Monday, November 20, 2017

[Friday Seminar Recap] "Do you realise this is a Chinese school?": White parents as ethnic minorities in the local Hong Kong school system


Date: November 3, 2017
Speaker: Paul O’Connor (Department of Sociology and Social Policy, Lingnan University)
Title: "Do you realise this is a Chinese school?": White parents as ethnic minorities in the local Hong Kong school system

Dr. O'Connor

In this Friday Seminar, Dr. O’Connor examined the case of white parents attempting to enroll their children in local kindergarten and primary schools in Hong Kong. He started by outlining the context of his research. From 2012 to 2014, Hong Kong witnessed a rise of anti-mainland sentiment, and a series of political protests took place. A localist Hong Kong identity seems to have come to the forefront. On the other hand, Dr. O’Connor’s wife is an English who grew up in Hong Kong, and their three sons were all born in Hong Kong and very strongly identify as Hongkongers. Dr. O’Connor and his wife tried to send their youngest son into a local kindergarten so that he could learn Cantonese. While he initially did quite well, after he changed to another kindergarten as the family moved, his Cantonese learning virtually stopped. These macro and micro contexts made Dr. O’Connor very interested in the current research topic.

When it comes to schooling in Hong Kong, Dr. O’Connor pointed out that the change to Mother Tongue Instruction in 1997 was a crucial move, as the importance of English got diluted, while the focus on Chinese became more important while complicated and messy. Currently, more than 300 schools use Chinese (Cantonese) as their MOI (medium of instruction) while English is used in select, elite and designated schools. Dr. O’Connor highlighted that international schools experience an exodus of white parents after 1997, and currently almost half of the students in international schools are Chinese.

While white people compose less than 1% of the population in Hong Kong and are ethnic minorities in this sense, their average monthly salary almost triples that of the Hong Kong population, and is way higher than that of Thai, Pakistani, Indonesian and Indian people in Hong Kong. This leads to the question: how do we frame white people as ethnic minorities in the circumstance? Another relevant background is that according to statistics, around 25% of white people in Hong Kong, while Dr. O’Connor believed the actual percentage is far lower than that.

So, why are more white parents sending their children to local schools? When he was conceiving the research, Dr. O’Connor thought that this has to do with Hong Kong identity, while his co-researcher, Dr. Julian M. Groves, believed that it is about preserving privileged status. They conducted semi structured interviews with 18 white parents with an average age of 44. While the number of interviewees is relatively small, Dr. O’Connor explained that they achieve data saturation pretty soon as these white parents had very similar experience.

Their findings are a mix of both issues. The white parents have multiple motivations: On the one hand, the high cost of international school can be a burden for those families that are in a financially more precarious position, and some parents are concerned of how their kids are going to find a job if they do not speak Cantonese. Dr. O’Connor argued that recently there is a value judgement about international schools, criticizing them as elitist and privileged. These parents are convinced that a more wholesome way to raise your kids is to give them an authentic experience of the culture in the local Hong Kong society, and sending their kids to local schools is a more challenging but also more rewarding route to take. Dr. O’Connor argued that this is a way for these white parents to preserve their privileged status, and values like global citizenship and multiculturalism are emphasized. This also shows a commitment to Hong Kong: Dr. O’Connor explained that there is a focus on Cantonese, which is seen as more authentically Hong Kong than Mandarin and will enable one to live a truly local life in the community. Having said that, Dr. O’Connor clarifies that no parents they interviewed held a localist stance. These values, however, can be co-opted and inconsistent. Dr. O’Connor discovered that the parents can be anxious about sending their children to schools with “too many” Pakistani, which might compromise their ability to let their children learn Chinese. The values about diversity and inclusion stop when they cannot get the value they want, understandably so.

Dr. O’Connor discussed how this privileged community experience great difficulty and even what they perceive as discrimination when applying for local schools for their children. Drawing on the parents’ own accounts, he illustrated how the schools insist that they are “Chinese schools” meant for Chinese people, and the white kids are seen as a hassle and rejected outright. The teachers also do not believe that the white kids can possible learn Chinese. When there are ethnic minorities students in the class, sometimes they are arranged to sit on the same table and separated from other students, and therefore cannot really learn Chinese. These difficult and frustrating attempts to enroll the kids in local schools have caused significant emotional distress and internal conflicts to the white families.


Dr. O’Connor argued that the education system in Hong Kong offers very little guidance or support for these parents. Despite their wealth, social capital and privilege, white people have similar marginalization and obstacles as other ethnic minorities do in Hong Kong when it comes to education, which leads Dr. O’Connor to the conclusion that the schooling system is broken, and the division of local and international system problematic.


Related publication:

Groves, Julian M., and Paul O'Connor. "Negotiating global citizenship, protecting privilege: western expatriates choosing local schools in Hong Kong." British Journal of Sociology of Education (2017): 1-15. http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/kdZgeG2T6EZTDug4x5kg/full

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