This morning, before class started — I go to the classroom an hour or an hour and a half before first period to spend casual time with my students, the kids were definitely on a high from the weekend. Kids were screaming about wanting to switch their seats, demanding that I give them all my phone number, and asking me to hang out with them outside of class. (No, yes, yes.)
The king of the brats, Freddy, a pretty charismatic student (who is also unfortunately a bully), was sitting with a small horde of little boys around him. He started speaking to me in the local fangyan and making a kind of giving or taking(?) hand motion that I didn’t understand. He repeated the same sentence several times and some of his little boy crew giggled. I gathered that he was making fun of me (I don’t mind this in particular.) but I didn’t know what he was saying because it wasn’t Mandarin.
Finally, Lily, another student, called me over and translated: “He’s saying he’ll pay you money if you dance for him.”
I was flabbergasted.
He wised up to the fact that Lily had translated, and he repeated his sentence in Mandarin. ”Teacher, if you dance for me, I will pay you money. Show me an American dance.” An American dance? What the hell was that? And did he think I was a hooker? Where had he learned to say this kind of stuff?
"No," I told him, "You can’t say things like that to people." He laughed.
But I was so at a loss as to what to do that I ended up not saying anything more. I wasn’t sure at the time how much exactly he understood what he was saying, and I was honestly a little bit afraid of what else he might say.
Ten minutes later, class started. And that was that.
Later, I brought this up to my PM (Program Manager) as well as our entire PM group. I relayed the incident as a low point, and my female PM responded with a statement along the lines of, “Well, personally, I don’t think it was sexual, you know,” as if I were a paranoid, sheltered person who had never met a child, ”They’re really young, you know? What grade do you teach. Fourth grade? Kids just say funny things like that.” When I asked her about the paying money aspect, she ignored it or didn’t hear it, and kept repeating that my kids were young and that she “personally didn’t think it was sexual.” They’re young, but they’re not stupid. They’re aware that boys and girls are different (I caught some of my boy students drawing nipples onto an advertisement of woman.) and Freddy was certainly aware that he was saying something inappropriate from his posture. (More on him in separate post later.)
I was definitely more than a little annoyed. Is this TFC’s normal response pattern to incidents like this? Just the previous day, TFC held a panel about “Being a Woman Fellow,” where another female fellow shared her awful sexual harassment experiences. She reported them and was laughed off, was told that she was overreacting. (Won’t include details for her privacy’s sake.) But obviously my PM either did not attend or just zoned the entire time.
I talked to my PM more, a second time in private. She was still pretty convinced that I was overreacting. ”Kids just like to see us (Americans) dance. Don’t worry.” She told me for the umpteenth time that kids would laugh at me. That was not the issue. When I explained more in detail exactly what happened, she told me that she had a kid in her class that was also mean and didn’t respect others “who was probably ten times worse than Freddy.” The awkward money issue: “Is he a kid that has a lot of money? Maybe he just likes dancing, and has a lot of money. And you know, maybe he uses money to get what he wants a lot.” This to me started to seem like someone trying very hard to believe a very ridiculous fictional story. ”Oh really I don’t think he was cheating on me. He just fell on top of the other girl and her clothes also just all fell off. And his pants too. You know. He’s just not like that.” The conversation derailed towards teaching students about respect. She told me that what he said didn’t matter, but that it was all about respect. Ok. Sure. At this point, I was just going to agree, thank her for her time, and give up.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have had to justify my discomfort, and having to rehash it over and over was making me feel worse. I shouldn’t have even bothered to have a second conversation.
It all starts with verbal harassment. They cat-call. And you think, “Okay, sure, cat- calling is normal. I should be a big girl and get over it.” Then it turns into more detailed propositioning. ”Boys will be boys,” you know? No big deal; you’re an adult — you should just get over it. Then it turns into inappropriate touching and groping. ”Oh, shit happens at clubs” or “I get groped all the time by strangers on the subway” or “They were just drunk — you know they wouldn’t do that normally” and then you just start to feel like shit, because you think you’re supposed to be able to handle all this because you’re an adult. But you still feel uncomfortable. I hate to say that I expect it out of men because many just will never experience it, but when I hear it from a woman, I feel like I am in the wrong.
I also later ran into another PM that I also respect and shared my story. His response: “Oh, well you should take it as a compliment that you’re dance-worthy.” WHAT??? Um, no. This is just a better sounding and more complimentary version of “She was asking for it.” It also implies that, because I look a certain way, things like this might happen to me and not to others that don’t. I didn’t even bother to argue about why that answer was so problematic and just gave up and sat down to eat. I DO take great pains to dress conservatively and also not too tomboyishly or even casually. (Today I wore a blouse that buttoned up to my neck and a skirt that fell below my knees. I have not put on makeup since I began teaching. I don’t wear fishnets or flashy stockings. Not that it’s an excuse — but the way I look is NOT a reason for this.)
I ran into someone in my PM group, which didn’t say a word about my experience when I shared it. ”Well,” my friend told me, “We didn’t think it was a big deal, because you didn’t seem upset when you shared it.” I wasn’t hysterical because I wanted to talk about it like a mature adult. Instead, that somehow invalidated my experience?
For the record, after these series of failures, I did run into some fellows (both male and female) who were completely horrified by my experience (and the response), as well as two very sympathetic female staff who had both experienced similar things, who gave me extremely concrete ways to deal with it. (So really, hurrah.) They told me emphatically that NO, I was not insane, YES, I was right to be upset. And that the responses of the two program managers WAS wrong.
I wasn’t sure if I was going to post this blog post. It’s embarrassing. The incident in the classroom makes me feel like I’m not respected as a teacher (at least by this student) and the incidents with the PMs make me feel like I’m maybe also not respected as co-worker or employee or even a person.
However, I still want to post this because I want other female fellows or teachers to see that if they’re going through similar things — YOU AREN’T ALONE. And you know what? Even if everyone brushes you off. You’re not wrong. They’re wrong. That person who sexually harassed you? Wrong. That person who is laughing off your discomfort? Wrong. And shame on that person if he or she is supposed to be your manager and/or support system as you struggle to teach in rural China.
This isn’t right, TFC. You can do better than this. If your staff doesn’t know how to respect women, maybe you ought to make that panel about women mandatory. What message are you trying to send through your managers? It’s totally okay to brush off a woman’s discomfort from sexual harassment. It’s funny. Or maybe it’s that person’s fault. Or maybe that person is a hysterical woman overreacting?
You owe your fellows and these students more than this.