Stories: Boys and Girls

Most of us have heard stories about the gender imbalance in China, and there does seem to be some truth to the notion that China is producing more boys than girls. Someone told me before I left that this disparity was as much as three boys for every girl, but that is definitely a gross exaggeration. In my classes, I did see that there were a few more boys than girls. In a class of 45 there might be 24 boys and 21 girls. School desks were arranged in pairs and most pairs consisted of a boy and girl. But there were always one or two all-boy pairs which made it obvious they had “run out” of girls.

China’s one-child policy is still in effect and that means there are a lot of only-children in every class. However, many of my students did have siblings. I learned this while teaching lessons about family: I shared photos of my own family and asked about theirs. Indeed there were some kids with siblings in our school. About half-way through my stay, I noticed that one little girl who I liked seemed a bit taller than I remembered. Not until I saw her leaving school one day did I realize “she” was really two girls; a second-grader and a fourth-grade sister who looked like a slightly-larger clone. I think the reason there were so many kids with siblings was because many of their families came from other parts of China, seeking jobs in the ship-building and manufacturing industries of ChangXing Island. In many of the rural areas of China, the one-child policy has not been enforced. I also learned that, even on the east coast where the policy has been enforced, it is currently permissible to have two children if both parents are only-children themselves.

Recently, someone asked me if I had observed any cultural differences related to the differences between boys and girls. I thought about this and couldn’t think of any cultural-based differences. Much more obvious was how the Chinese kids exhibited the same gender-based differences that seem to be universal: the girls are a little more mature and the boys are more likely to get in trouble for being naughty. In so many ways, the girls and boys were not very different; the girls were generally just as outgoing, fun-loving and boisterous as the boys – and just as likely to be class leaders. But I do have a couple of little gender-based stories I can share.

The first incident occurred while Monica and I were observing a Chinese teacher teach English to a first grade class. It was the first week of September and the very first week of school for these kids. They were still growing accustomed to primary school routines and they didn’t even have their school uniforms yet. The teacher was teaching them the English words for objects they all possessed. She asked them to demonstrate they understood by asking them to “… show me your pencil box.” Once they all had held up their pencil boxes, she would move on to another object – “… OK, now show me your back-pack.” With great commotion the kids raised their large back-packs into the air. When she asked them to put away the back-packs, we watched as the kids stowed them in the open bin just under their desks’ writing surface. One little girl in the back row was having trouble getting her heavily-stuffed back-pack into the opening. The little boy who was her seatmate noticed this and began trying to help her. As they both struggled to force it in by squeezing it to a smaller volume, bending corners, etc., it became apparent that the little boy was losing his patience and he said something in exasperation to the little girl. Monica, who understood a little Mandarin, was able to translate for me – what he said was – “You brought too much!” I laughed and thought how universal this phenomenon must be! How many times have men complained about women carrying too many things in their purse?! Of course, we are always ready to ask our wives or girlfriends “Do you have a …..”

Another incident occurred during a fourth-grade English Corner lunchtime session. I had begun to believe that the school curriculum was falling short in the area of encouraging individual creativity. It seemed to me that the kids were very busy learning/memorizing things they were told were important, but seldom asked to write anything creative. A Chinese English teacher told me they do, in fact, write creative stories, but not in their English classes. Nevertheless, I decided to see if my most advanced students – those selected for English Corner in Grade 4 – might enjoy an exercise in English creative writing. The exercise I conducted started with me writing a sentence on the board. Then, I went around the room asking each child to add a new sentence to advance the story. Explaining the rules of an unusual exercise was always a challenge. Sometimes my instructions were met with uncomprehending looks but, usually, there were a couple of students who understood me, and I would ask them to explain it to everyone else in Mandarin.

The sentence I wrote to start the story was “There was a boy with three eyes.” I hoped the unusual/funny nature of the sentence would inspire them to add more unusual ideas to the story as it evolved. I called on the student nearest me to add the next sentence. He looked at me and made it clear he didn’t know what to add and wanted to pass. After a couple of kids had “passed” I started asking if anyone could add another sentence. When no one volunteered, I began thinking my exercise might have been ill-conceived. As a last ditch effort to salvage it, I added another partial sentence to the story – “His sister had …… ” This was enough to elicit a volunteer: a boy raised his hand and said – “His sister had five ears!” This clearly broke the ice for the entire class and we warmed to the task. I asked him to draw the sister with five ears on the board and his rendition brought great joy from the class. It was easy to get someone else to go next. A girl offered “His father had ten mouths!” More laughter ensued as she sketched the 10-mouthed father on the board. Now I had too many volunteers, and they surrounded me and attempted to grab the chalk so they could be next. When the next boy added the sentence – “His mother had fifteen arms!” I finally realized what was happening – there was a gender war going on. All the girls’ sentences were aimed at male family members and all the boys’ sentences were aimed at female family members. The next girl offered an uncle with fifty legs and the girls gleefully counted aloud as she drew the 50 legs on the board. It went on from there: each new sentence described another opposite-sex family member having an ever-larger number of some body part. Things got a little tense when a girl tried to erase one of the boy’s drawings but we worked through that problem. The exercise didn’t go in the direction I had hoped – I was looking for more unusual twists in the story line than their additions provided. But we had a lot of fun and they made me aware of the underlying competition between girls and boys that could appear at any time.

Finally, there was the incident that happened during my last English Corner session – the one I wrote about in the earlier post “Readjusting.” I had given all the kids American quarters as gifts and many of them had more than one. As I described in the earlier post, when the girl fell and hurt her knee she didn’t seem to want to stop crying. As I tried, unsuccessfully, to console her, one of the boys came up and tried to get me to put one of his quarters in her hand. She didn’t seem to want it and he had to pry her fingers open to place it in her palm. I had a couple of different reactions to this. First, it seemed obvious that he had a good heart and was willing to give up something to try to make her happy. Second, he was probably the youngest man I had ever seen thinking that he could “buy” a woman’s happiness – sort of like “… here’s a quarter, now PLEASE stop crying!!!”

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