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    Can Theater Help China’s Vocational Students Reclaim Their Identities?

    Vocational students often feel like “losers.” A new drama program wants them to act like winners.
    Mar 22, 2024#education

    The audience slowly ascends a long staircase as the sounds of singing, shouting, and crying surround them. Some of the voices are nearly drowned out by the piped-in sounds of rain as they struggle to talk about their failure on a crucial exam. Others are triumphant as they share their dream of becoming a pilot or finding fulfillment on the assembly line.

    These divergent visions belong to a group of Chinese vocational students. Recorded by the students themselves, they form the soundtrack to “Wild Wheat in the Wind,” an audiovisual play produced by the educational nonprofit HOPE School to push back against commonly held social prejudices about vocational education.

    There are roughly 13 million vocational school students in China, according to official statistics; together they comprise 40% of the country’s high school student population. But inside China’s rigidly hierarchical education system, this huge group is often overlooked. They are treated as washouts from the academic track rather than future workers and technicians.

    This prejudice can weigh heavily on students. Since 2021, in addition to group counseling, workplace visits, and project-based learning, my colleagues and I have explored using drama as a means to allow vocational students to speak out about their experiences, feelings, and aspirations. Once, we invited participants in a drama workshop to write down how they felt they were perceived as vocational school students. “Failure, despair, struggle, sinking,” wrote one. When asked why his descriptors were so negative, he answered: “Every time someone asks me where I study, I feel embarrassed.”

    Interestingly, we’ve found that verbalizing these stigmas in front of audiences can help students confront prejudices, eliminate their internalized shame, and reshape their self-perceptions.

    In performances, students stand in the dark and shout out the labels they’ve been saddled with: “not promising,” “just killing time,” “a waste.” In real life, it might end there, but in the theater, they have the chance to respond. “So what if you go to high school or university?” cried one. “We are not inferior to others; we respect ourselves,” added another.

    In the process of creating the show, students don’t just follow a director’s instructions; instead, they draw on their own experiences to collectively refine their scripts over several months of drama workshops. Then in rehearsals they gradually express these thoughts and shape them into a play.

    The drama creation process helps them trace their own growth, engage in dialogue with peers who have similar experiences, express their emotions and feelings, and rebuild their understanding of themselves and society. By playing themselves they become new versions of themselves.

    The feedback we’ve received from participants emphasizes the value they attach to things like feeling seen, being understood, and learning to express their own ideas. One student, surnamed Liu, has been involved in the drama workshops since the start of her vocational school career. She said she came into the experience with low self-esteem and felt she was not a good communicator. The classes helped her loosen up. “I opened up, experienced different things, and became happier,” she explained.

    My own impression is that the more students feel comfortable talking about their vocational school identity, the less negative and more willing they are to joke about it.

    Every semester, our returning actors help us recruit new members. Our current group hails from a number of different vocational schools and levels: Some are freshmen, while others have already graduated. These differing levels of experience allow participants to learn from each other, and through each other, they can see that life doesn’t end when vocational school begins.

    Of course, theater alone is not enough to fix the wounds caused by social prejudice. As one of the program’s co-creators put it: “Theater cannot provide a way out, but it can help you imagine what a way out might look like.”

    Editor: Cai Yiwen.

    (Header image: A still from a play produced by HOPE School. Courtesy of Wang Zijin)