Last night, we took our 12 year old son to the Geelong Grammar School’s information session. I believe most of the parents were attracted to the school because of the Year 9 Timbertop program whereby all students are required to live a rustic camplike life, requiring basic skills and being close to nature, on a remote mountain range far away from everything we deem to be civilization, and most importantly including their phones ! It is a unique educational adventure that teaches valuable life skills, self-confidence building, resilience and independence.
In the room, there were a handful of alumni (mainly Asian) and they were invited to share their experiences at GGS. One young man, probably in his late 20s, was delighted to share his experience especially the year at Timbertop. He was outgoing, spoke perfect English and had a great sense of humour. He talked favourably about his experience and the education he had received from the school. However, there was one thing he said that he wished the school could had done more for the Asian students, and that was to educate everyone not to use racist language such as calling an Asian, ‘Gook’ (for those who may not know what the origins are of this slur, it comes from the Korean War, where Allied Forces would contemptuously refer to North Korean soldiers as Gooks. Gook is an abbreviation of Hanggook – the Korean language version of the nation of Korea).
His comment brought me right back to my years in boarding school in England in the 70s. I was the only Chinese girl in the school; English was not my first language and it was my first time away from home. The transition from one country to another; one language to another; one culture to another was not easy to say the least. I was simply different so I by default became the target; the centre of attention. I was told to return to where I came from, I was not welcomed. I was called, ‘Ching Chong’ and I was made fun of because my eyes are different from theirs. These unique and indeed unpleasant experiences have taught me the importance of immersion.
Raising our son, Xavier (half Irish, half Chinese) in Hong Kong, making the decision of sending him to a local school instead of an international school, insisting that he could only watch the cartoon channel in the Mandarin language, taking him to the wet market and encouraging him to speak in Cantonese when helping me to buy groceries and not answering his questions if they were not asked in Cantonese; the list goes on. The thought of giving up tempted me like a delicious dessert, especially in the weeks ahead of preparing for school exams, the endless bargainings of how much Chinese he has to do before he can stop and how I laughed when he said, “Can I NOT be a Chinese person today, mom?”.
After almost 12 years of integrating his life in Hong Kong, Xavier is now proud to call himself, ‘born and raised’ as a Chinese. He looks proudly to me whether it is a stranger on the bus or the old lady at the newspaper stand who look at him in wonder, “How did your ‘guai zai’ (“foreign boy”) learn how to speak Cantonese? so fluently?” With a big smile and replying in flawless Cantonese, I can tell he knows his hard work has paid off. The glowing pride sparkles in his eyes shine through and warm my heart.
While Xavier looks paler and hair lighter than his local peers, he definitely does not feel lesser than them in any way. He does not look at himself as the odd one out. He does not struggle to understand or be understood among his peers. I am purely talking about the language barrier. There are of course other developmental areas such as social skills that are important in terms of the growth of a child. However, if our children can break the language barrier to begin with, it gives them the confidence to build on other areas. The foundation of the building blocks for a well-balanced child comes from the ability to communicate. Communication comes from mastering the language skill. To master a language, what’s better than immersing into the life of the locals?
In his spare time, he loves watching the local TVB channel and last year he watched a documentary called, “我們的驕傲”. It talked about the lives of Hong Kong born athletes and the stories behind their successes. Not only was he fascinated with the athletes’ stories but was motivated to write about what he had learned from them and shared with his fellow readers and friends.
He is proud of these amazing local athletes. He is inspired by them and more importantly, he relates to them. He feels he is ONE OF THEM, born and raised in Hong Kong. I called that true immersion, don’t you?
It is beyond sad to still hear stories of racism in the 21st century. It is beyond comprehension of how on one hand we call ourselves global citizens but on the other hold such rigid perspectives toward one another based on our colour, beliefs and cultures. The tragedy in the Mosque in New Zealand has left me speechless and raised the alarm in my head that if by immersion is not enough, what is?
Today is International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, let us all reflect on when was the last time we made a racist comment? And for parents, how are we educating our children to love one another regardless of our colors, language, culture? I know just by posing these questions is not enough, but it is a start. We all have to start no matter how some of us think it is too late, or it has gone too far down already. And just like the example I gave at the beginning, we have to call it out when people use casual racist terminology. Bullying is one thing but name calling using racist terminology is another. For if we do not, we implicitly legitimize its usage, and gradually it can lead to its normalization. Taken to extremes, it can on occasion lead to the appalling racist violence we have witnessed too much recently.
So our son is taught not only to be proud of his mixed-race heritage, but to respect and place “parity of esteem” to all he encounters. I pray that all parents can adopt the same, on this most important of days. It is precisely our different color, culture and language that make us unique and that should motivate and inspire us to learn from one another, to embrace our differences as we all know by working as a team, believing that ‘two minds are always better than one’, is the only way we can make this world a better place, a happier place.