April 22, 2010

A New Court, I

I asked the class if they would be scared to fly in a plane with a woman pilot. The boys nodded zealously and laughed; the girls simply nodded.

Knowing that the P.E. exams are still going on at Shandong Normal, I set out to find another court. Word has it that there is a university near my apartment, so that’s my destination. It’s a beautiful afternoon – not a day to go without ball.

I walk two minutes to the gate of the apartment, where students, having recently been let out of school, are milling about. There is no bombardment of Halloo!s, just two girls who seem to have a particular interest in me. “Hello!” one of them says. “You look so cool!” I don’t know if she earnestly believes that or if it’s simply one of the limited number of English sentences she knows. I am, after all, wearing a decaying pair of 10-year-old corduroys and a dirty grey fleece jacket. It doesn’t strike me as particularly cool, but the girl persists. “How old are you?” she asks, to which I reply 24 in Chinese. She says that she’s 16. Her friend then asks for my phone number as I am walking away. I decline and proceed onward.

Girls aren’t usually so brazen here in Jinan. And not just the schoolgirls at the boarding school. No, girls in general are usually pretty quiet, pretty reserved. There seems a stark disparity regarding what is appropriate behavior for men and women.

Women, for instance, hardly ever smoke cigarettes, whereas men suck them down with zest. Women also aren’t much for drinking; men are. The other day there was a big banquet for all the employees of our school: foreign teachers, Chinese teachers, managers, everyone. Well, after the formalities were taken care of, the beer started flowing. Pretty much all the foreign teachers – men and women – imbibed, as did the Chinese men. But the women? Not a drop. Same thing happened two nights ago at a local restaurant. Two buddies and I went to get some grub, and we were summoned to a neighboring table by a quintet of Chinese people – three guys, two girls – who wanted to drink with us. Predictably, the guys were chain-smoking and going bottoms-up – or gan bei, as they say, which literally means “dry glass” – while the two girls sat to the side drinking tea. Not that you have to drink booze and smoke cigarettes to be social. I’m just saying that the cultural mores here are pretty unyielding about these things.

And it isn’t just the vices that differ between men and women. So, too, does the way they act. The girls at that restaurant – each of whom speak some English – were passive and let the guys do all the talking. Same goes for that banquet with my co-workers, who also all speak English. I had a female Chinese teacher approach me the next week at school and ask me my name. “I thought that was it,” she said. “I was going to talk to you at the dinner but I didn’t want to disturb you.”

My favorite “girls here are timid” moment came in one of my first weeks teaching last fall. An upper-level class – full of 12- to 14-year-olds – was grinding to a halt; it was so boring for them that it became boring for me. We were talking about different professions and, hoping to cause a stir, I just up and asked, “Are there any jobs that women shouldn’t have?” The class was half-full of girls. They froze like statues after I asked the question, whereas I saw a few of the boys’ heads bob in affirmation. “OK, like what?” I said, pointing to one of the smarter boys who was nodding.

“Um, doctor,” he said.

“Women shouldn’t be doctors!” I exclaimed, trying to incite some sort of emotion.

“No. I do not want a woman doctor if I am I sick.”

The class was divided along gender lines: the boys were to my left, the girls my right. I shot a glance to the right to see if this blatant sexism had evoked any emotions among the girls. Nope. Still statues.

“What else should women not do?”

“Pilot,” a different boy said. “Women should not fly plane because that would be dangerous.” I asked the class if they would be scared to fly in a plane with a woman pilot. The boys nodded zealously and laughed; the girls simply nodded.

Seemed like these kids didn’t want women to be in responsibility-bearing positions. Or maybe that’s not exactly true. Maybe it’s only boys who don’t want women to have these jobs, and the girls in class were simply too sheepish to say anything about it. Either way, it speaks to my point: either the girls believe they’re not equipped for these jobs, or they’re too scared to speak up. That’s why these schoolgirls’ forward attitude – “You look cool,” “What’s your number?” etc. – is kind of startling.

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