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JISHOU, HUNAN — I think one of my students just came out to me. Or maybe the student was just sharing about a friend coming out. Hard to say.

My students have to keep diaries, which they hand in about every other week. I read them, make lots of red marks in them, and hand them back a week later (usually). Most of the entries are pretty mundane, but occasionally a student will reveal his or her deepest emotions, worries, troubles or thoughts. I usually respond by writing something in their diary, since I assume the student is attempting some kind of dialogue that may be less embarrassing than talking face to face.

Since I’m sworn to secrecy on this particular matter, and all the other personal items in the diaries, I am going to be deliberately vague here. I teach about 300 students, none of whom will likely see this post, but gossip transcends space and time. I am leaving out a lot of details. I am not going to say whether the student is male or female. I will refer to the student only as A., a letter which has no connection to A.’s English or Chinese name.

(Note to my Chinese students abroad using Facebook. Please DO NOT talk about this article with anyone at JiDa. 谢谢阿!)

In A.’s diary, A. said the entries were about B., A.’s best friend from middle school. In the first entry, B. had recently come out to A., hoping that A. (as B.’s best friend) would be accepting and understanding, which A. apparently is. Then A. wrote that the following entries would be in the first person.

(Literature buffs will see two techniques potentially in play here: framing and first-person narrative. My senior thesis involved point of view, so I’m onto these little tricks writers play. Is B. really A., writing as B.? Is A. merely a conduit for B.’s own diary entries? Is A. just switching POV to make the narrative easier to write? Or is A. just trying to be secretive?)

The second entry described B.’s realization in middle school that B. really preferred hanging out with members of the same sex, and was more attracted to same-sex friends. (American readers: middle school in China includes what we normally call high school, just to be clear.) Once in college, B. still felt rather confused about such feelings and was excited to discover by chance an online LBGT chat group. There, B. found many other non-straights who were refreshingly candid about their lives, feelings, desires and, in particular, preferences in sexual partners.

Here it gets rather dicey. In later entries, B. started to chat up some of the people in the chat group, looking for in B.’s words, a spouse. (My reaction to that was, “Aren’t you rushing things a bit?”) B. and one other member hit it off online, and they agreed to meet for dinner.

(Alarm bells go off in my head.)

Now, B.’s dinner partner was older than B., and from the description of what ensued, the dining companion was clearly trolling for some tasty young tail. They met a few other times, while B. continued to chat up other people online. B. found out partner #1 had had an affair. They quarreled, but ended up kissing (well, Partner #1 liplocked B. in the midst of the fight) and soon ended up back in bed together.

(I know, it sounds like a soap opera. Bear with me.)

Then B. decided someone B.’s own age might be more appropriate as a “mate.” B. met another person, and they really got along with each other. Partner #1 (the troller, remember) found out and suggested they all have dinner together. Eventually, the three of them ended up in bed together. Then, B. decided this lifestyle is not what B. really wants, and broke up with partner #1.

Here the diary entries end.

In my comments, I kept up the pretense (if it is one) that we are talking about B. coming out, and not A., my student. I praised A. for being accepting and loyal to B., despite A.’s initial shock at being told B. was homosexual. Then, I suggested B. is foolish to meet people at random from online chat rooms. Such liaisons can be dangerous. B. might be very lonely, I suggested, and wanting to share worries and feelings with A. or some other trusted friend. Perhaps B. was relieved to find others in the same situation, and was running (unwisely) to them for solace. Looking for love in all the wrong places, as the old country-western song goes.

I am worried about A., or B., or both of them, because Chinese college students are relatively innocent (as in, not street-wise) compared to American kids, and because homosexuality is a Big Taboo here.

Students in China live very sheltered and proscribed lives. Their adolescence is a high pressure time of studying, testing, and extra lessons which gets progressively more frantic as they approach the gaokao — the college entrance examination held in early June. It isn’t until they get out of high school that kids even have time to explore things like love and sex. I’m not sure the seedier side of chat rooms ever enters their minds.

Chinese and Americans are a lot alike in their views about sex, but Chinese are much less open. Where America was 60 years ago is where China is now. Sexuality in China is one of those Things That Shall Not Be Discussed, unless it’s between people of the same age and sex, and even then with a certain amount of shame and embarrassment.

(Nevertheless, many Chinese hotels thoughtfully provide condoms, lubricant and spare pairs of underwear — at ridiculously high prices — in the rooms. And there are public service placards near hotel elevators recommending condom use. Escort and massage services slide business cards under your door, too, in case you’re traveling alone. There are no porn channels, however.)

While sex education nominally exists in the schools, my students have told me that some middle school teachers duck the lessons entirely by writing website links on the board, and telling the kids to read up on it by themselves. Other teachers don’t even get that far.

Romance, even holding hands, is strictly prohibited in middle schools. Parents forbid dating, sometimes until after college graduation. Then, there is pressure to hurry up and get married to produce an offspring before age 30. From a Western perspective, it’s all quite weird.

The nearly universal expectation is for heterosexuality. For a child to be gay or lesbian (or any other flavor of sexuality) would be abhorrent and very shameful for most Chinese parents. Even some peers would be repulsed if they found out a fellow student was homosexual. Mores are changing, albeit slowly, as Chinese have become more accepting of gay and lesbian (and androgynous) music, TV and film stars. Young people, especially, seem less bothered by the notion than older folks.

Even so, for A. (or B., as you wish) to come out is an Earthshattering Event, in this context. For my student to discuss it at length in a diary means A. was clearly struggling with the issue, without actually asking me for advice. (Chinese are not so direct, sometimes)

This is completely new to me. Of course, I have gay and lesbian friends, I’ve had openly gay and lesbian students (there were two girls one year who simply couldn’t keep their hands off each other in the hall), but no one has ever come out to me. So I was surprised, and completely flummoxed as to how to react. I’m worried about B. (who might be A.), and B.’s “risky behavior,” as we say in American educationese. My spider-sense tells me B. is heading for trouble, so I hope my words help guide B. (or A.) on a more sensible path to a happier life.

And people think teaching is easy.

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