The class I teach here in China is Spoken English. I am here this term to improve the spoken English of close to 300 Chinese college students. How does one accomplish that? Well, by making them talk (harder than you think). There are many ways to do this, of course, but at least something done in class has to result in grades given out, which can be very limiting. My semester plan centers around discussions. I won’t bore you with all the details at this moment, but the last discussion we had in class this semester was about sex. It may be regular fare in Wilson’s classes, but it’s the first time I’ve done something like that. After all, this is China.
The results were extremely educational — all around — and a resounding success, if I do say so myself.
A crucial element in my classes is student involvement and initiative, and this concept extends to the discussions. While I pick the topics, the students lead the discussions and think of the discussion questions themselves. I generally just sow a few seeds to give them ideas, and they take it from there. This method can have great results.
So what happened when the topic of SEX was unleashed in the classroom? Reactions spanned the whole spectrum, ranging from the nervous fidgets of students who were clearly uncomfortable with the topic and kind of wished it would go away to the antics of students who embraced the topic with gusto and took it much further than I expected.
It all begins with the questions. Some students were clearly uncomfortable with the topic, so I told them they were free to interpret the topic how they wanted — they could talk about AIDS issues, sex education issues, or gay rights issues rather than getting down and dirty with it. One guy was so uncomfortable with the whole thing that he interpreted “sex” to mean “gender,” and all his questions were lame gender-related questions (and yes, I admit that there are good gender-related questions, but he didn’t come up with any). The squeamish were definitely in the minority, however, which made me feel that I wasn’t doing the wrong thing. I was further removed from any blame by the fact that the students were the ones that actually came up with all the questions. I merely guided and moderated.
Anyway, there were some interesting questions. The few discussion leaders who dared ask who in the group had had sex before got no replies. The message was clear: making it too personal was not OK. In the beginning, “do you think sex before marriage is OK?” was one of the more risque questions that got answers (and yes, some students — both male and female — were publicly answering in the affirmative to that question). One question I heard a boy pose intensely to several girls had me really laughing: “All people have sexual desire. Do you??” Based on his logic, the girls couldn’t answer no, and they didn’t disagree anyway, but they still didn’t want to admit it. The students taught me what Confucius had to say on this matter: “食色性也” (shi se xing ye) — “Sex is part of human nature.” Plenty of students got into how they would react if they learned that a friend was gay. Toward the end of the discussion hour, I was shocked to hear that one group had even ventured into the subject of bestiality! Yes, Chinese students discussing bestiality in English in my classroom. Gotta love this job. They did it on their own, I swear!
Perhaps what made the discussion such a success was bringing role play into it. I gave people roles, such as “the promiscuous American” and “Mao Zedong.” I encouraged them to be outrageous by giving hypothetical examples of my own. “I’m a promiscuous American, and I think young people should be having sex every day with multiple partners” got uproarious laughter, and, incredibly, it actually spawned more of the same. I told my students that lying in a discussion is fine as long as they’re doing it in English. Evidently that was enough to get them to them to open up.
Towards the end of class, each group of students seemed much more at ease with the topic, and they were giving straight answers if I questioned them. One group of students was discussing sex among college students. “You mean a lot of college students are having sex in China?” I asked, feigning bewilderment. “Of course!” my student responded. “It’s an open secret.” I love that line, because it beautifully captures a truth about Chinese society in all its paradoxical glory. I couldn’t have put it better myself. I was so impressed that my student had accomplished it, in English no less.
So I was pleased with how that class went. A week, later, though, I was giving oral quizzes on discussion vocabulary we had covered in class. One of them was the term “gay,” intended for the sex discussion. I guess maybe the students got a little too comfortable in class — one of my students, given the word “gay” to make a sentence, promptly replied with, “John and Wilson are gay.”
Hmmm… It seems to me there was a time when the teachings of Confucius were a little more teacher-friendly….