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.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

[Friday Seminar Recap] Migrant Youth Navigating Education and Identity in Hong Kong

Date: October 27, 2017
Speaker: Chee Wai-Chi (Department of Education Studies, Hong Kong Baptist University)
Title: Migrant Youth Navigating Education and Identity in Hong Kong

Dr. Chee

What are migrant students’ opportunities and challenges in Hong Kong’s education system? How do they negotiate their identities and belonging? In this Friday Seminar, Dr. Chee Wai-Chi tried to answer these questions by looking into the academic trajectories and identity formation of two incoming teenage groups to Hong Kong – from mainland China and from South Asia (predominantly India, Pakistan, and Nepal). Dr. Chee started by outlining the context. For the South Asian group, ethnic minorities constitute about 8% of the whole population in Hong Kong. School attendance rates of ethnic minorities are significantly lower than those of the whole population, especially at the post-secondary level. The proportion of people working in elementary, non-skilled occupations, on the other hand, is much higher among the South Asians than among the whole population in Hong Kong. For mainland Chinese, from 2006 to 2016, 40,000 one-way permit holders entered Hong Kong every year. Yet, there are no statistics about their education and occupation since they are not categorized as a separate group in government census. Dr. Chee conducted longitudinal study of these two groups of teenage immigrant students in Hong Kong.

Dr. Chee found out that the Induction Programme (IP) plays an important role in the immigrant students’ academic trajectory. If the students can stay in the same school after IP, they usually develop strong bonding with that school, while those who have to leave experience a love-hate relationship with their IP school. Dr. Chee argued that the IP schools are like “green houses”, and that is why it feels particularly bad when students are denied a place in their original school. “It is their first experience of being rejected in Hong Kong, by a school that has been so supportive and reassuring, which may lead to resentment.” Whether a student can stay in the same school or not of course have to do with their individual performances, yet there are also structural reasons at play. Dr. Chee discovered that when a school has too many ethnic minorities students, the Chinese parents may withdraw from sending their children there. Therefore, the schools have to pay attention and keep ethnic minorities students within a limited proportion. Dr. Chee argued that finishing the IP is a turning point in the academic trajectories of many immigrant students. Paradoxically, while IP is a nurturing space for the students who are new to Hong Kong, it does not prepare them well for the larger educational realities of Hong Kong and may eventually fail them.

When it comes to the construction and negotiation of identity, Dr. Chee found that there is a predominant emphasis on Cantonese linguistic capital, be it at official level or in everyday encounters of individuals. The official term for immigrant students is “Non-Chinese speaking students”, which appears to be offensive by some. One student said, “Can I call you ‘non-English speaking’? Why not address it as a second language learning, or non-mother tongue learners?” In their daily life, fluency in Cantonese seems to open up another door for friends, career prospects and many other things, and the lack of it is a shame. One student said, “This is a school for ‘disabled’ people like me. We don’t speak Cantonese.” Another student reported being treated impolitely while working at McDonald’s because his Cantonese was not good. Dr. Chee argued that the major significance of Cantonese in the immigrant students’ construction of a Hong Kong identity is a rather new phenomenon. Several years ago, the students would use entitlement (the rights they enjoy in Hong Kong) and descent (their family members being Hong Kong permanent residents) to explain why they see themselves as Hong Kong people. Dr. Chee suggested that the rise of importance of Cantonese may have to do with the rising emphasis on local Hong Kong culture in recent years.

Dr. Chee looked further into the difference between the two groups. Many South Asian students feel that they have a “mixed” identity. One Indian student commented that she is a Hongkonger but she still has some Indian things since she grew up there, and it was not important to be a “full” Hongkonger, as long as she herself is comfortable with both parts of her identity. Another Nepalese student said that he could easily “switch” his identities depending on where he is, in Nepal or Hong Kong. The mainland students, Dr. Chee argued, embed their Hong Kong identity under their Chinese identity, as they mainly see themselves as a Chinese who is living in Hong Kong. Dr. Chee found that interestingly, their self-identification as “Hongkonger in/of China” (中國香港人) is heavily informed by a categorization of identity mainly constructed by the polling of the Hong Kong University Public Opinion Programme.

The Audience