Wang Zihan: Hitting a Dead End

Story written by Lance Zhong
 
8:41pm. The school bell rings, its harmonic chord indicating the end of the school week.
 
For most students who are still present on a Friday night in this vocational high school, it will be another weekend away from their families. But Wang Zihan is still a little excited for his weekend schedule. “A classmate told me that this cell phone store needs additional hands to cover weekend shifts, I could definitely learn a lot from it!”
 
This is not the 16-year-old boy’s first job opportunity, nor is he the only one in his class to work part-time after school. Although Zihan longs for a job that involves higher technical skills, he does not want to miss any learning opportunity. “If I can’t go to a college, I want to learn something useful that can support my future life – this is why I am at this vocational school,” Zihan says with a shy smile.
 
Like most students in this school, Zihan’s parents are not at home – they are both working in Fujian Province, earning money to support his older sister who is studying  at China Northwest University, a top university in Shaanxi.  His parents are part of the immigration tide that is occurring throughout China, where able-bodied adults leave the places their families have been living for centuries and move to the large cities in coastal provinces to find jobs.
 
“I have never been to a college. I imagine it is a beautiful, energetic, and fantastic place.” Zihan chuckles as his homeroom teacher nods approvingly behind him, and continues, “my biggest dream is to get into a college and enroll in a military academy to become an officer.” Even through his dark, tan skin, one can easily spot him blushing as if he is talking about something unbelievably heroic. Later, we are told by his teacher that like most students in this vocational high school, it is implausible that Zihan will successfully pass the Gaokao, the college entrance exam of China: “It’s not that he is dumb or anything, he is a really great student, but he doesn’t work hard enough.” 
 
Zihan’s school troubles began as a result of China’s hukou system - a record of household registration that determines where citizens are allowed to live. Zihan attended most of junior high in Xia’men, where his parents worked at the time, but years ago he was sent back to his hometown for his last year of junior high. Along with his parents, Zihan is registered in this county in Southern Shaanxi, granting him all the social welfares a Chinese rural citizen could enjoy in the county, and in the county exclusively. Even though there are millions working in major cities, the immigrants are not entitled to local welfare benefits such as health insurance, pensions, and, critically for Zihan, public education. This not only means that he could not enroll in any of the regular junior highs in Xia’men but also that he was not able to take the Zhongkao, the high school entrance exam of China, anywhere outside of the county. In short, the hukou registration system became the keystone to his miseries. 
 
“I was confused – not because the classes were hard, it’s just because they didn’t teach the same subjects here.” It wasn’t long until Zihan became one of the lowest ranking students in his grade. He explains this change pragmatically: “Teachers do not have the energy to help poor-performing students – how were they going to manage it if the number of students assigned to them was astronomical? Also, the study environment was distracting. Some of my classmates just don’t show up to classes.”
 
There’s only 10 minutes before the dorm closes. Zihan leans against the railing on his balcony, gazing at his classmates returning from classrooms, and casually summarizes his current strategy for dealing with his circumstances. “But after all,” he says, “if you can’t learn in a school, learn in the society.”