Welcome to Short Essays by Feisworld! China National Essay Contest was a true story from when I was a high school student in China. My grandfather was wicked cheap. Sorry grandpa.
“The unfortunate thing Fei, is that you are a mediocre writer,” my Chinese teacher Ms. Qi said with disappointment, “But you have an interesting life and good stories to tell. I wish Wendy had those stories to write about. She’s such a good writer.”
I was 15 years old, a high school freshman. Wendy was my best friend. She regularly competed in China regional essay contests. She was an A+ student who went on to study at a prestigious college in Wuhan, then earned a PhD in the UK.
In China, a short essay is required at the end of every Chinese language exam. My essay grades were mediocre at best. In 1998, my school was offered 3 spots to submit student essays to the China National Essay Contest.
“We haven’t won anything in a few years,” Ms. Qi told me, “So I strategized with headmaster Wang to enter you as the wildcard.”
Two weeks later, I was called into Qi’s office. “Ok, you are not going to believe this, but you were accepted into the semi-final round of the National Contest.”
“What about Wendy?” I asked.
“Luck was not on her side this year. Please don’t make us look bad, Fei. Here’s the invitation to the contest.” Qi passed me a wrinkled paper with my name, a time and a location on it.
I was puzzled. In China, you send in your contest entry and that’s it. You win or you lose. I’d never experienced a second round. Ms. Qi noticed my confused look.
“You’re on your own.” Qi smiled, “The semi-final is an added, in-person contest to measure contestants’ real writing ability. The committee wants to make sure the students can actually write on their own, under pressure.”
On the day of the semi-final contest, I walked into an unfamiliar high school’s classroom. The room was filled with energetic contestants. Some carried dictionaries and were learning new vocabulary on the spot, surrounded by Tiger Moms and Dads. Some of the kids looked like they were praying. Winning this competition meant winning a golden ticket to a prestigious college.
I was walking among killers.
The bell rang. The competition began.
The judge strolled in and kicked all the parents out. Then she started making awkward eye contact with each student, one at a time. We all tried to figure out her Secret Plan.
She took out a stack of blue exam notebooks.
“Blank notebooks! Yes, this is where you’ll be constructing your essay in the next 2.5 hours.” Then she wrote down the topic.
Everyone started outlining, writing aggressively.
I had to quiet my mind first. I looked outside the room, to calm my mind…the sky and the… parents’ faces pressed up against the windows?!
Some parents were actively gesticulating at their kids. The judge started screaming at them from inside the room. No contestant blinked. Professional killers.
I finished early and quickly proofread my essay.
One week after the semi-final, Ms. Qi interrupted a math class to catch me in person. “My goodness Fei, you did well! They want you for the final contest.”
It didn’t end there. What I had to do was more much complicated and demanding this time: a two-month Intensive Summer Writing Camp. A commitment I’d much rather not have.
After a discussion with the school officials and my parents, I bit my lip and signed up for the camp.
This is when grandpa gets involved.
Grandpa was so proud that he volunteered to bring me to the camp every day. It was an-hour-and-a-half train ride from home in Summer. To ease my commute, my mom decided to fund my travel with taxi money and lunch money.
Grandpa had a different idea. He always thought of me as spoiled and decided to teach me a lesson.
He made me sit on his 1970s bike and ride for over two hours, with several near-death experiences.
Instead of spending the allotted funds on a taxi and take-out food, Grandpa decided to buy me one $.50 pork bun per day, take care of the transportation himself, and pocket the difference.
After a bunch of days where we made it just in time, we were late two days in a row.
The judge told me that I was disqualified because I showed no true commitment.
“Do you have any idea how many students would fight for your place?” she yelled at me.
When you get yelled at in China, you are not supposed to look at the other person in the eye, but stare shamefully at a spot on the floor in front of you.
I learned a few years later that in the US you should be doing the exact opposite to show respect.
The good news was that I had earned my summer back. I wrote a lot more – diaries, essays, and a series of detective stories.
By the time Fall rolled around, everyone at the school had forgotten this chapter.
I never entreed another writing contest. I left High School in China not knowing whether or not I could be a decent writer.
But I love writing, and I love telling stories.
So I created a platform called Feisworld, where I can share my stories and support others who want to share theirs.
Do you have a story to share?