A month into my last semester of teaching at Soochow University and the community center in Kunshan, I am amazed at the transformation God has made in my heart. At the beginning of this program, I was so sure that I would not be a classroom teacher. Ever. It was not even a remote option. With all my passion towards fighting the systemic injustices inhibiting educative opportunities worldwide, specifically for young women and girls without White skin privilege, the classroom seemed like a small battlefront compared to the greater war.
But I have finally realized the everyday conversations that I facilitate in the classroom culture that I intentionally foster really do make a difference.
This semester in my writing class, my students have a 3-5 minute group presentation in which they share a song and poem that they think go together. The link between the two works can be anything, a shared theme or a common style, as long as students can explain why the two are connected.
Last week three of my students read a poem by Shu Ting, an important and influential poet especially in the years immediately after the Cultural Revolution. In this poem, Shu Ting writes about romantic love.
In their presentation, the students revealed that this poem is a response to another, ancient poem in which the speaker complains that he cannot find a suitable mate. If a woman is beautiful, she is not talented. If she is talented, she is not beautiful. If she is beautiful and talented, she is aggressive.
I almost fell out of my chair when one of the students said that this is an example of male chauvinism.
I had not taught them this word.
Another student went on to say that the symbols (another word I had not taught them) in Shu Ting’s poem reveal the beauty of equality between romantic partners and has a strong Feminist message.
At the close of their presentation, I had tears in my eyes. Watching these young women interpret poetry with a social justice lens was something I’ll never forget.
This is not something I had explicitly taught them. This was not the point of the assignment. I had not told them to find Feminist works to talk about in class.
It was all their own work; putting pieces together from what I had showed them in class and beyond. From what I have learned about education in China, I am confident that, for the first time, these young women were expressing their personal opinions about social and political issues in front of the whole class without being asked to do so.
In my speaking class, I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon. These students have to present a favorite film and share some dialogue from the film in a 3-5 minute presentation. I have been so impressed with the Feminist lens these students have adopted when talking about their favorite films. For the past two weeks, my students have presented international films that focus on women overcoming familial and societal pressures to achieve their goals and my students have recognized and celebrated this as steps towards Gender Justice.
Of course, I mean, this kind of to be expected.
I talk about gender inequality in class often. I show TED Talks by women of color on topics of representation and sexism. I use words like “shero” to describe women who inspire me and encourage my students to question authority figures – starting with me!
This semester, I have told all of my classes that our goal is to make one million mistakes and they are racking them up by taking chances, making guesses, or admitting “I don’t know” when they don’t know the answer instead of frantically whispering in Chinese to the student sitting next to them whose name I did not call.
They’ve become comfortable with these things in the classroom and I hope that it will translate to other areas of their lives as well, or at least that they will remember and hold on to how it feels to make mistakes, take risks, be brave, and to be praised for it.
The vast majority of my students are female and all of my students are Chinese. Most come from well-developed cities in Jiangsu province and most did not choose English as their major – it was chosen for them based on the results of standardized tests they took in high school.
They are taught that it is polite to not speak until spoken to. To not raise their hands when the teacher asks a question, but rather to wait to be called on to speak. They have been made fun of by teachers in the past for saying the wrong answer. They have been taught to have the correct answer OR ELSE which results in a fearful environment in schools and an “us versus them” mentality between teachers and students.
They have been ingrained with common sayings and cultural messages which denote the importance of men over women and the importance of finding someone who’s willing to marry you over finding your dream career. And they are not alone.
These same obstacles are presented to women around the world and education can break these barriers, freeing young scholars to take the risks, ask the questions, raise their voices, and defend their opinions. These are the traits that are necessary to achieve great things and they are not lacking in my 130 female students or my 20 male students. They have, however, been stifled or labeled as inappropriate, undesirable, unseemly, for the vast majority of them based on their gender.
I do not know what my students will become. I haven’t told them yet that I’m returning to the USA, but I am comforted by the fact that Soochow University keeps foreign teachers with the underclassmen and since my students are going to be Juniors next year, I would not be teaching them even if I did stay longer. But I feel so incredibly blessed to be able to see the fruits of these seeds that I DID NOT PLANT. I know my students have unlimited potential and world-shaking ideas that they carried with them when they first walked through the class door. I did not put these ideas into them and will not dare to take any credit for that.
I hope and pray that whatever I did through these weeks and weeks together nurtured their seeds and enriched their soil.
The fruits that they are beginning to show in my classroom feel like the best parting gift they don’t even know they are bestowing on me.
I am part of a team leading a webinar about Feminist Liberation Theology for the GMF class in a couple of weeks. I would like to share a TED Talk that has recently spoken to me by renowned Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. My fellow GMFs will watch this TED Talk as part of their preparation for our web-based discussion. I hope you find as much inspiration and insight from her words as I have!
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