International schools a poor preparation for college life in HK

January 23, 2018 09:31
International school students should step out of their comfort zone and make more local friends. Photo:

Raised in Hong Kong by Malaysian-Chinese immigrant parents, I attended an international school and my everyday conversation was in English.

My school friends and I grew up listening to the latest Black Eyed Peas songs and obsessed over the life of Blair Waldorf and her fabulously rich friends on Gossip Girl. At home, I spoke a broken, accented Cantonese, and got by at school with a vibrant blend of Chinglish.

Never once did I feel out of place in this melting pot of ethnicities and nationalities. I was the poster child for Hong Kong, receiving a global education in an "international city where East meets West and the old meets the new”.

There was no contesting who I was: I was a Hongkonger, different from my friends on the sole basis of where I went for Lunar New Year and how much lai see I got. (Think of Malaysia’s weak currency and low living costs and you’ll get the idea.)

However, this changed when I went to university. When my plans to study in the United Kingdom failed, I realized I was ill-prepared for the University of Hong Kong. All of a sudden, the "banding" of the school where I went to mattered, and people started throwing out Chinese names of schools I had never heard of.

And when they started talking about the DSE, the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education, I was left with a painful choice: pretend I knew what they were talking about, or break it to them that I came from an “I-school”.

That’s not just a nickname for international school. It also carries the stigma of the rich and the spoilt, the frequent visitors to Lan Kwai Fong, the ones who “got it easy” because they didn’t have to compete with thousands of other local students through the Joint University Programmes Admissions System, or JUPAS.

I-school students are often thought of as arrogant and cocky, not speaking Cantonese because English was superior. They simply failed to realize that we couldn’t speak Cantonese, nor relate to them. It was a segregationist label, serving to distinguish between impersonators and true Hongkongers.

During tutorials, I would hide my American-accented English. “My family comes from Malaysia,” became my mantra. I had to reassert my Malaysian identity to compensate for my subpar Cantonese, even though I had never lived there.

This stood in contrast to my younger brother, who signed off his high school yearbook with “我係香港人,唔係馬來西亞混血兒!”, which translates into “I am a Hongkonger, not a Malaysian mixed-blood!”

Going to a Band 1 local school, my brother was the epitome of a “champ”, HKU slang for “champion” or successful person. He was Student Council president, house captain, captain of the volleyball and badminton teams and was consistently top of his class for English.

Studying at HKU, he now lives in a traditional hall with local friends whom he calls his “brothers for life”. He was made for HKU, while I never seemed to fit in. I found that this seemed to reflect the sentiments of many local I-school students who end up attending local universities. We want to be accepted as locals, but are plagued with the idea that our years of schooling have made us too different.

Back in secondary school, my geography lessons had taken me from cocoa plantations in Africa, to the one-child policy in China and to trade agreements between Mexico and the United States. Then traditional subjects were replaced with vague, impractical courses like Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) and Theory of Knowledge (ToK), which tried to get us to think critically about where knowledge came from.

In my first year of law school at HKU, I was thrust into studying subjects like “Law and Society” and “Introduction to the Hong Kong legal system”, where I began learning about Hong Kong’s history and political system for the first time. I had been groomed to become a “global citizen”, concerned about the world, but ignorant to the issues in my own home.

In order for HKU to progress as a truly “global” university, it must get rid of its segregationist culture. While it might be a stretch for the university to abolish JUPAS, it all starts with a change of mindset.

International school students should step out of their comfort zone and make more local friends. It might feel awkward at first, but picking up the language and culture is a move towards calling Hong Kong your home.

For their part, local students should debunk the stereotypes about I-school students and recognize that we too are Hongkongers.

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The writer is a student at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre, The University of Hong Kong.