Friday 20 June 2003, A level Year 1, Surrey, England

Being born at the second half of June could be either a blessing or a curse, depends on where one lives. I always felt having that kind of birthday was mainly a disadvantage for me while I was in China. There were no birthday parties or any other parities for that matter. So those born during school holidays had nothing to miss. In fact, the word “party” was almost exclusively associated with the Chinese Communist Party—all the other parties were either banned or under the leadership of this one party anyway. It took some time for me to associate the word with something fun.

Party, there was none; but exams, there were plenty. As the end of term was early July, my birthday present from my parents normally included some good luck wishes for the upcoming exams. Such wishes had the disadvantage of being very intangible and therefore very hard to show off. But its main problem was it just didn’t come true that often. Otherwise, I would have happily accepted them despite the other inconveniences.

England was quite an improvement. The dates of the exams were only slightly earlier. But having the exam before one’s birthday instead of afterwards made all the difference in the world. Birthday became worthwhile to celebrate again. The whole school was on a holiday spirit anyway and everyone was still around. It was harder to find a better time for celebrations.

Beside the dates, the format of the A-level exams itself was also very helpful. Exams in China tended to cover the whole syllabus during the relevant school period—typically three years during both middle school and high school. The amount of material needed to be memorized across all the subjects itself was a huge challenge. It was often joked that one’s knowledge peaked at the day of her high school graduation exam and would never reach it again during one’s life. That was probably right.

A level went into the other direction, breaking the syllabus into small modules. Exams were conducted one module at a time, eliminating most of the memorization problem. Retakes were also allowed if the result from the first attempts were not satisfactory. It was hard to be more considerate than that!

But sometimes, such consideration could lead to some quite amusing moments. Half an hour into the physics paper today, Michael stood up and headed for the door. Michael was one of the cleverest students in the school. He studied one day per subject every year and that was the day before the final exam. He would ask someone to go through the syllabus with him and that would be all he needed. During the rest of the year, he spent most of his time making the school proud. He played for almost all the school sports team and captaining half of them.

The exam supervisor asked him, “Michael, are you going to use the toilet?”

To which Michael answered, “No, Sir, there is a golf match today. The bus is leaving, so I have to go.”

“Have you finished your exam though? There is still an hour to go.”

“Don’t worry, Sir, I will be fine. Otherwise, I can always retake it next year.”

Me, our Physics teacher Bob and Michael.