Like many rural Chinese kids, my parents were farmers. Growing up, we lived off whatever they earned farming and doing odd jobs around the village. My father dropped out of middle school after just one year; my mother barely had any schooling at all. I was the first person from my village to attend a prestigious university and later, the first to attend a doctoral program.
When our neighbors heard that I had been admitted to one of the top universities in Beijing for a Ph.D., my family and I became overnight celebrities. People visited our house in droves. Before my program started, my parents hosted a celebratory banquet for more than 40 relatives from all over the region where I grew up.
Such is the glory, prestige, and status that admission into a prominent school brings to a rural family. But getting into school is only half the battle. For so many rural children, myself included, education is a race. Our families spend fortunes they don’t have to keep us in the lead, but at each stage, whether elementary school, middle school, or high school, more runners drop out or are pushed to the back of the pack.
If there’s one saving grace, it’s that we know exactly where the finish line is: Get into university and we can change our lives. Nothing in our experience growing up prepares us for the reality of campus life, however. Just when all our hard work seems to have paid off, we find ourselves confronted with the cold truth: We’d lost at the starting gun. Our degree, no matter how prestigious, doesn’t herald the end of the inequality that defined our lives. Rather, it introduces us to new inequalities. But there’s no turning back. Our only choice is to keep on running.
In the research I conducted for my doctoral dissertation, I interviewed a young student at a prestigious school in Beijing who summed up this feeling well: “I felt as a freshman that college gave me a false sense of equality. You think it’ll be a level playing field in college, and the college itself keeps instilling that idea, but then you realize that it was never true.”
I too thought everything would be fine when I first started college, only to quickly realize something was amiss. College life felt foreign to me. Everything, from how to cross the road to how to connect with my peers, was different. My classmates seemed to know so much; they were incredibly talented and could talk about topics beyond my understanding. The inferiority complex I had from my rural background instantly reared its head. It was clear I was the intruder here.
This phenomenon is so common it even has a name: “exam experts from small towns.” Rural students get into top universities by focusing all their energies on preparing for the college entrance exam. Once we’re in, however, we’re suddenly faced with a plethora of choices that could shape our futures — and have neither the knowledge nor the support networks needed to make them. As the above-mentioned student put it: “When you declare a major in college, you learn about all the materials you need to prepare, how long it takes to start understanding everything and to get ready. (Other students) have already done this in their high school summer and winter camps, but rural kids are encountering this information for the first time.”
Giving up, or even wavering, is unthinkable. Rural children have it impressed on them from an early age how much their parents suffered to support their studies. They are told in no uncertain terms that they have a responsibility to honor their ancestors. There is no room for mistakes.
Rural Chinese honor their ancestors not by holding onto their homelands but by leaving them behind. Children are expected to leave their homes and rural communities and find success elsewhere. For top students, that means leveraging their studies to land promising jobs, thus repaying their parents’ emotional and financial investment in their educations. Through their own efforts, they must lift their families out of poverty and push them into a higher socioeconomic class. Because of that, the academic and professional path for rural children is necessarily a one-way road that takes them farther and farther away from their families. To return is to admit failure.
As a college student, I actually liked going back to my hometown. Unlike on campus, in my village I felt like a hero, one who had earned the respect and praise of my elders and neighbors. People would come up and greet me, asking, “So you’re back? For how long? When does school start?” Those short conversations distinctly conveyed my local community’s interest in my education, which only intensified after I left for school and through my doctoral studies.
Having been through a lot in the city, I considered returning to work close to home after my Ph.D. program, but I slowly realized that the glory and appeal of my academic achievement could only be maintained at a distance. Even though I was a local, my neighbors’ increasingly enthusiastic chatter about my life suggested that they now saw me as a stranger. In their world, my education had permanently severed me from the village. I could never come back and live the same life they did; I’d become a person of high social status, a model of educational success. Someone like that would never settle down in a village or make a living there.
Rural children are pushed out of local communities, but our families and elders remain. My parents were highly respected in our village due to my degrees and my decent job. My research suggests I am not an isolated case: If rural children succeed outside the village, whether academically, financially, or otherwise, then their parents are praised.
Life in the city is not always what we dreamed, but we still shoulder the burden of maintaining our families’ prestige back in the village. We are molded by the discipline necessary to succeed in the countryside, a discipline that is of little use once we leave, even as it pushes us farther and farther away from home.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Seniors attend a rally ahead of the college entrance exam in Zhumadian, Henan province, 2019. Wang Xiangyang/VCG)