Today was hard… probably one of the most upsetting days in my nine months of working as a college counselor.
Today I read two extremely offensive essays from my students back-to-back.
For those of you who didn’t already know, I work as a college counselor in Beijing, and my job is to help Chinese high school students apply to American colleges. I start working with students in 10th grade (their first year of high school) up until the day they leave for America.
Most of my students belong to an international curriculum program at a prestigious high school in Beijing. They’re studying either an A-level, AP or IB classes in English, and are preparing for the ACT, SAT and TOEFL exams.
Basically… my students are good at English.
Most of My Students Are Great
Let me preface by saying most of my students are wonderful. There are a few who are lazy, but the majority are extremely hard-working, open-minded and compassionate. I love working with my students and will be so sad to leave them when I eventually move on in another year or so.
However, China is definitely not as “PC” as America, and I’ve been consistently encountering a few extremely problematic opinions from students who have been influenced by Chinese society.
It can be really tough to tell kids their beliefs are “wrong”. How do you know when it’s appropriate to tell a student that a commonly held belief is offensive? How do you say it without making the student feel bad? I’ve been struggling with this in China for a long time, especially now that I have a position of authority.
While I’m going to talk about two very problematic essays today, please do not attribute these views to all of my students or all Chinese people. These beliefs exist all over the world, including my home- the USA.
Student Opinion Essays
First, let me preface by explaining where I hear all of these ideas. My company has created an assignment that involves reading an article and responding to a question. The students get a choice of three articles to choose from and must write a written response that is edited and scored by either me or my other American colleague.
This assignment has been extremely eye-opening and I love hearing my student’s opinions. I usually purposely ask pretty controversial questions just to see what students will say.
Well… today I got what I asked for.
Most cultures around the world have some work to do when it comes to gender equality. However, this essay written by one of my students really broke my heart.
His essay, while very well written, was extremely problematic. It was in response to the article “The men who are taking a stand against ‘dude fests'”, which was recommended by my Chinese colleague. The article addressed the lack of women speakers at conferences, and what should be done about it.
Here is his essay:
Question: Why are women sometimes excluded from meetings? Why, even when invited, do such few female panelists decide to attend discussions? On the contrary, are women-only panels inclusive or exclusive?
Nowadays, men are occupying most positions in different organizations and companies including managers, directors and CEO’s. Similarly, panels of experts are usually made up by males, and females seem unnecessary. As the article suggests, more and more people are boycotting ‘male-only’ conferences to promote equal rights among men and women. On the contrary, one of the organisers says women are less interested in these academic conferences. In my opinion, this issue stems from the origin jobs of men and women.
First of all, the generally relatively slightly weak body feature of women has determined whether they should join the high pressure conferences. Historically, males were responsible for hunting and farming because they were relatively stronger than females, and the duty of females was to feed the young. After checking the basis of history, the ratio of men and women in panel teams are not strange. Nowadays, females are the main force in housing including chores like cooking washing clothes and educating kids and the retiring age of females and males are different as well. Take China as an example. Retiring age of Chinese women is 55 years old; however, Chinese men’s is 60. Therefore, it is easily to be concluded that men have more energy than women and man can work longer. Those conferences have high attention and last long so for women, it is difficult for them to keep energetic until the end. Overall, the exclusion of women is a result of sympathy to women from the organizations rather than gender discrimination.
Secondly, women refuse to attend the academic conferences because it is not their interests. Apart from those real iron ladies, normal ladies do not always show their interests in academia, policy and development because these conferences are usually involved violent debate which is disgusting to most of women. Undoubtedly, women are the winners in family quarrels because they are sentimental. They know what others are feeling and that’s why they catch others weakness and make men’s arguments overwhelm. Nevertheless, debates with panels are not focusing on people themselves. Instead, they focus on a specific social issue or scientific issue which is not women’s strength. Moreover, even those iron ladies such as Peng Liyuan, the first lady of China, never interfere with policy and development of China. I remember when Peng met Michelle in Beijing, they mainly discussed about education and health care system and other things about people’s daily lives because their sentimental feature can expand to such realm.
In conclusion, panel teams of males are not an issue because that’s not in women’s favor. Women can help the world as another role. For example, women can create magnificent things in literature and art which can make a great difference in the world. They can make plain world diverse by their unique sentimental ability apart from attending international conferences in academia, policy and development.
What’s Problematic About This?
While I’m sure my student is well-meaning, this is benevolent sexism in all its glory. What is benevolent sexism? Benevolent sexism occurs when society deems women incapable of completing certain tasks or taking care of themselves, under the guise of helping women. It also occurs when society thinks women are better at certain tasks or activities or possess superior qualities in certain categories compared to men. For example, the belief that women are inherently better at child rearing, or posses superior emotional abilities.
“Those conferences have high attention and last long so for women, it is difficult for them to keep energetic until the end. Overall, the exclusion of women is a result of sympathy to women from the organizations rather than gender discrimination.”
This essay also reinforces 1950’s gender stereotypes about women being suited to certain roles. He states that women are uninterested in things like academia and politics, and are better suited to emotional tasks because of their “sensibilities”. He says these conferences “focus on a specific social issue or scientific issue which is not women’s strength.”
As someone who majored in International Affairs, the idea that women should be left out of the discussion of politics, socioeconomic issues, and academia is mind baffling. Does he really think his female classmates aren’t suited to study these subjects in college? Does he really think that women are not rational enough to participate in an academic debate?
If the sexism wasn’t enough to make you lock yourself in your room forever, just wait until you read this next essay. I started you off easy!
Again, I’d like to reiterate that not all of my students are anti-Muslim. I just read a beautiful essay by one of my students that explained why Chinese people should be less prejudiced towards Islam. Honestly, I think a lot of the Islamaphobia we see in China stems from the West and our media coverage of terrorist attacks. With politicians like Donald Trump saying he will place a ban on Muslim immigrants, how can you blame my students for having this opinion?
Regardless, I had a very difficult time reading this next essay. Firstly, the English is very poor, which made it hard to understand exactly what he was arguing. Secondly, not only did he manage to offend an entire religion, he also pulled mental disabilities into the mix.
The article I chose is: Why Muslims Shouldn’t Have to Apologize for Terrorism. I knew I might get a few controversial answers, but I certainly was not expecting this.
(I edited the English of this essay slightly to make it easier for you to read)
Question: Analyze the author’s argument. Do you agree or disagree? If you agree with the author, please add in your own opinions and reasoning rather than just re-stating the author’s argument.
The author is a Muslim, as you recently known, IS, which is a Terrorism organization, killed thousands of innocent people and it is formed by Muslims, this is the background.
The passage begins with a ridiculous example, it talks about that your wife will blame you because it’s raining outside and coworkers gathered around your desk demanding that you apologize for the printer being jammed, this doesn’t make any sense, at least in my life, this will never happen, unless your wife has mental illness, then you should divorce with her, then she started the argument with this no convincing beginning.
By the way, I’m not on her side, so I’ll then argue every of her five point.
First: It’s ridiculous to ask us to apologize.
Muslim extremist kill so many people, most of the dead has a family, however their gun just know how to shoot, then who can those families blame for, definitely not the extremist, so it is totally forgivable for them to ask muslims to apologize.
Second: It should be obvious by now that Muslims condemn terrorism.
I’m quite confused whether or not the author knows what “obvious” means. If I were to pick a person reading the newspaper or watching the news and ask them “what do you think Muslims are”, then they might say it’s obvious that they are most Terrorisms like IS. According to the glancing, there’s no inciting of violence or hatred, however, there are still a lot of Terrorism existing, so every Muslim should resolute the solution for their belief.
Third: Muslims are the largest victims of terrorism.
The author outlines data showing that IS kills more Muslims than non-Muslims, making Muslims the biggest victim., whereas what I can infer is that Muslims are killing each other, and this shows Muslims are very stupid, On the other hand, the data of dead people can not 100% tell us the victims. I believe the are the largest victim, however, most terrorism grown on the place where Muslims live, so that is why they are the biggest victim, and the cancer helps them grow, then the extremist can grow to a terrifying monster. Every Muslim should ask themselves what is this harmful cancer.
Why This is Problematic
I don’t even know where to start.
Basically, in the span of 370 words this student implied all Muslims are terrorists, called Islam cancer and blatantly stated that Muslim victims of terrorist attacks are stupid.
I almost overlooked his usage of the word “mental disabilities” due to all of the other prejudice in this article. He literally says that a person should divorce their spouse because they have a mental disability.
From living in China, I do know that Chinese people use the word mental disability in place of “crazy” (which I also find problematic). People will often joke that they have a mental disability like it’s no big deal. It’s sort of like how many people in the US still say “that’s retarded” regardless of the implications.
What Am I Supposed to Do About This?
The main reason I’m sharing all of this with you is NOT to leave you with the impression that China is a horrible, bigoted country and my students are awful human beings. I want to have a discussion about how we can intervene and educate while traveling, or working as a position of authority in another country.
How do I educate my students without calling them, sexists or racists? How do I teach them life skills without alienating them? When is it appropriate for me to step in and say something?
The boundary is extremely hazy.
Both of these students are scheduled to meet with me in the next week or two. We’re going to sit down and talk about why these essays are offensive. I’m going to teach them how to express their opinions in a socially acceptable manner.
The problem is that the notion of political correctness in China is very different from that of America (and even the USA finds unique ways to be offensive on a daily basis).
Political Correctness and China
Many of you may have seen the washing machine commercial, in which a Chinese woman seduces a black man covered in paint, throws him in the washer with some bleach and he comes out clean and… Chinese? This advertisement was actually copied from an Italian commercial in which a woman seduces a white man, throws him in the washer and comes out black with the phrase “colored is better”.
Honestly, when I saw this Chinese commercial I wasn’t even surprised. White skin, or “light skin” preference in China is the norm. No one questions it, and it’s not seen as offensive, it’s just a fact. Sort of like how in America we often praise a certain body type for women (thin and fit with curves in all the right places), and many of us never stop and think about how this makes very thin, or slightly curvier women feel, especially if that body type is unattainable for them without some sort of plastic surgery.
It’s the same thing in China, except this skin tone preference becomes racism when it’s applied to foreigners.
In the United States, especially the more cosmopolitan cities, we’re constantly forced to interact with those who are different from us. Encountering people of differing cultures, nationalities, religions, and ethnicities forces you to deal with these differences on a consistent basis. Obviously, this isn’t true for everyone, but it is a part of our dialogue, and this issue is addressed in our media, in our schools, and on the Internet.
Travel and Open Mindedness
The more I travel and encounter people of different backgrounds, the more stereotypes are broken. For example, I had so many stereotypes about Chinese people before I came to China!
Before I taught in a Chinese public school two years ago, I assumed that my students would be quiet, well-behaved, afraid of creativity, good at memorization, and nervous to speak English. I was SO WRONG.
So. Incredibly. Wrong.
One of the main things I try to do through Adventures Around Asia is break stereotypes people have about China. I want to provide the whole picture. I want to show you the complexities and intricacies of China and Chinese culture that you can only understand by living here.
The fact that I don’t want to stereotype Chinese people is one of the main reasons I was hesitant about writing this in the first place!
Why It’s Important I Educate My Students
I’ll be honest, I was really upset and angry when I read these two essays. I went on a giant rant to my co-workers that eventually led to us joking that our “generally relatively slightly weak body feature” and lack of energy compared to men should give us an additional day off of work per week and free coffee.
Thankfully, one of my co-workers was able to keep me level-headed and suggested I meet with these students in person. This will give me time to calm down so we can have a real discussion on why these essays are problematic.
I want avoid making them feel like bad people, especially since they’re only sixteen years old; but I also do think it’s important we address this for three big reasons:
1. It’s the right thing to do
Honestly, spreading tolerance and open-mindedness is the right thing to do. As a woman, it’s my duty to nip sexism in the bud when I see it. While I’m not Muslim, as an ally I need to stand up for the majority of kind-hearted Muslims who hate IS and other terrorists who deface the name of Islam with their actions.
2. They’re heading to America
These students are heading to America in two years. They need to know how to be politically correct in order to survive
in American society on most American college campuses. While some American students definitely agree with my students, I would venture to say that the majority of American college students do not. These opinions are not only offensive, they’re also alienating and will perpetuate negative stereotypes of Chinese people as bigots.
3. This can impact their career and education
Many employers and universities take this sort of thing very seriously. One wrong post on social media, or one offensive essay in class can lead to disciplinary consequences or getting fired from a job. If these kids want to live and work in America, they need to be careful about what they say in person, in writing, and online.
This is Messy
I don’t want to be the white savior that comes in and changes the minds of all Chinese people. I don’t want to be ethnocentric, and I hate telling people their beliefs are wrong.
But where is the line between educating and preaching? What’s the boundary between cultural sensitivity for the Chinese and serving as an ally for Islam and feminism?
I really don’t know.
I’m going to talk to my students, but I’m going to keep things open. They might leave my office with the same opinions they currently hold, or they may leave with a new perspective.
All I can do is keep the door open.
What would you do in my situation? What do you think is appropriate for an international teacher?