Girl at the museum, 2005-06. Oil on canvas.
Private collection, USA.
大家好! Hello everyone! I am writing from a university in Beijing, where I am teaching spoken English and art appreciation. So far, it is my experience that a Chinese classroom is quieter than an American classroom. I've asked students about this, and it’s because Chinese education is heavily lecture-based whereas American education is often discussion-based. A similarity, though, is female students' drive and eagerness to learn. Granted, there are still those busy texting away or ogling their fingernails, but—alas—we are all but human. I also know another necessary caveat is that the population doesn't offer a fair sampling. There are far more young women than young men in general, especially in my classes.
As I get to know my students, both as a mass and as individuals, I am trying to pick up on not only how they interact with each other versus with me, but also what sort of gender roles they play into. Before coming to Beijing, I had a conversation with a Beijing native about the Chinese woman's two conflicting roles. She is expected to be both highly educated and motivated, achieving the same level of intellectual success as her male counterparts, but she must also revert to more traditional female roles of domesticity. Granted, this is only one woman's opinion, and I've already seen exceptions to the rule. But it's a pretty difficult dichotomy to live up to. You study or work alongside your male colleagues, and then you go home and run a family.
My students don't have families yet, but the same mindset is present. I asked my students to write notes introducing themselves. The one that jumped out at me first and nearly broke my heart opened with, "I am [name withheld] a fat girl who wants to lose weight for all her intair? life." Another note: "…also I think art give make girls more charming. So I come to this class to learn more about art." I thought it was interesting that art specifically makes girls charming rather than improving the cultural sensitivity and broadening the minds of all people. Finally, the last note I’ll mention included this: "I wonder that for a girl, I should have some knowledge about arts. That will make me more quiet, elegance, and make at same time, I [illegible] that I will be a imagination girl and be curious about life." Here is another form of the dichotomy. She wants to be quiet and elegant, the traditional female virtues, while also being curious and imaginative, much more modern allowances for girls and women.
I was surprised by these notes and similar emails, especially those commenting on my physical appearance as a reason for attending my class. I’d never comment on my professors' appearance to their face, it has no place in the American classroom. But I suppose it does here, where looks are an important commodity. However, having carried these notes with me for the last two weeks, I’ve thought a bit more about them. They really aren't that shocking. Despite wanting to excel in my studies and pursue a career, I still tend to chide myself if I realize I’ve been particularly loud and crass. I gladly step into the stereotypical role of maternal educator, volunteering to tutor my colleagues' kindergarten-age children and giving them big, warm hugs when class is through. I also make a point of being well made-up when I go to teach my classes. Not just tidy, but what falls well within the realm of "pretty." Why can't a girl or woman study the same things or do the same jobs as men without worrying about the volume of her voice or the attractiveness of her appearance? The latter is always under scrutiny. Just think about Hillary Clinton and all the trouble she's gotten in the last two years alone…or me, a person out of the limelight, receiving emails from students commenting first on my appearance and then on my class material.
-K. Sarah Ostrach
Girl Museum Inc.