The year is 2012. It was Sunday evening, and the subways were nearly empty. Fifteen year old me dragged my suitcase onto the line 10 train and plopped down in a seat, moving my backpack to my lap. This was a familiar trip. I was going to school.
Most high schools in Shanghai are boarding schools, where students spend weekends at home and live at school during the week. While primary and middle schools mostly recruit from the surrounding area, high schools recruit from all over the city. For me, the trip to High School Affiliated to Fudan University was a ten minute bus ride followed by an hour and a half subway ride, then a five minute walk to campus. For students who lived as far away as Shanghai’s Chongming District, the commute could take up to three hours.
I used the time to check social media. My classmates were complaining about homework, talking about their relationship problems, sharing their favorite music. I thought about the boys in my class. I wanted to try dating. It sounded like fun. Dating before the age of eighteen was still a bit of a taboo, seen as a distraction from one’s studies, but that didn’t stop anyone. My friends had offered to play matchmaker for me — perhaps I should take them up on that offer.
But after the math test this week. I was struggling hard in math. As much as I refused to admit to myself, the transition from middle school to one of the most elite high schools in the city was rough on me. I was not a “xue ba” (champion of studying), but I wasn’t quite a “xue zha” (trash at studying) either. I excelled in English and chemistry, but could barely keep my head above water in math and physics.
If I did well, I would reward myself with a nice dinner at one of the local restaurants by the school, and a big cup of milk tea with tapioca and pudding — my favorite, seven RMB a cup in 2012. Maybe noodles, or sushi. There were plenty of options — small businesses flourished in the vicinity of high schools, teeming with students happy for alternatives to cafeteria food three meals a day. We swarmed them after major exams, celebrating and commiserating over some good Shanghai street food. Our laughter and chatter could be heard a block away.
The path from Guoquan Road station to school was a straight line. I could see other students far ahead, dragging their own suitcases. The dormitory area — where we were all headed — was across the street from the school proper.
I turned into the girls’ dorm. My room was on the first floor, all the way at the end of the hall. I roomed with four other girls whose last name started with the same letter as mine. We shared two bunk beds and four desks, side by side. The room was small, but we spent most of our time at school. Class ended at around 4 PM, and after dinner, we studied in our classrooms — an hour and a half of quiet study, followed by half an hour break, followed by another hour and a half of studying, before we returned to the dorms.
Two of my roommates were already there. One had her nose in an English textbook, the other was texting on her phone.
“Hey,” I said.
“How was your weekend?”
“Alright. Did some studying. Saw some friends from middle school.”
“That’s fun.” Seeing our old classmates was always a treat, after we all tested into different high schools across the city.
“We went to get hot pot. It was a good time.”
“Man, I want hot pot.”
“Did someone say hot pot?” One of my friends poked her head into our room. “We should all go after finals. We can take the subway down to Wujiaochang (a popular shopping area in the district).”
“Sounds good,” I said. “I’ll be there if math doesn’t kill me first.”
“Shush, you’ll be fine,” my other roommate piped up.
“You say that.”
I had a bad habit of being excessively self-deprecating. In the fierce competition of Shanghai high schools, I had a big case of imposter syndrome.
“I saw her hanging around one of the other rooms just now,” my friend said. “Watch out.”
Our homeroom teacher, the teacher responsible not just for educating us but also making sure we grew into good human beings, hung around the dorms at night, checking in on us. I pulled out my math book and rearranged my facial features to look as respectable and hardworking as possible.
And thus began another week of the high school grind. My friends and I were stressed about the same things as teenagers around the world — grades, relationships, college. Today we are spread all over the country and the world, but for those few, valuable years, we wrote a story of youth and hope, together.