Story written by Benjamin Chow
They strode in, Wentao cracking jokes and smiling, and Xiaoyong acting more stern, but still jovial and young. They bounced on the bed for a bit, laughing. They were young and full of energy so the interview went rolling.
Tan Wentao was originally born in southern Shaanxi. In elementary school, he was a fantastic student until he suffered a car accident that left him in a coma for four weeks. He gestured to the deep tissue scar on the left side of his sun-tanned face, just above the temple, describing his problems since the accident. His memory has deteriorated and his head hurts when trying to recall information. This hindrance also had a gravely impacted his studies, preventing him from succeeding in China’s merit-based, memorization-heavy, test-oriented education system. There were countless tests where he would viciously scribble in the answer choices towards the end of the test because he couldn’t recall certain facts. Every test, no matter how hard he studied, would result in disappointment. His pent up frustration resulted in a decision to dropout. Wentao could have found success regardless of his accident if the education could support those with disabilities; after all, he is still a bright, charismatic, and witty young man, but is simply unable to continue his education due to examinations like the zhongkao.
After Wentao dropped out, he dabbled as a massage therapist in Shenzhen, a waiter at an internet cafe in Zhejiang, and an apprentice in a Guangzhou teahouse. He returned to Shaanxi to be closer to home, and recently became a barbecue apprentice.
“My current passion is barbecuing— I love grilling meats and I think I will do it for a long time!” he says in excitement. While Wentao is happy with barbecuing, it isn’t his dream. In school he always aspired to be a pilot.
“If I could fly a plane, perhaps I would be able to travel to places farther and more crazy than Zhejiang, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen!” he exclaimed in hope, flashing a smile.
These dreams are effectively crushed by the ironclad foot of the system. Without at least a high school diploma, being a pilot is a far reach for Wentao. Moreover, while vocational schools are an option for Wentao, the chances of him testing into college would still be slim due to the poor quality of vocational education. Effectively, Wentao’s dreams are crushed by a seemingly unforgiving education system that fails to support anyone who is not a disciplined, automatic, and efficient test taker.
During the interview, Wentao’s jokes relaxed his friend Pei Xiaoyong’s tense attitude toward his dropping out. Like Tan Wentao, Pei Xiaoyong never excelled at school, mainly because he never got along with his teachers. However, his interactions with them were never enough to make him leave. So we asked:
“Was there an single event with a teacher that compelled you to leave school?”
“Yes,” Xiaoyong replied at an instant with conviction.
“Can you tell us what happened?”
The room went silent, and Pei Xiaoyong glanced away, his eyes slightly glinting with guilt, confusion, and pain. He shuddered, then lingered, and as his mouth slowly opened when he mustered enough courage to say something, he abruptly closed it.
He seemed distraught and unsure of what to say next, but it was clear that his interactions with his teachers had antagonized school to Pei Xiaoyong. He remembers the day of the event— March 14th, 2016— vividly, but never described any more details other than a phone call his parents received from the dean. Ever since, he’s been in the Ankang prefecture to work as an apprentice for a hot pot chef. Next year, he hopes to move to Chongqing and become a working chef to finally earn a living.
When the interview ended, Xiaoyong asked “what are you going to do with the information we’ve given you?”
We described our intentions to improve human capital in China, and our plans to appeal to the government do so. “That won’t cut it. It’s not going to work,” Xiaoyong tersely replied with adamance, “you guys have to stimulate the children’s learning to fix the education system and keep kids in school. I believe that’s the only way to do it.”
His passion emanated throughout the room; Wentao nodded ever so slightly with approval. Seemingly wronged by the education system, Xiaoyong believes it’s time for it to change.
“Do both of you aspire to do more than your current jobs?”
A resounding yes. Both Wentao and Xiaoyong ultimately aspire to seek higher paying jobs, but their limited education makes this extremely difficult. Tan Wentao and Pei Xiaoyong were placed in an education system that favors the few, preventing either of them from achieving their goals.