Story written by Benjamin Hartwell
Between questions, Wang-Mou’s focus darts out the open door of his home. Late-afternoon light squeezes through the doorframe, casting a spotlight over the 16 year old boy sitting on a small wooden stool. Interlocking both of his hands, Wang-Mou tightly clasps his knee to his chest as if shielding himself from the attention of the room. The murmur of his younger sister and grandmother playing in an adjacent room easily passes through the thin walls of the house, the sound stuttering whenever the young girl’s curiosity demands quick peeks into the interview. These staggered moments of silence seemingly whisk away any hint of security Wang-Mou has mustered.
Although Wang-Mou’s grandfather and cousins live directly next door, the two households are completely independent. His grandmother and grandfather are separated, each supported by a different son. “We don’t talk much; we aren’t very close.” Next door, Wang-Mou’s grandfather has already purchased his own coffin. The old man’s energy for life has waned to where he now merely awaits his death. The immense, black box rests prominently in the living room, a demoralizing symbol of defeat.
Wang-Mou’s biological mother left the family when he was very young and he is not close to his father or stepmother who are away working. This lack of familial support even manifests in Wang-Mou’s academics. He claims that while his father is able to afford tutoring, he refused to provide it for his son in his preparation for the high school entrance exam.
The zhongkao just a week away, Wang-Mou is now more anxious than ever regarding the test. This anxiety pushed him to drop out of his final year of junior high several weeks ago. He shares that over the last year his grades began to slip, leading him to believe he would not do well on his zhongkao. The pressure of the test is so overwhelming he plans to skip it altogether, eliminating his chance of attending academic high school entirely. As Wang-Mou shakily explains his rationale for this decision, his gaze floats across the ground, refusing to meet others’ eyes.
Wang-Mou fears that after the test he will be pestered with questions about how he scored. Convinced he will do poorly, Wang-Mou feels it will be easier to say he did not take the test at all than to suffer sharing his possibly embarrassing results. Unfortunately, intense anxiety surrounding the zhongkao is prevalent, even high-performing junior high students describe feeling highly nervous about the test despite knowing that they will likely do well.
Adding to the pressure of the test is the lack of an obvious worthwhile alternative. Even for Wang-Mou, who admits to spending his days playing video games and watching television, vocational high school appears a waste of time. “Vocational high school is useless. I would do nothing there.” However, despite his currently undemanding lifestyle, Wang-Mou seems drained.
He reveals that over the last year the majority of his friends did poorly in school and dropped out of junior high to go find work in cities. Stripped of his core group of friends, Wang-Mou’s main companion these days is another dropout, a boy his age thousands of miles away in Xinjiang province that he communicates with over the internet.
Squinting into the bright doorway of the house, Wang-Mou bashfully admits that the decisions of his friends to dropout encouraged him to do so as well. His sister halts her play, allowing her brother’s confession to echo through the room. Prompted by the silence, Wang-Mou earnestly proclaims that he wishes he could do it again, work harder this time. He is convinced that he has only himself to blame for his position.
Although Wang-Mou and his grandfather are separated by decades of age and a dysfunctional family relationship, their outlooks are eerily similar. However, while the old man quietly embraces the inevitability of his own death, next door his teenage grandson is passively allowing his self-perceived shot at a true future to slip away. Lacking the necessary channels of support, Wang-Mou already feels defeated by a system that will not allow him to catch back up.