A Reluctant Role Model

Jolie Lee, WorldTeach China Hunan volunteer, writes about her unexpected and at times challenging status as a role model for her students.

I think I am pretty normal as a person goes. I don’t have any amazing skills, haven’t any out-of-the-ordinary experiences (besides, perhaps, teaching in China) and my personality is, well, normal. Yet my students are very curious about me. To them, my life and everything about me is out-of-the-ordinary. That is, out of their ordinary. As the foreign teacher, I am a vision of another (probably better) life.

Mostly, they want to know about the United States. What is school like there? What do students do in their free time? Sometimes the question is simply: Is America great?

In Chinese, America is mei guo, which literally translates into “beautiful country.” To my students, everyone is rich and beautiful and happy in mei guo. Some students questioned why I would come to China. In their minds, it is silly to live here for a year when I already had the life most of them would only dream about.

Through my embodiment of their dream, I have also become something else: a role model. I have become a role model more for the ideals I embody than for who I am individually, but nonetheless I am one. I am not just an American, but the American. What I say and do becomes an example of what all Americans say and do. That means I must be very, very good in every way.

To be a role model at a high school in small-town China is to be watched carefully. During class, I notice their eyes wandering to the clothes I wear and the bag I carry. (“So fashion!”) When I walk down the cramped aisles, the students’ eyes are not on the blackboard or even on my face, but down at my feet to see what shoes I am wearing. (I have received two e-mails from two different students suggesting I wear more beautiful shoes. Apparently flats are not “so fashion” here.)

Looking good, or at least put-together, is a small problem. A bigger challenge is being good. By good I mean these traits: patient, friendly, warm, engaging, outgoing, fun, funny, generous and very smart, teacher-smart. Plus, I must be all of these things all of the time; in other words, I must be perfect.

I didn’t take on this responsibility of being a role model. It was thrust onto me when I stepped into the job. To be honest, perfection is a pain. I do the things I may not want to do but know I ought to. When I have talkative students in class who refuse to shut up, instead of throwing a broomstick against the wall as I would love to do, I calmly remind them of the class rules and consequences. When all I really want to do is switch into hermit mode and burrow myself in my apartment, I patiently stand in the hallways for a few minutes to talk to students between classes. In general, I talk more, smile more, laugh more. I am quite fun to be around.

So, I wonder, Can I actually become this better version of myself? Could this be a self-realizing prophecy? If others believe enough in this better version of me, could it become true?

The short answer is no. I can be that better version of me only sometimes and inevitably slip backwards at other times. But, I think, the point is not perfection. It's the wanting to get there that counts. I never thought about what it meant to be a better version of me, and then my students came along.

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