SCHOOL'S out in Taiwan as the countdown to the Year of The Tiger begins. But it’s exam season for pre-university students, who are about to take the exams that could decide if their futures will burn bright like a tiger.
Taiwan, which often claims to be more Chinese than anywhere else — despite voices advocating a separate Taiwan identity — loves exams. This is a legacy from the Mandarin system of imperial China, which selected scholars using nation exams.
A few days ago, the post office announced it was hiring postmen, a job made considerably more sexy after a hit movie, Cape No 7, featured a postman as its romantic lead.
Now, to be a postman, one has to pass exams too, and some schools offer courses on how to be a postman, as I found out when I was handed a flyer the other day.
Exams are also de rigeur if you want to be a civil servant, a train captain or a telco engineer. Apparently, workers hired to record parking offences also need to pass a test — so that they know their ABCs when writing down the licence plate numbers.
Exams preoccupy the minds of so many in Taiwan that the broadsheets here actually publish the university entrance exam papers days later, dissecting puzzles and trends alike.
They also issue a list of correct answers, saving parents and students the cost of buying those dreaded 10-Year Series.
This year, driftwood made the headlines after a Chinese Language exam paper asked students to write an essay titled, "Driftwood's Soliloquy".
Before you think, thank goodness the examiners didn't ask them to ruminate on being deadwood, here's food for thought: driftwood is actually a very topical issue.
Large amounts of driftwood and assorted debris were flushed down the mountains by the deadly Typhoon Morakot which hit Taiwan last August, causing damage.
And while some may see driftwood as rubbish, many artists love these logs, carving sculptures out of them. In Taitung, southern Taiwan, the authorities invited artists to turn driftwood into art pieces at an art festival last year.
Apart from driftwood, popular Shanghai-born writer Eileen Chang also made it as a topic in one exam paper, with students being tested on an excerpt from her short story, Red Rose White Rose. Alongside Chang, three of the "Simei" — or the Four Chinese classical beauties, Xishi, Wang Zhaojun and Yang Guifei — also appeared in a paper, in a poem which students were tested on.
This is also the time of the year when parents write to the papers, expressing angst about the pressures of the school system and the over-emphasis on exams.
While there are many universities in Taiwan these days (more than 160 for a population of 23 million) — enough for everyone to get a place — the race is still on to see who can get into the top universities.
With the stakes so high, exams don't look like they are going to drift in importance any time soon.