He Xiangjiao: Waiting for an Open Door
Story written by Katherine (Tao Tao) Li
All I can do right now is study. Sometimes, I feel very sorry for my parents because I know they work very hard,” He Xiangjiao (何祥娇) says with a faint voice as she stares into a corner of the room. She’s explaining why she doesn’t live with her parents. They are migrant laborers in Shanghai who can only visit home once a year during Chinese New Year. They stay for one month – at most. For the rest of the year, Xiangjiao lives with her grandparents in her rural hometown of Baxian, a small village in China’s Pingli County.
Xiangjiao is used to only being able to see her parents once a year because it’s been this way since she was born, but there is still a tinge of longing in her eyes as she shares this information. She clearly misses them. She can easily paint a picture of her ideal family situation: all her family members home, healthy and financially stable. It’s obvious that this is something she has spent a lot of time imagining.
Xiangjiao’s family dynamic is not uncommon in China. Vanishing rural jobs combined with rapid urban industrialization has drawn millions of parents into cities in search of work, creating a subpopulation of two million “left-behind children” in rural districts. These children of migrant laborers who are born in rural areas are forced to remain in their hometowns because the Chinese Household Registration, or Hukou, system prevents them from enjoying the same services, like healthcare and public schools, outside of their hometowns. This phenomenon is national. But for Xiangjiao, it is a deeply personal problem that impacts every aspect of her life. And it has a particularly profound impact on the biggest determinant of Xiangjiao’s future – her education.
On the surface, it seems like Xiangjiao is able to take away something positive from her parents’ absence. “It serves as motivation for studying. My parents’ going out to work is all for me,” she explains. But one can hear the edge of sorrow in her voice as she acknowledges the sacrifice her parents make for her. But sometimes, Xiangjiao’s motivation looks more like obligation: she feels she must do well in order to justify her parents’ sacrifice. Such an immense pressure makes school a stressful experience for Xiangjiao. “Most of my pressure comes from feeling like I can’t keep up. When I can’t keep up, I feel a lot of pressure in my heart because I know grades are important,” she says dejectedly. Xiangjiao’s struggles with falling behind in school are exacerbated by the fact that she has no one at home to fall back on. Forget about help with homework--Xiangjiao doesn’t even have the luxury of a hug from her mom or dad to help ease her stress. She can only depend on herself, and sometimes that isn’t enough.
Xiangjiao had hoped to be able to attend Pingli County High School located in the county seat of Ankang prefecture. To do this, she would have needed to score at least 400 out of 638 on the national High School Entrance Exam (zhongkao). But Xiangjiao explains resignedly, “My score was not ideal. With the score I got, I feel like I let myself down.” Without her parents home, no one was there to comfort or encourage her.
"If I have the grades to go [to a better school], I will feel like I haven’t failed myself, like I haven’t failed my parents.”
~ He Xiangjiao
What sets Xiangjiao apart from her classmates, though, is her extreme resilience. Regarding her zhongkao scores, Xiangjiao says, “Maybe that was the highest score I was capable of. But I want to study and be better.” Instead of simply accepting her current status, she is determined to continue studying and hopes to take an exam that may allow her to transfer to Pingli High School. “I hope I can test well and not go to school [in Baxian] for eleventh grade. If I have the grades to go, I will feel like I haven’t failed myself, like I haven’t failed my parents.”
While Xiangjiao’s determination attests to her character, this type of transfer is highly improbable, even if Xiangjiao receives qualifying scores. Above and beyond the score requirements, this type of transfer would also create logistical and financial problems for her family. Xiangjiao doesn’t have a home near Pingli High School, so where would she stay? She could board, potentially, but how would that impact her family’s financial situation? How would she commute back home on weekends or holidays
For Xiangjiao and other young people in rural China, high school enrollment depends on three factors: zhongkao score, socioeconomic status, and location. The zhongkao may seem to be a meritocratic competition, where the best students come away with the best scores and, consequently, the brightest futures. But in reality, many factors outside of academic merit also influence a student’s ability to get the score that he or she needs to succeed. Xiangjiao herself is frustrated with her mentality on the day she took her zhongkao, “I was pressured. I was a mess. On the test, I couldn’t solve problems I could usually do because I was so nervous.” It’s even clearer that physical location and socio-economic status are arbitrary factors that should be unrelated to whether or not a student receives a quality education. It should not matter that Xiangjiao’s parents’ combined income of 7000 RMB per month wouldn’t be able to cover living expenditures or rent were Xiangjiao to go to any school outside of her hometown. The fact that Xiangjiao happened to be born somewhere outside a city should not subject her to outrageous high school entrance fees. But these are details that cause her family extreme stress and heartache.
With no control over her parents’ income or her birthplace, and less control than she would like over her test scores, Xiangjiao is a victim of circumstance. In the face of this, Xiangjiao’s resilience is extremely impressive. “I have never considered not going to school,” Xiangjiao declares as if the prospect of not attending school is preposterous. Heartbreakingly, however, Xiangjiao’s will and determination may not be enough to get her out of Baxian. Without a change in her unforgiving circumstances, this might be the story of Xiangjiao’s life - always trying locked doors, waiting for the day one will eventually open.