In my English Education classes, we’ve been talking about our US educational system’s hottest topics. The one that has most recently hit the danger zone is bullying. It happens everywhere in the world, in all walks of life and in every social circle. This is nothing new except for the fact that with our modernized equipment, bullying becomes a bit more than just encountering a person and harassing them. Now we have never-ending computer network connections — Facebook, chatlines, Twitter, emails, not to mention the cellphone, capable of sending continuous hurtful voice mails or text messages.
A person can now be bullied 24-7 by either a single person or a group.
But among students here in China, bullying still seems to take the traditional approach – up front and in-your-face.
Interestingly enough, it’s not primary or secondary schools where you see a lot of this going on. Students in those age groups are too busy studying or being closely watched and supervised by both teachers and parents to truly cause a lot of damage. Young folk here also tend to pay more attention to rules and regulations as stipulated by their educational environments and close family circles.
But in colleges and vocational schools, where students are far from and free from close adult supervision and monitoring, the true bullying begins.
The College Situation in China
Over the years, I’ve heard heart wrenching stories from several of my students about dorm mates or classmates causing them grief and misery via verbal abuse, stealing, and even in some cases physical violence.
Getting away from this kind of bullying is quite difficult.
Similar to US grade schools, college students here stay together in the same classroom all the time and move together throughout their college years as an entire class. The courses are set by the university. Everyone follows the curriculum of their major without any ability to select their own subjects or teachers. This is for the entire 3 or 4 years until they graduate.
So if you’re not getting along with students in your class, you’re stuck with them no matter what.
Same difficulty arises in the dormitory.
A majority of college kids also have their same classmates as their dorm roommates as well. The school likes to keep students who study the same majors in the same living environment. They assign freshmen to live together from their first day to their last day of college life. Rarely is there a mixing of majors or classmates in the housing situation.
Well, in China, changing dorm rooms can be difficult depending on the college. At our school, it demands special written permission from a departmental dean as well as the housing supervisor’s O.K. Getting that permission is not easy and is often frowned upon. Some dorm supervisors in China are more sympathetic to room changes if they hear the full story but our housing leader here is not too keen on allowing the switches to take place. He fears if one student changes, they’ll all want to change over simple misunderstandings. Mostly, he encourages students to grin and bear it: “Toughen up! Learn some life lessons about being in the real world! Work together as one. That’s what college is all about.”
How Do Chinese College Teachers Deal with the Bullying Problem?
As a foreign teacher, I am especially concerned and saddened when I hear from my students that they are being picked on. Many suffer in silence and don’t even report such things to their favorite Chinese teacher or their class head teacher. (Every college class is assigned a head Chinese teacher. That teacher is in charge of many duties, such as informing them of college policies, helping with emergency absence leaves, advising on personal difficulties or life problems, and reprimanding if a student misbehaves.)
Most students are concerned their Chinese teachers might tell others of their bullying problems, which they fear will make things worse. They’re probably right. The Chinese have little practice or understanding about dealing with such issues from a Western standpoint. They like to confront the bullies and yell at them, trying to shame them into being nice.
Most likely, bullies are bullies because that’s what has been done to them for so many years – parents hitting them for being inadequate, relatives chastising them for their poor study habits, friends in grade school or high school poking fun at them for some reason or other. Making disturbed students feel worse only exacerbates the problem.
Most Chinese teachers go through the “grin and bear it” sympathetic lecture. They don’t give many alternative ways of getting around the bullies or how to handle it aside from ignore them. Ignoring can sometimes work but if a bully is especially persistent, or has friends to back him or her up, ignoring often doesn’t help.
The Safety Zone of the Foreigner
Students do go to Chinese teachers with their problems, but many times, it’s the foreigner who ends up being the confidant. There is great safety in us. We won’t go off tattling to other teachers or students. We have a different cultural perspective of the situation and can give unique advice. Most of all, we offer a safe place to talk. Coming to the foreign teacher’s home, without anyone knowing about the visit or anyone listening in on the conversation, creates an atmosphere of trust and comfort.
I guarantee every well-loved foreign teacher in China will tell you about students who come to them with problems. It might be family difficulties, study worries, future job anxieties . . . and always, in that long list of student woes, there’ll be episodes of bullying.
Tales of Bullying
Students who come to me with bullying problems are usually 1st years who get over their difficulties quite quickly. Either misunderstandings occur between new classmates and are later solved or some sort of truce is reached. Sometimes the bullies themselves change. After adjusting to the college environment, and becoming involved in activities or special events, they lose that need to make others feel inferior and take on a new, refreshing persona.
Those kinds of tales are the majority I’ve dealt with, always with happy endings.
But a current situation is one which truly worries me.
While rarely do my students read my website, and I doubt if the bullies ever would, I’ll just change the English name of this particular student I’m about to talk about so as no one can track him down. (The photos of him I included are safe here. In China, all my photos are blocked by the server.)
I’ll call him Jeffry, one of my second year students majoring in English Education.
The Story of Jeffry
Jeffry is one of those special young men who is not your typical Chinese guy for our area of the country. I only have 18 boys out of my 250 students, the rest being girls. Of those 18 boys, 13 are your typical big Guangxi farm kids. They’re tall, muscular, sun-browned, very much into sports (not so much into studying), and quite popular among the girls due to their good looks.
Jeffry, on the other hand, is very short and small. He has different facial features than the southern rugged males which set him apart from the handsome crowd. He has a high forehead and ears that stick out in a rather odd way. He is very studious and enjoys quietly reading books or being by himself, not qualities that Chinese society (oriented toward togetherness and unity) find very appealing. His parents are not countryside farmers but fruit sellers in the big city, Yulin. Jeffry’s lifestyle and upbringing have therefore been that of someone from the city. He has a different perspective of life because of this. He’s more cultured, has been exposed to more worldly things and has been brought up with better manners than the countryside folk. He is also sensitive and a deep thinker, which make him an easy target for people to hurt.
Jeffry’s roommates are all in my class together. There are 6 of them in a small dorm room, crammed with bunkbeds and flimsy wooden school desks.
The first semester, they got along fairly well together. Everyone was new to college life, which seemed exciting, different and full of freedom. Adjustments had to be made to live together but for the most part, everyone was willing to do that.
The second semester, things started to fall apart.
The Harassing Begins
College became mundane and boring. The farm boys in the dorm bought cheap laptops with the money from their Chinese New Year hong baos (red envelopes). Jeffry’s purchase with his New Year gifts had been a Chinese manufactured i-book.
The farm boys began to pull all-nighters, playing games on their personal laptops or yakking loudly to hometown friends on their cell phones late into the night. There was little regard for anyone else in the room.
When it came time to pay the extra money required due to overusing their electricity limit, the laptop boys refused to pay. They wanted the money to be split evenly among everyone in the room, even though just 2 of them were responsible for the high bill. Jeffry was the only one to stand up to them and say that just the 2 should pay the bulk of the utility money owed.
Things spiraled from there.
The farm boys insisted Jeffry was rich because he lived in the city. They were poor. He could pay the sum needed more than they.
Jeffry ignored them.
Eventually, the school turned off their room’s electricity. After 2 weeks of stubbornly refusing to pay on everyone’s part, along with the room being plunged into darkness, the head teacher stepped in. The result was that the 2 farm boys won. Everyone was forced to chip in an equal amount to get the electricity turned back on.
Retaliation was next in order to get back at Jeffry for his comments about not paying the electricity bill. The bullies started making daily nasty remarks about Jeffry’s appearance – his head was too big, his ears were weird-looking, his forehead was odd. Soon, they began using his things (washcloth, soap, shampoo) or just stealing them. They’d leave the door open when it was cold outside and refuse to allow Jeffry to close it. They threw their trash directly on the floor, then wouldn’t sweep it up. This began to attract the rats who visited on a regular basis.
When Jeffry complained, they told him to clean it up himself if he cared so much and they picked on him even more. It became so bad that Jeffry stopped coming back to the dormitory until after 10 p.m. He’d just spend all his spare time in the library, not wanting to return to the dorm.
He tried numerous times to change his room but the dorm supervisor refused. He even tried asking permission to rent a room outside of the school but that is forbidden and was likewise turned down.
The Current Situation
This semester has only gotten worse, according to Jeffry’s emails to me and his visits. He comes when he’s tired of being in the library, waiting to return to the room to quickly go to bed without any confrontations from the bullies.
One email came 2 weeks ago:
Connie, I must be mad and sad. Yesterday I bought a tortoise and feed it in my room. Do you remember that I have told you the relationship between me and roommates is bad? Now my baby was disappeared in the morning at 8:00. That time I bought it till disappeared only 18 hours. I had looked it everywhere but not showed up. How bad they are stole my baby and I saw the bad guy in my room was smiling while I was looking. He stayed in the room all day, watching me. Maybe the animal is die. I do not mind how much money I`ve cost to buy it. It is a life, a little life belong to the tortoise. We should not kill any life due to a bad relationship, even murder. Now I can not find it. Maybe it was murdered by the bad guy. That is my fault. I should not buy it and feed it in my room. It will have a good life if I were not bought it.
Like I said before, Jeffry is a sensitive young man. The loss of his pet really hit him hard, as you can see from his emotional email. Naturally, I quickly sent a reply email to console him. His words struck home for me, especially as I lost my little dog not so long ago. For those of us by ourselves, emotional attachments to little creatures can grow quite strong, even with a turtle.
The next day, Jeffry came to my home to talk more about this. In his book bag, he had brought his Net cable line, which had been cut. It seems the bullies had been at it again.
We had a good talking session sitting on my couch, drinking cola and eating snacks. I tried not to let on how upset I was with students of mine behaving in such a horrible manner. A few of those boys in Jeffry’s class cause me trouble as well with their snotty attitude. They yawn openly and loudly in class. They roll their eyes at me. They sigh if they are asked to partner with someone for conversation practice. They arrive late, whisper to one another and text their friends during my lessons.
To calm my growing irritation, I always jokingly say to myself, “Ah, Connie, welcome to junior high!”
If they want to dis me, that’s one thing but continuously bullying one of their own, and my student none-the-less, is another.
Time to Step In
I realize Jeffry had no desire for me to step in on this one. It would only make things worse but I thought I could perhaps make the attitude of our misguided farm boys a bit less abrasive. Obviously, they are unhappy in their lives and having me confront them, either in or out of the classroom, wouldn’t be the solution.
My father has a good saying about bullies: “Kill’em with kindness.”
So I’ve been doing just that.
I started last week, praising our bullies for doing their homework, answering questions well, paying attention in class. They were little things to boost their self-esteem and make them feel worthy of being there. I’ve already noticed their mood has brightened under this positive attention. They aren’t quite so sour in class or unwilling to do things.
I also have begun discussions on how to help students in our classrooms who are being bullied by other students. Since this is an English Education class, all of these young people will be teachers one day. Next semester, they will be going on teaching practice (student teaching) to nearby schools. They should understand about bullying and how it affects others so they can deal with it in the school environment.
We’ve had some very good lessons generating ideas why students bully, how to understand where they are coming from and how to help both those bullied and those doing the bullying. Amazingly enough, some of the best ideas have come from those farm boys causing Jeffry so much trouble.
Is It Helping?
Is this strategy working at all?
Jeffry hasn’t reported any more damage done to his things but that doesn’t mean it won’t start up again. To truly change someone can’t be done overnight, if it can be done at all, but I am trying.
I suppose only time will tell. Watch this space for updates and I’ll keep you informed about any more positive happenings from this end.
Until next time, here’s wishing you Ping An (peace) for your day.