In Hong Kong, integration of expatriate children is only skin-deep

Zahid Mughal says 'third culture kids' who claim to have many local friends may need to review their idea of 'local' - and acknowledge the colonial legacy that sets them apart

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 July, 2015, 4:38pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 July, 2015, 1:52pm

Recent interest in the behaviour of the children of expatriates in Hong Kong has ignited a debate in which they have been labelled spoiled brats who lack emotional stability and are shielded from the local populace within their own exclusive expatriate bubble.

Quick to defend themselves, these children contend that, instead of being emotionally hollow, straddling the divide between two or more countries actually makes them highly culturally aware and adaptable. Thus they call themselves "third culture kids".

"Third culture kids" is a glamour fad that expatriate children want to adhere to. In its assumption that, regardless of the combination of host and passport countries, third culture kids all over the world share homogenous traits, the label creates a sense of belonging in a situation where the question of home looms heavy on the minds of expatriate children. However, within this forged identity comes an unintentional elevation on the social ladder from their "mono-cultural" peers - to whom they boast about and glamorise their foreign upbringing.

This class elevation is congruent with Western privilege stemming from the colonial era. Despite this, the notion that the expatriate bubble operates on a plane above the local people is quickly dismissed by Hong Kong's third culture kids, who point to their cultural adaptability and argue that they integrate with the locals in a way that is more personal than their colonial counterparts.

This may seem true to them, but colonial structures still hold a lasting legacy in the way in which both expatriates and locals subconsciously perceive the balance of power. Perhaps unintentionally, the postcolonial Western expatriate still reshapes the world to suit their own clichés - promoting the idea of integration, but not delving beneath surface status markers.

Indeed, my research found that, despite self-proclaimed third culture kids pointing out that they had many local friends, their idea of "local" was skewed. Their argument that Hong Kong's elite Canadian and British Chinese were somehow representative of the local population is, for the supposedly culturally aware third culture kid, flawed.

Such is the case that in response to Jason Wordie's recent article lamenting their lack of integration and inability to speak Cantonese, one third culture kid said that, "Out of my closest group of friends, I'm the only fully British person."

Does this mean that ethnic Chinese cannot be considered fully British? Head down to Wan Chai on a Wednesday night and you will see this point in technicolour - yes, Western third culture kids are interacting with ethnic Chinese friends, but these are not representative of the general Hongkonger.

Moreover, while the issue has been refreshed by the July 1 protests, the question must be asked: how many of Hong Kong's third culture kids stood by their "local" peers and actively took part in last year's democratic protests? Instead, many posted yellow ribbon symbols of support on their Facebook pages. It can be argued that these symbols merely acted as a badge of difference to show off to their friends in other countries - once again, seemingly promoting the idea of integration but far from truly becoming at one with the local population.

Despite very much wanting to call myself a third culture kid as a marker of identity, I now find myself trying to escape the bubble in order to investigate from a more neutral standpoint. I admit that this task is surprisingly difficult as, having grown up on the inside and not being able to speak Cantonese, I am ill-equipped to operate without the familiarity provided by the expat community.

This article should not be taken as a personal attack on third culture kids as, prior to my research, I would have quite happily assumed the title.

Zahid Mughal grew up as a British expatriate in Hong Kong. He is pursuing a social anthropology doctorate researching postcolonial legacies and expatriate communities in Southeast Asia