"They can take our lives, but they'll never take...our...FREEDOM!!!"
Of course Braveheart's line kindles a fire within me. As an American, freedom is my middle name.
Interestingly, there are things I am free to do in China that I can't do back home. I can walk down the street, or onto public transportation, with a can of beer in my hand. I can light off a fistful of fireworks whenever the occasion (or the mood) strikes. I can smoke anywhere I want, even if there are a dozen signs claiming "NO SMOKING", because those signs in China are just there for decoration. If I had a scooter, I could ride it onto the sidewalk and disregard any and all traffic lights. If I had a kid, I could hold him/her over a garbage can to relieve themselves in public, and no one would call C.P.S. on me.
But what is public drinking compared to the right of free speech? In my country, I can say whatever I want to about my government, and I won't disappear into some gulag, never to be seen again. Even now, people disappear in China after saying politically volatile things.
What is lighting off explosives compared to freedom of religion? If I decide to run for political office in the U.S., I don't have to swear to renounce religion. As a member of the Communist Party in China, you'd have to swear your only allegiance was to Communism.
I don't have to put my age, gender, photo, health, or marital status on my resume.
Feeling as I do, I still wanted my students to talk about the idea of freedom without feeling as if some foreigner were judging them. Because the 4th of July is coming up, I thought it'd be a good idea to give them just a few minutes of U.S. history--specifically, why the U.S. declared its independence--and then the rest of class would mostly be open-ended discussion.
When I talked about the colonists' complaints against England (search and seizure; quartering soldiers; imprisonment without knowing the charges against you; and of course, taxation without representation), my students' eyes widened. In China nowadays, and especially in Shanghai, some of these ideas are as foreign as they are in the U.S.
"After more than 160 years of this, the colonists were pretty upset. Many of them had only lived in the colonies--they'd never been to England. Sometimes whole generations had only lived in Boston or New York. That made them more American than British (even though the United States of America wasn't a country yet!). But the British government--over 5000 kilometers away over the ocean--was still ruling their lives. Quite unfairly at times. And that's why they declared independence."
I knew I was simplifying, but when your classes only run 50 minutes and you don't see the same students on a daily basis, you have to come to the point as fast as you can.
Still, sometimes teaching opens a door in me I didn't know was there. For the first time, I could really put myself in the shoes of my ancestors. I could feel a bit of what they must've felt.
I'd prepared about 20 discussion questions for my students--What is freedom? What freedoms do you have, and which ones do you wish you had? Is working 40 hours a week like slavery? Should everyone in the world be able to bear arms (own a gun)? I knew a lot of my students would be more comfortable if I ran the class as a partner discussion, where only one person might hear their opinions on the idea of freedom. Running the class this way also would keep me from overwhelming them with my own opinions--at least, that was my hope.
Here are some of the things I caught from three different classes:
I try to escape from my mother's controlling! [Laughter] I can't make choices by myself. [Her parents had said] "If you don't go to Fudan University, we won't send you to another one, and we won't visit you."
[Freedom means] I can read any book I want, watch any program I want...In our country, there are too many limitations, and you cannot choose...
Freedom is good, but we must have rules.
You have to say the [Communist] Party is always right...I don't think it's correct.
Freedom has limitation also.
We can discuss ideas [political, etc.] in private but not public...it will be deleted [by the government if posted online or written in print].
Governments make mistakes...[police] officers make mistakes.
We don't have complete freedom.
The government protects the rich man. (Not a uniquely Chinese situation, I wanted to tell them.)
[Freedom means] you can say what you want, and no one can hurt you.
It was a bittersweet class, partially because it was my second-to-last Life Club class, and partially because so many of their opinions were similar to my own. And yet they lived in a country where they couldn't have some of the freedoms they knew existed elsewhere.
At the end of my second class, a female student asked, "Teacher, what's your opinion?"
Part of me wanted to get up on my soapbox, but after living in China for a total of three years now, I knew it'd be the wrong thing. I wouldn't have been surprised if the government had sent the occasional "guest" to "monitor" my classes, and I could also see myself getting hauled out of the country before the day was over for instigating a revolution.
"Well, this class isn't about me. It's really about what YOU guys think freedom is. My ideas about freedom will be very different from your ideas, because we come from different countries."
She looked disappointed, and asked again, "But what's your opinion?"
I wanted to tell her, but at the same time, this was a student I'd never met before. I knew this was China, and I was feeling a bit paranoid. The irony is that I'd grown up believing freedom of speech was a God-given right, and here I was, buttoning my lip...meanwhile, a Chinese person, who'd grown up under Big Brother's watch, was asking me to speak freely. But paranoia won out. I repeated what I'd said before.
In the third class, it happened again, this time with a smaller class of students I'd known for a while. I gave them a similar answer, then expanded a bit.
"I think education is really the ticket to freedom," I said. Not very original, but it's something I've believed most of my life. "We're really lucky--American women, Chinese women. We get to go to school." All of my students in this class were women, and they were nodding. "If we were in some places in Africa or the Middle East, we wouldn't be at school. We'd be at home with the baby, or working in the field. That would be our life. I think it's great that China has such high respect for education."
This was true. I've felt more respected as a teacher here than I ever have in the States. Of course, most of my students in the States were considered at-risk youth, so that might have something to do with it.
I was also hoping a little flattery would cover up the fact that I wasn't completely giving my opinion--that on my VPN-sourced news, I've read how many Hong Konger's online posts are taken down; that the people here work hard, pay taxes, and have no right to say what the government does with said taxes. Taxation without representation! Censored art exhibits! My sealed packages being cut open at the post office every single time to be searched right in front of me.
Only one student seemed to catch on--a girl named Soonie, the one who'd been forced to Fudan University by her parents. A bright student with smooth English, she looked a little disappointed at my lack of complete transparency.
If I was ten years younger, I probably would've spoken my mind completely, and damn the consequences. But was that the right thing to do? To inspire my students into a democratic revolution less than two weeks before returning to my own "land of the free", leaving them to be silenced (by any means necessary) by their government? I'm not saying I have that much power, but as a teacher, you sometimes never know.
My hope is that, by having them discuss freedom, by thinking about what it really means to them, that they will come to their own conclusions, their own truth. My hope is that they will be inspired to discuss things more freely, that they will fight for freedom, not in my way, but in their own.
My hope is that, one day, freedom won't just belong to Americans. It'll belong to everyone.