I fear in China women don’t have the self-agency to pursue their own dreams. It’s not uncommon for a Chinese woman to jeopardize her career to find a suitable husband. Afraid to be labeled as, “sheng nu” or “leftover woman,” women are pressured into getting married before the age of twenty-five. This means putting off milestone achievements, such as higher education. This pressure can lead to unwanted marriages and domestic abuse.
In addition to this time crunch to get married, many Chinese women face low-income disadvantages. For example, because students who scored low on their college entrance exam only qualify for a handful of schools, their career prospects are very narrow. While this is true for both genders, women are more likely to underperform due to China’s family culture. For instance, the immense favorable treatment towards men and Chinese society’s inclination for traditional gender roles, these factors can have an impact on women’s test performance.
This is what my students are up against. My students face enormous obstacles, but I believe as Peace Corps Volunteers and teachers alike we can empower our students by providing support.
My Peace Corps site, Qianjiang, is located in a small suburb four hours away from Chongqing city. My university is Chongqing Vocational Institute of Tourism. Given that my school is a vocational school, my students will eventually work in the tourism industry. Many of them will work in hotels, become bilingual tour guides, or work on a cruise ship. The problem with this is that vocational training prevents a chance for professional growth and consequently their income is fixed on the tourism industry. Furthermore, this reinforces traditional gender roles in Chinese society.
My students come from many different provinces in China, but they all come from low-income households. Roughly ninety-nine percent of them are young women who have never left their province. As a result, they are innocent and naïve about the prevalent discrimination against women. When my department required my students to purchase makeup I was shocked. The department wanted to help the students look mature for their job interviews. I realized they needed more than makeup tutorials. They needed a positive body image, tools to deal with stress, and career planning skills. Three fundamental things to anyone’s level of confidence and self-esteem.
Therefore, I proposed A Girl’s Guide to Success, a project which aims to empower my female students through awareness, body image, stress management, career planning, and mastering the use of beauty products for professional use.
Perhaps the most important workshop I taught was on body image. I taught about the negative impact social media has on their idea of beauty. For example, recently there was an A4 waist challenge trending online. In this trend, women compare the size of their waist to the width of an A4 sheet of paper, which is 8.3 inches. Although such a challenge was deemed to be extremely unhealthy and dangerous, many Chinese women participated. It is easy for women to fall into the trap of using online trends to measure their beauty. However, in our workshop, we defied social media beauty standards by exposing the dangers, such as extreme weight loss. Furthermore, many of my students expressed the pressure of bleaching their skin. They claimed that many of their family members preferred fair skin because it’s viewed as more beautiful than darker toned skin. Nonetheless, I emphasized that a positive body image is crucial to avoid depression and weight difficulties. I asked my students to practice self-acceptance and to treat themselves as the loving, beautiful, and talented women they are. To demonstrate this acceptance, we had a wonderful activity where the students drew themselves on a piece of a paper. Next, to their drawing, they wrote a long list of what they love about their bodies but had the freedom to write one body feature they dislike. This created an opportunity for my students to appreciate and value their bodies. A positive body image is essential because it correlates with high self-esteem and confidence.
The second most important workshop was on cosmetics. My students learned basic, but important, techniques to do their makeup for interviews. I was quite intrigued how curious they were trying on the products. Two other teachers and I demonstrated proper techniques and then students practiced with each other. They noticed that even a small application of makeup, such as eyeliner or even shaping their eyebrows could change their attitude about their appearance. However, this confidence was genuine because it came from their core where they had taken their positive body imagine into account. Cosmetics, like a professional wardrobe, are unique in a sense that can improve your confidence during an interview.
This is just one way Peace Corps Volunteers can support their students. There are multiple other ways you can support your students, such as increasing awareness about these issues. For my students, it was clear that my project was an eye-opener. This was the first time they strengthened their mind, gained new career tools, and learned about cosmetics. I’m certain that they will use this information for the rest of their life. Nevertheless, my students may face several obstacles in the development of their future careers, but I believe that they are now capable of transcending through them.
Maria Moreno is a Peace Corps volunteer living in China. Non- of the opinions here are representative of the Peace Corps or of the US government or of Americans or of Westerners living in China or of China. These are just my own opinions told from my perspective and only mine.