Visit any website of Hong Kong’s international schools and you will immediately notice candid photos depicting unusually gleeful students of all races learning together or prancing around the playground in groups.
But contrary to the values and goals of such schools, a cultural divide does exist between the “local” and “Western” students, and unfortunately, the reality does not live up to the dream.
A significant issue is the lack of interaction between the two groups. I have witnessed this phenomenon first-hand at my previous international school.
The groups do not socialise outside class, and many students don’t find this disconnect to be significant. This comes from misinformed stereotypes and misunderstanding that leads to a general divide between cultural groups.
That’s why I am calling for more cross-cultural communication and understanding, which will only enhance and enrich a student’s perspective and experiences.
What does it even mean to be “local” or “Western”?
These terms have been used to describe a style of upbringing, as well as preferences in language, activities and media, rather than mere ethnicity. Many have been categorised, but in reality, students do not conform to the stereotypes imposed upon them.
“Local” students usually share common values and problems resulting from a similar upbringing, namely preparing for a financially stable future. The resulting angst is manifested through irritating, hormone-fuelled rants about how 80 per cent on an exam is an “Asian fail” and how “my mom is gonna kill me”. They may also enjoy discussing the latest TVB drama or Canto-pop song, along with taking sticky pics at Namco and enjoying hotpot dinners in the summer.
“Western” students are in the minority, often children of expatriates. They also share similar experiences characterised by greater freedom to pursue interests rather than pragmatism. Sport plays an important role in bringing the boys together; girls bond over fashion and gossip magazines. Late-night raves in Wan Chai or Lan Kwai Fong are also common activities, where the “Western” population can enjoy champagne showers, display swagger and go HAM.
As a city, Hong Kong has not always welcomed foreigners with open arms. Recent events that have tested mainland and Hong Kong relations, and that of other Asian ethnicities, bear witness to our subtly discriminatory natures.
This is not to say that we are explicitly racist or xenophobic, but embedded deep in the Hong Kong psyche is a penchant for stereotyping other ethnic groups.
So should we let Western be Western and local be local?
No one can and should be classified into “local” or “Western” because we are all people, not types of people. Whether it is being more relaxed, spontaneous and vocal, or maintaining focus and meticulousness, both groups will reap significant benefits simply by being open-minded.
Unfortunately, I must confess I’ve engaged in stereotyping, and it has always robbed me of genuine happiness. Even if it is striking up a conversation with that “Western” student in class, the first step is the most important and often most rewarding. As we grow and mature in a globalised society, having a diverse group of friends and connections can work wonders.
The school and its teachers can also play an important role in encouraging such a transition. The beauty of attending an international school is meeting students from around the world, expanding one’s horizons and discovering new possibilities that may not exist in a homogenous school. May it be through seeing world issues and history through different cultures or celebrating the nuances of the student population in a “Culture Day”, the staff can positively influence the spirit of the institution and give students a new purpose in their social life.
As members of the class of this year head their separate ways, friends may remain close or drift apart. Our universities will be teeming with potential friends from countries you’ve never heard of. To all the international school students out there, let’s turn those candid photos into an #instaworthy reality.