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Thoughts on leaving college

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It's graduation time, and more than four million college students are about to embark on a new phase of life. Some will find jobs, though there are 22% fewer vacant positions compared to last year. Others will go on to grad-school, postponing the job search a few more years.

Still others have no idea what they'll do. A guest column in last week's Sanlian Life Week captures the conflicted feelings of graduates as they go out into the world. It's written by Xiao He, a senior graduating from a teacher's college in Guilin, but it could just as easily have been written by a student in Beijing or Shanghai.

Days of Being X

by Xiao He

Yesterday, the school sent down a notice - "The entire 2006 graduating class must complete exit paperwork and leave the school by 4 July."

Like a sudden verdict, each word of this news stabbed at my ears. Hearing it, it was not longer like those other notices coming over the loudspeaker, to be ignored if you pleased. It was a rude administrative command, bluntly telling us, "You're graduated, you may leave." Between the lines, though, it was saying, "You must leave!" I'm not walking through the gates of the school - I'm being kicked out. A sense of shame at being discarded rose within me. Having graduated, of course we'll leave - we can't just hang around, can we? Perhaps to students who have found jobs, it does not matter either way, but what of the 70% of students who have not found or decided on a job? It's like we're being pushed out of the incubator in a stupor, pushed out into some unknown, intermediate void, and the storm's about to break.

From the previous term up until now, most of us have finished our last year of conscientious study without noticing it, or perhaps there's never been a single day that we've studied conscientiously; all kinds of job ads fluttering about like money, lifting our spirits and disheartening us at turns. Classrooms that seat more than one hundred frequently have just a dozen students scattered throughout the seats, and as for listeners, well, no one will admit that they're listening. Absent students aren't really answering job offers; they're very likely still sleeping, since staying up till the wee hours going online or playing cards is a required course for seniors. Students coming back from job interviews violently throw open the door, and angrily blurt out, "Piddly companies even require technical school credentials or higher, and their recruiters probably haven't even graduated from elementary school." Then people would quiet down if they had to, and slink out of the way if they couldn't handle it. Providing comfort means pointing out others' faults and exposing your own shortcomings. Those taking grad exams didn't need to sign in, and from dawn till dusk they'd throw themselves into library or tutoring sessions. A grad exam lecture by famous scholar ***** would always get them excited; even though in the end most of them could not escape getting scrambled up, they still were still striving, being enriched, with no regrets - like returning to the time of college entrance exams. The school's understanding towards absences was not just because they had no choice; it had already become an understood, undeclared convention. Employment rates and exam passing rates were the most effective way to show off the fruits of education. And at any rate, the number of college graduates in recent years has grown by hundreds of thousands to millions - who doesn't have the jitters? This year the data was dramatically ironic: graduating student numbers were up 22%, while personnel requirements were down 22%.

It is in this both urgent and lackadaisical environment that I spent my fourth year in college, thinking extensively while doing practically nothing. Like other students, I turned my attention to job ads. I madly registered on good and bad websites, never missing an interview opportunity but never harboring any expectations, until in the end, in despair I issued a verdict on all of the recruiting companies: they were just putting out advertisements. My roommates did not disagree. So we paid no more attention to the city's or the school's job fairs; besides, since our school is a teacher's college and economics isn't a teaching major, the employment rate of the previous two classes was 40%. Businesses are not plentiful in Guilin, and the market is small, so we did not have too many opportunities for growth. Many classmates became depressed and did not know what to do. They all said they would wait till the end of June when they got their certificates, and then go to Shenzhen or the Yangtze Delta. Some people even swore they would go to Beijing or Shanghai, but this was just a vague idea - no one had a detailed idea of what they would do in the future.

The school would sometimes get its act together to hold a few career guidance meetings - things like the need for a correct attitude, a clear understanding of circumstances, getting a job after selecting a career.....all of this stuff may be enticing to sophomores and juniors, but for us, the speakers spouting pablum about things they knew nothing about. I began to regret my reasons for not taking the grad exam, and I tested for several certificates. My classmates began to apply for the civil service exam, corporate law, CPA, English Band 8, Microsoft Office....two months ago I couldn't understand their bustling about, but a few days ago I paid a 200-yuan application fee and bought 400 yuan worth of textbooks and practice questions. Now, like before the college entrance exams, I run between the classroom buildings and the dormitory, leaving early and returning late, with a large pile of books like bricks, several pieces of bread, and a bottle of water. Now I've finally become aware of all of the training ads that cover the grassy areas on campus. I halt and take in these "Golden Certificates" with no hint of boredom.

It's been over a month since I've called home. I'm afraid that they'll bring up the work situation - apart from anxiety, they don't know anything. They have no contacts, out there with those few vats of grain and that one acre, working all year on vegetables. In ten years, we three siblings have lived by their side like vampires, sucking milk, sucking blood, and now all they have left are a few loose bones which may fall apart at any time. At Spring Festival this year I went back. They are quickly growing old, and after a few more steps they'll breathe their last - it was the first time I felt that I ought to do something immediately. The year I went off to college, they arranged a few tables for a banquet and invited friends and neighbors. They bustled about with vigor, smiles on their faces, like Aunt Xianglin [in Lu Xun's New Year Sacrifice]....I thought that it wouldn't be hard to find an ideal job, but now I'm close to having no place to call home. Four months are almost up, and I still cannot take any of that load off their shoulders.

My younger sister sometimes calls me from Shenzhen, asking me about my plans after graduation. But what can I say? The world outside is so far off and unfamiliar that I don't know what to do. I'm afraid that out there it may even be difficult to breathe. My sister tells me, "Take it easy, don't be naïve, if you really can't hack it then come here." Her voice betrays resignation, and brings me to tears. My sister was a student at a tech high-school, and does unskilled work over there. She's been out for a few years; the money she saved was not enough to spend. She knows the iron laws of life, but there's nothing she can do. I do my best to comfort her, and to comfort myself.

With my girlfriend, I'm not sure when this feeling of "one day apart is like three years" will ever lessen. Faint worries have started to bore their way into my head, like termites in a dike, taking one small bite after another. We're used to not seeing each other for long periods of time, and we try to avoid each other's phone calls. We want to meet, but when we meet, we regret it. We no longer feel each other's conversation is interesting, and a few inarticulate words are enough to bring on boredom. I finally share with her my thoughts of going elsewhere. She's silent, and finally says that she wants to take the grad exam. We've finally realized that many things are uncertain.

Looking back at the school gate through which I've passed in and out every day, nothing much has changed from four years ago - just my appearance and state of mind. I've heard that the school is currently considering renovations, to be better suited to the requirements of development. I've realized that it will be ever more beautiful and splendid, and the lower level classmates who have just arrived will be even more proud, but I'm about to leave. I've cheaply gotten rid of everything I can't take; I should already be exhausted - my dreams of four years ago are laid down here, and I'll never have the strength to take them up again. My years have passed just like that, with no time to identify them. Like the "X" we learned in middle school, unknown, indescribable.

小河:X样年华,原载《三联生活周刊》,2006年第22期。
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There are currently 2 Comments for Thoughts on leaving college.

Comments on Thoughts on leaving college

Young Person,

There are no words of wisdom I have that will make you feel better about the situation. I do empathize, and will continue to do everything I can to help China and it's people.
Warm Regards,

HOHO, it's partly ture but not for every graduate student in china.

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