Informant: “One little thing that me and my friends used to do, like before every exam—and in China, every class stayed with the same students, so we all had the same tests at the same time—and what we would do was buy these ridiculous, feathery pens that were really brightly colored and had these puffy, feathery tops and ribbons, and we used them on our tests for good luck.
Our teacher would obviously look at us like we were weird, ‘cause our whole class had the crazy pens, but they made us feel like safe, and they were a good luck charm.”
Me: “How long did you do this for?”
Informant: “Um, in middle school we did it, so for like three years there, and then we stopped our first year of high school ‘cause then we outgrew them, I guess.”
Me: “Do you still wish you did it?”
Informant: “Um, I don’t know. It was our kind of rebellion I suppose, because we had to use blue or black ink on our tests, so we wrote in blue or black ink with feathers the most obnoxious pens ever. In China, like there were a lot of thrift stores that sold them, so we’d go there before every class to get them.”
Me: “Did you get a new one for every test?”
Informant: “Yes. They didn’t last very long, but they were cheap so it was like, whatever.”
It is clear why this silly pen tradition was important to my informant. They provided solidarity, a quiet way to rebel against school and authorities, an opportunity to keep secrets from adults, and perhaps most importantly, a way to simply have a laugh on an otherwise stressful occasion. While the students may have honestly believed that the fluffy, feathery pens bought them good luck on their exams, I think they continued this tradition for three or so years mainly because it did bring them together as a class. In my personal experience of test-taking, there is always a sense of jovial camaraderie within the class if everyone is doubting themselves or if everyone is worried over a particular question. This isn’t exactly a positive thing, and yet there is comfort in knowing that everyone else is in the same situation. The pens would serve as a physical reminder to the students that they are joined together against the institution, especially as they go on outings to buy the pens with their own money and then use them ostentatiously in class. There is even the added glee that the students were committing an act that wasn’t entirely within the school rules. They were following directions, but bending them slightly, and in such a manner that they couldn’t actually get in trouble.
It would be doubtful that anyone would abstain from using the silly pens, even if it was ridiculous or uncomfortable to write with them, simply because no young student would want to be left out. After all, I’d imagine they would provide an abundance of fond memories and laughter.