I clearly remember the “good old days” in a test-oriented middle school in Kunming, a comparatively small city in southwest China whose educational resources simply cannot compare to those along China’s coast — being interviewed by people for articles that were then published online, giving a speech about my study methods and test-preparation tricks in front of 5,000 students, seeing my name at the top of a huge “ranking board,” and being the class president and the most popular student simply because of my grades. In this very test-oriented education system with little exposure to alternative educational philosophies and values like critical thinking, grades were said to determine one’s ability and future. I, a person with normal intelligence but good test-taking and memorizing ability, stood out because I ranked the first in my grade for three years and eventually ranked third among 70,000 students in the high school entrance exam. Everything went well, and everyone had such high expectations of me that I naively thought I would always be the most “successful” person, if success were defined as receiving recognition from the majority and fitting into the standards of society.
Deciding to study abroad for high school was a bold choice, but I was determined partly because my prior success convinced me that I could do anything I wanted, including effortlessly obtaining leadership skills and critical thinking ability. Unlike most students in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai who had been preparing from a young age to go abroad, I did not have foreign teachers to teach me English, I was barely involved in extracurricular activities, I did not personally know anyone who had studied abroad for high school, and my parents (who lacked college degrees and could not speak English) knew almost nothing about these topics. But I was still excited about the new adventure.
Things didn't go as I expected. With poor social and English skills, and no understanding of American educational philosophy, I struggled at my new school. I did not know how to effectively jump in during class discussions, I did not know how to make friends with classmates, and I had to spend three times the normal time finishing reading assignments for humanities classes. After reaching out to everyone around me for help, taking extensive notes for class discussions, signing up for Model UN and Mock Trial, and challenging myself by doubling my humanities course load in my junior year (dropping math and physics, which I could easily self-study), I was no longer an outsider at school. I was elected president of a few clubs, and I qualified for classes like AP U.S. History and AP English Literature, writing essays that my teacher found impressive. This process was much more painful and difficult than it seemed, but the process of describing in detail the process of overcoming difficulties and becoming a “better” person would be cliche. I would rather emphasize how this experience influenced me.
As I experienced a completely new world with rules and norms contradicting my previous education, I did not automatically accept these new rules, partly because in this world, I was no longer the privileged one. The conflicting views I experienced led me to question both Chinese and American ideologies. Although I became more motivated and could endure hardship because of my experience in China, I realized how I always unconsciously obeyed society’s rules and norms. When I started to treat American ideology as my new “authority,” I started to see limits in educational opportunity, social mobility, racial equality, etc. I also realized that in the past, my mind was full of what I perceived to be the world’s objective rules, when they were actually subjective. In any case, they were not my own. Now, as I am questioning almost every aspect of my life and examining the roots of my thoughts, what is left in my mind is a system that I built up myself, in which conflicts, doubts, questions, and everything else are mostly derived from my original thoughts.
If life is a game, then privileged people, such as students with enough resources and a player’s guide to complete a mission, could easily follow the guidance and succeed. I am also extremely lucky (it is easy to forget my privilege when I am surrounded by other international students, especially from China), but in a different way: I have enough resources to meet the condition of the mission, but lack a player’s guide. I might need to spend more time figuring out how to complete the mission, but because of that, I also got the opportunity to explore the hidden areas of the game that many people would ignore. I had nothing to follow, so I had to invent my own ways to finish the mission. Most importantly, because of my unique experience and perspective, I can think critically about every aspect of the game. For example, is the distribution of resources fair? What is the most important mission to complete to win the game? Does the game have a point? Now, I actually do not want to be the best game player; instead, I want to be the game designer to focus on confronting inequality in education and finding innovative and creative ways to redesign education in the digital age.