The Young Teacher Determined to Talk Sex
It’s been a while since the last issue. I hope you and your loved ones are still healthy and enjoying good spirits.
It’s a bit of a tricky issue running any China-focused publication these days. With things largely back to normal in the PRC while the rest of world is still besieged by COVID-19, it’s almost as if China is living in an alternate reality. The four platforms that I source from have mostly moved away from COVID-related content. I’m still on the lookout for good pieces about China’s recovery from the pandemic though, and I expect to see at least some stories starting in January marking the anniversary of the Wuhan lockdown.
In the meantime, here’s a profile that stuck out recently. Written under an alias, this close look at a young teacher’s campaign to put sex ed on the agenda in the mountainous Daliangshan region—known for its concentration of ethnic Yi, or Nuosuo residents—won top prize at the 2020 summer writing camp organized by We Are People with Stories.
Enjoy and see you soon. My goal is to put out the next issue before the Lunar New Year in mid-February. Also, happy holidays in advance!
The Rural Schoolteacher on a Quest to Destigmatize and Demystify Sex
Edited by Meteor Shower
Credit: Charles Deluvio.
The entire classroom went aghast when photos of the male and female sex organs with their various parts identified in detail popped up on screen during Friday’s weekly briefing. The boys and girls in the audience wore embarrassed or befuddled expressions, their clueless and curious gazes fixating on the pictures after a bit of wandering.
Fresh from her 26th birthday, Li Yan stood by the lectern in a relaxed fashion. She wore a pair of glasses with a black frame and her cheeks were splashed with a smattering of freckles, but her manner exuded a deep-seated confidence.
When it came to the sensitive topic of sex, teachers in big cities found it difficult to breach the subject, let alone those in a small county seat in the mountainous Daliangshan region of Sichuan Province.
Yet it was precisely this touchy topic that Li Yan had at that moment rendered so utterly pedestrian, just as commonplace as eating and sleeping.
A recent incident had stiffened Li Yan’s resolve to launch sex education in her class.
A female student committed suicide.
The tragedy struck not along ago. The student didn’t realize she was pregnant until others noticed her slightly protruding lower abdomen, which set off major panic. Besieged by tongue lashings from her family and intense discrimination, the blossoming young woman couldn’t cope and decided to leap off a building.
For Li Yan, the incident felt like a heavy blow to the chest that left her gasping for air. This was her second suicide in just four years of teaching, occurring only some six months after the last.
The other youngster took his own life because of academic pressure. Both his parents are illiterate. All too cognizant of the handicap the lack of education posed, they pinned all their hope on their son.
They often brought him along to work, so he could witness in the fields first-hand the hardship of farming. To create a contrast, they also took him to the offices of the local county government, so he could appreciate the luxury of a permanent office job.
During a mock exam, the student performed below par and placed outside the top 10. Furious, his tearful mother warned: “If you don’t make it to senior high and land a spot at an elite university and end up farming like us, then I might as well die.”
The comment had the effect of lighting the fuse to a long string of firecrackers. Unable to find an outlet, the child killed himself by downing pesticide.
Having to deal with the double whammy, Li Yan felt torn, baffled as to whether society or the education system were to blame, or if there was something wrong with the mental health of the current generation of children. By one informal count, the school where she taught had seen 17 student suicides in just the past year.
As Daliangshan’s economic boom got underway, locals throughout the region started taking education seriously. The slogan “Knowledge Changes Fates” was emblazoned in large red characters on a sign that towered by the entrance to Li Yan’s school. Be it school officials or parents, academic results came first.
Somehow the idea that scholarly achievement was the only way out took hold as a guiding principle among local parents at some point, which contributed to a large degree to the neglect of student mental health.
The spate of suicides didn’t appear to sound alarm bells among school officials and parents. After a period of shock, everyone went back to the academic grind.
The back-to-back deaths of two of her students became a thorn that pierced Li Yan’s heart. She knew full well that there was something wrong with the existing approach to education. If things didn’t change, then more tragedies were bound to strike.
Thus Li Yan became determined to launch sex education in her class. The idea was to highlight to students that apart from their studies, mental health was also very important.
Word that Li Yan decided to start talking about sex in her class quickly spread in the small county seat. Some parents called her shameless and unethical, questioning the propriety of an unmarried female teacher brazenly teaching the basics of sex. Others simply didn’t bother with the content of her lectures. Academic results were their only concern.
Students in other classes started to act up. They spoke of sex education and pornography in the same vein, while some of the cheekier ones started repeating the refrain “reproductive organ.”
Every time these students were disciplined, they used Li Yan’s sex ed classes as rebuttal, retorting in a righteous manner: “It’s a topic that even teachers can discuss. Why can’t we?”
The head of Li Yan’s grade summoned her for a chat. He used subtle language but the discontent was clear. He thought Li Yan was being too explicit and that the outrage her lessons had stirred created an unnecessary distraction for school management.
Some of her closer friends among the faculty told Li Yan that people tended to stick to familiar ways and were wary of new ideas. When it came to sex, there were deeply rooted taboos in place, they said, urging her to end the exercise in futility.
Optimistic by nature, Li Yan didn’t respond to such criticism but her resolve never softened. From her perspective, young men and women going through puberty were extremely curious about sex. That’s why demystifying the topic by teaching the basic knowledge was all the more critical.
Proper sex education not only taught girls how to protect themselves, but it also gave boys the right guidance so they didn’t run astray.
Many were puzzled as to why Li Yan insisted on sticking to her sex ed classes despite the immense pressure. The fact is Li Yan was exposed to sex ed at an even younger age than the students she taught now. Having been a beneficiary of sex ed herself, that’s why she was all the more determined to stay the course on her current sex ed campaign.
Li Yan was born and bred in Liangshan. Hailing from a relatively well-off lineage, her family owns a small two-story building in town. The first floor is used as a shop for a small business while the second floor serves as their residence.
In an age when most Liangshan families were fighting to put food on the table, their family did OK financially.
Li Yan’s father suffers from a rare genetic disorder that required amputation of both his legs when he was 8 or 9. He quit school at a young age and requires round-the-clock care.
When the health of Li Yan’s paternal grandmother started to deteriorate, she hired a nanny to take care of her son. The nanny came from a large family based deep in the mountains of Daliangshan. Basic subsistence was an issue. She felt content being able to stay in town and not having to worry about food and clothing.
Eventually, Li Yan’s dad and the nanny became a couple and started a family. Soon Li Yan and her two sisters followed. They became a source of joy and a new financial burden at the same time.
To maintain a living, Li Yan’s parents turned the family’s all-purpose store into a sex shop after hearing that you could make a killing selling family planning products.
A fourth grader at the time, Li Yan was mighty curious about the entire inventory. Yet whenever she asked her parents what the products were for, her father typically went silent, while her mother got by with the answer: “It’s stuff for adults. Don’t ask too many questions.”
A child’s mind works in mysterious ways. The more perplexed they are, the deeper they delve. Already armed with a decent vocabulary, Li Yan couldn’t help reading the instructions on the various boxes when her parents weren’t looking.
She tore the wrappers to the individual condoms on sale at the family store and turned the condoms into toys for her sisters. They would blow them into plump balloons or fill them with water and transform them into objects that resembled crystal balls. The three carefree girls couldn’t get enough of it.
Li Yan would also compare the naked photos on the boxes to her own body. When she saw the buxom women on the photos that graced the boxes of breast enhancement products, a baffled Li Yan—then just starting puberty—would fondle her own budding chest and wonder why her own breasts didn’t measure up.
As the questions started to pile up, Li Yan started looking up “breasts” and other related terms in the dictionary. After learning the basics of female anatomy, she moved onto the male body. Thus Xinhua Dictionary became the first “textbook” in Li Yan’s sexual enlightenment.
Li Yan’s first proper sex ed lesson actually came in the summer between fifth and sixth grades.
A young couple from the provincial capital were visiting Li Yan’s town on a sketching and painting trip. The woman was called Meizi and the young man A Jun. They were students at a local arts university taking advantage of their summer break to seek inspiration from nature and take in Daliangshan’s gorgeous scenery while they were at it.
The town wasn’t equipped with a hotel back then, so the young couple rented an empty room on the second floor of Li Yan’s home. The room was separated from Li Yan’s room by a particle board only as thick as a human palm.
Summer nights in Daliangshan looked like a naughty child had spilled a can of golden glitter on a black silk screen. The entire sky was sparkling.
Meizi leaned on the railing of the second floor corridor to bathe under the gentle moonlight. The eyeshadow she wore shimmered while the cigarette hanging from her hand made for a bright red glow.
Meizi put the cigarette in her mouth for a deep drag, turned her head and blew a smoke ring in the direction of Li Yan, who was staring at her with a blank expression. “Do you want one?” Meizi asked with a smile.
Meizi was the first woman Li Yan had seen smoke a cigarette in real life. She also had a slew of indecipherable English words tattooed near her collarbone. For Li Yan, who had never ventured outside of her small hometown at that point, Meizi amounted to a movie star.
Meizi smiled again, revealing deep dimples. Yet Li Yan didn’t think she was happy. After a bit of hesitation, she mumbled the question that had been weighing on her mind: “You and your boyfriend got into a fight last night, right? I heard your wailing.”
Meizi flashed a look of surprise, which quickly turned into embarrassment. “We didn’t fight. That’s just a way two people in love express affection after reaching a certain level of emotional intimacy.”
Li Yan glared at Meizi, a picture of confusion. Meizi caught onto Li Yan’s ignorance. “No one has ever told you about sex?”
Li Yan shook her head.
So Meizi started with the basics of female anatomy, then moved onto how two people in love use physical integration to signal their emotional intimacy.
Meizi told Li Yan that she shouldn’t show her private parts to others, let alone let them be fondled. Only mating with someone she loved when she reached adulthood would bring true happiness. Before adulthood, she had to protect herself properly.
Meizi also explained to Li Yan the serious health risks of abortion and told her that even if she was with someone she had feelings for after becoming an adult, she shouldn’t have sex with that person if she wasn’t ready. “A responsible man is someone who respects and values women,” she said.
That night, Meizi and Li Yan chatted through the night, leaving a deep imprint on Li Yan’s life. In the many years that followed, Li Yan could still remember the casual confidence of Meizi’s words and easy charisma. That sort of self-assurance served as an important lamppost in Li Yan’s own personal growth.
When boys asked to see Li Yan’s underwear vest, she would refuse without hesitation and report the improper behavior of these confused boys to her parents and teachers.
When she stumbled upon her parents making love, she would thoughtfully close the door for them. The next day, while her parents would be at a loss as to how to explain the previous night’s scene, Li Yan would declare boldly: “I’m so happy to see you show such great affection toward each other.”
Li Yan’s comments would always leave her parents tongue-tied. They wanted to scold Li Yan for being too worldly and yet when the words reached the tip of their tongues they would realize she didn’t do anything wrong.
In sixth grade, most of the girls in Li Yan’s class experienced their first periods. The sudden onset of the deep red stains often left them in a state of panic.
One of Li Yan’s close friends grabbed her hand and told her anxiously that she may have contracted a deadly illness.
After getting the full lowdown, Li Yan calmly told her friend that her periods had started, that this was a process all girls went through and that it was a normal biological phenomenon.
The blood-stained pants and the sanitary napkins that fell out of backpacks gave the boys a real kick. Most of the girls responded to the mockery with extreme embarrassment. They felt that their periods were shameful.
“This is a sign that a girl has come of age. It’s something worth celebrating. Just like your wet dreams, they’re a normal biological development. Only childish fools would make an issue out of it.” Words that even adults avoided like the plague came out of Li Yan’s mouth in such a level-headed fashion. Li Yan’s discourse clearly stunned the boys who were clueless about sex and instilled a sense of fear in them.
Once crippled by low self-esteem because of her average looks and freckled face, Li Yan grew increasingly confident. She started to stand up for herself and accepted her shortcomings front-on.
That’s because Meizi told her while you couldn’t change external reality easily, inner beauty was something that could be cultivated and put on confident display.
Li Yan’s handicapped father was always a deep source of pain for her. She never wanted him to attend parent-teacher conferences and never invited her classmates to her house. The immense shame prevented her from telling others about her father’s condition.
Yet a casual comment from Meizi awakened Li Yan to her lack of empathy. “Even though your dad is disabled, he’s doing the best he can to improve your living conditions and change the fate of the family. It’s so impressive,” she said.
In her secondary school entry exams, Li Yan wrote an essay entitled My Father chronicling her dad’s story of perseverance. She spoke of her pride of her father’s determination and gratitude for her mother’s ability to endure hardship.
The essay was universally loved by graders and helped Li Yan land a spot at one of the top secondary schools in the county.
Secondary school is a period when kids in puberty grow in pride as well as sensitivity. Students from the county seat are naturally worldlier and more knowledgeable than their counterparts from smaller towns.
During Li Yan’s time, students from small towns that could advance to schools in the county seat were either from wealthy backgrounds or outstanding students. Yet on arrival in the county seats, any sense of superiority they once had went down the drain.
Their pedestals taken away from them, many of these kids got lost in the crowd. Only Li Yan kept on radiating self-confidence.
She volunteered to run for class monitor, nonchalantly delivering a speech under the national flag on the VIP podium. Some of the naughtier boys liked to call Li Yan a “country auntie,” but she paid no heed.
Eventually, Li Yan’s classmates got word that her family ran a sex shop, which provided ample fodder for the boys to gossip about.
Doing her best Meizi imitation, Li Yan responded with disgust: “There’s nothing shameful about running a sex shop. Just like you need a bowl to eat rice and you need a bed to sleep in, these are normal adult urges that are being addressed. If you find that amusing, that just goes to show your ignorance.”
The boys were left speechless.
The first time Li Yan became aware the amount of damage the lack of sex education could do was the second year of senior high.
A female classmate she was quite close to suddenly quit school and was married off to a local loafer.
At an age when hormones surged, Li Yan’s classmate began a relationship with the loafer after an aggressive courtship. Soon the couple started having sex.
After her pregnancy test came out, the classmate’s mother went ballistic. To maintain her good name, the mother forced her classmate to marry the loafer. Because they were too young to register their marriage officially, both families made do with a low-key wedding banquet.
Li Yan never saw her classmate again after she quit school. Occasionally she would hear that the classmate struggled in life, her husband being a physically abusive alcoholic who frequently stayed out all night. She raised her child on her own and made ends meet by taking on odd jobs.
Back in the day Li Yan and her classmate often found themselves engrossed in conversation and envisioning their futures. Now the classmate’s dreams had all but vanished.
In the summer of 2012, Li Yan was admitted to a teachers’ college in Chengdu on top marks, becoming a teacher-in-training.
Her classmates came from all parts of the motherland, bringing with them contrasting personalities and different living habits.
But Li Yan noticed that students from the more developed eastern provinces tended to be more open-minded than students from fringe areas in the west.
During late-night chats, Li Yan’s fellow dormmates shared unique insights about studying and thoughts about life in general.
It was also in university when Li Yan attended her first formal sex ed lecture.
Typically, these general public lectures on Friday night were sparsely attended but on this particular night, the staggered auditorium was packed, with students spilling over into the corridors.
Even university students who had reached adulthood were deathly curious about sex—yet their sources of information were mixed and their knowledge about sex uneven.
After receiving professional sex education, Li Yan couldn’t help but appreciate her good fortune in meeting Meizi during her adolescence. She was able to protect both her mental and physical health at an age when she was overflowing with curiosity precisely because of the proper sex ed Meizi passed on.
During her four years in university, Li Yan came across too many examples of physical and emotional harm in classmates who failed to protect themselves in relationships.
That’s why she firmly turned down an advance from an upperclassman she fancied because he refused to use a condom.
As far as Li Yan was concerned, indulging in sheer physical pleasure while ignoring health risks was called intercourse. Only mating with someone who knew how to respect and protect his or her partner, motivated by genuine emotion, could be considered lovemaking. The former could be achieved by any wild animal, while the latter was the domain of advanced species like humans.
Mindful of the limited resources of the Daliangshan education system and her father’s deteriorating health due to complications caused by his condition, Li Yan decided to return to Liangshan after graduation, passing up job opportunities in Chengdu to become a rural secondary school teacher.
In her four years on the job, Li Yan has attempted innovations in pedagogy and adopted liberal philosophies of teaching, but still found herself held back by tradition.
She has encouraged students to pursue interests outside of their studies in an attempt to spotlight non-academic excellence. She wants to tell her students that academics isn’t their only way out, but no matter how hard she tries, her pleas are usually drowned out by the rebellious streak in her teenage students.
She has tried communicating directly with parents, but the parents either aren’t educated enough to get Li Yan’s point or they believe that academic results trump everything else.
The head of Li Yan’s grade has approached her both formally and informally on countless occasions, urging her to simply stick to her job—focus on her subject and not stir up any nonsense that puts school management in an awkward position.
But considering the level of interest her students have shown about sex and the way boys constantly preyed on the bodies of their female classmates, Li Yan was worried that the lack of proper guidance would beget distorted ideas about sex.
On several occasions, she came close to lunging into lectures about sex, only to pull back at the last moment. In a culture that tiptoes around sex, launching sex education in a small county seat in the remote mountains poses a gigantic challenge for a young female teacher.
If one of her female students hadn’t committed suicide, Li Yan perhaps would have never summoned the courage to launch sex ed in her classroom.
When Li Yan started talking about sexual intercourse in class, the girls went blush and lowered their heads, while the boys looked around and broke into muffled laughter and whisper.
The ever-so-calm Li Yan suddenly felt an onset of nerves.
But when she noticed a girl with a slightly protruding chest stared at her with a mix of anticipation and embarrassment, she thought of herself at the same age. It was Meizi’s openness that gave her the courage to stay true to herself throughout the years during her studies and in her own personal growth.
Li Yan cleared her throat and said: “Sex isn’t as mysterious as you make it out to be. Receiving a proper sex education will enable you to better protect yourself both emotionally and physically. This concerns the health and safety of every one of you. I hope everyone can pay strict attention.”
The joking atmosphere in the classroom turned instantly serious. The girls raised their heads and the boys shed their mischievous looks.
Li Yan exhaled and completed her first sex ed lecture under the gaze of a room full of inquisitive eyes.
Li Yan thought of a saying from respected Soviet educator—and wife of Vladimir Lenin—Nadezhda Krupskaya that had left a deep impression when she was in school. She once said that inner discipline and self-control were the keys to grace under fire. Li Yan firmly believed that if these qualities weren’t instilled in school, then the seeds for a casual attitude toward relationships would be sowed.
For Li Yan, “teacher” wasn’t just a job description, it was a responsibility. “Teaching the text while cultivating the whole person,” as the Chinese saying went—apart from passing on academic knowledge, more importantly, the job was to fashion students into honorable people.
Perhaps the road to reform for the Chinese education system is long and the path even more treacherous for the rural secondary school in the mountains where Li Yan is employed. But everyone is wary of change and no one dares challenge the status quo, then the onerous and drawn-out mission that is education will never turn a new chapter.
That day the head of Li Yan’s grade ordered her to apologize to her students and their parents and to promise never to bring up the topic of sex again. Li Yan adamantly refused.
When Li Yan left school and began her walk home, the final remnants of sunset had flooded the undulating chain of mountains in a distance, lending the landscape of Daliangshan a shiny glow.
Li Yan’s resolve came from a powerful desire to never witness another tragic loss of life in her class due to educational shortcomings. She wanted both the bodies and hearts of the children of Daliangshan protected in their upbringings. Even if all her efforts failed, Li Yan was determined to press forward, so she could shepherd her students toward a fulfilled life of self-confidence and courage. These were qualities they could draw on for the rest of their lives.
She was suddenly reminded of the classic exchange between Will Smith’s character and his son in the Hollywood film The Pursuit of Happyness: “Don’t ever let somebody tell you you can’t do something, not even me. You got a dream—you gotta protect it. If people can’t do something themselves, they wanna tell you can’t do it. You want something, go get it. Period.”