Child commuters to Hong Kong given help with acclimatising

Two non-profit groups are helping mainland pupils get used to life and school on this side of the border

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 April, 2015, 2:57pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 April, 2015, 2:57pm

Cross-border pupils are finding that going back and forth between Hong Kong and the mainland every day is an experience that can also be stressful. That's why a partnership of two non-profit organisations, one in Shenzhen and one in Hong Kong, has been helping them adjust to school life here.

In 2011, the International Social Service (ISS) Hong Kong Branch partnered with the Shenzhen Luohu (Lo Wu) Women's Federation to launch the support services programme for cross-border families. The programme provides classes for the families to brush up their English and Cantonese - one key to assimilating to Hong Kong - and exposes them to Hong Kong culture through field trips or celebrating events such as Easter. There are also classes and workshops introducing the Hong Kong school system to parents.

Cheung Yuk-ching, cross-border programme director of ISS Hong Kong, says the pupils will help improve Hong Kong-mainland relations, being familiar with both cultures. Many parents also hope their children will work in Hong Kong. "We are short-sighted if we just dismiss cross-border families as competing with locals for beds in the maternity ward, formula milk and school places," says Cheung.

Adjustments are inevitable for any newcomer to a city, not to mention small children from the mainland. The programme helps increase their awareness of hygiene and provides tutorial support for those who miss out on school-based homework because of their long commutes.

Tutorial support in subjects such as English is available at its centres in Shenzhen. That also has the benefit of easing the workload of teachers in Hong Kong, says Cheung. A total of 13,494 children have been helped thus far.

The most popular classes are those targeting parents, mostly mothers, in areas such as exploring their personalities and controlling their emotions. "We saw that some mainland parents will yell at or hit their children over minor issues, so we explain to them what is legal and culturally acceptable in Hong Kong," says Cheung.

One mother signed up for parenting classes at the Lo Wu centre after enrolling her eight-year-old daughter for English classes. She and her husband are both non-locals, and her Hong Kong-born daughter is in Primary Three in Fanling. "In the past, I would easily lose my temper if my daughter misbehaves. Now I have learned to put myself in her shoes and try to understand why she is feeling this way," says the mother, who is taking an English class at the centre so she can better help her daughter with homework.

She says she has made more headway integrating into Hong Kong culture now compared with when she lived in Hong Kong for a year. When her daughter was in Primary One, the mother rented a subdivided flat in Fanling, where they lived on weekdays. They returned to Shenzhen at the weekend.

Finding herself idle during the day while her daughter was in class, she moved back to the mainland, meaning her daughter would have to cross the border every day instead.

"If parents are engaging more with life in Hong Kong, we find that it is easier for the child to develop a sense of belonging in Hong Kong," says Cheung. "If the parents don't make an effort to understand Hong Kong culture or learn Cantonese, their children will grow distant as they become more integrated to Hong Kong."

At its launch in 2011, the three-year programme received HK$6.7 million from the Hong Kong Jockey Club. Last year, the Jockey Club gave HK$11.8 million for three more years, after which Cheung hopes the government will support it.

The programme started off operating a centre in Lo Wu. The service centre is a five-minute taxi ride from the border crossing and a few minutes' walk from the Wenjindu crossing.

With the additional funding, the programme added a centre in Nanshan. The crossing there is closest to Tuen Mun and Yuen Long, which will contribute about 60 per cent of the 1,582 public school places available to cross-border pupils in 2015-16.

This year, the programme will also include workshops to train teachers in schools with cross-border pupils. Some Hong Kong teachers may experience challenges in communicating with mainland parents because of poor Putonghua skills or cultural differences. The workshop also helps teachers to know what to do when pupils lose their travel documents.

Stocked with books written in traditional Chinese characters, as opposed to the simplified characters in use on the mainland, the Lo Wu and Nanshan centres aim to be havens of Hong Kong culture for the cross-border families. The staff often arrange field trips to Hong Kong for the families, one of which involved a visit to the High Court to learn about the local judicial system. They even held a mock chief executive election as a way to learn about Hong Kong's core values. Some activities and classes are free; others charge small fees.

Despite the government ban on non-locals giving birth in Hong Kong in 2013, Cheung expects the number of cross-border pupils to rise because of the large number of cross-border marriages. The peak is likely to come in 2017-18, when the children born just before the ban will enter kindergarten.

"These children are Hong Kong residents," says Cheung. "We need to do more than give them a school placement; we need to help them become Hongkongers."