Again, I am at my relatives’ apartment, failing to escape the grand family reunion. Since middle school, I have claimed I want to stay home to study, but my parents say I can work at the party. After dinner, cousins drag me into a dim bedroom, yelling for a game. I propose Truth or Dare.
It is a simple game. Some might say it’s not for children, but they won’t complain. Perhaps I can open up, even though they can’t solve anything; they’ll listen without —
Our door has swung open. I hear people clinking beer bottles and banging poker cards. I hear a babble of voices on TV.
“Ahhhh!” shriek fifteen-year-old Niuniu and eight-year-old Miaomiao.
“We just want to stay inside while waiting for glutinous rice balls,” their mothers say. “Because no one can leave before eating rice balls.” They close the door.
Reluctantly, I announce the rules of the game under our moms’ supervision. “We start with Rock, Paper, Scissors. One round to determine the winner and loser,” I emphasize, fearing bargaining that perpetuates the game. Then we shake our fists. Niuniu loses. She sticks to one symbol — Paper tonight.
“Truth or Dare?”
Miaomiao, obsessed with Barbie dolls, asks Niuniu about toys.
Turns out it can be a children’s game, though not in the way I envision. My mind wanders. At one point, I don’t even notice that I am clenching my fist. Paper covers Rock. Miaomiao’s mother asks on the children’s behalf, “Is it true you’ll go to Africa?”
Africa. Probably not the destination they have in mind for their first family member to attend an elite university and receive postgraduate studies.
“If there is a suitable job,” I answer.
I could have avoided this reunion. I told my father I wanted to stay at school during the holiday, to find an internship because it was important. I claimed he could practice having New Year without me, considering I may soon be in Africa.
Then I searched for internships. A job I contacted received over 400 applications, even though it required intense work on our biggest holiday.
I called my father 2,000 kilometers away. “I want to come back.”
“I’m buying you a ticket,” he said.
“But I’m fine being alone at home, if you have to visit relatives.”
“You come with us —”
I kept searching, but few needed people during the holiday. Eventually, I hoarded two simultaneous online internships, just like how my grandparents, who suffered three years of famine, always refrigerated leftovers. But I still lost my excuse to escape the reunion.
I have been making a fist with two fingers out. Scissors cut Paper.
“What do you want to do in the future?” Miaomiao’s mother asks Niuniu.
“A doctor,” says the short-haired, athletic girl.
Relatives hassled Niuniu with the question while giving out money in red envelopes during lunch, but Niuniu didn’t specify, and Miaomiao announced: “I’ll go to Tsinghua.”
The dining room was startled, then burst into applause.
“You can’t just want it, though!”
“Yeah! Work for it!”
Miaomiao was counting her red envelopes.
I bet Niuniu must have similar dreams. She has longed for the best high school, and it’s time for the best college — the most important thing for a Chinese student!
However, she names an ordinary local school.
At Niuniu’s age, everyone in my high school class dreamed about top universities and buried ourselves in science — the subject of the smarter kids.
My worst enemy was distracting thoughts, which hindered me from our machine-like efficiency. I stopped visiting the library and promised never to read literature anymore. I ignored Chinese and English classes.
Controlling one’s mind was never easy. I wrote paragraphs on slips of paper to the effect of “stop thinking and focus on your studies.” But I kept asking myself, what happens after a top university?
After an eye disease and a nervous breakdown, I majored in English, a subject often despised by science students, at a non-top university.
But Niuniu felt the stress as early as middle school, suffering from hair loss and insomnia. She abandoned piano and dancing for her studies, but later took to taekwondo in her limited spare time. She got a wall of taekwondo medals and trophies.
I can’t help but think that Niuniu still wants to go to a top university, even though I hate it when people don’t trust my Africa plan.
“You really won’t consider other colleges?” I cut in as Niuniu loses.
“What about Beijing and Shanghai?” Miaomiao’s mother asks, referring to China’s metropolises where many top universities are located.
“Maybe…” Niuniu says.
“Would you retake the gaokao if your grades aren’t good enough?” she continues.
“Emm. Let me think.”
More and more students relentlessly take the college entrance exam as if it’s the only way to succeed. Sometimes the test itself becomes more important than top universities. A friend’s cousin restarted the gaokao whenever he felt overwhelmed in college. His grades were always among the best, but it took him 10 years to graduate from Peking University.
“I don’t think I will,” Niuniu continues.
“Really?” Miaomiao’s mother asks. “Aren’t kids more and more involuted?”
“Involution is the experience of being locked in a competition that one ultimately knows is meaningless,” says anthropologist Xiang Biao. For instance, no matter how hard you work, top grades and rewarding jobs seem unattainable.
My household was elated when I was admitted to a top university’s journalism department, as if they foresaw a profitable job. Remembering that a news agency said foreign correspondents with the worst grades would be sent to Africa, I immediately told my family, “I’ll be a writer in Africa.”
“No way! You’ll starve! Your generation doesn’t know what suffering is!” said my grandma, who went through famine and the Cultural Revolution.
“One studies for money! Writing only creates trouble!” my grandpa said. “We were so lucky. Our jobs were assigned.”
“A stable job is enough!” my parents said.
But their words never carried much weight. My father lived off my grandparents. My mother lost her job during the mass layoffs when China moved to a market economy. Their secret to successful parenting was mahjong and beer. They couldn’t lock me.
Miaomiao’s mother requires her girl to use Truths to consult about school life. She is one of many Chinese parents who bled themselves dry and carefully planned their kids’ life. She has worried about the eight-year-old’s future schools and apartment and signed her up for dancing, painting, piano, and English classes (“All voluntary choices,” Miaomiao’s mother said. “But time is limited, and she isn’t talented at dancing or painting. We replaced the two with swimming.”). She asked Miaomiao to consult me about English and Mathematical Olympiad problems the night before, and now there are Truths about school.
Miaomiao asks: “Are you afraid of teachers?”
“Sometimes,” Niuniu says.
“Sometimes,” I echo. When I entered graduate school, I met a professor in her office to ask her to be my thesis supervisor. She asked about my hobbies while burning an incense stick. A haze of smoke ascended slowly out of a carved wooden box, and she asked me to talk slowly. I realized I couldn’t. I found another supervisor.
“Will you find a job after your studies?” Miaomiao continues.
“Sure.” Niuniu and I shrug.
“Will you really find a job after your studies?”
I don’t know why Miaomiao is obsessed with the question, which would make more sense if it started with “can,” not “will.” And in that case, we will say, “No.” My classmate, who loathed our workaholic society and successfully chose the tranquil supervisor, underwent four interviews for an internship at an internet giant famous for high salaries. His friend suffered nine rounds of interviews.
“Not everybody will,” Miaomiao’s mother jokes. “Miaomiao plans to live on red envelopes.”
We have grown tired of the game, but we play it on a loop, not knowing any alternative and believing that rice balls are on the way.
Though we successfully avoid the potential infinite “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” accepting defeat, we still trap ourselves in “Truth or Dare,” choosing Truth without hesitation, life’s prescribed truth, which drags us back to the game.
Niuniu wants to choose Dare but cowers after being asked to tell her father that she loves him. This might be when I lose track of my throws. Paper covers Rock.
Why? My graduate school class discussed Africa once. Few wanted to go. Maybe their parents had too much say. Maybe the chatter of past generations grew on them, and they feared a less-trodden path.
“But it will be a way to escape involution,” my supervisor said.
It dawned on me that maybe that’s why. An undesired “jungle” is much better than the ruthless law of the jungle. And being 10,000 kilometers away would be a perfect excuse to escape reunions. I have to dare to get out of the loop!
“Seriously?” Miaomiao’s mother continues.
“But there probably won’t be a suitable job in Africa,” I say. “And I’ll be back every New Year anyway.”
Li Yijuan is a writer and journalist. Her passions include cross-cultural dynamics, the ills of modernity, collective trauma, and weird food. But most of the time, she just writes fiction and nonfiction about everything she encounters or is about to encounter.
(Header image: Malte Mueller/VCG)