The national college entrance exams have started again in China. This yearly ritual is one of the most important moments in the lives of Chinese students. Doing well during these few days can mean access to a top university and therefore a good job and career, temporarily underachieving means going to a lower ranked university (or not going to college at all) and therefore not being able to get a good job in later life. For this reason the GaoKao is hyped up in the media, and websites and newspapers all report about it today.
Not far from my office is a high school where parents were all waiting outside until their kids would come out for a break between exams. It was very crowded and police were making sure the traffic would not be disrupted, and that nobody would dare to blow the horn. The interesting thing was that all parents were all very quiet, afraid that their talking would disturb the kids inside. The parents mean well, but if I would be an exam-taking student it would probably freak me out.
In past years the Shanghai Daily used to run stories about hotels being fully booked by parents that wanted to ensure that their kids would get a good night’s sleep before the exams, so they would have an advantage over their classmates. But this year it seems parents have become even more desperate: the Shanghai Daily’s feature story about the exams reports about parents trying to buy drugs so that their only child would perform better during the exams!
The drug they are turning to is Ritalin, a so-called psychomotor stimulant that is normally used for children that are hyperactive. Parents assume this will help their children to perform better. The drug is not available over-the-counter, and parents tried in vain to get hold of the product at local hospitals. When that did not work they used other strategies, for example asking friends or colleagues with a hyperactive child to buy supplies for them. One mother took her son, who had already recovered from the disease, four times to the hospital to buy the medicine in order to resell it.
Of course also websites sell the product here, claiming that the drug is useful and not harmful at all. A quick internet search disagrees with this though: not only is it dangerous and addictive, but it also can cause fainting, a bad headache, insomnia and nervousness. Drugs.com warns not to take it if you are severely anxious or tense – symptons that are not unlikely to occur during exam time. Parents do not seem to care, however. One mother was quoted in the newspaper saying: “I don’t want to see my child lag behind others even though it is a bit risky. Getting a high score is the top priority.”