Story written by Millie Lin
“It’s not quite finished yet,” Chuntian says, a blush in her voice.
Zeng Chuntian (曾春天) is working on an art project, a large sheet of paper scattered with sketches. There are smudges of past mistakes beneath the dark pencil lines, and it’s clear that the sketching exercise was done with extreme care. Chuntian is only 16 years old, in her first year of high school. She has plenty of time to become a thriving artist before she gets into college.
But that might not happen, because her college prospects don’t look too sunny. In the Chinese school system, students spend high school preparing for the gaokao: a college entrance exam they can take only once a year. The result of the gaokao determines the quality of the college they attend and, therefore, their future social and economic status. To escape isolated poverty, rural students like Chuntian have no option but to attend college. But these same children are also seven times less likely to attend college than their urban counterparts.
Considering Chuntian’s family situation, it’s no wonder that it’s an uphill battle for her to earn a high score for college.
Chuntian misses her father, who works far away in Anhui city constructing bridges to support his family. That makes her one of the 61 million left-behind children in China. These rural children have at least one impoverished parent living outside the home, working in a big city, often too far away to provide emotional support for their child during their teenage years.
Her father earns 20,000-30,000 RMB per year, or $3000 - $4400. This small sum must support the food, housing, and health expenditures for six people – Chuntian, her brother, parents, and grandparents. Chuntian lives in a shabby rented apartment located at the end of a three story staircase. The family’s economic burdens are exacerbated by the fact that the mother has gout, a disease that makes the skin swell like a balloon. Her poor health also prevents her from working in a factory and earning extra money. In addition, her mother only attained an elementary school education – too low to be of any academic help to her daughter.
Even her high school is suffering. Baxian village is slowly being drained of high-achieving students and teachers, with rumors swirling around of imminent closure. Yet the pressure cooker atmosphere is still present. Chuntian struggles academically, ranking closer to the middle than the top of her 58 student class.
“I really want to attend college, but…” She struggles to put her ideas into words. “I might have problems getting in.”
Why? Are you not doing well in class?
“Um…” There’s another stressful pause, during which her fingers pick at the holes in her tights. She sighs. “…I just feel like I can’t get in. I want to be an art student.”
This is Chuntian's college back-up plan. Some universities are eager to discover academic powerhouses, but some also want talented artists. These institutions admit students with lower gaokao scores than the those of academic universities. That means that Chuntian’s interest in art takes on a practical, more crucial implication: Her novice sketches of geometric shapes are not just a leisurely interest. Her potential mastery of them is what can push her into college and, consequently, a prosperous future.
But if Chuntian attends college – whether of the academic or the art variety – what will be her future post-college path? What are her dreams?
“Dreams?” she repeats. “…Just…” Her eyes look even more troubled. Her mind seems to grasp for an answer that may not yet exist. She heaves another loud and depressed sigh. A few more tense moments – twitching, downcast eyes, a nearly-frowning mouth.
“I want to be with my family when I grow up.”
And in any place in particular?
At first, she had struggled to think of her dreams. But having remembered her family, her words come out more confidently and quickly. “Just to be with my family would be good.”
All these factors make up a sad, stressed girl. Her fingers are tense and twined. Her smile is sometimes paired with creasing eyebrows, and every so often her eyes droop, as if they’re wilting. When she speaks, her head is bowed, and she hardly makes a sound. Her shirt says, “I don’t care anymore.” Even her apartment reflects depressing realities – low railings and a precipitous drop four stories below, the smell of excrement and rotting food floating around the stairs on the way down.
So many of Chuntian’s problems are caused by factors outside of her control, ranging from the family’s financial deprivation to her mother’s low education level. Chuntian needs to attend a good college in order to overcome her family’s poverty. But at the same time, she can’t attend a good college unless her family's difficulties are sorted out. These circumstances leave her stuck in a financial and educational limbo. Though Chuntian might feel alone with this burden, she isn’t. She is one of millions of rural Chinese children dealing with similar challenges to fulfilling her potential.
Despite these barriers in her path, Chuntian still hopes to attend college. But it’s hard to hope in Chuntian’s world. When her mother was asked to imagine her ideal life, she laughed. “Even if I imagined it, I couldn’t do it. I don’t think about it. I never have time.” Real life is too busy and bitter for these families to daydream about something better. Who can blame Chuntian if her own thoughts eventually reflect the words on her shirt - if she gives up on her dreams, and one day says to herself, “I don’t care anymore.”