Campus Life, China, Gender, University Teaching

Roosters & Hens

I have now been in China for about a month. It’s been interesting.

I feel that the overall situation is an improvement. A university is a far cry from a village school. My students have had years of English instruction. I have my own apartment. I can cook my own food. There is a group of people who speak my language living up and down the halls from me. There are options on the weekend. Lots of things to be thankful for.

But lots of things are different than Georgia. For one, there is no host family. While I don’t miss having food prepared for me or sharing the bathroom with 7 other people, I do miss having people to come home to. I enjoy time alone in my apartment, but then I inevitably reach the time when I want to be with other people. And if you haven’t made previous plans it can be a bit hard to track someone down.

The teachers at my university are a diverse group. There are 25 foreign teachers and we’re a wide range of ages and nationalities. Some have taught in China before, others haven’t. About 10 have been at the university for years and 15 of us are new. And while we all aim to be friendly everyone has different ideas about what they want to do with their time in China. On the whole people are very independent. There’re no group memos about events or any real effort towards inclusivity. No hand-holding here. Which brings me to my next point.

I was dismayed when I realized I was the only female teacher in the new group of teachers. Wouldn’t you want to aim for some balance in the gender of the teaching staff? I asked a few questions and the answer I got surprised me. Apparently it is difficult to find qualified female candidates for this type of position. Really? I was skeptical as I have female friends who have either taught or are teaching at this level in different countries. So, um, okay. Take it with a grain of salt I guess. (There are two teachers amongst the “old teachers” group: one is married with a young son, the other I’ve seen only once in passing. I will, of course, seek them out as time allows.)

So as the lone female in the “new teachers” group my social position was immediately a tad awkward. The average male teacher is of the beer-guzzling, cigarette-smoking variety. As we all know I don’t smoke and have no real thirst for alcohol. Social drinking is fun, but people who “need” a drink are going to get either doubtful looks or a sarcastic raised eyebrow. I gamely try to join in (with the beer drinking), but it’s more out a desire to have something to do with my hands than because I really want a drink. And it’s terribly awkward to be the only non-drinking person at a table. It’s not a moral position. I’m not opposed to drinking. So I join in. But it’s just not that much fun. And when boys drink they seem to inevitably veer towards talking about girls: hot Chinese girls. Surely I cannot be the only woman to find that awkward. And if they talk dirty or swear or gesture crudely an apology is shot in my direction: “Oh, sorry!” I feel like the female invader at guys’ night out. Or the morality police. By default of being female my mere presence operates as a check on their behavior.

Not all the male teachers are of this type. I’ve found a few that can be counted on for relaxing non-alcohol related meals and good company. But again, you have to prearrange things; everyone is just so independent. And then there are a few teachers that have just disappeared into the woodwork that I never see anymore.

In Georgia, in our area, though we had many different personalities, the fact that there were so few of us seemed to bring us together. On the weekends we’d congregate at the one quality restaurant and almost everyone would drop by for a little while to just hang out. There was some low-key gossiping about other teachers, but nothing malicious. There were only 9 of us. So it didn’t seem like a good idea to make yourself too unpopular unless you were planning on going native.

So it’s very different from Georgia. There is no host family and no tight community. I have to just do the things I want to do regardless of whether I can find a companion. Some days this can be a stretch for me, but in general I feel I am holding my own. I amaze myself with how much time I can happily spend alone. There is so much to do! Lesson planning, emails, Skype, Facebook, blogging, reading books, journaling, guitar practice, Pilates, Chinese language study, plus the mundane cooking and cleaning. I never accomplish half of those things on any given day. So it’s not like I’m sitting around bored.

The China situation though has brought to light a possibly unrecognized social need for female company. In the constant company of men I find myself pondering my reactions to them and theirs to me. Is the difference I feel really a male/female thing? Or is it just different personalities and interests? I’ll have a whole year to explore.