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Hong Kong children learn life lessons with the world as their classroom

Stifling environment in the city has forced some who can afford it to take their kids out of the education system to be ‘worldschooled’ on road trips

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 April, 2018, 9:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 April, 2018, 9:00am

For six months, while Hong Kong’s schoolchildren bury themselves in textbooks to prepare for examinations, the world is the classroom for the four-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son of Cherry Chau Tsun-to.

Chau and her husband consider themselves a “travelling family”, and aim to educate their children with life lessons on the road. The couple quit their high-paying jobs in Hong Kong to go on a trip around Asia.

Their lifestyle choice is driven by a strong urge to get their children away from Hong Kong’s high-pressure, exam-obsessed education system, coupled with their own weariness of routine office life in an urban jungle.

“We think our children should go see the world and learn more from real-life experiences,” Chau says of their journey across Thailand, Indonesia and Taiwan. After the road trip, the family will seek a more settled life – by migrating to Canada.

While not every family in Hong Kong can afford to follow the Chaus, they are not entirely alone. In fact, experts have suggested that unconventional parenting is a growing trend in the city, as Asian parents become more open to breaking with tradition.

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All homework and no fun

Psychologist Daisy Chow Hoi-sze says she has observed that more local parents are seeking modern and creative ways to teach their children outside the much-criticised education system. The trend comes against the global backdrop of “worldschooling”, which refers to self-directed learning in the form of travelling.

The concept has gained traction with parents who consider themselves modern, hip and forward-thinking, with a wealth of online knowledge at their disposal. They want to teach their children without being shackled by tradition or a system.

“It’s become a trend,” says Chow, whose expertise lies in children’s education.

This new breed of parents is in sharp contrast to the “monster parents” Hong Kong has been notorious for, referring to fathers and mothers who push their children excessively for high grades, leading to a decline in mental health for the younger generation.

Venus Yiu Fong-lee, vice-chairwoman of the Hong Kong Psychological Society’s division of clinical psychology, says: “Children in Hong Kong can be seen studying for exams when they are in kindergarten.”

Children in Hong Kong can be seen studying for exams when they are in kindergarten
Venus Yiu, Hong Kong Psychological Society

Yiu says the fact that parents would go as far as to provide an alternative schooling lifestyle for their children “shows that there are problems with the system”.

Last year, a survey by Baptist Oi Kwan Social Service of around 1,300 primary pupils found that 21.7 per cent complained of constant stress, with the most common cause being too much homework, followed by preparation for secondary school and unsatisfactory grades. The figure, a three-year high, was 5.5 percentage points more than results of a similar poll in 2016.

Another survey by the Hong Kong Parents League for Education Renovation found that 60 per cent of 1,402 parents said their children spent more than 1½ hours a day on assignments after class. Some 23 per cent said their children spent more than 2½ hours daily on homework.

The workload of students and lack of a fun approach to teaching has become a concern for the government.

During Lunar New Year, Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung made an appeal to schools to ease the burden of homework on students over the holiday period.

Yeung also said his bureau had been discussing with schools about ways to make assignments more diverse and interesting.

Hong Kong educators have forgotten that schooling should be fun

Eleven lawmakers on the Legislative Council’s education panel have also called on the bureau to consider imposing a maximum-hours limit on homework for primary school pupils, restricting assignments given on Fridays to the same amount as other days, and having at least one school break homework-free.

But wealthy parents have decided to vote with their feet rather than wait around for changes in the system to happen.

Alternative parenting

A study in March by Citibank Hong Kong found that one in seven Hongkongers have at least HK$1 million in liquid assets after polling more than 4,000 Hongkongers and 200 mainlanders.

About 17 per cent of these millionaires in Hong Kong – who accumulated 55 per cent of their wealth from wages and the rest from investments – plan to migrate as they are not satisfied with the living environment and education system in the city.

As for the Chaus, they say their children have been exposed to different cultures and experienced the world through various learning opportunities. They have camped outdoors in rural areas, learned handicrafts, appreciated nature, stayed in locals’ homes and hitchhiked on trucks.

Their lifestyle has drawn scepticism from friends and relatives, but Cherry Chau says she has no regrets.

“They asked things like whether it’s really good for the children’s development, and whether we are financially stable,” Chau says.

“But I think we are only doing something that some others can also do, just that they don’t act on it.”

What’s best should be judged based on how much the children enjoy the process
Cherry Chau, mother

Chau says that just like other parents, she used to think her children had to follow a tried and tested route for their education. But having quit her job to live in Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province 2½ years ago, her perspective has changed.

There, she enrolled her son into a local kindergarten with an international school curriculum which put the needs of children first. Chau says her son enjoyed it much more than in Hong Kong.

“I think we used to go for stuff that other parents say are good, but what’s best should be judged based on how much the children enjoy the process.”

Another “nomadic” parent, Matt Shum Ho-hin, 39, says he would enrol his sons into school systems – local or international – in the countries and areas they travelled to.

Aged seven and eight, the children have been following Shum and his wife to cities such as Bangkok, Chengdu and Okinawa. They will next travel to Taipei.

The former banker says they embarked on the lifestyle after he and his wife, who used to be a secondary schoolteacher, grew weary of their life in Hong Kong.

“I wish to show my wife, who did not study abroad when she was younger, the world,” Shum says.

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The couple sold their Hong Kong property and bought another in mainland China, which they rent out and earn income from while on their four-year road trip.

Shum says the different environments have brought out the best learning potential in his sons, as they quickly mastered different languages.

The boys picked up Japanese after studying in a local school for just one year.

Don’t assume the world will educate your children for you
Rachel Poon, clinical psychologist

“We pretty much relied on them to communicate with the locals,” Shum says. “The more we travel, the more we realised our children have a greater adaptability than us.”

Clinical psychologist Rachel Poon Mak Sui-man, who is also chairwoman of the Hong Kong Psychological Society’s division of clinical psychology, reminds parents that the lifestyle may not be suitable for everyone.

“It really depends on the children, if they lack a sense of security, then constantly moving from one place to another is probably not ideal for them.

“So before making any decisions, please think carefully if your children are mentally stable enough to take on such changes.”

Poon adds that a lot also depends on the efforts of parents. “Don’t assume the world will educate your children for you. Along the journey, parents have the responsibility to inculcate knowledge and a positive attitude into their kids so they can grow to become universal citizens.”

Additional reporting by Rachel Leung