Max has taught in southern Anhui, wrecked a bicycle in Angkor Wat, and been thrown from a horse in Mongolia. Max graduated from Yale University, where he studied Chinese.
At six a.m. one morning in late August 2006, my friend Wyatt and I stepped off a train onto a broad cement plaza in front of the Huangshan City train station in southern China. A driver received us, and his small black car wound down twenty minutes of road out to Xiuning Middle School, where we spent the next two years teaching.
The Xiuning area has developed in intervening years, but at that time the school sat in miles of farms stretching back to green mountains. Wyatt and I set to learn what we could about this place that had become our home. A fellow teacher guided us through the grounds. The school library stood nearby, and facing its doors a statue of two girls, one standing, the other seated. Each woman's hands clasped a book.
Our guide told us the young women were former students, one of whom now worked as an economist for the UN; the other was a scientist, I believe. Two women who won their way out of the country into the wider world.
That night, Wyatt and I bought beers from a small store across the street and sat on the library steps and toasted one another and the statues. We drank to them, and with them, wondering how they'd felt when their lives led them past strange horizons. We felt an echo of that experience ourselves: far beyond the forests and oceans of our childhoods.
Those statues were our companions through the next two years. We met those women again and again—or, versions of them, kids from villages two hours' walk from the nearest road, who saw their parents once or twice a semester because there wasn't time for them to travel home. Kids who sat through twelve hours of class a day, woke at six in the morning and bent themselves again to their books. Kids who saw in education their chance for a life beyond the fields.
They were right: the Chinese education system revolves around a single test, the Gao Kao, administered at the end of high school. A student with a high score on the Gao Kao gets into the program of her choice at the school of her choice; a student with a low score on the Gao Kao may not be admitted to any school at all. For poor students, the test is a battlefield, and a door to a wider world.
I grew up in a small town in Tennessee, and I'd thought back in high school that I knew ambition. In their dedication, in their determination, in their grit, some of these fifteen-year-olds outclassed the most serious scholars I'd ever known. They worked as if there was a gun to their heads. In a way there was.
Without those students, those statues, my first novel, Three Parts Dead, would have been a very different book. The main character, Tara, is a young woman like many of my students: a girl from a small country town, hungry for the world beyond. That world, though, is bigger than she expected, and more dangerous; the book's beginning finds her reeling, and wondering what she's got herself into.
Writing Tara, I thought back to that first night in Xiuning, the beer and the moon and the statues, and the weight of choices. I tried to capture that tension between ambition and intimidation, that sense of excitement in spite of enemies and challengers. I tried to write something worth those statues. I hope I succeeded.