The Long March From China To The Ivies

Brook Larmer:

For most of her childhood, Monica did as she was expected to. She gave up painting and calligraphy, and rose to the top of her class. Praised as a “study god”, she aced the national high-school entrance exam, but inside she was beginning to rebel. The agony and monotony of studying for that test made her dread the prospect of three more years cramming for the gaokao, the pressure-packed national exam whose result – a single number – is the sole criterion for admissions into Chinese universities.

One spring evening two years ago, Monica, then 15, came home to the compound and made what, for an acquiescent military daughter, was a startling pronouncement. “I told my parents that I was tired of preparing for tests like a machine,” she recalls. “I wanted to go to university in America.” She had hinted at this desire before, talking once over dinner about the freedom offered by an American liberal-arts education, but her parents had dismissed it as idle chatter. This time, they could see that she was dead serious. “My parents were kinda shocked,” she says. “They remained silent for a long period.”

Several days passed before they broke their silence. Her father, a taciturn career officer educated at a military academy, told her that “it would be much easier if you stayed in China where your future is guaranteed.” Her mother, an IT engineer, said Monica would very likely get into China’s most prestigious institution, Peking University, a training ground for the country’s future leaders. “Why give that up?” she asked. “We know the system here, but we know nothing about America, so we can’t help you there. You’d be totally on your own.” Then, after cycling through all the counter-arguments, her mother finally said: “If your heart is really set on going to the US, we will support your decision.”