Tuesday, July 7 – A Very Special GaoKao and One Helpful English Exam Tip

By Jorah Kai CHONGQING, CHINA

Last year I wrote about the last ‘normal’ GaoKao of 2019, explaining the pressures of the ‘Olympics’ level national competition where the prize realized the hopes and dreams of millions of Chinese students around the country. Top scores equal top placement in the top universities, and this trickles down to lower scores and more humble institutions. The Gaokao is the culmination of 18 years of near-constant study and will decide their future.

This year is a special situation, in a global pandemic, Senior three students spent several months at home self-studying, and many feel an extra level of stress and a worry that they are not as prepared as they could be for this moment.

Yesterday morning as my wife Xiaolin and I left our home on the Foreign Language School campus at Shiqiaopu, we saw the line of busses loading up and preparing to head out for the testing. Rows of excited, nervous, and supportive parents stood around in parade formation, taking photos, waving and crying. As the busses passed, we stopped to wish all the students on the dozen full-length busses a ‘Jaiyo,’ with thumbs up or waving fists, to the chagrin of the foreign students who often waved back at us. My wife always gets excited when she sees the Senior three students preparing for the GaoKao – this is a huge deal in China. Dreams are made, and it reminds her of her own experience, I’m sure.

Today we woke up, and although I am finishing my last week of classes before a very odd staycation for summer break, highlights being daily writing on my novels and trips to the gym and pool, we rushed over to our niece Zhang Yidan aka Eden’s school to meet her as she finished her Chinese exam. She was done at 11:30 am, so we left the house at 11:00 and took a cab over. I sprained my ankle on some wet, slippery stairs a few days ago, with all the flooding we’ve had you really need to be careful these days, so when the cab went to the wrong school, and we had to hustle there with a ‘fast limp’ to make it in time, I wasn’t impressed, but I did it without complaint. I am less Canadian than I used to be in these times, not quite Chinese, but I am Kai Nese.

Parents buzz and wring their hands, waiting for their children to finish the morning's exams.
Parents buzz and wring their hands, waiting for their children to finish the morning’s exams.

There’s an audible buzz of tension and excitement around us. Many serious parents scanning the horizon for their particular child, and we quickly joined our gang, Yidan’s mom, and family friend and her son. Within five minutes, Yidan joined us, trudging down the stairs, and we met her with excited hugs and high fives, and then I grabbed a few pictures.

Zhang Yidan, senior 3 student returns from her Chinese exam, and her family is here to support her.
Zhang Yidan, senior 3 student returns from her Chinese exam, and her family is here to support her.

How was it? I ask her. She just shakes her head, with the grim determination of a veteran of the war, returned but unwilling to share that dark part of herself. Did you do, ok? I pressed. She nodded slowly. That was all I could get out of her at that moment, so I bided my time.

Victorious and hungry for lunch, the Wang family and our niece, Zhang Yidan pose for a quick photo.
Victorious and hungry for lunch, the Wang family and our niece, Zhang Yidan pose for a quick photo.

The light rain was picking up, and we decided to walk back to the family house for lunch, up hills, through buildings, and at a brisk pace. My ankle was tired and getting a workout, but I trudged on, like a religious missionary, following our messiah, the senior three student in our family.

As we walked, Yidan relaxed a little and asked about my ankle. I smiled, and she smiled. I told her I’m still alive, and she nodded. Her too. I reminded her about the interview last year, one of several students that spoke about the pressures of Gaokao and asked if she’d be ok to talk about this one. She agreed. So how was it this morning? I asked again. It was ok, she said. Chinese class is something she’s good at, and she felt she did well. She said the students themselves seemed very nervous, this year they spent months at home self-studying, and many of them relaxed more than they studied. Now they were up against the standardized GaoKao, and there was an audible tension that they would not get into the colleges they dreamed of and would have to settle for more humble post-secondary careers and possibly, employment opportunities. Yidan was positive and put on a brave face for us. A few days ago, she’d had a bad cold, headaches, and swollen glands, but today she was looking clear, well-rested, and healthy. This is a kind of battleground for the Children of China, and she was giving it her best shot. She wants to be a psychologist, or go into medicine, and I’m pretty sure she’ll get to pursue her wish.

We finally made it back to the house and walked up the nine floors to be greeted by my inlaws, who prepared a lovely light Chinese food lunch, and we had a nice and excitable conversation. It was a very fresh and tasty lunch, and afterward, we relaxed for an hour while she took a nap.

A comforting, grounding ritual mid-Gaokao: the family lunch roundtable shared dining experience.
A comforting, grounding ritual mid-Gaokao: the family lunch roundtable shared dining experience.

Her mother tries to wake her up at 2 pm, eventually succeeding, and she gets ready for her next exam at 3 pm – math. She’s not that good at math, she says, despite having expensive tutoring all year. She lost her father from cancer when she was just a baby, and we, the family, will spare no expense to give her every opportunity for meaningful education, career, and future. This is how important the Gaokao is in China.

Her mother tries to wake her up at 2 pm, eventually succeeding, and she gets ready for her next exam at 3 pm - math.
Her mother tries to wake her up at 2 pm, eventually succeeding, and she gets ready for her next exam at 3 pm – math.
A rainy day for the Gaokao, 2020
A rainy day for the Gaokao, 2020
One last selfie and a few final pieces of advice before we drop her off for the next exam: math.
One last selfie and a few final pieces of advice before we drop her off for the next exam: math.

We head back to the house, and I found myself free for a couple of hours, so I went for a swim. My Taekwondo teacher, when I was a Child, Korean Grandmaster Tae E Lee once told me if you’re not swimming uphill, you’re getting pushed back down. So I swam and hoped to work off the damaged ligaments with a little light exercise.

Tomorrow she will write three physics and science-related exams in the morning and her English exam after lunch. Math and physics aren’t my expertise, but English really is, so here is my one tip for your English exam:

After asking many students, the hardest part of their English exams are the difficult vocabulary that makes it hard to understand and engage with the text, so here is my tip to help understand difficult vocabulary. Look for clues, like Sherlock Holmes, inside the reading passage. You must look for definitions, synonyms/antonyms (similar or opposite meaning words), and if that does not work, you can try to substitute different words until you have the right context and get the meaning right. Let’s go through each quickly.

In the exam sentence: Some twins are identical; they look exactly alike. If you don’t know what the word identical means, look around, there is a definition in the sentence: they look exactly alike. This is the meaning of identical, and often, English writers will include a definition or other clue when they use high-level vocabulary in a passage: this is why we should never throw our hands up and say “Ting Bu Dong” (I don’t understand) but instead look for clues inside the text. If you don’t see a definition, look for synonyms or antonyms. For example, The new boy in the class was haughty, arrogant, and proud. In this sentence, we don’t see a definition, but we see a list of adjectives if you don’t know what haughty means: it means arrogant and proud. Or you might see an antonym: The new boy wasn’t haughty; in fact, he was polite, humble, and kind. So there’s no definition and no synonym, but instead, you see that haughty means the opposite of polite, humble, and kind: arrogant and proud. Finally, if you don’t see any of these clues, you can try substitution. Let’s pick a rather difficult word: deleterious. Here’s an example sentence: The deleterious smoke wafted up off the desk after the beaker of acid poured on the desk and began to melt it away. What does deleterious mean? Does it mean good? Let’s try: The good smoke wafted up off the desk after the beaker of acid poured on the desk and began to melt it away. No, that doesn’t make any sense. Could it mean bad? Let’s try: The bad smoke wafted up off the desk after the beaker of acid poured on the desk and began to melt it away. That’s better, so it’s close to bad, but not exactly right. What does the acid do to the desk? It is melting it, it is harming the desk, so what would the smoke do to us? If you said it’s bad because it’s harmful, you’d be right. Deleterious means harmful. These four tricks (definition, synonym, antonym, or substitution) can give you a method to look for clues and context inside difficult passages, which can often give you the right answer you’re looking for! Good luck!