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​We the Meritocracy

By Elizabeth Y. Sun, Crimson Staff Writer

It was the sound of a million papers falling—

My parents had just moved the cabinet in the computer room for the first time in years. I sat a literal breath behind them, my chair back a thin wall. Still focused on my unfinished college application essay, the leafy shattering hit with the force of a cloud.

“What the—” I heard my parents puzzle in Chinese. Part of me could imagine them standing ankle deep in the papers, clueless. The vividness triggered sudden urgency. And turning my neck as nonchalantly as possible, I looked back on the scene I imagined. Yellowing worksheets of childish pencil and red pen everywhere. My biggest secret.

My dad bent down and picked up a paper. “Oh my god, where did all of this come from! Does this house have a ghost?” Even in this moment, he found it easier to take a supernatural explanation. Not liking this somewhat creepy direction of thought, I staged a dramatic moment of realization, pretending to have forgotten all about the worksheets of Cs and Ds from as recent as 8th grade. Still in shock, my parents slowly comprehended the broken scheme, laughing with belated bemusement.

* * *

“Juku?” This was my third time repeating the reason my host mom couldn’t let me into the house on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. “Ano, Jugyou?” Class. They had class after school? Judo?

Finally google translate came out. When I saw the words “cram school,” I had to fight to hide my surprise. I’ve always known vaguely about the “test prep factories” in China, and South Korea’s amusing need to enforce a curfew for studying was a vivid read. My conversation with my host mom made things a little too real, however. My host siblings are only six and eight. On top of their regular elementary school day, which requires a backpack heavier than mine, it seems almost ridiculous that they have the energy to attend two hour juku classes twice a week, piano lessons, swimming lessons, and finish all the outside work in between.

Of course, they also watched cartoons, made random crafts, and visited friends. But my time home was often defined by their protests. The younger one would turn into a glaring zombie, taking almost two hours to eat her dinner. The older one would wait until my host dad returned too to cry about how frustrating the Bach Invention was. In between all the my-god-please-learn-how-to-suck-it-up fits, there were more than enough moments where I couldn’t help thinking bitterly that the expectations being put onto them were unreasonably high.

In some kind of subtle way, I tried to explain to my host mom that yes, I studied hard to get good test scores, and yes, I did more extracurriculars than I really should have. But none of that started before 9th grade. Fourth grade was the age of Harry Potter and middle school was the absolute boredom of two hour walks every single summer day.

She listened to this life story with the same level of emotion as she did for anything else—punctuating the narratives with exclamations of "sugoi" and somewhat admiring "eeehhs." That was all. None of it seemed remotely relevant to the lives of her two daughters. There was no “maybe they should spend more time playing” or “perhaps age six is too early for cram school.” And the next day they were sent once again to lesson after lesson, markers of a path of life that was so extraordinarily commonplace.

Since those conversations, almost two months have passed. By now the hectic schedule of my host siblings seems natural, and the relative quiet of their dampened energy is somewhat helpful for letting me focus on my own readings. When I came home the other day, I was almost bewildered from not hearing the sound of Bach.

Three screaming kids ran up to me—a friend that I had seen before had come to play. With barely enough time to throw my bags in my room, I was pulled into the living room, where the friend’s mother took my disheveledness by surprise. Apologizing and introducing myself at the same time, I answered the requisite questions and recounted the final exam I had just finished. “Sugoi!” the friend’s mother commented. “In Japan, we don’t usually have three hour tests.” As my host mom replied with more comments about my study habits, the woman’s quick eyes paused for a moment on the heated game of Life the three kids were battling. And with a slightly envious smile she asked: “But in America, you don’t have to study in Elementary school, right?”

Elizabeth Y. Sun '19, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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