When I first started studying for this stupid test the teacher taught us a story. The Tang poet Li Bai was a lazy child, she said, always skipping off school. One day, he came across an old woman grinding away at an iron rod. She told him she was making a needle, and that with enough hard work, you could make a needle out of anything. I sniggered with the rest of the boys—come on, she was grinding away at an iron rod—but it got me thinking. I mean, I’m something of an iron rod myself.
That was three years ago. The seasons rolled quicker than I could expect, night after night of bleary smog and studying into the small hours, until they landed me here: at this desk, with this pen, and the examiner in front of me saying “Turn over your papers now.” It wasn’t long enough. I have one of those brains that just soaks up knowledge, I have nerves of literal steel, but it wasn’t long enough. I don’t feel ready. I was talking to Xiao Wang and Chubby and they say it’s normal, that the gaokao freaks everyone out, that all I need to do is breathe.
I pick up my pen. Lines of orderly characters flow past my fingertips, and everything but the fear falls away. This is what I was made for: this is what will define who I am. The years cramming, the time with my friends, all those hours leafing through textbooks in bad cafés drinking worse coffee and looking at girls—in two days they will be gone, swept away in the blink of an eye. All that will remain is my score. A, B, D, A, I write. The iron gives birth to a needle. The needle gives birth to a door.
I come home that night spent and shaking, my hands aching against all reason. Ma is cooking fried rice in the kitchen; Ba is glued to the CCTV news. I drop my schoolbag, walk into our room. He’s sitting at the computer, emailing some new friend of his overseas. He looks up, his face a brave question. How’d it go? Fine, I say. It went fine. He smiles. Thanks, he says. Don’t mention it, I say, lying down on my narrow bed and shutting my eyes.
And he shouldn’t. After all, they bought me to do a job. I look like him, I talk like him. I know his handwriting. But while I wasted three years on rote learning, on the soporific challenge of the high school system, he went out into the world and became a man. He’ll be going to Tsinghua now, while this needle turns back into an iron rod and waits, perhaps, for his son. I have dreams, of course. Maybe someday an old woman will come and grind on me, too. But I’m not counting on it. That’s not what robots are for.