High Hopes

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Xiaowei had mastered those tricky English irregular verbs, perfected a convincing American drawl and could rattle off the 10 biggest U.S. cities by heart. So when the wannabe diplomat applied to a top Beijing foreign languages university, she couldn't believe it when a rejection letter followed. The reason? At a petite 1.53 m, Xiaowei was told she wasn't tall enough to qualify for the English department. "They told me that Chinese diplomats have to be tall," says Xiaowei, "because foreigners are tall and we don't want to look too short next to them."

Still determined, Xiaowei visited a...