All universities were then owned by the government. They were the grooming ground for future leaders, the future 'pillars' of the country. The government invested heavily on cultivating each college student, bearing all costs, from tuition, housing to a monthly stipend.
A college degree meant a lifelong white collar job, free housing, higher salary, and opportunities to be promoted to higher levels in the government. In other words, after you earned your degree, you would be set for life. And the best part? You would have your pick for selecting a mate. At that time, a college degree was in fact the number one criteria for choosing a spouse. College graduates were the country's elites with a lot of privileges and prestige.
The process of getting admitted into college was long and arduous, especially for that first year after the revolution. The saying at the time was that getting admitted to a university is harder than going up the sky and bringing back a star (考大学比上天摘星星还难).
To begin with, there were 20 million potential exam takers that year, aging from 18 to 29, accumulated during the decade of the Cultural Revolution when all universities were closed down. To keep the process manageable, the Ministry of Education designed an initial screening, which was an exam to test your basic knowledge level. Around 6 million passed this initial exam. Of the 6 million, 4.7% would eventually be admitted to college.
Next, everyone who passed the screening test were mandated to go through a complete physical exam. As the college graduates would be the future ‘pillars’ of the country, the government would not want to invest in anyone with any bit of imperfections, including physical imperfections. You needed a medical certificate guaranteeing you were in perfect health. With the clean medical certificate, a permission letter would be mailed to you, which would officially authorize you to enter the entrance exams.
The entrance exams would last three days, with six hours each day. The exams were comprised of six individual exams: mathematics, physics, chemistry, literature, history, and language. Each subject exam would last three hours.
Because in traditional Chinese culture, the disabled meant damaged and useless, unemployable and unmarriageable, a burden to the society really, it was taken for granted that I would be disqualified for college outright. I needn’t even apply.
I took the initial screening test anyway and passed. I desperately wanted to keep going and take the entrance exams. I desperately wanted to have a seat in college. I knew I could beat the big exams, or I would die trying. But, without a clean medical certificate, I would not be able to obtain the permission letter to take part in the exams.
I begged Mom and Dad to figure out a way to get me a clean medical certificate. In China, if you had connections with the right people, and in return you had something to offer to those people, you could get just about anything.
Mom and dad told me if I was confident that I could get top scores in the exams, they would get a clean medical certificate for me at all costs.
Yes, I was confident I could get top scores, I told Mom and Dad. Their efforts would not be in vain.
Since grandfather was a well-known doctor, Dad had the right connections in the medical field. A clean health certificate was obtained under my name. In return, Dad committed to tutoring the children of those connections to help them pass the entrance exams.
A few days later, I received my permission letter in the mail to take part in the 3-day entrance exams.
We decided if I got top scores in those exams, we would go to the Ministry of Education to appeal my case and challenge the rules. If my scores were good but not at the top, we would agree other kids should get that precious college seat.
Since no one learned any real knowledge in school during the decade of the Cultural Revolution, the only reference point for preparing for the exams was textbooks from a decade ago, which were burned during the revolution. Very few textbooks survived the burning. These surviving 10-year old textbooks became the most desirable items for the college entrance exam preparation.
Mom and Dad went on an extensive scavenger hunt for these 10-year old textbooks. With great perseverance and smart bargaining, Mom and Dad managed to find me some of these textbooks. This was a huge advantage for me over other kids.
I studied, studied, and then studied. Thanks to my extensive reading of all kinds of literature, I was fairly well-versed in the subjects of literature, history, and language. Math had always come relatively easy for me. My weak subjects were physics and chemistry. For chemistry, if I really worked at it despite my boredom with it, I could get the subject down enough to get good scores. But for physics, I had such a hard time grasping even the basics.
Here I was lucky as Dad was a professor in high energy physics. During the day, I would persist and read through the dry content of the textbooks on physics, listing out my questions. At night, after dinner I cooked, dad would tutor me, patiently explaining the answers to my questions. It struck me how excellent of a teacher Dad was. I had often heard his students bragging about his teaching, and now I had first hand experience and understood what they meant. Dad did not just teach you the knowledge, he also taught you how to think and approach a problem. That's something you really could not learn by reading textbooks. With ease, Dad broke down complex concepts into smaller chunks of ideas, and walked me through the logic and progression of each step. Best of all, dad could make any dry content interesting and engaging. Time just flew by when studying with Dad.
During this time, I again had a big fight with Dad.
On the college application, you were allowed to list three majors, in the order of desirability. If your scores turned out not high enough for your first choice, you might get your second choice. If your scores were not high enough for your second choice, you would be considered for your third choice.
This may have changed nowadays, but traditionally in China, teaching in grade, middle, and high schools was not a terribly respected profession. There was a saying that you would not want to be the head of kids if you have three buckets of rice at home (家有三斗粮不当孩子王). In the older China, especially in poor rural areas, teachers made very little, and the poor families would rather their children help them in the field than sending them to school.
Because of this, early development teaching as a college major was the least desirable therefore easiest major to get in. Many people listed teaching as their third major choice as a backup in case the other two majors they applied for did not pan out.
When I considered which majors to apply for, Dad wanted me to list the teaching major as my third choice. Dad believed, not without basis or reason, the teaching major would have the biggest chance for me to go to college at all.
Again, my stubbornness got the better of me. "I don't want to be a teacher," I told Dad.
"What's wrong with being a teacher?" Dad almost thought he heard it wrong.
"Nothing is wrong with teaching. That's just not something I aspired to do."
"Not aspired to do? Are you hearing yourself? Are you daydreaming again? Someone in your situation should be so lucky to be admitted to any college. I know you have your ambitions, but you need to face reality. The reality is that you are not on the same starting line as everyone else. Even if your exam scores level the best, other kids still have an advantage over you. They are not disabled."
"Of course I know I'm at deep disadvantage even before we start, dad, but if my scores are not good enough for the majors I want, I would rather not go to college. I just don't want to settle for something I would hate doing for the rest of my life."
"You don't want to settle? I can't believe my ears. What, you think you are better than everyone else? Well, you are not. What made you think any elementary or middle school would want you to be their teacher?" Dad was getting really upset that I wouldn't wake up from my daydreams. "Even if you are willing to 'settle', your chance is slim to none."
"I'm crystal clear on that, dad."
"I'm willing to bet you won't find a second young person in the whole country to say they'd rather not go to college than going to a teachers college. I just can't figure out who the hell you think you are!"
I knew Dad again was giving me tough love. He didn't want me to set too high expectations. He saw how hard I'd been studying, and did not want to see me hurt by disappointment. But I also knew the root reason for his fear was that he didn't have sufficient confidence in me, in what I would be able to accomplish once I put my mind to it.
"I don't want to lower my expectations, I only want to raise my scores and performance. if it's still not good enough for the majors I want, so be it."
"You are being a spoiled brat, again. You can think this way only because you have your mom and me to fall back on. If you have a bunch of younger siblings, and your parents did not work in universities, you would have to settle for anything to help your family."
I thought about what Dad said. It was true to a large degree. Maybe I was spoiled rotten. If I can't go to college, I knew Mom and Dad would never threw me out. So I did have a backup. The backup afforded me to pick and choose, to not settle, to daydream. I told Dad he was right. I was spoiled. How about spoil me one more time and let me apply for the majors I wanted. Dad visibly softened.
"I just want to compete with my brain, to make up for my physical deficiencies. To be equal with an average person, I need to do much better than the average. I certainly don't think I'm better than everyone else, but I also don't think I'm below everyone else. Yes, I'm not on the same starting line as the others, but I'm determined to cross the finishing line with the others, if not ahead of them."
Dad gave in. I applied for mathematics, economics, and Western literature.
The exam day finally came. I was ready.
CONFIDENTIAL CITIZEN FILE
At that time, your test scores were withheld from you while admission decisions were being made. This was because good scores alone weren't be enough for you to be admitted to college. You must have a 'clean' citizen file on top of your good scores.
The government at that time kept a confidential file of every citizen, except for remote villages. This was a carry-over from the Cultural Revolution. The content of this file was a record of your 'political mistakes', such as comments you ever made that criticized the central government and Chairman Mao, your beliefs in capitalism, and anything that did not align with what the central government wanted you to think, say, or do. Your file was open to your employers or school officials, but you were never allowed to know what's in your file.
The majority of the files were blank. If you never got on their radar for misbehaving, you had nothing to worry about.
This file had tremendous weight in college admission. It was the government's heavy-handed attempt to invest in and groom young people who were likely to be very loyal to the Party and the Communist government.
The file was usually kept at the place you worked. Since I was an 'unemployable' youth, my file was kept by the Neighborhood Watch Committee.
We held the belief that if my scores turned out to be excellent, at least I would have a fighting chance. If my scores didn't turned out to be excellent, there would be no need to fight the disability restriction. But we never suspected something else was at work.
Through Mom and Dad's connections in the Ministry of Education, we secretly got my exam scores, which easily qualified me to be admitted to any top tier universities in the country. But Dad's friend passed along another piece of confidential information, which would kill my chance for college for good.
In my confidential citizen file, the Li woman, the head of Neighborhood Watch Committee, who force moved her family into our property, had been keeping a tab on me. She filled my file with my 'diry history' in high school, including meeting boys outside of school, reading forbidden literature, 'spreading' toxic ideology of capitalism, criticizing our dictatorship government, and 'possessing' A Girl's Prayer, the lewd manuscript.
All 4 Li kids took the initial screening test. All 4 failed. When I received the certificate to enter the entrance exams and none of her 4 kids did, she was furious and was consumed by jealousy. She was determined to block my admission to college by stuffing more dirt to my file.
According to Dad's friends, because my citizen file was so 'dirty', I was automatically classified as not admissible. My scores were not even reviewed. Being handicapped didn't even come up.
If my artificial leg was a big obstacle, the content of this file was the ultimate blocker.
We decided to appeal. Mom and Dad decided we needed to avoid government red tapes, and go straight to the top. Through Dad's connections at the Ministry of Education, we learned the names of the people who held the authority for the final approval of college admissions. Dad asked me if I had the confidence to state my case, and win their empathy. I told Dad yes, if you could get me in front of the right people, I could convince them why they should admit me to college.
In order to enter any government offices, you needed a certificate with an official stamp, stating what official duties you had at the government agency you were visiting. Dad managed to obtain such a certificate from people in his university who were responsible for issuing official certificates. The certificate stated we had college admission matters to discuss with the people whose names were given to us. That was a huge favor that Dad would be paying back dearly. Dad told me to not worry about that. At the moment the most critical thing would be meeting the final decision makers in the Ministry.
Mom, Dad, and I took the bus to the Ministry of Education. At the gate, Dad showed the guard our certificate. The guard was surprised when he saw the names of people we wanted to see. "They are high officials and they don't see any visitors. People were generally only allowed to meet with their subordinates. What made you think you need to see them?"
Dad asked Mom and me to move away from their eyeshot, while he chatted with the guard quietly. I saw the guard pointing at me at some point and Dad nodded. After a few minutes, Dad came back with the information of in which office the high officials were located. Dad had this incredible ability to persuade.
We thanked the guard and went upstairs to find the officials. When we knocked on the office door, a middle-aged woman opened the door half way. She suspiciously asked us whom we were looking for and what official business we had to knock on their door. Dad showed her the certificate for visiting and dropped the names of his connections in the Ministry. The woman's shoulders relaxed a little. She told us to wait at the door. From the narrow opening of the door, I saw her whispering to an older, white haired man. The man nodded. The woman came back and opened the door wider, and signaled for Dad to go in. She asked Mom and me to wait outside. She closed the door behind her.
We could hear them talking, but could not make out what was being said. They talked for almost 20 minutes, and then we heard laughters from the office. Mom and I exchanged a glance and smiled. We knew Dad had charmed the officials inside. The woman opened the door again and led Mom and me in. In addition to the woman and the white haired man, there was another slightly younger man.
Dad introduced everyone. The trio was a part of the central admission committee with final decision powers for college admission. Of course they were not involved in individual cases, but Dad persuaded them to hear my story. I sat across the white haired man. He had a very soft smile in his eyes. He said Dad had told them how I got to this point, and gave them my exam scores. He said he liked what he heard and would like to help me, if I could tell him why he should help me.
I knew I needed to make a good impression to show that Dad was not lying, but I needed to be brief and concise. I spent no more than 5 minutes and explained why I should be admitted to college, what motivated me, and what my ambitions were. I also explained I was not the dirty person my citizen file made out me to be. I merely read a great amount of foreign literatures when they were banned, and I acquired a lot of knowledge of the outerworld.
The white haired man nodded as I spoke. When I was finished, he smiled and asked Mom and me to leave the office first as he wanted to talk to Dad some more. After only a few minutes, I heard laughters again. The woman opened the door to let Dad out. We thanked them and started walking down the hallway. I did not turn my head to look but I got the sense they were watching how I walked.
After we left the agency complex, we kept walking until we were sure no one from the complex could hear us. Dad told Mom and me they would be issuing a special directive to put me back to the candidate pool. Dad said my self confidence, frankness, and sincerity won their hearts. They said I was well spoken, intelligent, and ambitious. These were the very qualities they looked for in young people. They also really liked me for not being self pity. They could tell I didn't look at myself as a disabled person, rather I viewed myself as a person just like everyone else. They said if I myself didn't believe I was below everyone else, why should they.
They also said I did not bear any resemblance to the person in my citizen file. They recognized some people abused their power out of jealousy and hatred. They said I belonged to the class of young people who would become the future 'pillars' of our country.
I asked Dad what they were laughing about. Dad said he told them the bookkeeper story, as an example that I was ambitious and would not be satisfied with a unremarkable job and life. Another time they laughed when Dad mentioned that at college graduation, we probably would be discriminated again in job assignment. They half jokingly said that they would love to have me to work for them after I graduated.
By the time the Ministry issued the special directive, the top tier schools had already filled all their openings. Luckily, another really good university, Beijing School of Economics really liked my story and my scores, and they admitted me. I owe everything that would happen next to that awesome school. (The current incarceration of the school is Capital University of Economics and Business.)
BEIJING SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS
For that year, Beijing School of Economics admitted 80 students. Since this was the first class after universities reopened, we were the only students on campus.
Students were divided into two classrooms. Unlike the schools here, students sat in the same classroom with the same classmates throughout the 4 years. The professors would go to each classroom for Lectures.
All students were required to live on campus. Dorms were paid for by the government. Students in the same class room were assigned to the same dorms. Female and male students were on different floors.
Each dorm room slept 8. The room couldn't have been more than a hundred square feet. Four bunk beds back to back and one writing desk filled the whole room. There was one common bathroom on each floor. Our textbooks were stacked on our beds, and our clothes were stuffed under the bunks.
The 8 girls in our dorm room became tight friends. We aged from 18 to 27. We never forgot what a luxury and privilege it was to be able to enter college after the Cultural Revolution. We never took our college life for granted. It was on our minds that millions of college age young people were still in the mountains, on the farms to hard labor. Or, they might be staying at home without prospects of being employed or going to college. The lucky ones might have a job in a factory to do manual labor, where they would spend their whole lives.
The after effect of the Cultural Revolution could be felt throughout my college years. Our major was Political Economics. Our main courses were spent reading and interpreting works from Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and other forefathers of Communism theories. We also read economic theories from classical economists from the West, such as David Ricardo, Thomas Robert Malthus, and John Stuart Mill, but their works were being studied from a completely different angle. We were to understand how corrupt and wrong their ideology was, especially when they talked about laissez faire capitalism, free markets, fair trade, the pursuit of individual interests, and monetary motivations of humans. We were to remember that the ultimate purpose of those economic theories was to separate society into classes based on financial gain, so the wealthy could forever exploit the poor.
DANCES AND HEARTACHES
During the Cultural Revolution, social dances were strictly prohibited. The only dance that was allowed, actually required and mandatory, was called 'loyalty dance'. The dance was to show your undying love and loyalty to Mao. you would hold the little red book to your heart, stretch your arms to the sky, with clenched fists to homage the revolution. The dance ended with a bow to the portrait of Mao, while you sang “Beloved Chairman Mao.” The dance was required of everyone. Thanks to my prosthetics, I was spared from this ridiculous and mad spectacle.
But now, social dance was back. My schoolmates started to rumba, chacha, tango, and waltz away. Disco and electro dances were also rapidly became mainstream. I wanted to dance the night away with other young people, desperately. It was a natural, fertile setting for young love. It caused me much heartache, especially when I saw the boys I liked dance with other girls intimately.
This was one of the times I absolutely hated myself and my life. I couldn't think straight. I thought no wonder I'm considered useless, because I am.
BRAVE AND WILD
One summer night after our freshman year final exams, one of my roommates, Kia, and I went to a late night movie. When we got back to the campus, it was around midnight. The campus front gate was locked. Through the grid of the metal fence, we could see three young guys were sitting inside of the gate and drinking beer. We recognized them - one was the front gate guard, and the other two worked in the mailroom and other odd jobs.
“Would you please open the gate to let us in?” Kia asked politely.
The men looked at us, grinning. “No one is allowed to enter the gate after 11pm,” the guard said.
We never heard of such a policy in the school and we figured they were joking. “We are sorry. Please let us in,” I said.
“Where were you?” one guy asked. “At the movies,” I told them.
“Ahh,” the guard said, “I bet you were with your boyfriends.” Dating in college was still frowned upon at that time. The school officials took a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.
“We don’t have boyfriends,” we said. “Come on, you can tell us,” the guard said. “You are obviously wild girls staying off campus so late.”
It sounded like the men were probably bored and were looking for ways to pass the time. “Please let us in,” we asked them again. The men didn’t respond and went back to their beers, pretending they had forgotten we were there.
When we asked again, one of them pointed at the metal grid fence and said: “If you can climb over the fence, we won’t stop you.”
That was kind of malicious, I thought. Everyone on campus knew I wore a prosthetic leg. I said calmly: “You know I couldn’t possibly climb over the fence with my prosthesis. Would you just let us in please?”
“Well,” another one of the guys said, “that’s not our problem.”
Here we go, I thought, the traditional values where the disabled were not really humans were obviously still at work. I said to Kia: “They are deliberately giving us a hard time.” I looked at the metal fence. The fence was about 6 feet tall. “I’m willing to give it a try if you are, even though I know I probably will embarrass myself big time. I don’t really care about that. These guys are being jerks.”
“Absolutely!” Kia said, “let’s give it a try! I can be your step ladder.” Kia was tall and athletic. She herself would not have any trouble with the fence.
It was a hot night and we were both wearing short skirts. I also had stockings on to camouflage my false leg. To climb the fence, we would have to pull up our skirts and expose our underwear. We hesitated, and then decided we had to push on. “After we get in,” Kia said, “I’m going to go get our classmates to deal with these rogues.” I clapped and nodded to Kia.
The fence had vertical metal rods with three rails across the width of the fence. Kia squatted down for me to wrap my legs around her neck. I grabbed the rods of the fence to pull myself up and steady myself. The first time I didn’t have a firm grip and I fell down. I tried again and lost my balance and fell down again. The cement ground was hard and blood spurted out of my right calf through the stockings. Kia told me to not worry about dirtying her clothes and try again. The third time I learned how to balance myself and took hold on Kia’s shoulders. Kia slowly stood up, holding on to the fence. I raised my prosthesis over the top rail of the fence to ride on the top rail, holding on to one of the brick columns. Kia leveraged the middle rail and got on top of the fence then jumped down. She landed safely on the ground. With her back leaning against the fence, I wrapped my legs around her neck again. She slowly turned around to face the fence, while I turned with her, holding on to the fence. She slowly squatted back down until my feet touched the ground. Once I steadied myself, Kia stood up and ran to the dorm building.
The three men sat there watching the whole time, with their months open. I stood there to catch my breath, waiting for our boys.
It only took what felt like a few minutes when our male classmates started filing out of the building and running toward us. Kia told me later that she ran to the floors where our male classmates were and yelled: “Help! Help us! Those rogues were bullying Dandan and me.” The doors opened one after another, and the boys ran out in their boxer shorts. They later told us that most of them were awake when they heard Kia calling them, as they stayed up late playing cards to celebrate finishing the finals. They ran downstairs as Kia ran with them and told them what had happened.
The three workers saw the boys running and stood up nervously, and backed toward the fence and lined up in a row with their backs leaning on the fence. Our classmates angrily asked them why they wouldn’t let us two girls in. They murmured something about they were joking with us, and they were going to unlock the gate but Kia and I opted to climb over the fence.
One of our classmates went into the guard station and called our principal’s home. When the principal heard the angry voices in the background, he immediately told the student to hang up and he’d be getting out of the bed and coming to the campus right away.
Somebody found some towels from somewhere and used them to wipe blood off my leg. Someone else pulled a chair from somewhere to give me to sit in, but I was too worked up and could not sit still. I loved those boys. They were there ready to defend us in anyway they could.
The principal’s car arrived. The guard unlocked the gate. The principal was a very friendly man with grey hair. We all knew him well and liked him. He came up to me and asked if I was OK. I told him I was fine. He then raised his voice and said: “Students, please go back to your dorms. I promise you my first order of business in the morning is to deal with this matter.” The crowd was quiet for a moment, and then everyone started talking again. I raised my voice and said: “Brothers, thank you for defending us. Let’s go back to sleep. I trust our principal that he will do us right in the morning.”
The next morning at 8 o’clock, the principal’s chief of staff came to our dorm room. He asked me how my right calf was. “Oh it’s nothing at all,” I reassured him. “Just a few drops of blood.” He nodded and told Kia and me that the principle had pushed back all his scheduled engagements for this morning and he was waiting for us in his conference room. He said he would stop by the male student dorms next and ask them to select 6 representatives to go meet the principle along us.
When everyone was in the conference room, the principal asked Kia and me to tell him what exactly happened. When we were finished, I asked the principal if we indeed had the policy of not permitting students come back in to the campus after 11 o’clock at night. The principal said there was a policy to not let non-students in at night, and the school prefered students not stay out past 11 o’clock. In this case, he said, the guard was very familiar with Kia and me and knew we were students. It was the night after the finals after all, he said, it was reasonable for students to do something fun.
The student representatives applauded the principal’s plan. They asked the principal consider requiring the workers on campus take classes on social behaviors. The principal readily agreed.
After we all had a chance to speak our minds, the principle said: “Let me apologize for my workers’ behavior. Their actions were inexcusable and would not be tolerated.” He told us that he planned to go speak with them after this meeting and hear their side of the story. Then he said:”Regardless what their side of the story is, the behavior of not opening the gate for students was dead wrong. It put students, especially female students, in danger. “I’ll put them on administrative leave immediately while I consider what the appropriate actions I should take,” he said.
Somehow, hearing him saying that, I felt kind of bad for the three workers. “Everyone makes mistakes,” I said, “as long as they won’t treat other students that way, please don’t dismiss them.” The others agreed.
This occasion gave Kia and me the colorful reputation of being ‘brave and wild’.