“Who Am I?”: International school students struggle to adapt to local culture

“Why don’t you study as much as they do?” are the words Shirley Tang, a 17-year-old Hong Kong native, dreads hearing the most at social gatherings. As an international school student, she often finds herself as the point of comparison to her more “successful” peers who attend prestigious local schools in Hong Kong.

While international schools traditionally cater to foreign nationals and non-Chinese speakers, a growing number of Hong Kong locals are attending international and English School Foundation (ESF) schools.

Growing up speaking English, tuning in to Western television shows and music, and having friends from all around the world, those students have vastly different experiences from their local school counterparts. However, this also raises concerns over their sense of identity and belonging in Hong Kong, as they struggle to integrate into local culture.

Tiffany Tsang, a first-year student at the University of Hong Kong, describes the difficulties she faces when meeting local friends. Having attended international schools ever since she was in kindergarten, she found that she was not prepared to study at a local university. “I’m not used to the way they teach, and having to speak Cantonese all the time,” Tsang says.

Despite being able to communicate with locals in Cantonese, she chooses to socialize with non-local friends, due to differences in culture. “I don’t fit in,” she says. “There’s a difference between the things they find interesting, the humour they have, and the way we talk.”

For Tang, a Year 13 student (equivalent to Form 6) at Discovery College, the differences in her identity has led to strained relationships with family friends.

View of Discovery College, an ESF secondary school in Discovery Bay (Photo: Saxon Whittaker)

As the only international school student among them, Tang says she is treated differently by local friends. “They have a negative stereotype of us,” she says. “Either we’re all really naughty, like drinking or doing drugs, or we don’t care about school at all. To them, local school students are always studying and trying hard, compared to us, who’s always chilling.”

This has placed immense pressure on Tang, as she is often compared to her peers who study in Band 1 local schools, and is made to feel inadequate because of the bachelor’s degree she wants to study and the university offers she has received.

She finds that locals, especially those who study in prestigious local schools, are much more studious and focused on their grades. “They’re all very competitive – It’s all about grades and which universities you get into,” she says.

Shirley Tang (bottom row, fifth one from the left) and her teammates from her school basketball team (Photo: Shirley Tang)

In the academic year of 2016/17, 7,700 international school students were locals, accounting for 20.4% of the international school sector. However, according to a study by the Education Bureau, this figure is expected to rise 55 percent from 7,089 in 2015/16 to 10,996 in 2022/23, with the secondary sector growing by an astonishing 105 percent. In comparison, non-local students were expected to increase 2.7 percent from 29,880 to 30,688.

According to the International Schools Consultancy (ISC) group, an increasing number of local parents are favouring international schools, as they realise the attractiveness of an English-language education.

Hong Kong’s education system has long been criticised for its homework-heavy approach and exam-based assessments, while international schools promise its students a more flexible and creative learning environment through inquiry-based learning.

Su Rajanyagam, a parent in Hong Kong, had enrolled both of her children in local primary schools. However, she decided to send them to an ESF secondary school, despite the higher costs. “I wanted them to experience a more balanced education – one that’s not just based on front-loading information and book memorisation,” she says.

“Who am I?”

While equipping their students to become “global citizens,” international schools have been criticised for failing to teach their students local current affairs and involvement in the local community.

A solution to this may be for international schools to integrate more cultural education into their curriculums.

In 2016, Canadian International School invested HK$60 million into building its Chinese Cultural Centre, encouraging students to learn more about Chinese history, music, and art through its after school programs.

However, this may not be sufficient to solve the identity crisis that local students face.

Studies have well-documented the identity struggles of expatriate children who attend international schools. Commonly known as “Third Culture Kids” (TCKs), they struggle with making sense of their cultural identity, while being raised in a country that is different to their passport country or their parents’ country of origin.

An academic paper by Grimshaw and Sears in 2008 raises the argument that international schools create a “third space” for students to negotiate their identity. As students study alternate curriculums to the national education system, and associate with peers and teachers from all around the world, they may fail to recognise themselves as citizens in the country they live in or their parents’ country, and instead associate with a de-territorialised, “third culture.”

For local students studying in international schools, this becomes more complicated, as they experience a disconnect with their home culture, but cannot claim to be TCKs.

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Screenshot of a Facebook post by Theodore Cheng, a local student who studied A-Levels at a Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) secondary school in Hong Kong

For Tsang, experiencing local university culture has enhanced the differences between her and her local classmates. “I see myself as half Hongkonger, because I don’t identify myself culturally with being a Hongkonger,” she says. “I think I follow more Western culture, because I wasn’t exposed to local culture.”

On the other hand, Tang continues to see herself strongly as a Hongkonger. She attributes this to growing up in a more local family, where she watches “more Hong Kong Chinese TV shows than Western ones” and speaks only Cantonese at home. “If I don’t speak Canto (Cantonese) on a [given] day, it doesn’t feel like I’m home,” she says.

At the end of the day, Tang says she is “proud to be a Hongkonger.”

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