Because we are such close friends
When I arrived in Xi’an a foreign teacher advised me to download an app called WeChat if I had a smart phone, “The kids will all want to talk to you and WeChat is easier to ignore than texts.” Also, the entire country uses this app instead of texting so it’s generally useful to have. The cellphone the school gave me predates the emergence of smartphones so I installed WeChat on my iPhone, which Verizon forgot to unlock when I asked them to, so I could use it on wifi.
And just like he said, once I started teaching the requests for my number started coming.
“I want to be friends with you,” the students always say.
We barely speak the same language, I’m over 10 years older than you, 20 years more mature, and you cannot even comprehend that homosexuals are real people. So no, we cannot be friends. But I’ll add you on WeChat.
The Western-style student/teacher relationship is non-existent when you are a foreign teacher in China. The only boundaries are how many barriers you put up and how determined a student is to make you into their friend. I’m not a teacher; I’m a novelty. My classes are different from my Chinese counterparts (I spend more time talking with students and less time drilling them on pronunciation), I’m the only foreign teacher on campus, and my foreignness means they don’t understand the subtext of what I say, or am not saying. The kids interpret all this to mean that I’m somehow more accessible even though they don’t know anything about me. They do not seem to desire so much contact with their Chinese teachers, just me.
Usually I get a few excited messages from a student when I add them on WeChat, then they fade away as our conversation gets buried under the constant stream of messages they get from their friends. A few persistent students pop up every week or so, asking me how I am or what I am doing, sending me pictures of themselves, sending me pictures of me that they took in class, self-deprecating their English speaking skills, inviting me out to do things, telling me random personal facts about themselves, emphasizing how good of friends we are, and occasionally telling me what they think of my fashion choices. Creating a Western-style student/teacher relationship in an environment where it seems impossible to exist is exhausting, so I stay evasive but polite. Not engaging too much in their lives, not responding unless asked a question, making up lies about being busy, and ignoring how their rudimentary English makes their overtures of friendship seem chidlish.
I spend my workdays having simple stilted conversations with these kids and I’d rather not do it anymore than my contract requires. I’d rather spend the hours alone in my room in silence, watching Netflix or writing, or take the hour commute to the city to see my few English-speaking friends. I’ve had to become very protective of my own time, especially since I teach more classes than I thought I would. This is not to say I don’t have good relationships with students, I quite enjoy spending time with some of the seniors I taught, but these are the exceptions to the rule.
The other exception to the rule is the student who seems like he is just a few degrees away from stalking me. He approached me one day on campus and then proceeded to aggressively try to befriend me, he was not one of my students. I ended up giving him my cell phone number (first mistake) because he seemed harmless enough and gave me a gift, which is not uncommon, students give me trinkets and snacks from time to time. He seemed a little awkward, but I chalked up his awkwardness to the language barrier (second mistake). After a few weeks he would text every day, wanting to have every meal with me and spend evenings practicing English and if he hadn’t heard back from me in 30 minutes he would text again. I always pushed back, sticking to my 'evasive but polite' persona, and would met him for a quick lunch once a week. Every time he did see me he would ask if we could get together in the evenings to hang out and practice English even though every previous time he asked I told him that I spent all day helping kids practice English and had no desire to do it in my free time. He left on a school trip for three weeks and I forgot that he ever existed, but he recently returned and his insistence on meeting has increased. So I changed from ‘evasive but polite’ to ‘evasive and blunt’.
I told my friend who used to teach here at the university and she knew him very well, he did stalk her last year and she went to the university to get them to keep him from contacting her. She advised me to do the same and threaten him with the authorities if necessary. When I went to my boss he immediately knew who I was talking about and said that student was ‘quite frankly crazy’. Then he told me to be firm but gentle with telling him no because Chinese kids aren’t very ‘independent’ and maybe he might kill himself if I reject him to harshly.
Oh great, I thought.
So I changed my default response to everything he texted me to, I'm busy.
Then I got this text:
I told him I was busy, which was not a lie at the time but shortly after I’m pretty sure I saw him waiting outside one of my classrooms.
I can't help but feel we're heading towards a showdown, a really awkward and unpleasant showdown. It is a little unsettling for sure, but mostly it just makes me angry.
I have three weeks left in this semester. Three weeks.