Jason Wordie’s Post Magazine column “Expat brats: the sad by-products of colonial Hong Kong society” described the stereotypical "expat brat" as having been shaped by privilege, cultural ignorance, transient relationships and too many drugs.
The column sparked heated debate, not least because the characterisation could be seen to apply to the city’s current crop of “third culture kids”. Here, "TCKs" give their take on growing up in Hong Kong, and whether Wordie’s assessment is a fair one …
Nic Tinworth, 40, creative director
(South Island School, French International School and Middlesex University, UK)
"I’m an 'expat brat'. I call myself that jokingly. To be honest with you, though, I don’t know any true “expat brats”.
Jason Wordie does describe “third culture kids”, however, pretty well. You’re born in one country, you grew up in another, you spent time in a third, and you don’t really feel like you have any roots. He makes some fairly valid points: HK’s always been a very transient city, and when I was growing up here, a lot of my friends did come and go. I did know a lot of kids who grew up and their parents weren’t really there. There was a problem with drugs and boozing, but no more than there would have been in any other culture in the US or the UK.
HK’s always been a very transient city, and when I was growing up here, a lot of my friends did come and go.
But Jason goes beyond the [normal] description and sort of tars third culture kids. I also know a lot of people who grew up the same way that I did and who have ingrained themselves a lot more than I have (not for lack of trying). I have many friends who have come back to Hong Kong, put their kids into local schools, and made sure that they are learning Mandarin. They themselves speak Cantonese almost fluently.
I do actually think Jason was trying to build up an interesting debate but perhaps you can’t do justice to an argument like that in 800 words."
"I am a third-culture kid born to English expat parents. I went to the Chinese International School in Hong Kong and I have relocated four times. Over the past four years, I have been working at an international relocation company that helps expats adjust culturally. We also help their kids adjust to the new environment so that they avoid some of the pitfalls that third culture kids can fall into.
There are some merits in the concept of the article: Jason mentions stereotypes that exist, but this article is intentionally one-sided. For example, he says that third-culture kids have a ‘superficiality in human relationships’. Yes, expat kids do tend to make friends very quickly, but this is necessary in the transient expat culture. This doesn’t mean that they cannot make ‘deep investments in others’, but it does take more time to break down those defensive walls. In fact, when third culture kids make real connections, they are even stronger and can last across thousands of miles.
Yes, expat kids do tend to make friends very quickly, but this is necessary in the expat culture.
Third culture kids straddle cultural divides. Companies are hiring these people and lots of literature on this topic suggest that they have an advantage and bright futures. This is a very difficult thing to quantify, but there is a lot of qualitative data out there that shows this.
I also don’t think this is necessarily a colonial by-product. Even in places like Thailand, which was never colonised, there are these issues. This is also has a lot to do with privilege, parenting style and how the kids react to their third-culture identity."
Liam Fitzpatrick, senior editor at TIME magazine
"Jason Wordie’s article in Post Magazine, 'Expat brats: the sad by-products of colonial Hong Kong society' ... reveals nothing except the author's own clear personal vendetta.
I say this as a third-generation Hongkonger, and I write of my community, which includes people of all races whose primary or only language is English and who identify as being from Hong Kong - among them many of the children of expatriates that Mr Wordie has insulted. Our community has been here since the modern foundations of this city and has contributed much to its diversity. We are the reason that Hong Kong is what it is instead of merely another southern Chinese port.
We do not need to speak Cantonese in order to belong here any more than one needs to speak Zulu in order to be considered South African, and it is time to stop the kind of identity-shaming that Mr Wordie's breathtakingly offensive article represents. Many of us are Hong Kong born, are employed on local terms and, far from being “dismissive” of Hong Kong society, think very deeply about questions of culture and identity. Ours is not a “third culture” or an expatriate culture: it is an Anglophone Hong Kong culture."
Tyler Holland, 28, owner of a software startup
(Came to HK five years ago after university in the U.S.. He refers to himself as an "immigrant" and dislikes the term "expat")
"Through my business, I work with international schools in Hong Kong. Teachers tell me that their kids really need to learn Cantonese. But the schools can’t provide this because so much of their revenue comes from local parents who want their kids to be immersed in a fully English environment and to speak an ‘accent-less’ English.
As a result kids don’t learn Cantonese and find themselves unequipped to deal with the realities of life.
I do empathise with his [Wordie’s] views. These people can be very hard to stand sometimes, living up in the mountains and being completely out of it, socially speaking. I understand they’re difficult people to deal with, but yelling and ranting doesn’t help. It doesn’t address the issue.
However, people are obviously angry because there are many expats out there who aren’t brats at all… They don’t like being associated with them, just like Hong Kong people don’t like being associated with mainlanders."
Jacqueline Nelles, 32, senior marketing manager at the Aqua Restaurant Group
(King George V School)
"I understand what Jason is referring to: the over-privileged situation that you sometimes see. But I wouldn’t put all of those people in the same category as 'third culture kids'. There is a definitional difference between the two.
‘Third culture kids’ is an overarching term. TCKs have an ambiguous sense of identity. ‘Expat brats’ are something different: they probably don’t have much ambiguity about their identity. For most of the TCks that I know, having lived among so many cultures means they are far more well-rounded.
It was a very harsh generalisation of a group of individuals that is very empathetic to global issues, very well educated and worldly. We have no singular outlook, because our identity is one of many cultures.
Maybe [Wordie] had poor experiences with some individuals, but those individuals could be of any background. You might have over-privileged kids at English boarding schools who behave poorly. I guess you would call them ‘boarding school brats.’ But to call 'third culture kids' 'expat brats' is just a huge generalisation."
Karen Prochazka, 50, owner of a jewellery design business
(Kowloon Junior School, boarding school in the UK, the University of Sydney)
"As one of many middle-aged exbrats, brought up with servants, boarding school and a certain amount of transience, I would like to affirm that yes, many of us returned to Hong Kong after finishing our degrees and went on to have exciting, sometimes high-flying careers. Many of us have stayed to have our own families here and to watch that generation go off to university alongside their school friends from Hong Kong.
Both we and our children appreciate and have friends of many races, creeds and financial backgrounds. Many of us have contributed in substantial ways to the success of Hong Kong with our businesses, charitable efforts, endeavour and innovation.
Many friends have come and gone over the years but we exbrats learn to hold our friends close, to keep in contact and to find precious the ties that bind. It's true that many of us don't speak Cantonese. I suppose, back in the 60s, during the riots and periods of sporadic running water, many of our parents didn't anticipate that we would want to live here as adults and so didn't encourage us to learn the language while young enough to master it.
I was brought up in a life of privilege, water notwithstanding, and that privilege is to call Hong Kong home."
Dan Bland, 29, online editor, The Corporate Treasurer
"It was with sadness, that I, as a fourth generation Hong Konger, read Jason Wordie’s Sunday Post article expounding on his perceptions of “Expat Brats”.
Numbers aside, let’s identify some individuals dismissed by this article - evidentiary counterpoints to some of Wordie’s more hypocritical and surface level presumptions. Melvin Byres, a second generation Hong Konger, has built Dragon Dash and TCK, charitable event organisations raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for good causes in Hong Kong. Ziad Samman, third generation, has devoted his life to music and works as a counselor to victims of acid attacks. Born in Hong Kong, Bec Wong has returned from Australia and passed the local bar exam. Second generation Hong Konger Joe Hastings, started a school called Sprouts.
We are not what is described in this article. Hopefully, Wordie’s ignorant promulgation will be just another setback that we can overcome on our road to making Hong Kong a better city."
Steven Lewis, 43, content marketer/brand journalist
(Has lived in HK for 25 years, has a child here)
"I went to Island School. Almost every day, someone somewhere in the world is holding a school reunion. For a group that is emotionally shallow and unattached, it is strange that they are inclined to have such reunions.
Of course, [Wordie] is correct that if you’re an expat child, your friends will come and go. I’ve moved back to Sydney before, and it is quite difficult to make friends. People living in Sydney have grown up in Sydney, went to school there, had their first job there. There is not much room for new people. In Hong Kong, on the other hand, if I meet you and I like you, I’ll invite you the next time we have drinks. You’re welcomed.
Expat children are more open to meeting new people, making new friends, engaging with different cultures. In my experience, we’re much more open minded and open to making friends.
Kids growing up in Hong Kong are sophisticated enough to understand that life changes and people move on. They would not be emotionally wounded."
Louisa Berry, 28, Sales Manager
"Both my sister and I were born and brought up in Hong Kong by our British parents, and as a 'third culture kid' I found Jason's article very far fetched and a huge generalisation.
While there are some disadvantages to growing up in a TCK environment, I feel there are many more advantages than disadvantages.
A lot of it comes down to your parents, how they interact with your helper, and the people and friends you surround yourself with. The school you go to also contributes to how you turn out.
My high school got rid of Cantonese in my first year. So I then studied Mandarin. I immerse myself in local culture as much as possible and have many local friends. Out of my closest group of friends I'm the only fully British person, which has taught us all to interact with people from all walks of life.
We have all learned so much from each other's cultures - that makes us less prejudiced than a lot of people.
Of course, we lived a privilege life in many senses. But we are far from spoiled brats. I wouldn't change my TCK life for anything! Hong Kong is my home."
#SoHongKong – for more stories about what makes Hong Kong unique, search for this hashtag.