When this student, who we'll call Ryan, came to me and started a discussion last week, I was not surprised. Students here have a willingness to confide in us in a way they never would with their regular teachers. For one thing, we don't yell at them; in general, we're nicer. Secondly, we're gone in three weeks. If students can begin a relationship with us now, they may have a penpal for life with whom they can discuss the parts of their life that are a secret from their friends and family. So, Ryan sidled up and told me he was having trouble with a classmate, and that she was always mean to him.
There is no such thing as bullying here. I mean, there is, but it's not an acknowledged problem. In the same way that a strong female protagonist in a book from the 19th century can be said to not be a feminist solely because such a thing did not exist yet, it can be said that there is no bullying here. I have been greeted with bafflement when reprimanding students to stop beating on a third. Students knock water bottles out of one another's mouths. Upper middle school here is a vaguely Lord of the Flies-esque tableau of unfiltered aggression and jockeying for position. And even if bullying was a part of the Chinese vocabulary, I don't know that that's what's going on; Ryan and this girl may just not get along. So I assured him that, in life, we don't have to like everyone, and certainly not everyone will like us, but we do have to get along. I told him the best thing to do was ignore her, which I hated.
It's the same horrible advice teachers used to give students back in the '80s; it didn't work then, and it probably doesn't now. As far as matters of this ilk are concerned, though, I am out of my depth. I don't know how Chinese students are expected to act with each other; I don't know how much of their nasty behavior is tacitly sanctioned either by the actual teachers or by the construct of the Chinese educational system. Is this what happens when you not only openly rank your students, but make the standings available for all students to see? So given my limited knowledge, I did the best I could.
Ryan, unsatisfied with my answer (I don't blame him), proceeded to tell me that he sometimes feels sad for no reason. I told him that that sort of thing is common, especially with students his age who are under such pressure. He was unsatisfied again, and commented that he used to have a cousin he could talk to about these things, but she had just left for university. Ah, I thought. I see where this is going. I offered him my email address, which he jumped at. I have not heard from him yet, and I don't expect to until I leave, especially if he is gay as I suspect and is going to find a roundabout way of telling me. The lack of immediacy in email is comforting to me, as I will have time to compose my responses after thinking them through. As big a failure I have been to Ryan in terms of guidance here in Fuxin, I think I can be more of a comfort to him when I am gone and he can use me as a sounding board. At any rate, I hope so.