“Tell us about those plots of farmland in front of those old buildings,” I asked the two journalism students who picked us up at the airport in Shantou, China.
“The farmers had a protest against the government because the government plans to take away the land to put up new buildings,” one of them said. “One of our classmates went down to write a story about it, but the police came and took him away to be ‘re-educated’. Then they told our teachers, who announced to our classes that none of us could go near the farmers or we, too, would be taken by the police.”
And so began my weeklong visit to Shantou University as a special guest of the journalism department, along with journalist and historian Helen Zia, and my wife, Nancy Otto. The three of us were very warmly received during our stay, and the students were very excited to engage with us on a wide range of issues.I spent time with several journalism classes and one gender studies class. The students all had started studying English when they were in elementary school and I was quickly humbled by how well they were able to communicate with me given my complete lack of Chinese language skills.
As they watched Let’s Get Real and That’s a Family!, students were puzzled about some things, that in the US, we often just assume. “I thought America had a very strong value for equality for everyone and freedom,” one student asked me. “So I don’t understand why is there bullying?” “Why would anyone tell their child that they were adopted?” queried another. “In China, we would never tell a child that.”
It was fascinating to hear, from first-year students that “there was no bullying in China,” but then in the advanced class, to hear stories pour out about taunting and harassment students had either experienced directly or witnessed among their friends.
Many were intrigued to hear about gay and lesbian couples that had become parents (including many oohs and ahs when I showed a picture of my own family). But when we met with the “Orange Community,” a group not labeled LGBT but one where students knew they could go to talk about gay issues, they told us that it would be impossible for gay people to become parents. That’s because China has a one-child policy that favors married couples (and marriage is not legal between people of the same sex). Anyone who is a single parent by choice or “mistake” is fined the equivalent of one year of salary and charged a much higher tuition for her child to attend school.
On two nights the journalism department had organized large campus-wide events. The first one focused on taking a critical look at the United States: Helen showed excerpts from Who Killed Vincent Chin?, a documentary that chronicles the civil rights questions connected to the 1982 murder of an Asian American man; I showed GroundSpark’s Academy Award winning film, Deadly Deception, which lamblasts the US military industrial complex and the disastrous environmental practices of many major corporations. Both films are crafted to inspire audiences to organize and take action for social justice.
After our sobering arrival story about the student who tried to report on a local demonstration, I wasn’t sure how our night of political organizing 101 would be received. So I was delighted when the students peppered us with questions about equality and environmental protection issues in China. Over and over they asked, “How should we think about these issues here?”
The next night the topic was gender norms, marriage equality, and LGBT identity. Helen showed a Chinese news broadcast covering her own marriage to her partner, Lia, and her testimony in one of the phases of the legal battle to overturn Prop 8 in California. I showed excerpts from Straightlaced—How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up. Ching-Ching Ni, the professor who had invited us, told us it was the first time a public lecture had ever been held at Shantou University that addressed LGBT issues—and quite possibly at any Chinese university.
While I have shown Straightlaced to enthusiastic audiences in countless settings, I don’t think I have ever seen an audience as utterly rapt as this one in Shantou. Afterwards the students popped up across the auditorium to share their own concerns, fears, and questions connected to tto the themes in Straightlaced, painting a rich picture for us of where teen/young adult culture in China is falling today.
“I am the only girl to go to the gym to lift weights and everyone makes fun of me”; “Aren’t gay people the reason there is a population decline in the west?”; and most touchingly, “I think I might be lesbian. How do you know if you are a lesbian?”
I wish GroundSpark’s generous network of supporters could have all been in these lecture halls and classrooms with us. I know you would have been as proud as we were that our films were once again igniting change, this time in China.
Thank you for standing with us and for renewing your support this year. And a big thanks to Helen Zia and Ching-Ching Ni for creating this special opportunity!