If entering college was ‘harder than going up the sky and bring back a star', entering graduate schools was considered simply out of question, especially for me.
Like universities, graduate schools were owned by the government. The government paid for you on everything from tuition to campus housing, plus a monthly salary. The salary would be higher than the average income in the country. The investment on the government's part was much higher than that for universities. The annual investment for each graduate student was said to equal supports for hundreds of families.
For the first year, there would be extremely limited openings for graduate studies.
Because of the heavy investment the government made, and because of the limited spots, to think I had any chance to be admitted was almost laughable. When I told my college roommates that I might try to study for graduate school entrance exams, the always cheerful girls grew quiet. No one said anything. They were all looking at each other, as though to decide who would be the best person to break it to me that I had absolutely no chance. Finally, one of them gently said: "Please don't get your hopes up too high, so if the outcome is not what you wanted, the disappointment wouldn't be too great." I guess my facial expression changed, as someone else added: "You know we all love you. We would hate to see you get hurt by disappointment."
But I would not come to my senses. After carefully thinking it over in the next several days, I firmly decided to go for it.
It was a risky gamble. The graduate school entrance exams coincided with college graduates job assignments. In the last 3 months of our fourth year of college, government agencies would make the rounds in each college, examining each student records and grades, and choose which students they wanted to work for them after graduation. Graduate school admission decisions would be made at the same time jobs were assigned. This meant that anyone taking graduate school exams would be taken out of the consideration set of the top agencies. They would not hold a spot for you in case you didn't get into graduate school. You would still get a job, but it might be with less desirable jobs. For example, a position in the Ministry of Foreign Relations was the most desirable as that job would provide opportunities to travel overseas. On the other hand, teaching at a trade school was much less desirable. So it was a gamble. If you did well in the exams for graduate schools and got accepted, you would have the best destiny upon graduation than everyone else. But if you didn't get into a graduate school, you might end up with a job no one else wanted. Remember, once you were assigned a government job, you wouldn't be able to change it. The government paid for you for 4 years in college, you would be expected to obey the government assignment.
Some top students in my school decided against applying for graduate schools for this very reason. They did not want to gamble away a good job for life.
I know my chances of getting admitted was basically none, but I couldn't talk myself out of it. I would rather die trying, I thought. It was worth the risk of ending up with a job I did not want. I figured if anything, it would be a motivation to study more after college. I did not want to just totally relax and enjoy all the perks and privileges a college degree brought to life. I would be restless. I wanted more. I wanted the best of the best. I wanted to attempt at things that others didn't think possible. Looking back, I think deep down, at that time, maybe I was insecure and didn’t entirely believe I was on an equal footing as my peers. I wanted to better my peers by achieving more with my brain to make up for my physical imperfection. Right or wrong, that was my mindset.
If I pulled off getting the best scores in the entrance exams, at least I would know what I could do. It'd be a nice boost to my self worth. Plus,1 I'd love to prove the disabled were not useless, and the policy of disqualifying the disabled for college and graduate school were unfair and should be changed.
Even more crazy, in my friends' words, I wanted to apply for the prestigious China Academy of Social Sciences. The Academy was the pinnacle of all graduate schools, often referred to as China's Harvard. The Academy was the think tank for the central government. Graduates from the Academy's graduate school would be assigned very desirable positions in the central government. A good job was not really my motivation. I just wanted to accomplish the unthinkable.
The International Politics and Economics Institute of the Academy offered graduate studies for International Economic Relations, which had 3 openings across the country. I set my heart on being one of the three.
Next time I was home, I told Mom and Dad my decision. "I want to let you know I've decided to apply and take the entrance exams for graduate school. I wanted to apply for Academy of Social Sciences of China, to study and research on international economic relations."
Mom and dad quickly exchanged a look. Mom said, "Oh, that's a nice thought."
"How about some enthusiasm?" I half jokingly said. “Could we please get me a clean health certificate again?”
That night, I overhead Mom and Dad talking about my decision.
"I didn't have the heart to tell her it would be a futile effort on her part," Mom said. "There is no way the Academy will admit her, regardless how excellent her exam results are."
"We need to gently help her contain her expectations," Dad agreed. "The disappointment will be too unbearable."
"Plus, she would miss out on a good job," Mom cautioned.
Then I heard Dad say something to Mom that I would never have expected to hear from Dad: "That's just our little girl. She always wants to chase the stars. Once she set her mind to do something, there is no stopping her. She did surprise us and everyone we know by getting into college. It turned out she was right to not take the bookkeeper job. She was also right about not applying for teachers colleges.
"That's true. But just like what they always say, the higher you climb, the harder you fall," Mom said.
"Anyways, let's not discourage her from preparing and applying. We just need to help her manage her expectations," Dad said again. "I’ll get a health certificate for her. If she scored the highest, we'd help her at all costs to get accepted."
The next day, I tried to put Mom and Dad at ease. I tried to be as casual as possible when I said: "About graduate school, I know how unrealistic it is and I don't expect to get in. I just wanted to see what I could do. I'll do my best and prepare for the worst." I could see Mom exhaled slightly.
I love you, mom and dad. I got the stubbornness from you. You showed me nothing is impossible.
I started immediately to prepare for the big exam. I researched as much as possible to gather information on the Academy, the academic field, the graduate study advisor. Because it would be the first class after the reopening of graduate school, and the international economic relations would be offered the very first time in the country, there was almost no readily available information. This being long before the Internet age, one had to run from library to library to search for anything related to the field.
The libraries were just only beginning to be rebuilt in the last couple of years, where very few books survived the book burning in the revolution. As a result, availability of books varied from library to library. That was an especially hot and humid summer. I took buses all over Beijing to check out all the libraries for any literature on international economic relations I could find.
The preparation coincided with college final exams. I studied before my college classes began in the morning, and studied after college homework was done and my roommates had gone to bed. I studied with every spare minute I had.
When the entrance exams finally rolled in, I was ready. Just like for college, the entrance exams for graduate school lasted 3 days.
I almost got perfect, full scores for the exams, ranking number 2 of all applicants in the country. Now the hard part was here. We needed to conquer the criteria of a perfect health. Back then, there was no in-person interviews where I could have tried to state my case.
After thinking long and hard, I decided the best course of action would be taking a chance and going to talk to Professor Chen, the graduate studies advisor, directly.
One day, I simply walked into the Academy. I showed the secretary at the front desk my college student ID, and told her that I was a candidate for Professor Chen's graduate study program. I ask her could I please speak to Professor Chen directly. She said what I was asking for was highly unusual, and generally people could not just walk in and ask to speak to a member of the Academy. As it had happened so many times before, I was very lucky that the secretary was a very nice person. She said she could see my sincerity, and she would go in and ask Professor Chen if he would be willing to talk to me. She asked me to wait while she took my college student ID with her to get Professor Chen.
After a while, the secretary came back with Professor Chen, a middle-aged man with a friendly disposition, wearing round eyeglasses. When he saw me, the professor smiled. He told me that he recognized my name from my exam results. "Dandan, you did very well on the exams," he said, "some of your essays were good enough to be extended into publishable full academic papers."
I then said: "But there is one more thing I need to tell you. This is difficult for me, but you see, I don't have the perfect physical. In fact I'm what they call a disabled person wearing a prosthetic leg." I then stood up and took a few steps to show the professor.
The professor gently asked about what happened. After I told him my story, he nodded slightly. "You are such a strong girl. Looking at you, I don’t see a disabled person. You have overcome hardships that other young people would not even be remotely familiar with, including my own son," he said. "Let me check with the Academy to see if we could make an exception to the 'perfect health' rule. I really don't see why you can't be my graduate student.” Hearing that, I couldn't contain my excitement, but something got stuck in my throat and I couldn't get words out. So I stood up and bowed to him. That made him laugh. I crossed my fingers for the chance to study with him.
I devoted myself to preparing for the final exams for college graduation. I attempted to block out any thoughts about graduate school and the Academy, and I was successful some of the time, but not others.
One day I was chatting with my best friend and told her about my meeting with the professor. "What if I did get in," I said, "I wouldn't even know how I could survive that excitement." My friend said: "I think you should brace yourself for not getting in and be prepared to survive that outcome." I knew just like Dad and other schoolmates, she was speaking from tough love for me. She was preparing me for the unavoidable so it wouldn't be too painful . Even my best friend, who knew me better than anyone else, didn't believe there was a possibility that I could get in.
Then I got the call from the professor. "Welcome to my graduate studies," he said. I shrieked. He laughed. "I promise you that you won't regret about your decision." I said. He simply responded: "I know." Once again, I was wrapped in kindness.