 minutes meant to us? I can use these 10 minutes to memorize five more English words, to memorize two more history events or go over three more example math problems! These 10 minutes were definitely something worth running for, worth getting choke while eating for and worth having stomachache after weeks running after meals for. The break leg lane is also a break stomach lane. When I had finished feeding myself I ran back to my classroom for the ten minutes additional study time I tried so hard to learn. As I was running towards the class room two girls were running out of it towards the canteen. They preferred to eat at the last minutes. I managed to smile to them and they managed a half-smile back. I went to the class room and pulled out my politics text book and start to memorize the three reasons why communism is best suited for China.
12:40 Room search
We had to get back to the dormitory for our compulsory noon nap. Everyone ran back to their room minding their own business: some were still studying, some were washing their faces and some were eating snacks because they did not have lunch.
10 minutes later, the bell rang, everyone jumped to bed. You have to sleep or at least quietly lying on the bed in the nap time. Some of my roommates were whispering because they didn’t want to be caught talking by our teachers. They would walk in quietly into our rooms like a ninja without us knowing and catch the one who isn’t sleeping. I rolled over facing the wall and pulled out a bag of biscuit under my pillow and started to eat. I was still very hungry. When you are eating, all you can hear is the chewing sound in your mouth. I was just enjoying my biscuit when all of a sudden someone flipped my blanket and yelled at me,
"Can’t you be quiet? Didn’t you have your lunch?" Shit! He caught me eating during nap time!
"I was so into the math problems today that I didn’t have time to eat. I don’t think I can continue the afternoon class in hunger" I lied.
"Everyone! On your feet!" He yelled. So the eight of us moved from the bed and stood on the floor with nothing but underwear on, like cows in slaughterhouse ready to be cut into pieces.
"Did you see him in the canteen this noon" he started to ask my roommates this question one by one. Yes they did saw me there. I was with half of them at lunch. I sent them my dude-don’t-tell-him-a-thing look anxiously.
"No I haven’t seen him" they all answered. He seemed to be discouraged a little but then went on to lecture about our dorm.
"Your room has the highest average exam score when you got in. But your room’s average score of last week’s test could not be compared against your neighbors! What happened?"
We did not know how to answer this question so we just stayed quiet. When a teacher is scolding you it is better to just be quiet and occasionally nodding because no matter what else you say the teacher would start at that and then make a new long lecture out of it.
"Your room doesn’t have the spirit of fighting for the No.1 no more! That’s what happened! Everyone is resting for their study but only you are eating and making loud noise" he glared at me "Why hasn’t anyone reminded him?" Now he was blaming my roommates for not having stopped me. Didn’t he forget talking was also forbidden in nap time too? And by reminding me my roommates may get punished too!
"Now all of you get back to bed and think about it!" he left finally, holding my bag of biscuit in his hand.
"I am really sorry guys" I said with deep guilt in my heart. Every one’s sleep was so precious.
"That’s alright, man. It could happen to anyone of us. That asshole was just here for the biscuit." one replied.
13:50 A religious experience
The wake up bell ring again. We repeated our morning routines and in 10 minutes time we went from laying in the beds naked to studying in the classroom all dressed up and washed up. We had a ceremony each day before the afternoon reading. It is the yelling out slogan ceremony. Each student would take turns to lead the class to yell out loud our class slogan and classes were competing against each other for their loudness. Of course there was no such contest but in this environment we seemed to be competing for everything. I knew this ceremony sounds and looks stupid but it did help yell away my afternoon sleepiness. So I would join the crowd and shout out in my full volume "We will be successful!", "I believe in perspiration!" and "I can endure whatever hardship lies in front of me!" But this time it was my turn to lead. That must be embarrassing and my cool would be totally destroyed this time. But what the hell! I am not here to be cool, I am here to study and get high scores. So here I was yelling out loud slogan like crazy. To my relief no one was laughing. They all look serious and determined and even excited. They yelled the slogan as if they really believed it.
Still not recovered from acting like a red guard in Cultural Revolution I started to listen to my first class in the afternoon. It is Chinese and the teacher was lecturing on poetry understanding questions and picking theme for composition.
"Basically every poetry understanding question will ask you what kind of emotion is conveyed through the poetry. You don’t even need to understand the poetry to answer that question. Because it is a convention that certain things described in the poetry conveys certain emotion. The falling leaves represents the sorrow of things growing old and the moon represents missing someone… I will print you a list of these matches, memorize them tonight and we will have a quiz of it tomorrow!" so that’s how we learn poetry.
“Let’s move on to composition. Your future is mostly determined by it” our Chinese teacher stressed, as it had been stressed hundreds of times before “It doesn’t matter how good your writings are or how creative you are. Just grasp the theme intended by the question maker right and you can get a decent score. "Writing the composition for the exam is like gambling and your future is at stake. At the Chinese exam, you will be given a certain title or a short story or a sentimental paragraph and you need to write an 800 character composition in about 50 minutes basing on it. No matter what you are given, you have to figure out the theme or directions intended by the question maker. If you are on the right track you can at least secure 70% of the score but if you are on the wrong direction no matter how good your writing is, your score would be lower than 60%. Then how can you tell which is the right direction? There is no standard answer, maybe keep your tone consistent with that of the People’s Daily, maybe keep consistent with the current issue or maybe find the similarities by doing the last ten years composition question.
"This year is the Olympics year so it is better to include your pride of China rising again" our teacher suggested in the end.
4 classes in the afternoon passed like a blink of eye. The way to dinner was another exciting and dangerous race. Now the three classes at night start. The first two classes were exercise time. We would do one or two exercises assembled by our hard working teachers. These exercises consist of questions of dozens of exercise books in the market. Our teachers would do them all and pick the good ones as our daily exercise questions. I thought I hate my teachers most of the time but if I really think about it, I also felt sympathetic. They were as tired and miserable as we were. And we got to leave for college in a year but they may get stuck here for good.
"Dude, your face is as red as a monkey’s ass!", a classmate poked me.
"That’s because I studied so hard that a lot of blood is pumped to my brain. Leave me alone." I was at the final few steps of solving a complex calculus problem.
"Come on let’s get out of here for a minute. It’s the last class. The camera wasn’t moving for quite a while, I think our teacher is not watching us now." really? I hope so. I quickly grabbed my toothbrush, toothpaste, face wash and towel in my desk and ran to the tap to wash up. The bathroom would be full before bed time so I’d better wash up now. And it was the only time that I can talk to others besides my roommates. But still we cannot talk loudly or laugh because you never know when the teacher would show up and scold at you for that.
"I felt so dizzy for a while this afternoon." a girl said.
"Me too! I felt dizzy too! But I didn’t see anyone respond and our teacher didn’t even stopped lecturing so I thought I was just real sleepy." another guy said.
"There maybe an earthquake." suggested a third guy
I started to worry.
21:10 The dictator’s speech
The third and last class of the night would normally be free study session. But today was Sunday and it would be the weekly class activity time. But there was only one kind of activity—our class director giving an exciting power point presentation for 40 minutes. He was a genius of doing these things—a combination of Hitler, Mao and TV sales man. At first I felt reluctant of these speeches because he’s too excited and exaggerated. But then I just gave up and let his words and emotion went into my head. Study was like a religion and this was the ritual between the believers and the pope. After his speech I felt so high and cannot wait to start the next day of study.
Now I need to run back and wash up and be in bed in 10 minutes. Those who were not in bed by 10 would be punished. But I was still concerning about the earth quake and I need to make a phone call home, which meant I won’t have time to wash up.
"Dad, are you alright?"
"Yeah we are fine. The earth quake was in Sichuan. We don’t know much about it either. Even the army cannot enter the stricken areas now. But rumors had it that it is the most severe earth quake ever"
“Even worse than the Tang Shan earth quake?”
“Yeah, even worse an Tang Shan earth quake.”
I put down the phone and was stunned for a moment. The Tangshan earth quake in the 70s caused 200 thousand deaths. How many lives would be taken away this time? There is a catastrophe going on outside! What else is happening in the outside world?
"Get to your bed now man. Only 30 seconds before the sleeping bell rings!" one of my roommates yelled at me.
As I was moving to my bed I felt my belly aching. I needed to go to the bath room!
If I go to the bathroom I would be scolded by my teacher for sure.
If I didn’t go I couldn’t hold it till midnight.
What should I do?
*"CAO" means Fuck in Chinese..