Your skin is so white! Your head is so shiny! Why is your nose so big? Are you an alien? The teacher has fur on his arms! He looks like a monkey! I want to touch your head! Why do you have so much hair on your face? You’re fat!
Almost every day when I teach classes, I hear something along the likes of these sentences. I do not hear all of them every day, but every day I hear at least one. For me, personally, it is mostly about my head being bald. Now, I don’t blame my students for me losing my hair. I should blame my dad, for that but it is not like he can control which genes I take and don’t take. My dad is bald, his dad is bald, so I am bald. It is natural, it just started for me at a much younger age than most. And I have accepted it a long time ago, it doesn’t bother me anymore. But it bothers me when it becomes the center of a joke, almost every day when I go to work.
Don’t get me wrong. My students are very nice, for the most part. And believe me, they are not in any way trying to hurt my feelings by saying the things that they do, and I know that. That’s why I do not get angry with them. “Kids will be kids”, we say and they have a tendency to speak their minds out in the open, loudly, without reserve. But just because you didn’t mean to hurt someone with your words, it doesn’t mean that they are not hurtful. Just because I smile when I hear these things, doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt me. But I keep it hidden, because if I get angry, I ruin my class. If I get angry, that student will get scared and will not participate in the class afterwards. I keep my cool, I keep my temper because I have a job to do, and I want to do it well.
It is true, that kids are kids. And it is true that kids do what kids do. There is no denying it, and there is no point in trying to change it. Children should enjoy the freedom they have while they are children, this is the chance they have to learn, to grow and to understand the world around them. And I know that I look different from them. Just as they all look different from me. But I have learned, that I cannot go around commenting my first thoughts on everyone out loud. Children haven’t always learnt this, but I feel like Chinese children have less of what I would call a “social filter”. In western countries, children very quickly learn what kind of comments we can make about someone when we see them. I learned it the hard way, because I also used to comment on appearances without thinking.
Let me remind you again, that most of my students are actually very nice. They say nice things to me when we are having class or even sometimes just write something cute on a board.
Sometimes, my students are very eager for a chance to get to take a photo of me, or with me. One particular class had such a good time that we spent the last 5 minute of the class just taking pictures of each other. It was great fun!
I think in western countries, around the age of 7 or 8, we have an understanding of words that make people smile, like beautiful, handsome, smart and words that make people cry or make them sad, words like ugly, fat, stupid. We know that certain words produce certain expressions and emotions and we are told to use more of the good words and less of the bad. In Denmark we often tell our children “If you have nothing nice to say, just don’t speak at all!”. And I think this kind of social filter is somehow missing in China. Because it is not only the Children who hurt my feelings, it is their parents, their grandparents and random people on the street commenting on my appearance as I walk by. Some of them are saying nice things, and some of them are saying really, deeply hurtful things as I walk past them, sit across from them on the subway or stand in line at the supermarket.
Chinese people tend to think, that foreigners do not speak Chinese at all, but when I do turn around and I tell them “你刚刚在说什么，不要以为我听不懂中文!” or “你知不知道我会说中文? 我听到的时候你在说什么?” Translated into English, this means “What did you just say? Don’t assume I can’t speak Chinese!” and “You know, I can actually speak Chinese? And I heard what you said just now?” They give me a very startled look and they feel deeply ashamed because right then and there, they realise that they hurt someone’s feelings. But more often than not, I say nothing. I just keep walking, I keep doing what I am doing and I try not to pay attention, but I hear them, I know what they are saying and I sometimes have to tell myself to calm down and control myself to not answer back.
I am very tolerant of children and their behaviour. I have learned that very few things that children do when they are misbehaving is personal. They are tired, they are bored, they do not fully understand or they are too excited. It is never about me; it is always about them. I only get upset when they are purposely disrespecting me, which happens, too. But when I walk into a classroom full of new students, I hear their comments and I know it isn’t personal. They are surprised to see someone who looks so different, and they all speak out. But just because they do not know that is it wrong, doesn’t make it right. Like I wrote earlier, just because you didn’t mean to hurt anyone, doesn’t mean someone wasn’t hurt. I get hurt every day, not always from my students, sometimes it’s their parents, sometimes it’s a random person on the street. But every day, I hear something.
I think it is important to remind you all, that it is not all bad. I very often get compliments thrown my way, people will stop me on the street and ask to take a photo with me, and I sometimes hear people comment “好帅” as I walk past them. The literal translation would be something like “So Handsome!” I am by no means a very handsome person; I’d say I rank just about average. But it is nice when someone is saying positive things, right? When someone pays me a compliment in Chinese, I do not always respond and they do not always know that I understand. But when we hear nice things, we smile. When we hear mean things we become sad. At what point can we stop excusing children for being children, and start teaching them what is right from what is wrong?
As an English teacher, my primary job is to teach a language, but with a language also comes culture. My students can insult me in Chinese and in English, and sometimes they surprise me by being able to say something truly hurtful, but saying it grammatically correct, in which case I do not always know whether to praise them or punish them. But I am starting to remind my students, that there are some things that are nice to say to others, and some things that are best to be avoided. As teachers, we should teach our students about being good people as well as being good at their subjects. Because I think being a good person is more valuable than being just a good student.
I get hurt every day, but I still come back for more. Because at the end of the day, I love what I do. I try to let go of the hurtful comments, because they were usually not meant in harm, and not meant to offend. I forgive easily and I move on. And I try to inspire my students by saying nice things to them, hoping they will say something nice to me back, the next time they, or their family or a stranger sees me.