Saying the “Wrong Thing” in China
Times when the envelope can be pushed, and times when it’s best to leave things alone.
Moving here, I knew there’d be some restrictions around what I should and shouldn’t say once I’d arrived and started working.
I’m use to exercising a level of filtration regarding my speech when it comes to being in a classroom setting. I’ve already become use to switching off my cuss words and inappropriate humour around teenagers.
But it took a whole new level of discipline to turn off the side of my brain that blurts out political feelings and observations.
Only one week into being here I asked my supervisor why Mao was being praised as a hero in the kindergarten class I had attended during a week of what was meant to be “silent observation”.
I casually blurted out that the man who was responsible for perhaps more deaths than anyone in history was maybe not the topic I’d be choosing for a class of 5 year olds.
Given the circumstance, I think she managed her reaction quite well.
She reached up and grabbed hold of my forearm tightly, she then leaned close and whispered the following words softly yet sternly into my ear.
“We are in China and we are Chinese. Mao was a great man, and this is the last time we will talk about this.”
She let go of my arm and walked away, her finger impressions in my arm slowly fading as I realised what had just happened.
“Was I nearly fired?” I wondered to myself.
my boss later confirmed.
She was horrified when I told her what had happened.
She told me that teachers have been fired for saying less, and that if I was interested in staying long-term it was in my best interest to get a handle on my mouth.
It’s been two years since then and through trial and error I’ve learned a lot of what’s ok, and what’s not ok.
Telling students it’s alright to choose not to go to university – Ok
China is still a country that deeply values the importance of higher education, and parents will go to any length and spare no expense to see their child well educated.
A feeling that is not shared by my countrymen in New Zealand, a country where my university lecturing friends are laid off by the second.
Education here in China is serious, and students study 7 days a week to ensure the best possible results.
I mostly teach drama (a luxury subject). So when exam time rolls around, a lot of my schools cancel my classes so that the students will have more time to study for real subjects. I’d be offended, but I get to stay home and get paid so I put up with it.
I also teach business, investment and entrepreneurship; and as part of that course I teach that it’s ok to pursue a non-university path.
I make sure to include examples of successful Chinese millionaires who did poorly in school yet found success, and it seems to work.
While no-one is putting up resistance, I somewhat think that their acceptance of what I’m saying is partially because they’re mentally checking out during these parts of the class.
“This part isn’t for me, imma sleep for a hot minute.”
Referring to either Hong Kong or Taiwan as countries or seperate to China in any way – not ok.
The feeling in China among even my younger students is that both Taiwan and Hong Kong are as Chinese as Shanghai.
This awkwardness doesn’t come up often, mostly because I’m not a politics teacher (thank god). The real reason it comes up at all is because of games.
I like to play a game where I have two students sit on chairs facing each other. I give them a subject (fruit for example). They then need to take turns saying a word in that subject. (Apple, pear, orange etc).
The first student who is stumped and can’t think of a word for three seconds loses.
This game is the most likely one to turn awkward because once subjects start to become harder to think of, I’ll include more difficult ones including ‘Presidents of the World.’
During one class a student had earned a “phone the teacher” privilege for use in bailing himself out of losing one time.
He used it during the presidential round, so I gave him a free name of a president. I named the president of Taiwan – Tsai Ing-wen.
The room fell silent for only a second, a second that was followed by the sudden roar of students screaming her ineligibility and that the offending student should be thrown out of the game for even the suggestion (a suggestion I posed).
The feeling wasn’t just that the students felt that the answer was wrong, it was a feeling of offence. I had offended them, a feeling I worsened by standing my ground and saying that she was indeed a legitimate president.
The student who I helped voluntarily forfeited.
The situation was awkward.
That was the last time we did presidents.
Chinese Government – Ok, until it’s not.
During my investment class we learn about bonds, a lesson that must include Governments and their stability.
I told the class I’m teaching this week that Chinese Government issued bonds are probably a really safe bet because of the stability of the Government.
I said that there have only been a few upsets in the last 150 years including the unrest in 1911.
But I was really only mentioning it to try and say that Government collapses have happened fairly infrequently in China in the past 150 years.
It was meant as a compliment.
Students around the room looked a mix of worried and concerned. It was clear that they felt they had no idea how to respond.
I know that people in China are free, they’re not slaves of their Government. But there is definitely a restriction on free speech, and whether or not there are implicit consequences, there is definitely a strong feeling of consequence.
The students looked really uncomfortable, a look on their faces that read anxiety. They perhaps felt that there was no wise reply to my statement, that there was no way of avoiding stepping over the line.
So I helped them out. I said that China today is strong, that the Government has big plans and that bonds are always a strong bet as an investment.
This relaxed their faces and they immediately swivelled the conversation by asking about buying bonds issued by other governments overseas.
I usually expect the swivel to happen more often than it does, but it’s quite rare.
I always thought that if I started an “incorrect” conversation I’d be redirected naturally to something that was permitted.
But instead I’m usually greeted by either stunned anxiety by people that don’t feel like they can call me out, blind anger or a stern reprimand.
Friends usually just become agitated if I cross the line, then I spend the rest of the day nursing their mood back to health. People above me will give me a quiet reprimand (like the one I mentioned earlier), and anyone under me (such as students) meet my words with anxiety, rage or silence.
I know that I’m in the wrong by making people uncomfortable within their own country. I’m the guest here, and it’s not my place to question other peoples lives and beliefs.
But I do think we should be able to just talk, as long as it’s respectful and without strong emotion we should be able to discuss things.
I personally think my friends should be able to dig into the political woes of their country without getting mad to the point of tears within minutes.
I for one am always happy to discuss the many political woes of Australia. Especially now.
I think high school students should have the freedom to ask questions, cast doubt and wonder why things are the way they are.
But for the moment this is the world we live in, and this is the China we have.
As a coworker of mine usually says with love –
“get in line or get out.”
I don’t plan on getting out, but I’ve never been much good at getting in line.
Just so long as my value as a teacher outweighs my big mouth, I think I’ll be fine.
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