Season’s greetings from China!
I’m finally writing another blog post – something I’ve been failing to do for the last two months – because I’m riding high on a wave of delight at the moment. I’ve rediscovered something that I hadn’t expected to lose, and it’s a pretty grand sensation.
I have just returned from an evening of badminton with a student. We played in the almost-dark, with a single bulb lit in the massive outdoor multi-purpose court, surrounded by marching, chanting PE students and their shouting instructor, while the class buildings around us poured out-of-sync recordings of the school anthem from every open window. And we played some serious badminton, too. There’s nothing new or unusual about this – I frequently play badminton with students, often in the gloom and always in the midst of moderate to severe chaos. I have also upgraded my typical American just-a-bit-better-than-Memorial-Day-barbecue badminton skills to hey-that-foreign-girl-is-decent-enough-that-we’re-all-gonna-watch badminton skills. None of that was especially exciting.
The exciting bit? I played with a girl.
Now, I’ve played with tons of girls before. It has always been a blast, but it’s always been more of a social experience. Yes, these gals are firmly a grade above American picnic badminton, and they are way better than I was upon arrival, but it isn’t sporting the way I was rather expecting. I am usually the only one wearing pants and tennis shoes. Skater skirts do not promote serious exercise. All of this is fine, and I love playing with them, but…
“Are you tired?”
“You don’t need to run.”
“How about a rest?”
I’m no kind of super athlete. I fall pretty comfortably in the middle range of fitness, by American measure. I like sports. I like being fit enough to be able to do cool stuff. But so often – not always, but often – I feel improper playing with female students here. If I take two steps to hit the birdie, I hear startled gasps from my partners. If I jump to reach a high hit, they chorus “Oh, it’s okay,” as if I should not bother and really ought to just reassemble my composure.
I like sports and sweating and working hard as a team. With girls, though, I have learned to just swing my arm around and take nice slow steps. Otherwise, I feel a bit – freakish. Like I’m doing something unseemly.
The badminton courts are not the first place where I’ve felt this way. It absolutely agonized my host family, my students, and much of the general populace when I failed to carry a parasol during the summer. I am convinced that heat has less to do with it than does the preservation of women’s skin. Pale as ghosts, that’s the meaning of true womanhood right there. I apologize for my nasty tone here – I am jaded, I admit it, but the constant discussion of female beauty here irks me. I have been told a thousand times (by Chongqing and Sichuan women, note) that women from Chongqing and Sichuan are the most beautiful women in China, because of the overcast summer skies which help them stay gorgeously corpse-white all the time.
This may or may not be helped by the dress sense in Chongqing (which is starkly different, I know, from many places in northern China); there is a lot more leg going on here. On any given day, most of my students are wearing mid-thigh or higher skirts. More surprising to an American mind are the skirts my colleagues are wearing – I cannot keep up with a single one of my middle-aged counterparts, and honestly I am not trying, because NO.
The same can be said of high heels. You do not want that ninety pound lady stepping on you in the elevator – her stiletto heel will cut through your foot like a knife through butter. Mountain hiking is a popular pastime here, but the dress code really doesn’t seem to change too much; an alarming number of gal hikers will be struggling gamely on in four inch heels. A far fewer number – equally alarming for its low count – will be going barefoot, heels clutched in a hand or sticking out of a purse.
Let’s pause, though, in this rant, and take some breaths, and observe something. For those of you who are a bit uncomfortable with the short skirts discussed above, I will take a moment to throw a Chinese curve ball at you. Cleavage, boys and girls, is not okay. It is extremely not okay. I have never, ever, ever seen any clothing that even threatened cleavage on anyone at my site, and these are college kids we’re talking about. The wardrobes of college kids everywhere on the globe make their parents cringe, and there is still no cleavage here.
Okay, I’m exaggerating. Every once in a while, every once in a long, long, while, something might threaten. But I swear I’ve never witnessed any neckline that would make a high school principal so much as bat an eye.
I taught a lesson on American fashion (Some of you are laughing at this. Stop it.) for my sophomore non-English major students. They were floored by pictures of American college students. Stunned. They weren’t too fussed about the guys’ clothes, but the girls? From the waist down, they thought American gals dressed like little kids. From the chest up? Put a shirt on!
My point is simply a reminder – to both my readers and myself – that culture differences of this sort are exactly that. Just differences. In the case of questions of female beauty, it is easy, and natural, for me to feel affronted. The forwardness of my Chinese students when it comes to physical characteristics can make me a bit more prickly than I ought to be, as well. My kids, bless them, have no qualms at all about making conversation about however I happen to look that day. It’s something of a painful joke for all of us in the Peace Corps – we swap grimacing stories about ways that we were humiliated by completely innocent students. Some of my own personal favorites…well, some of your favorites, possibly, dear readers.
This to a poorly coordinated outfit: “Teacher, why you dress so confusing today?”
This to the one day I wear a headband: “Renana, I don’t understand that thing. What is the meaning?”
This upon suffering a breakout: “Teacher, go to a doctor for your face!”
This to a bad hair day: “Here is a brush, Renana. Maybe you can use it.”
This, during mid-term interviews, wherein my students were instructed to teach me something: “Okay, teacher. I thought for a long time what I want to teach you. And now, I decided to teach you something special for you. I want to teach you how to lose weight! It will really help you a lot!”
If you groaned aloud when you read any of these, imagine how many groans I have swallowed in the past four months. China, the surefire way to teach yourself to roll with punches – it’s thick skin or madness here.
(Also, yes, my students largely call me Renana. My highest level English students call me Reanna. This puts them about level with the highest level English speakers in America. Good to know that some things are constant in every culture.)
The point – sorry, I lost the point somewhere. Ah, right, badminton. Badminton and gals.
Exercise does not fit into many of my students’ perceptions of girl-things. (Diet, OH yes. But exercise, not generally.) They are a bit uncomfortable hearing that I play volleyball, and are quite unnerved when I mention that my sister and I both played soccer. I frequently ask my students to exercise with me, and they are not at all interested. They exchange glances, generally, and ask me to “take care of myself.”
The same restlessness that first led me to the volleyball courts also got me to frequent the badminton courts, as well. I’m more often there than the volleyball nets, now, because I’ve made friends with a handful of (male) PE students who apparently spend their lives in a constant flow from track to soccer field to basketball courts to badminton nets, and do not eat, sleep, or go anywhere else. This is a lie, I’m sure, but the evidence of my experience couldn’t prove it so. These students saw a random foreign girl swinging around a racket, and decided they’d teach me some real stuff.
They school me – by schooling me. It is actually pretty brutal exercise, but they are fantastic teachers, more patient and encouraging than any other instructors of anything that I’ve had in China. Meeting them has been one of the highlights of my experience here – especially because, with them, I never feel like I’m doing something absurdly unfeminine. It’s likely because I’m foreign (‘weird foreigners, they always do weird things’), but I genuinely think that there’s more of a sense of ‘we’re all buds together’ when we play, even if I’m garbage compared to this gang of Bruce Lees.
I’m completely serious about the badassitude of these PE students, by the way. My school has one of the best basketball teams in Chongqing, and also, I’m frequently told, one of the best, if not the best, PE programs in the municipality. #myschoolisthebestschool #ahhhyeaaah
Yet it has been so frustrating to think that only my foreignness makes playing sports seriously okay. I don’t like being forced to rein in my enthusiasm. I don’t like playing badminton while standing still. I don’t like missing social cues and looking like a weirdo.
There was a moment, perhaps two weeks ago, when several students and I were shopping downtown. We saw our bus arrive just when we came into sight of the station, and one of the girls shouted ‘oh, no, let’s run!” So we ran. Ish.
I missed the bit where running was a joke. My students broke into delicate high-heeled jogs. Me, I thought we were really running, so I did. I caught up to the bus, banged on the door. It stopped.
My students were not right behind me, like I thought they were. They were quite a ways back, and they were laughing so hard they could barely stand. I came close to dying, actually dying, of embarrassment.
We got on the bus. I was really wishing I’d tripped on the curb back on the sidewalk, because it seemed like falling on my face would have been more womanly than sprinting for a bus. I genuinely thought I’d damaged my reputation with these students. I wasn’t surprised when two of them caught my arm on the ride. Now that the laughter had subsided, I knew I was in for a ‘take care’ talk.
“Most girls in China don’t do that,” they told me, seriously. “You know it?”
“Yeah, I know it,” I said, in the special tone of brittle cheer I use for moments like these.
“We were so surprised!”
“Yeah, I know that too.”
One of them leaned forward to get a good look at my face. “Many girls in China don’t like to do that,” she told me, “but I think it’s okay.”
The male student with us was nodding enthusiastically. “It’s important for health.”
“You are so fast,” added the gal on my other arm.
It was not the time to point out the many virtues of no heel shoes. I turned that little conversation over in my head a lot longer than it deserved, probably – but it was the first time any of my girls had taken that tone toward active athleticism in women. There were obviously some female students who were serious about certain sports – I witnessed this during the annual sports meeting held by our school – but I had yet to encounter any. It was a nice thing, to be praised a little for something I had been starting to believe had defeminized me in the eyes of my students.
And then, two weeks later, I got a call from a strange number, and when I answered, I heard an unfamiliar voice. “Hi, Rena. My friends said you are fast?”
Nancy – her English name – is neither a PE student nor an English major. However, she’s mad for 运动 (exercise) and wants to practice her English, and ended up with my number. We met at the court, and she looked me up and down – which I admit I was also doing to her (hopefully more subtly), and she asked, “Easy or difficult?”
“Difficult,” I said, then, apprehensively, “okay?”
We swatted a birdie at each other for two hours this evening, and she set a pace that my PE pals would approve of. She played in platform heels, but informed me five minutes in that next time, she was going to wear her sports shoes. I chose to take that as a compliment, and I really think it was.
Her English is excellent. She’s a very outgoing student, is happy to answer questions and hold conversations while pummeling me, and, when I’m too busy trying not to lose to talk, she cheerfully practices English by giving us a sporting commentary.
“You hit that side – now me – now you, hurry – now I will 扣球 – oh, and you tried to hit it, but you missed and failed. You should be faster. You should have faster re – retack – ”
“Yes, yes, reactions! You should react more faster!”
“That’s an excellent word.”
And then we beam at each other and she serves again.
I don’t think I’ll ever feel improper on a badminton court again. Nor will I ever think about Chinese womanhood without thinking of Nancy and her wicked 扣球。
It’s wintery and miserable at home, my readers, and I’m sorry for that, but make a note to get out there come summer and whack around a birdie or two. You’ll need the practice, because I’ll be itching for a game in 18 months, and I’ll be gunning for you. Let’s talk again soon.