This week, millions of high school students in China will take the dreaded gaokao, the country’s college entrance exam. It’s much more important than the SAT: Admission to most Chinese colleges is based wholly on gaokao scores, and if a student performs poorly, he or she has to wait a full year to have another shot. Because there are more college graduates than good jobs in China, if you don’t go to one of the leading universities, the chances of getting a stable and secure job after graduation are precarious. A bad gaokao score can seal your fate.
Last Friday, I had dinner with Yu Xiubo, a Chinese scientist in Beijing, and his son Raphael, who is studying electrical engineering at a state university in the U.S. and was back in China for summer break. It’s rare to get to talk to a father and son together about the changing aspirations of two different generations in China, and while every family’s story is singular, theirs seemed particularly interesting at the beginning of this very important week of gaokao.
Raphael’s decision to pursue college in the U.S. began with his low score on the gaokao. (On the topic of China’s tightening job market for college graduates, the state-run Global Times newspaper has just published this depressing chart.)
Raphael didn’t have to tell his parents his score. His father retrieved it online the day scores were released in late June 2011. For a student at one of Beijing’s top high schools, his score was very disappointing. Worse, he had flopped the science section—because he budgeted time poorly, he says, not because he didn’t know the answers. His only option was to enroll at a far-flung university in northeastern China, with little chance of getting back to a job in Beijing, where his parents live and where he had, until then, imagined his future.
Instead of fretting about it, Raphael, who is clearly a very bright, extroverted, and resourceful young man, spent his next year enrolled at a university in the northern city of Harbin and focused on learning about the admissions process for U.S. colleges. A growing number of high school students in China are now skipping the gaokao and applying directly to overseas universities, and Raphael had some friends who had been through the process. (Currently, one in four foreign university students in North America hail from China; enrollment by Chinese students has risen steeply over the past decade.)
In mainland China, there is no testing site for the SAT, so Raphael went to Hong Kong. Of the 10 colleges he applied to in the U.S., he was accepted by two—and he selected the one in the more bucolic setting, befitting his idea of what college in America should be. At his university, fully half of the international students (5 percent of the total student body) are from China.
The awareness of how much his family is spending on his college education—financial aid is generally not available to overseas students—has changed his perception of what he should do next. “I have to make my education pay off,” he says. Instead of aiming for a job in Beijing, he’s now hoping to work in Silicon Valley. He’s been following the news about visa-policy debates in the U.S. and thinks his decision to pursue a degree in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) helps his chances to get a green card. Eventually, he hopes to help his family apply for residency in the U.S. “My No. 1 goal is to do better in life than my father,” he says. “My father brought the family to Beijing, and I will bring the family to America.”
Xiubo agrees that Raphael’s gaokao failure may have been a blessing in disguise. Xiubo is a pragmatist: When Raphael announced during his second year of high school that he was converting to Catholicism (he took the name Raphael at his baptism), his father accepted it. Religious observance is growing in officially atheist China—as young people, especially, search to define meaning in their lives—but it remains controversial. “I accepted it, but I told him there were three red lines,” says his scientist father. “First, don’t let your religion affect your choice of career. Second, don’t let it affect your choice of whom you marry. Third, don’t try to convert me.” Then he chuckles, admitting that his own life philosophy probably influenced his son. “I have always told him to follow his curiosity and enjoy his freedom.”