Half a watchdog is better than none

Cross-posted from The Daily Kos.

JISHOU, HUNAN, CHINA — Today while I was watching a girl with the English name Jackie teach some vocabulary this morning, I could tell she would be a successful person in the future. The thought just popped into my head unbidden, so I hope it’s a good sign. I don’t know Jackie all that well. She’s a freshman. Since I see my students only two hours a week, that means I have had only about 24 hours of contact time with Jackie and most of her classmates. Furthermore, since I teach her class composition and not spoken English, we rarely even talk to each other in class.

Still, I can get a general idea of Jackie’s character and personality. She works hard, but is not especially gifted at English. She smiles a lot, is friendly, and pays attention in class. I reckon she cares a lot about people. Today, she came to class prepared with three vocabulary words to teach class (a weekly assignment for everyone): dusk, eminent and scenic. And she taught the lesson exactly as I had requested, which not many of her peers have been able to do so far.

Further, she was poised and confident, despite her shaky pronunciation and lack of sufficient eye contact (she avoided looking at my side of the room!). Not a perfect presentation, but acceptable under the circumstances.

In my mind’s eye, I could see her in a few years as successful businesswoman, directing some meeting or another somewhere in China. By that time, if she follows the customary “timetable” here, Jackie will be married and probably will have a child, too. Marriage may precede the business success. (Chinese don’t date much before getting married; one or two serious relationships is usually all it takes to get married by the customary 27 or 28 for women.)

Then, I hope that all will go well for Jackie. Her husband will treat her well, her child will be healthy and successful in school, her job won’t wear her down to a nub.

I have taught adolescents for the last 25 years, and I can’t help but get involved in some ways in their lives. We teachers share something only parents (and other relatives) can see — the development of youngsters into adults. But we see it from a different perspective. After all, we don’t have to live with these kids when the school day ends!

So, I have rejoiced with my American students when they get their drivers licenses, when they get college acceptances, when they graduate … and sympathize when they fail at life’s many challenges. I have fretted whether a girl has an eating disorder, or a kid has a substance abuse problem. There are times I have wished I could tell a parent flat out to leave their kid alone, to get a life and not try to micromanage their kids life. (Seriously, there are some families with totally useless parents and totally straight-ahead kids. And I taught middle- and upper-class kids in the States.)

My Chinese students are older and have different set of problems on their plates, but I am still concerned about their welfare and future. Their lives in college are more proscribed than in US schools. They have many more class hours, more rules to follow, and a whole set of parental expectations and obligations that most US children will never experience.

The idea of face is an ingrained Chinese custom. Chinese are supposed to be outwardly placid, even if they are depressed, angry or frustrated. To reveal too much of one’s inner turmoils is to lose face. So students are loathe to confess too much of their inner lives to even their friends, and certainly not to their teachers. Foreign teachers, however, are not part of the “face system,” so we sometimes find our students (freshmen, especially) will seek us out to talk things out.

Unlike schools in the US, Chinese unis rarely have counseling offices or student affairs offices. Such responsibilities are left to each individual college’s head teachers, whether they are suited to be mental health counselors. China’s overall mental-health system is antediluvian, where mental illnesses are ignored or diagnosed as temporary emotional problems, rather than treated. In such a climate, I try to keep an eye on my students and friends, to watch for signs of clinical depression, alcohol abuse (there’s no real minimum drinking age here — students can buy beer and liquor (baijiu) in the school store), and suicide.

[I should interject at this point that I have no psych training, and I have to confess as a high school teacher, I was completely unaware of the perils some of my kids were putting themselves in. So I kinda suck as a watchdog, but it’s better than nothing, I suppose.]

So, I know that some students are overwhelmed at the pressures they face. As I have mentioned before, many have never left their hometowns, have never been away from their families, and in some ways feel like castaways on some remote (but crowded) island. So freshman have to deal with (for me) an unfathomable loneliness. Then, many are expected to excel in college, sometimes in majors their parents have selected for them, no matter what the emotional and psychological price.

China’s only retirement system is its children. Parents can retire at 50, if they can, and they expect their children to support them until death. Thus, college grads not only have to worry about their own immediate successes — find a job, find a spouse, produce offspring — but also worry about the kind of lives they will provide their parents. These worries seem to begin when they are college freshmen. Each examination (and there are many) is yet another obstacle to surmount on the way to making their parents’ lives comfortable and happy.

Perhaps you can see, then, why a Chinese student’s life is so much different from an American student’s. In the USA, college students can worry (or not) about their own immediate futures. They have the freedom to blow off school, and become beach bums, for example. In China, there is no such luxury. Students have to worry about their own and their entire families’ futures, so the psychological and emotional pressures are exponentially greater.

There are fortunately only isolated cases of teenagers committing suicide. The most common cause is low marks. But heartbreaks can be another. One girl in another campus here was so distraught about losing her boyfriend that, after she calmly told her roommates she was going to the roof to get some air, threw herself off the top of their seven-story dorm. A friend of mine found a girl in their dorm’s bathroom bleeding to death after slitting her wrists. Her BF had dumped her.

By way of explanation, parents generally forbid dating or any kind of boy-girl contact when their kids are in middle and high school. Some even forbid their kids to date in university. Why? It might pull them away from their studies. In addition, many middle and high school students are segregated in the classroom, boys and girls on opposite sides of the room. One of my sophomores (she is 20) remarked that the first time she ever worked with a boy on a class project was just last fall. With so little experience with the opposite sex, some kids just don’t know how to handle their first rejection or break-up. (Students have also asked me to advise the lovelorn, which in my case is a bit like the blind leading the blind toward a precipice.)

On the contrary, my freshman Jackie seems to be pretty together as a person. Intelligent, personable, hardworking, she has a bright future, and maybe she doesn’t need me to concern myself with that future. But, I know growing up is hard to do, so I can’t help myself. After 25 years in the classroom, it’s become an ingrained habit.

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