They roamed the streets of her hometown, knocking their sticks along to lay a path in that endless shade. What they could not see with their eyes the cards showed them by touch. Lu Jun was little when her mother made them show her her future. They rambled on for awhile, illshapen words boiling down to one sentence: she will be happy at a great school.

She never forgot this.

In primary school they took their lessons on hardwood benches, jotting down notes on desks they had to bring from home. The floors were dirt, desklegs sinking into the mud on rainy days. Two students per desk. During naptime her deskmate slept on the bench while she slept on the desk itself, thinking of the great school, so happy there.

Whereas her primary and middle schools were in her hometown, her Zhong Kao scores sent her to a high school two hours away by bike. Fifty girls in a large room. They had bunkbeds and they had to buy the hard board to set their cotton pad and blankets on. They washed their clothes by hand, hanging them to dry on a line outside the dormitory. In those wet winters her clothes were rarely dry.

They each had a thermos they filled with warm water, either from the canteen mixed with an occasional piece of rice or bought for .2 RMB. To wash they poured the water in a bucket, soaped up and then dipped a rag in the bucket and used it to rinse the soap off. After twisting that same rag free of water, they used it to dry themselves. The space between their beds the length of an infant’s arm and it was where they washed. Her parents sent her an extra rag. Most girls just had one.

Their seating arrangement was based on class rank. One time she dropped from second to fourth. She called her mother on a public phone, crying, and her mother pushed her to study more. A great school, so happy there and how could she hope to get into a great school if she didn’t study hard? She wanted to say more, but the cost of the call only allowed them a minute or two. She said her goodbye and hung up. The laoban charged her 6 RMB for the three minutes they talked.

Lights on at 6:00, lights off at 23:00, no fan for the heat, no heat for the cold. She studied every night. Some classes harder than others, English the worst by far. A bunch of strange words and even stranger rules for using them. The teacher never spoke English. He mixed Pu Tong Hua with the local Hua, turning it into his own special brand of Hua that faraway students had trouble following.

She studied, ate and slept.

But mostly she studied.

The Gao Kao awaited her. She did not sleep well. Some nights she did not sleep at all. She did not eat well.

Some days she did not eat at all.

Lu Jun wanted a great school. She scored high enough to get into a school, something called Wuhan Tourism and Economics Institute. The tuition was high but she knew her parents could afford it. They’d find a way.

Her dormitory had a 23:00 curfew. They cut the power at 23:30. No insulation, no air conditioning, and no heat. They could not plug in heaters during the day because it would shortcircuit. In the breaching winters they went to bed covered in layers of clothes and blankets. In the summers the fans and mosquitoes buzzed all night.

The classrooms had desks and a chalkboard and a couple had computer consoles. The school chose her major: English. Like high school the teachers rarely spoke and her second year she had a foreign guest teacher, a fat hairy oddity who mumbled a lot. She had many questions for him but was too afraid to ask. He showed them movies with Chinese subtitles and after the spring festival holiday he did not return.

Three schoolmates committed suicide. They jumped out windows. When she talked to her parents, she asked them about their workload. Her mother was getting up in age. She shouldn’t push herself too much. But they just pushed her to study, never asking how she felt. Sometimes she’d look at a window. Sometimes she’d look at it for a long time.

Her last year she took the postgraduate test for Wuhan University. She had gone every March to see the sakuras blossom, pretties leftover from the Japanese conquerors, and thought often of Luo Jia Shan, of a great school, so happy there.

She scored high enough to get in. Another classmate scored high enough to get in too, but was denied entry. Yet another classmate did not score high enough to get in, but was granted entry. That girl had an aunt working for the Party, who in turn knew some people at the school. Nobody asked questions though. If no other lesson was learned, it was this: if you knew the truth, you kept your mouth shut. It just didn’t need to be spoken.

That fall she started her postgraduate studies at Wuhan University, her major Computer Science. The classes were tough, the hours long, the dormitory still without air conditioning or heat. And as she sat freezing in the Old Library on Lion Hill, she thought back to what the blind fortune tellers had told her. She will be happy at a great school. She was at a great school.

But was she happy?

It was morning. Her mother would be loading sandbags for half a kuai each. She was pushing sixty-five.

Was she happy?

She forced herself to forget the question, and got to work.


  1. wow. what a reality check. just re-adjusted my priorities !
    thankyou so much for sharing this.

    on an expat-secondment (with all trimmings) in a first tier Sino city.
    U realize how little our understanding of the brave and focused majority of Chinese students (& families steadfastly supporting them)…striving towards a ‘better life’ .

  2. Pingback: Hao Hao Report

  3. I know what you mean. Even in the so-called “real China” of Wuhan, I remember it was easy to get in trapped in an expat bubble. It’s good to get out of that, and see how the average people around you must live.

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