When the knife attacks happened in Kunming last weekend, I was traveling through the city for work. As my colleagues and I scoured the Internet for news, rumors and updates from friends, I thought about how I wouldn’t have thought twice about bringing up the subject with my students in the United States, but in China, I would pause hard before discussing it in-depth with anyone, much less my students. The last thing I’d want is for the wrong thing to be said, the wrong conclusion to be made and trouble to be had. That is why I asked Jiang Houming, a 2012-14 Teach For China Fellow, to reflect on how he addressed the incredibly heart-breaking events with his students in a way that made this the learning experience it needed it to be for our students, regardless of where we are in the world. This week, with news of the Malaysia Airlines jet disappearing with 154 Chinese citizens aboard, this compassion is more important than ever.
Last Saturday, more than 29 people were killed in the train station terrorist attacks in Kunming and more than a hundred were hurt. The Internet in China was abuzz with discussions about terrorism, Western media’s bias, and the right to own a gun. But as a second-year Teach For China teacher, I was thinking about what to say to my 8th grade history class the next day.
At first, I wondered if I should even bring this up with my students who live in a small town in Baoshan County, more than 10 hours by bus away from Kunming, the capitol of Yunnan Province in China. Like all the other teachers, I could just cover what was in the textbook for class the next day. The topic was potentially politically sensitive. My class could spiral out of control and my students could make a joke of the attacks. There were many reasons why I shouldn’t bother bringing up the issue.
But at the end of the day, this was the reason why I defied my parents’ wishes, left my life in Beijing after college and came to teach in a remote town in Yunnan for two years. I came here not just to improve test scores and keep an orderly class. I came here to develop my students as compassionate and critical thinking members of our country.
So, the next day, after covering the class objective about the liberation of Tibet in 1951, I mentioned the terrorist attacks in Kunming.
“Dealing with minority groups is a complicated issue in China. Are there any minority students in our class?” No hands were raised. Although Yunnan Province has 25 minority groups, 99 percent of my kids are ethnically Han.
“Do you know what has happened in Kunming a couple of days ago?”
“Yes!!!” a few boys got excited and were eager to show off that they knew something. “People were chopped to death!” “In the railway station!” “It was Uighurs!” Although they may not have instant access to Internet, newspapers or be in a big city, my students already knew some facts.
“Why did such terrible things happen??” I tried to get everyone involved in the critical thinking process, which is far more important than test scores.
Suddenly a boy blurted, “They hate us.”
“Very good. But why did they hate us?” I was impressed by his answer, but wanted more.
Silence again. An even longer one. Maybe this question was too difficult for them.
“When do you find yourself dislike someone?” I broke the silence by giving them a simpler question.
“When my mom beats me!” “When my dad doesn’t buy things he had promised!” “When my classmates call me the nickname I don’t like!”......answers appeared one by one with occasional laughter.
“Let’s summarize this. So can I say that you hate someone because you are not satisfied?”
They nodded their heads.
“These Uighurs were not only unsatisfied with what they had but also wanted to separate Xinjiang from China. Can we tolerate that?” I had to make things simpler for them to understand and let them know our government’s attitude.
“Do you think fighting and killing help solve the hatred?” It was time for me to teach them something else beyond what they were potentially hearing from the media.
“No. It intensifies hatred.” A few girls said that almost the same time.
“Terrific. And do you think these Uighur murderers could represent all of the Uighur people in China?”
Tentatively, a few students responded, “No...”
“Absolutely not.” I said this adamantly to show my attitude.
“Fighting and killing never solve problems but make things worse. There are also plenty of minority groups in Yunnan, even though our community is an exception. If we want to avoid such tragedy in the future, we should make friends with everyone regardless of their ethnicity. Right?”
There was nothing politically sensitive involved. And my class didn’t fall apart. At the end of the day, all I wanted my students to think about was the impact of love and hatred in our history and future.
I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone to be filled with such hatred from such a young age to the point where it leads to the deaths of countless innocents. That is something I will never want to happen to my students.
Photo by Shaina Lu, Teach For China 2012-14 Fellow
The opinions expressed in Lessons From China are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.