Trapped in the First Test Room
(Inspired by Crying in H Mart by Michell Zauner.)
Growing up in China was a strange experience -- ordinary and unique at the same time. Ordinary because of the sheer number of children who had similar if not exactly the same experience. Even coming to the U.S. for school was so common. Take a walk down the East Village and I see plenty of similar faces. I rarely felt unique. In fact, the doorman at my old building couldn't tell my roommates (two other Chinese girls) and myself apart after two whole years.
But in a way, growing up in China was also very unique, in the sense that we probably had this particular type of collective trauma burnt into our psyche, which affects us in ways way deeper than I used to think. Normality is a subjective perception. Growing up, I thought being an only child was normal. But with recent policy shifts in China, combined with my exposure to liberal thinking over the past seven years in the U.S., I realized how strange the one-child policy was. Similarly, I used to think that the way we moved through the education system was totally normal. I knew the education system heavily shaped how we think. But I haven’t tried to articulate how.
This is my attempt to tell you about my ordinary yet unique experience of being a high school student in China, and to reflect on some psychological implications of such experiences that we carry well into adulthood.
There was only one thing that ever mattered in my high school -- getting admitted to the best universities in China. And that entirely depends on your Gaokao test score - a single standardized test that takes place annually over two or three days. (There is a rarer path for people who compete in Olympiads like IMO or ACM -- a story for another day maybe.) Nothing else mattered. Not sports. Not extra curriculums. Not hobbies. Not volunteering experiences. Not internships. Just your test score. A single Gaokao test score.
So the test score was what we optimized for. Now that I work in tech, I spend a lot of time thinking about what metrics to use and the unforeseen consequences of optimizing for the wrong metric. It's hilarious to think back at that time and how nobody questioned the consequences of optimizing for a single test score on teens. They told you, your entire future depends on which university you go to. They told you that your entire life's worth is measured by this single test score metric. It didn’t matter if you were kind or considerate; if you had integrity; or creativity; or were talented in music. All hobbies were considered a distraction. Parents wouldn’t let their kids go near household chores because their precious time and energy should be preserved to improve their test scores.
It was a game that we were destined to lose. The rules were fixed. There was a single right answer. They decide whether you got it right. They judge you. They rank you. They encourage you when you rank high and demand you to go higher. They humiliate you when you rank low and try to shame or scold you into working harder. There was so much at stake for everyone involved -- parents (remember we were the only child), teachers (they were measured by the test scores of students), businesses (very profitable ones), ourselves. Everyone got sucked in.
One particular "motivating" strategy that still haunts me to this day was the "First Test Room". There were 14 or so classes that year in my high school participating in Gaokao -- around 60 students per class. Each student was randomly assigned to a class when they entered the high school. Everyday, the same group of students sat in the same classroom, except on mock test days. Every month or so, there was a mock Gaokao, and students across the entire school were ranked. The ranking was published on giant posters in the hallways. Then the test seats for the next mock exam were arranged according to your ranking in the previous one. The "First Test Room", namely, was where the top 30 students sat during the monthly mock test. Then the "Second Test Room" contained the 30th-60th students, and so on.
The test rooms were arranged so that the seats were twice the space apart than in the normal classroom configuration. The spacing was to prevent people from cheating by overlooking your neighbor's shoulders and copying answers. Each desk was numbered, from closest to the door, zig-zagging to the furthest. Each month, there was this public ritual of leaving your normal classrooms and your normal friends, and finding the test room that you belonged to and the numbered desk that represented your worth.
I made it into the First Test Room in the very beginning. Then I was basically trapped. In the months that followed, my seat in the room fluctuated from closer to the door to further. The faces in the First Test Room began to look familiar. But there were new faces each time. I remembered this boy who always sat at the first desk. His nickname, others told me, was the First Brother. He was a shy guy who's supposedly a math genius. We became friends, then later went to the same university. Then I lost track of him. I wonder what the First Brother is doing these days and if he's happy.
Every time in the First Test Room, I would sweat a lot. Now I realize it was probably anxiety and stress. But back then I didn't know what was going on. Once I "screwed up" and got assigned to the Second Test Room. I remember how my face turned red when walking together with some friends all the way to the First Test Room and then having to tell them that I needed to go to the Second.
Was it a big deal to other people? I don't know. Was I just being overly sensitive/competitive/insecure? But after studying social media and psychology during my PhD, I think whoever designed this public social comparison display mechanism of ranked test rooms before social media was a thing in China was genius and evil at the same time. By making the ranking public, by tying it to a physical space, you really tap into the psychology of those poor teens and get them to think and behave in a certain way - to maximize the test scores.
Personally, I desperately wanted to blend in. To belong. Therefore I tried very hard to make sure I always have a seat in the First Test Room. This cycle of stress, sweating in the room, then dreading the results went on month by month.
In the eyes of the parents and teachers, there was nothing wrong with me. I was the darling of the school. Everyone loved me. But I always felt that the love was conditional on me being in that First Test Room, that I had to work hard to earn it. That time I fell out of the First Test Room, I remembered my teachers looking at me with disappointment and disapproval. I fear that if I don't get back to the First Test Room, they won't love me anymore. I fear that if I don't stay in the First Test Room, my parents would be disappointed and love me less because I'm not as smart or hard working as they thought I was. I was trapped in that room.
Most people look at me as if I was among the winners of this game of scores. I thought so for a long time too. After all, on the surface, my path was very smooth -- best university in China, PhD in the U.S., decent job. What more do you want from a kid growing up in China? But when the night sets in, when I still sometimes have bad dreams about sitting in that First Test Room, and tie my self worth to how many papers I have published; how many citations I have gotten; how fast I am getting promoted; how much money I make; I know I'm still trapped in that First Test Room in a random high school in China, after all these years.
Some people may take this as humble bragging. Sure. What a poor kid -- always the best, and complaining about the occasional minor fuck ups and the pressure of being perfect. But I am not humble bragging. That would undermine the purpose of this entire essay. The point is that although I looked like the "winner" of the game, I am still trapped to this day by the First Test Room mentally in ways I am just beginning to understand.
I hope to leave that stupid room for good one day.
Thanks Hao Wang for his feedback.