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
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.