I don’t quite know where I stand when it comes to stereotyping. On the one hand we’re taught that it’s wrong to judge people before we know them, but at the same time I think it’s part of a natural human impulse to find trends and patterns of behaviour. Seemingly the pattern of behaviour amongst young foreign males in China is not particularly good, as I was immediately branded a 色狼 (literally “colour wolf”), meaning a sexual predator or lecher, after just a couple of weeks of being there. This would be pretty quick even for a genuine “colour wolf” (how they stumbled upon that phrase is a mystery to me), but in my case it struck me as simply ridiculous.
At first I was angry at being so falsely accused, but now I can at least understand why that stereotype exists. Throughout my two years in China, I worked with just eleven other foreign males; three of whom were undoubtedly disgusting pervs; while another two or three were borderline sociopathic. If this ratio is representative, then over half of all foreign male teachers in China are degenerates of some kind, and that’s not even counting the businessmen. One former colleague used to touch girls’ hair and shoulders during breaks, while another asked his female students questions such as, “how many of you girls would have sex before marriage?” The worst offender of the bunch once showed his female students pornographic images as part of their final exam, and asked them to describe what they saw.
Given stories such as these (and believe me, there are many, many more), it’s no wonder that foreign males are subjected to stereotyping in China. You never know what your students have experienced in the past, and it’s possible that stereotyping is a kind of defence mechanism against future abuses of positions of trust and authority. I know that if I was the parent of one of those students, I would rather they distrust all foreign teachers, however unfairly, than put themselves at risk.
Thankfully over time I was able to dispel the negative assumptions that were made about me, and here’s how:
- Whenever I started teaching a new class, I made a point of spending a disproportionate amount of time speaking with the male students. Most colour wolves will speak exclusively to the girls, so set yourself apart from the beginning by subverting their expectations of you. It may seem unfair on the girls, but it’s just for the first couple of weeks, and I strongly believe that it’s a good trade-off in the end. Once you feel you’ve made your point, you should divide your attention equally amongst the guys and the girls.
- I never spent time with a female student outside of class, and kept my social interaction with all students to a minimum. During class hours I was always friendly and approachable to the students, but I made it clear that my relationship with them was strictly professional. One of the many reasons for doing this is that gossiping is practically a national pastime in China, and if you are seen even walking with someone of the opposite sex, it is automatically assumed that you’re dating.
- The topics I chose for class were never ones that could make students uncomfortable. While it’s important not to make your lessons too dry, there’s really no need to ever talk about sex in class. Lessons on relationships and gender roles are fine, but be careful to keep things PG. Even if you’re teaching university students, pitch your content as though you are teaching a group of 14 year-olds, and you’ll be much closer to the mark.
- My last piece of advice is simply, “be a good teacher”. The perverted teachers you come across in China are perverts first and teachers second. In other words, they put more effort into being a perv than they do into being a teacher. Students are very quick to spot an incompetent teacher, and when they do so they are likely to start questioning that teacher’s motives for coming to China in the first place. Don’t make them question you in the same way. Prepare your lessons thoroughly, make your topics interesting and relevant, manage your classroom effectively, and just generally let your integrity show.
Simply put, if you’re not a pervert, then you have nothing to worry about, and remember not to take it personally if you feel that you have been wrongly accused. Just persevere with what you’re doing, follow the advice above if you like, and eventually you will have earned the trust and respect of your students.
What are your experiences with stereotyping in China? Do you feel like you were viewed or treated according to your race or gender? Please leave a comment below if this issue has affected you.