I stepped out of my evening class at 10pm with my English Class Representative walking alongside me. She had an arm full of 111 class’s first English Test. Students rushed around me, excited to be out of their little stools and breathing in the crisp brisk air. I weaved my way through “good evenings” and “hello Miss.B,” as I looked forward to boiling some water and winding down for the night. I’m not sure what it was about that Wednesday evening, but once again teachers would have to face an incident that goes beyond classroom education.
This evening, a group of 8 eighth grade girls (who I taught last year) stayed in their classroom after hours to celebrate a classmate’s birthday. Not only did a cake fight erupt, but the girls had a backpack filled with beer and baijiu. The amount of alcohol they had in their bag was enough to send them all to the hospital with alcohol poisoning.
In 2006, the Chinese Government banned the sale of alcohol to minors. The ban outlawed sales of beverages with an alcohol content of 0.5 percent or above to anyone under 18. While violators can be fined up to 2,000 RMB, it was unclear how the regulation would be enforced. A report released by Shanghai Institutes for Biologiacal Sciences under the Chinese Academy of Sciences showed that more than half of its surveyed middle school students (53.8%) have experience of drinking.
While underage drinking is not unique to China, the culture of drinking in China stems further into societal and family norms. Fathers drink often, 领导 (Ling Dao’s-local leaders and businessmen) drink to build relationships, and drinking is seen as a way to prove oneself’s status. Students are able to buy alcohol without question.
Almost every Teach for China fellow has encountered an incident where students have been drinking.
A 5th grader, 10 years old, drunk and stumbling in the streets with his friends on the weekend.
A couple of middle schoolers drinking at a local bar/restaurant/coffee shop TFC fellows frequent.
A student drinking with his friends while I enjoy a bowl of noodles with a fellow I was visiting.
Last year, I had a conversation with Miss. Li, an english teacher who has been teaching at my school for 14 years. We had just caught students drinking out at a local BBQ spot and I unloaded my frustration.
“Don’t these businesses care about their community? Don’t these students know what alcohol will do to their development?” Her answer was, 没办法 (nothing we can do).
My mind was racing. “What if I made a public service announcement and printed it on paper–taped it around the village and at these businesses? What if I told them about all the harm they are inflicting on these students?” Her answer, “Rachael, it wouldn’t do anything. The only thing we can do is to continue to educate our students and tell their parents.”
“This is their community what else can be done?”
Miss Li said, “One time, we had an internet bar at Laoying. Students started sneaking out of school to go play games and watch porn. Finally, the parents banded together and drove that business out of town. That is the only time something has been done.”
Tackling alcohol and smoking is tricky in our context. It is so embedded into the culture it is unreasonable to think that any TFC fellow will be able to do something about it. Furthermore, the presence of alcohol and smoking is not the fault of our local teachers or school administration. I have witnessed local teachers speak to their students about alcohol and smoking, and its something all students are aware of. They know its bad for their health, they know it impedes development, they know its costly, and they know its not allowed at school.
We have to ask ourselves, why did we start drinking? why did we start smoking? In todays society we know all the harmful effects, we know all the damage it can do, yet we still do it.
Just this year, a fair opened up right outside of the middle school. Students could play games like pop the balloons and win a prize, throw a ball and knock down all the bottles to win a prize, etc… Want to guess what some of the prizes were? Cigarette packs, bottles of red wine, and baijiu were mixed in among stuffed toys and juices. I walked around baffled at the scene. It only took a few minutes until I ran into James, a student of my 7th grade class, who un-capped his prize of red wine and began to take a long swig of victory.
*I confiscated James’s bottle of wine and had a conversation with him about alcohol later that evening. His banzhuren (homeroom teacher) also spoke with him about the severity of his actions. I then approached my school’s principal and urged him to make an announcement at that evenings faculty meeting for teachers to take extra care in checking student dorms, bags, and desks for any contrabands.