My Take

Astronauts leave children in a vacuum

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 November, 2013, 4:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 November, 2013, 4:20am

It seems many Chinese children are fated to either be over-dependent on their parents, even after they leave school and find work, or face premature independence when they are sent to study alone overseas at a tender age.

I realise this is an overstatement but there is no denying substantial groups of children and teenagers from Hong Kong, the mainland and Taiwan fall into these categories. The latter are called children of "astronauts", the subject of a new study by Justin Tse and Johanna Waters, two scholars in the emerging field of "human geography" titled Transnational youth transitions: Becoming adults between Vancouver and Hong Kong, and published in the peer-reviewed journal Global Networks. What took them so long?

The two academics examine the frustrations of children left behind by parents who "simultaneously isolate them in Canada and function as occasional drop-in parental supervisors". I don't need to read the study. I know all about the subject. I was a child of astronauts in the early 1980s in Toronto. Well-off parents often send their children overseas because of better education opportunities, but also, in Hong Kong, because many during my time were afraid of the Chinese communist takeover. My mother was simply too terrified by what happened to one of our aunts during the Cultural Revolution. Vancouver and Toronto were shaped by waves of Chinese migration: in the 80s and 90s, it was Hong Kong people; now, it's mostly mainlanders.

It's definitely good to let children live overseas and experience the world. I believe a good deal of problems and social tensions facing Hong Kong today can be attributed to our parochialism, especially among our youths. On the other hand, it could be an intensely frightening and lonely experience to put a child or teenager in a strange place that speaks a different language. They are left to fend for themselves. To ease their guilt, parents often lavish money and gifts on them. By materially spoiling them, it just makes it worse.

When should a fledgling leave the nest? My own take is that independence is good, but by doing it too early, it just feels too much like abandonment.