Sunday, August 08, 2004

a minor impediment to my unfettered enjoyment of the program

i should have written awhile ago about a small part of the program that has been a bump in the road. it hasn't been enough to register with me more than occasionally--i certainly didn't let it stand in the way of completely enjoying my time here--but it is interesting and has a lot to do with one major component of teaching english abroad: a small but not statistically insignificant percentage of foreign english teachers are evangelical and accept these jobs as a means to get inside the heads [and classrooms] of young students.

so, it is not surprising that one of the teachers on the trip is a former [or current--do they ever stop? are they ever "off the job?"] missionary. by the end of the second week of the teaching, it came to my attention he had been saying things to the students like: "homosexuals are people who were abused as children or came from broken homes." this is an attitude i find deeply offensive. and the only way i heard about it is that he specifically said just this to my homeroom class. when they came back to me on friday of week 2, one of them asked me if it was true that gay people were abused or came from broken homes. [the issue came up in my class because i read an incredibly inclusive maya angelou poem--my favorite--where she catalogs the many diverse people who comprise America, including "the gay, the straight, the preacher/the privileged, the homeless, the teacher"].

i immediately asked them where they heard this--i wondered where because i suspect there's no place on the planet that GLB issues are more invisible, so how did this even get on their radar?--and they told me one of the other teachers [who shall remain nameless--although it might be better to use his name than to refer to him as "the evil teacher" as i will do later...ha!] said it in class. by the way, his topics are california living and advertising...he told me during our eventual confrontation that the issue of same-sex marriage came up in terms of the schwarzenegger recall election...quite a stretch from "california living" if you ask me--i followed the recall election and i don't remember this being an issue at all. hmmm. ] all i knew about the guy at the beginning of the trip is that he lives in california and works in advertising. he's not even a teacher. i honestly think he became part of this program--i know he came in as a replacement, at the last minute--because we needed 20 bodies to come here and he was able to get on a plane with 2-weeks' notice.

anyway, back to friday of week 2. i must have looked horror-struck when my students told me what they had heard, and i immediately told them it wasn't true. like i said before though, same-sex relationships are something that are almost completely invisible here, and since my students are so unbelievably intellectually curious, it is natural that they are fascinated by it. after all, they are smart enough to know they are being deprived of some information. so, that day i talked to them for 10 minutes or so about religious dogma and how certain people spread misinformation to advance their political agenda.

later that night--this was the original hot-pot frenzy night [incidentally, this friday we went to a self-serve/individual hot pot restaurant and it was great, but nothing could match the first night!]--i was back in the computer room at around 11pm and i confronted this other teacher. it wasn't something i had planned but it just happened. from across the conference table where our machines are set-up--and with a couple other teachers in the room (so he would know this was a public issue and not a private one)--i asked him, HAVE YOU BEEN TELLING OUR STUDENTS THAT HOMOSEXUALS WERE ABUSED AS CHILDREN OR CAME FROM BROKEN HOMES?? i was very accusatory simply in the way i asked the question. i was starting down a slippery slope where i laid into him for at least 20 minutes about not having the right to spread his dogma to our students as fact.

interestingly, his immediate initial knee-jerk response was: "you're not gay are have a girlfriend, right?" i think he was surprised that someone who wasn't gay would call him out like i was. without giving details of the conversation, the highlight was when he accused "my side of the issue" of being intolerant of his position. i told him OF COURSE I WAS BEING INTOLERANT, IN THE SAME WAY I WOULD BE INTOLERANT OF A MISOGYNIST BEATING HIS WIFE OR THE KKK TERRORIZING AFRICAN AMERICANS. i also told him he was perverting the discourse by trying to co-opt the word "tolerant." oh, and one other highlight...he said [quite calmly actually...he stayed stoic throughout this probably because he knew he couldn't match my intensity and he would try to impress the others in the room--who were staring more intently at computer monitors than i've ever seen anyone do--with his turn-the-other-cheek-attitude] that he felt attacked. to this i replied, OF COURSE YOU SHOULD FEEL ATTACKED, BECAUSE I AM ATTACKING YOU AND YOUR IDEAS...i told him not only was i attacking him, but i said IT WAS MY DUTY TO ATTACK HIM AND EVERYONE ELSE WHO SPREADS HATE AND INTOLERANCE.

so this is a short summary of my first run-in with him. it was draining but i was happy i didn't let it slide. and i knew it was the right thing to do it publicly, because i was getting signals--visual cues, like a thumbs-up--from people walking behind him out the door. i also heard about it for a few days to come, people telling me they were glad i confronted him. also, the public part of it was important so that he was on notice that the teachers were onto his game and would be paying close attention.

flash-forward to thursday of week 4. after classes were over for the day, i was in the lobby of the building and some of the students i'd had the previous week came up to me, excitedly, and started talking to me. they had just won some "prizes" at the end of the day. i asked them whose class they had been in--it was the evil-man's class--and then one showed me a PSALMS calendar and another showed me a PSALMS music cd. again, i must have been visually outraged. i'm sure a look of disgust broke over my face. i asked them if they knew what this stuff was. at the same time i was asking them, another student actually pointed to the word and said "what does this mean...palms?" i told them these were christian materials, that this teacher was trying to recruit new christians, and that this was something that was specifically forbidden by our program [and i think according to the laws of the chinese government, as well!!]. anyway, i felt horrible for bringing them down off their high, but again, it was educational for them to see what was really going on. and to their credit, they immediately started joking about how the christian prizes weren't of great interest to them anymore.

later, i told a couple of my best friends in the program what i had discovered and we decided something needed to be done. not having the energy for another personal confrontation, i felt like since he was passing out materials, he had broken a program rule, and the program administrators should deal with him. so, friday morning i wrote an email to the two OSU staff running the program, and decided to let them handle it. i also mentioned it to my team leader, who said she was happy someone finally "caught him" at this, because there had been rumors it was going on but nothing that we could confirm.

so, about 11 o'clock that friday night, i found myself back in the computer room. [after the other hot-pot dinner that i already mentioned...the self-service one]. anyway, the evil-teacher was there, as was my friend frank...who witnessed the original confrontation. i was chatting on MSN with frank--not uncommon to do even sitting next to each other, so we can make plans for our meals without generating mass-group-interest--and i told him i didn't have it in me to personally confront the guy and i was going to bed.

i was starting to make my move for the door, when our fearless leader minru came him. he was the main point-of-contact for the creation of the program--he had taught at Wuhan University in the 80s--and he handled the recruitment and training of the teachers. [interestingly, since this teacher came in so late, and lived in california anyway, he obviously wasn't a part of the trainings we held at OSU...but as a missionary, i'm sure he was aware of the laws of china.....and oh, i forgot another thing...after the first confrontation, he and i managed to be very cordial. when i went to dinner one lazy saturday night with frank at a campus restaurant, we saw him sitting by himself and of course we asked him to join us. he told us how his wife was hard at work in her rural chinese village spreading the gospel, and he lamented how hard it was to do this according to the laws of the he couldn't honestly proclaim ignorance!]

so anyway, minru came into the computer room and he had been in Chengu at a conference all day and hadn't checked his email. i knew he would read the message within a few minutes and i wanted to get into my bed as soon as possible so i signed off and headed for the door. as i reached for the handle, i heard minru say "bob, come here for a second"...i smiled at frank as i walked over to minru, who pointed to his computer screen and said he had just written me a said thanks for letting him know--because it showed how much i cared about the program--and that he would take care of it in the morning.

by noon on saturday, the other OSU administrator told me the discussion had already taken place, and that the offending teacher had promised not to distribute any more materials. this was probably the only resolution--i'm not sure how we could have handled it otherwise, although now it occurs to me we should have had the guy make a 2-3 minute informal speech to at least the class those two students were in who received the Psalms materials, and maybe to every class, about how it was inappropriate to pass out religious materials in a classroom setting in China!!

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