There are times when Hayley Goldberg wishes she knew Chinese and could offer more help to her daughter Ativa. A Primary Two pupil, Ativa attends a local school in Ma On Shan, where every subject apart from English is taught and assessed in Chinese.
'At the beginning there were six notices from the school every second day. I didn't know what was going on,' says Goldberg, a South African who teaches at an international school. 'I have to get everything translated by my students. It's crazy that I can't be a part of my child's life.'
But she is determined that Ativa should master the Chinese language. 'For a child to be bilingual or trilingual is a prerequisite to finding a job in the globalised world,' she says.
As Hong Kong parents scramble for places in international schools, some non-Chinese families are enrolling their children in the local system where Cantonese - and increasingly Putonghua - is the medium of instruction. Some parents are keen to take advantage of the heavily subsidised education system; others want their children to have a good grasp of Chinese and become well versed with the culture. They employ different strategies to help their children learn the language and adjust to school life of a different sort.
Goldberg sent Ativa to a local kindergarten to immerse her daughter in an authentic Chinese learning environment as early as possible. 'The beginning was tough. But she is a strong, feisty little girl and likes to be challenged. Eventually, she started picking up a few words.'
Like other Hong Kong children, Ativa applied for a place in a local school through the Primary One Admission System. An education official told Goldberg that her daughter would be expected to have attained a reasonable level of Chinese and that no accommodation would be made for her in school. However, Ativa has adapted to the curriculum - she came 13 in a class of 25 - as well as the daily routine, including an after-school tutorial class and an array of extracurricular activities.
'[This intensity] is unheard of in other countries. But if I don't do that, there will be a difference between her and other students. Already her being a native English speaker there is a difference and I want her to keep on going to these lessons so that she doesn't feel that academically she is different,' says Goldberg, who has hired a tutor to help her daughter.
The decision comes at a cost, as Ativa has less time for playing and relaxing. But Goldberg believes the effort is worth it. 'Hong Kong didn't crash in the economic tsunami because of the work ethic of the people. That comes from four-year-olds who are told to sit down and write Chinese characters 20 times. This type of discipline is inculcated from a young age,' she says.
The local system isn't for the faint-hearted expat, warns a British mother who doesn't want her name revealed. The intensity of the curriculum, the emphasis on rankings, and the absence of differentiated learning in terms of having a Chinese as a second language programme are the negative aspects of studying in a local school, she says.
'It's a decision you've got to think about early. If your children have learning difficulties, do not go near local schools. They don't deal in particular with children with special needs.'
Her daughter is in Primary Four at a government school that offers two types of classes. Most local students learn nearly everything in Chinese, while a mix of locals and foreigners study Chinese and General Studies in Chinese and other subjects in English.
She sent her child to the school partly for financial reasons, as her husband's income was unstable and she was working part-time. 'Either I get a job so we can [afford] international school, or I do a little bit of work and she goes to a local school. It makes sense for me to not work as much and be around more. The school isn't everything in a child's education.'
What her daughter gets out of a local education isn't from the curriculum, she says, but 'the other stuff - the cultural, the social, and authentic language learning'. In particular, her daughter has developed a more nuanced understanding of society through her interaction with students from a range of socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds.
'There's a lot you learn about the world by interfacing with all sorts of people. We shouldn't be so focused on academic development in primary schools,' the mother says. 'I want my daughter to feel that she is a Hong Kong nui [girl] because she is. If she doesn't speak the language or know the people then there's a disconnect with the community.'
Her daughter has been a reluctant Chinese speaker but that has changed as she gradually got to know her classmates. 'You have to persevere with it. We gave her a lot of encouragement and we have a tutor to help her.'
Learning Chinese with your children is also a good way to engage them, she adds.
Jasmin Lisondra from the Philippines taps the power of technology to help her son Marco, a Primary Three student at Bui O Public School on Lantau Island.
'Sometimes I take pictures of the page of the textbook using my phone and send them to my Chinese friends. They will talk to Marco or he will go over to their place. Or I will ask him to translate the text into English so that I can help him. We try to support him as much as we can,' says Lisondra, who came to Hong Kong with her husband and two children in 2007.
The school is one of about 30 institutions designated by the Education Bureau as 'destination' schools for non-Chinese-speaking students, offering a free education in Chinese and helping students integrate into the local system. Traditionally a large percentage of students are ethnic minorities. While mainstream schools such as the one Ativa attends don't normally offer extra help to foreigners, destination schools cater to their needs in various ways.
June Yu Mei-fung, principal of Bui O Public School, says that although destination schools follow the same curriculum as mainstream schools, they are given the flexibility to modify the teaching material and make adjustments to assessment procedures.
At her school, for example, Primary Three students are split into two Chinese-language classes based on their ability. With support from the University of Hong Kong and the Education Bureau's Curriculum Development Institute, teachers at Bui O have designed a separate programme for the class with a poorer grasp of Chinese. Pupils from Primary Four to Six go to different classes in English and Maths, again depending on their ability, while ongoing evaluation and oral examinations have been incorporated as part of the assessment. The school also offers four weeks of Chinese lessons during the summer holidays for students from Primary One to Four.
Web designer and comedian Vivek Mahbubani, whose stand-up routine provokes as much laughter in Cantonese as it does in English, recommends that youngsters from non-Chinese families attend schools with the same level of Chinese learning as anyone else if they see their future in Asia.
'It's the parents' responsibility to encourage their kid to power through it. My parents didn't give up. They thought I would have to learn it, no matter how difficult it was,' says Mahbubani, who went to St Joseph's Primary School and Diocesan Boys' School.
From Primary Three to Six, Mahbubani spent three hours at a tutorial centre every day bolstering his Chinese. He says it is important for the child or the parents to figure out the best way to learn, whether it is by listening in class or reading or any other means.
By the time he reached secondary school, he was able to read the Chinese newspapers - enough to get by, he says - and switched to French.
As an ethnic Indian, he stood out in local schools and teasing and fights were part of life. But Mahbubani has a way of turning the situation in his favour.
'When people made fun of me about my hair I used to have this comeback saying: 'I don't get mosquito bites. Mosquitoes get trapped in my hair'. The kids wouldn't attack me anymore because I would fight back,' he says.
For non-Chinese-speaking youngsters to thrive in a local setting, or indeed for any child thrust into an alien environment, such as mainlanders who are new to Hong Kong, or Hongkongers emigrating abroad, perhaps the key is to nurture a tenacious spirit.
As Mahbubani says: 'It's tough. But you have to push through. I'm glad I never quit. Had I quit my whole life would be very different.'