Thursday, March 13, 2014

Hoodies, Gangs and Knives

It all started during Fashion Week. Not the official one held in fashion capitals such as Paris and Milan, but the one I conducted during class last week, which roughly coincided with the official Fashion Week.

Every semester I ask my students what they would like to talk about. Being young, and for the most part female, the topic of fashion ranks high on their list of favorite subjects to discuss. Until this semester I offered up fashion tidbits at the start of class, something to the effect of: ‘wearing high heels over a long period of time can damage your bones, spine, tendons and muscles’, and a ‘clean face is a beautiful face’. Because this is a topic of ongoing fascination I decided to compile what I could about the various aspects of fashion and style into a presentation, leaving plenty of time for discussion of whatever grabs their attention.    

This semester I have the privilege of teaching only sophomores, which means I only have 3 classes and I’ve worked with each of those groups last academic year. Some I’m happy to work with and some I could have lived without ever having to address again (See My Pet Foreigner entry, posted July 2013).

What would these kids want to know about fashion? As young (mostly) women, I presumed they would like a mish-mash of information, ranging from hair and makeup to clothing and jewelry. Of course, fashion/style in the America would be a major point of interest, so I did my best to incorporate a comparison between Chinese and American fashion trends.

On the Western front I portrayed corsets as particularly barbaric because they taper a woman’s ribcage to conform to the ‘hourglass figure’ standard of beauty. Nowadays corsets are generally not worn however, beauty pageant contestants sometimes wear one. YOUNG pageant contestants: 8, 9, 10 years old. Point of interest, and something that piqued my students’ curiosity: the guitar and other string instruments are actually modeled after the ideal woman’s form.

Equally tortuous was the Chinese mania for small feet, called ‘lotus blossoms’, causing infant girls indescribable pain because their foot bones were broken and rebroken, and those poor little appendages were then wrapped in wet linen, which shrinks while drying. The smaller the foot the more dainty and desirable the woman. While my girls sneered at the west’s inhuman pursuit of beauty, they quickly stopped their chortling when confronted with their own culture’s callous practice. Some even confided their great-grandmother has bound feet and that even today she must bind her feet tightly or live with the agony of screaming bones. That is to say: they live in agony all the time; it is worse with their feet unbound. Of course, said grandmothers cannot walk without a cane… if they can walk at all.

To teach new vocabulary regarding clothing, I raided my own wardrobe. How else to demonstrate the difference between a button down shirt (men) and a blouse (women)? They loved learning that, in the old days men dressed themselves while women had a maid to dress them. Thus the buttons on women’s clothing are on the left and men’s clothing are on the right… presumably because everybody was right-handed in those days. I could even illustrate that difference with the (men’s) slacks I brought, versus the jeans I was wearing.

Modern day Chinese wear western-style clothing: jeans, sweats, tee-shirts and the like. They did not know the names of various types of clothes, nor could they make a distinction between a sweat shirt and a sweater. One poor soul, unaware that a skirt starts at the waist averred that she likes to wear skirts and nothing else. After this lesson, she knew that dresses were what she likes to wear. A fine, but critical distinction.

And then, there was the hoodie.

Often I incorporate current event items in my lessons, or make a lesson out of them altogether. While presenting the hoodie I told them that such garments are preferred by hip-hop dancers and, by proxy, gangstas. Dancers prefer them for when they do head spins and gangstas adopted them… for whatever reason. Much was made in the media of Trayvon Martin wearing a hoodie; in fact, because of that incident the humble hoodie surged in popularity. George Zimmerman believed Trayvon was a gangsta because of the hoodie, and is now news/tabloid fodder and there are still groups who seek justice for Trayvon. All of this I relayed to my class.

That got their attention! I decided this week’s lesson will segue nicely into a talk about American history: the Kennedy assassination, the Civil Rights movement, and then into the hip-hop culture and the gang scene, as much as I know about it. After that, off we go into Freedom Writers movie, the impactful story of Ellen Gruwell and her students in room 203. That’s 4 weeks of lessons, all wrapped up! I love it when I can plan my schedule like that.

I’m always anxious if I am not prepared for lessons, or even if I don’t know my material very well. You’d think it would be a simple matter of recycling curriculum from one semester to the next, but I don’t seem to want to make things easy for myself. Besides that, some lessons taught in the past are no longer relevant to the crowd I teach today. For the next few weeks, I do not need to plague myself with worry: I have 4 weeks worth of lessons ready. That is a good thing, because I’ve been tapped to coach our debate team for competition in 2 weeks! More on that later…    

Little did I know that while I was downloading pictures of rappers and dancers, and gloating over my well planned lessons, ten people from an extremist group were entering the main railway station in Kunming, armed with knives and machetes. They hacked up twenty-nine victims and injured one hundred thirty more before police put a stop to them, killing 2 in the process. This type of terrorism has as yet been unseen and is unthinkable in modern day China.

Now there are ripples of fear. Might such a group strike in Beijing? Xi’an? Wuhan? What should we be on the lookout for? How can we protect and/or defend ourselves?

Collective unrest grows as rampant, conspicuous consumerism overtakes this formerly impoverished, fatalistic people. It is not just a matter of wealth gap and capitalism but of social mores in decline. The group that targeted those passengers in that railway station was from one of China’s 55 ethnic minorities. The Uyghurs, previously limiting themselves to yearly, relatively tame riots in their own province are now striking out against the Han majority. They do not, and never did want secondary businesses or a stake in the tourist trade. They want their segment of land returned to them with full rights and privileges. They want indigenous people in government and locals to staff police and fire brigade units. They even balk at school children being taught in Putonghua – the common language, and their dialect being taught as a secondary language. To their reckoning, in their province the Han are a minority and should be accorded minority status.

Yes, discrimination is prevalent in China. Not so much against foreigners, who are decided outsiders, but between the ethnic minorities and the Han.     

Sam is getting wrinkles. Not only does his beautiful Penny work all hours and walk home alone, but she has been tapped as a part of the emergency relief crew. Because she works in a military hospital and because she specializes in infectious disease care, she might be sent to Kunming to enlarge their nurses’ roster. The poor guy is having a hard time letting her out of his sight, let alone sending her to a place of recent terrorist activity.

I have another lesson to add to my roster: self defense. I too fear for Penny, but also for all of my students. Granted they travel in pairs or groups but they are young, inexperienced and absolutely unaware of how to protect or defend themselves. Sally, a genuine sweetheart, believed those men who told her they had lost their train ticket and could not return home. Could she spare them some money? She had none on her and could not leave her current position, so she handed them her bank card and told them her pin. They assured her they’d only take 150Yuan, and would be right back. Of course, they cleaned her out and she never saw them again.

That is how unprepared these kids are for the real world. I’m not their parent, I know, or even the adult responsible for them. However, I feel I have a responsibility to them.

Life isn’t all peaches and cream. Not everyone in China comes from a small village and/or a good family, and there are certainly scammers and bruisers out there. Foreign teachers aren’t all about having fun and making students laugh. At least this one isn’t. These next few lessons just might save their life.

Now I’m anxious.     


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