Sunday, June 8, 2008


Watching the Detectives

My State-owned "foreign expert danwei" (work unit) apartment borders a large, affluent middle and high school, much like my Lucky Number flat did in Shenzhen. Monday-Saturday I'm usually awakened to the sounds of announcements, 1980s Jazzercise Lite calesthentics, the martial bombast of the Chinese national anthem (Mondays only, thankyoujeebus) and, if I'm looking down below with a can of cold "Mr Bond - I'm young ... I'm coffee!" from my ninth floor balcony, the sight of hundreds of students in blue and white track suit uniforms lined up in small-to-tall rows overseen by assorted teachers in street clothes.

I've watched them long enough to have picked out a few individuals - notably the miscreants or misfits, the slower fat kids, a few cliques who torment a nerd or two, and the ones who just listlessly go through half-hearted motions in the "naughty child" back rows as teachers circle making an equally half-hearted effort to correct them.

This weekend while C was visiting for the first time since I've arrived in Beijing, trained observer that I am, I saw that classes weren't appparently in session on Saturday. While returning with a load of groceries and passing the school I saw the entrance was blocked off with crime tape saying "Police" in English. Parents were gathered for about two blocks sitting on curbs and in chairs outside restaurants looking hot and stressed while chewing up thousands of sunflower seeds, swilling water and fanning themselves with advertising leaflets that had suddenly materialized thanks to pamphleteers taking advantage of the new concentration of humanity.

Cop cars blocked off the street for several blocks and from my balcony vantage point I noted another police vehicle in school grounds along with several other "official" looking autos and vans.

"Shit," I thought. "Someone's been killed." Thoughts of Columbine - on which I'd done some freelance reporting on in Colorado - came back, though no students here have access to even pellet guns, much less M16s. Most murders are knife or hatchet jobs, like the 7 people just killed in Tokyo, news of which was also on my CNN-Asia channel as I watched the school. My immediate response was to call someone at the paper to tip them off to mayhem in our backyard, but put it aside recalling how Chinese crimes usually aren't reported until the 'perp(s)are arrested, detained or sometimes until after they're executed.

With my imagination at full throttle, I awaited for C to return from an errand she'd also been running to see if we could hit the street to talk with some parents. About 5 minutes after she arrived, I looked out again and saw the children were all streaming out of the school, being greeted by what looked like very relieved parents.

"Look," I said. "They let the kids out. Cops must be done questioning them. Let's go down and see if anyone will tell us what happened."
She peered down and didn't reply for a minute.
"What is the date?" she finally asked.
"June 8," I replied. "Why?"
"There is no murder," she said, smiling a little at my ignorance. "It is the national college test day."

Oh. Yeah. Never mind. "Black June" is how a Chinese colleague in Shenzhen once described the annual nationwide test - a sort of mega Sino SAT that asks you everything you learned from K-12 and for which kids are primed beginning early in this rote education system. It often determines an entire future career and social path and the pressure to excell is enormous - so much so that the suicide rate reportedly skyrockets in China among students during this period.

"But why the police cars? Why do they block off the street?" I asked C.
"To preserve order," she said as she was explaining to a Certified Moron why it wasn't a good idea to stick your hand into a working blow torch.
"What? Why? Who is going to raise hell at an SAT test?"
"I don't know," she said. "It is always how it is done. Like with our teachers, we do not ask why."
Photo from AP Photo by Elizabeth Dalziel

5 comments:

Matthew said...

And to think I used to be worried about taking the SATs... twice.

poetlori8 said...

Hello.

I'm sorry that your father died in March. I liked the comments that you wrote about your grandmother Maxine (my great-aunt Maxine) in the MVP family reunion booklet for June 2000. When my father lived in Illinois, he would drive our family to South Elgin to the Ross house whenever Aunt Maxine visited in the 1960s and 1970s. My brother Louis is about the same age as Tommy Ross, wherever Tommy may be.

I hope that you are OK. Your father wrote well and distinctively in his letters.

I'm not sure if people who attended college on the GI Bill in the 1940s had to take the SAT or ACT. I hope that children in the village are able to get through the test and do not feel driven to attempt suicide.

G. Wardin Coppock
San Diego, California

average_guy26/2yahoo.com said...

Hi cousin,
What a nice surprise! Maxine was the keeper of all the kinship connections and I'm ashamed to say my sister and I dozed off too often when she would start explaining who was related to who three times removed etc.
Your explanation was much easier, though. Email me so we can communicate more easily.
How did you find my blog? Through the Vernatti-Pickett network or the Starkeys in Denver?
I'm at average_guy26 at yahoo dot com.
Thanks again for checking in and your kind comments.
-Justin

Special Brew Man said...

yea the morning exercises - and a shrill voice yelling commands over a megaphone.

ever try a can of 'Mr. Brown' coffee?

Patrick said...

One of the schools I worked at would play a verrrrry vanilla muzak version of "El Condor Pasa (If I could)" EVERY SINGLE morning. I'd pull a hatchet job, if I could.

I know what a huge gigantic suck-tastic deal those college entrance exams are -- but never knew they call out the fuzz for security. Intriguing!