Text: “一个学长，半个老师” Pinyin (Simplified): yi ge xue zhang, ban ge lao shi Translation: One senior is half a teacher.
Context: N is a junior at USC, majoring in Communications. N is an international student from China, Anhui Province. When N was a high school student, he was in a soccer team on campus which is the community he refers to in this phrase. N: “There’s this sort of tradition, more like a phrase. The phrase is ‘一个学长，半个老师’ (yi ge xue zhang, ban ge lao shi). It’s like, ‘a senior is equal half a teacher, or half a coach. It’s part of a tradition in my soccer team when a junior would just, like, make the freshmen do whatever they want them to do. That’s just a tradition, I guess.” Is that like a criticism of experience? N: “I think it’s because in China, the people who go to sports, they don’t need to have really good grades. They just go to high school or college with their sports, they just go to practice. They’re more like a street gang, like a clique. So, because they’re bad, they want to control the people who are new.”
Interpretation: This phrase is circulated throughout the students. It isn’t a proverb which relays some form of wisdom or life lesson to the listener and it is also not a joke, as there is no humor behind the reality of the statement. It observes a complex power dynamic and metaphorically summarizes it in a concise way, likely as a call to how unfair such a hierarchy is and an acknowledge about the inevitability of its insistence in the school system. It’s a stereotype of athletes at this school widely known and accepted by the students, a blason populaire of this community of soccer players. Such speech is usually created by an external audience, the students who are not in the soccer team themselves but are familiar with it. When asked why the juniors bully the lower classmen, the answer could be this phrase. It is a lighthearted observation of the corruption and power play at school and its unfair treatment of the students, so much so that N associates this phrase with his specific team. Simultaneously, it encourages no revolt against such a system, already knowing full well the impossibility of change that could come from speaking up. This acceptance adds to the stereotype, almost perpetuating its truth.
Main piece: There’s this thing called a “coxswain toss” where after you’ve won a big race, and only after you’ve won a significant race, the rowers will gather around, chase the coxswain down, grab her by the arms and legs (usually it’s a girl but sometimes it’s a guy – usually it’s a girl because of weight, coxswains need to be lighter) but they’ll grab your arms and your legs and toss you into the water.
Background: KP is a sophomore coxswain for The Ohio State University rowing team. After coxing competitively in Maryland clubs for four years, she was recruited to cox at Ohio, which she has now done for two years.
Context: I asked KP if her team has any “lucky” objects or superstitions they do/interact with before competitions. She also said that what constitutes a “big race” is dependent on the team (“for Ohio, it would be NCAAs… it’s almost expected that we win Big 10s or if we lose it’s very sad, and it really depends on the team.”) She also said that the ritual isn’t always enforced due to the contamination of the water. If the water is toxic or has sea life that could potentially harm the coxswain, the ritual is not practiced (“I wasn’t tossed in at all in Baltimore, because if you’re tossed in in Baltimore, you have to take a shower immediately after. Also there were jellyfish and sharks so that’s not great”). However, as a coxswain herself, she doesn’t mind being thrown in the water if able; she prefaced her explanation with “because, you know, we’ve been yelling at them all season and stuff”, and believes it’s a fun and harmless way to let the rowers celebrate their win.
Analysis: This ritual is a way of changing the power dynamic that usually occurs in a boat. The coxswain is in charge of the rowers during practices and competitions, and their entire job consists of yelling at the rowers and telling them what to do. In victory, proving that the rowers have been listening to the coxswain and working hard to win, the rowers “get revenge” and turn the tables by throwing the coxswain into the water. Also it reinforces that while the power dynamic of the sport places the coxswain in charge, the coxswain is always the smallest member on the team, especially in competitive rowing, and therefore easy to physically overpower by the much larger rowers. In a way, this also reinforces the trust the rowers have for the coxswain and their willingness to cede control to them because they know that this will lead them to victory.