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Back to the grind for Chinese students

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If a disaster the magnitude of the quake that hit China's Sichuan province last month had taken place in the United States, (think 50 Hurricane Katrinas) you can bet that the nation would still be reeling, many public services would not yet have resumed, and certainly some schools would still be closed. But nearly a month after the devastating earthquake hit, millions of Chinese students, many of whom have lost homes or loved ones, are returning to normalcy as they sit for the most important exam of their lives.

Today and tomorrow, an estimated 11 million secondary school students will vie for 6 million Chinese university spots: tough odds that put students and their families on edge. Slate.com's Manuela Zonensein puts the exams in perspective this way:

It is China's SAT—if the SAT lasted two days, covered everything learned since kindergarten, and had the power to determine one's entire professional trajectory."

The pressure is so great that many children study up to 12 hours a day, parents and children report adverse effects on their health due to anxiety, and large numbers of family members flock to temples, praying to Buddha and Confucius for their child's success. When prayer doesn't seem to cut it, some students even have resorted to high-tech cheating schemes.

Life, of course, isn't completely back to normal yet. Students in the hardest-hit areas will have an extra month before they, too, must take the test of their lives. And as a safety precaution, bays of tents have been constructed outside testing centers in case a large aftershock should disrupt the students' uneasy calm.

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