A Mother and Son’s Survival Journey of Hong Kong’s Curriculum

THE TSANG FAMILY

Tammy is a born and raised Hong Konger and moved to the UK in her teens to study and now permanently calls UK her home. Her husband Sunny is a British born Chinese and they have 1 son together, who is 11 years old.

In 2019, Tammy and her son relocated from the UK to Hong Kong on a temporary basis due to her work commitments. When the pandemic hit, they were “stuck” in Hong Kong. Sunny was in the UK and the family were separated for 4 years. 

Their son had zero knowledge of Chinese reading or writing prior to entering Primary 1 in Hong Kong’s public school system. Tammy waited for him to complete Primary 4 and finally moved back to the UK in July 2023.

 

What has been the greatest benefit of your son attending public school in Hong Kong for 4 years?

 

Never would I have dreamed that my son’s Chinese reading and writing could reach this level. Before we relocated to Hong Kong, he would speak mainly English to Sunny and I. He had a basic understanding of Cantonese but would choose to speak English in reply. I am so proud of him for being adaptable and resilient, the rigorous school system has definitely moulded a stronger character in him. Hong Kong’s education system is not for the faint hearted as a parent or even a student, especially when your child’s Chinese is nonexistent to start with.

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What were your biggest worries for him?

 

I too have been schooled in Hong Kong so I know first hand how difficult and challenging it can be and this is being a native speaker. I was nervous that he would hate being restricted, hate all the rigid school rules in place and the homework load. In the UK, it is more of a holistic style of learning and I think the teachers are more aware of how to cater for different student’s capabilities and pace.

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How did you support your son through the 4 years?

My main support was to not pressurise him. I have heard of stories where children in Hong Kong have lost lives because of school-related stress,  therefore I made it my mission to be happy with whatever results he achieved. I set my expectations to a pretty low bar.

As I was working full time I could only give him my attention and focus on the weekends. I didn’t want him to stay up late during the week to do homework. I prize rest and sleep over slaving through homework, so we would tackle school work on my days off. I made a point to the teachers that I would not enrol him in any Chinese tuition classes – what he learnt in class or could pick up, solely relied on his diligence and student responsibility. I guess a big playing factor was that we would eventually be returning to the UK and whatever Chinese he could learn was just an added bonus.

Would you rather him fall behind in a subject than to lose sleep over it?

 

Knowing that the British primary school curriculum does not call for exams, I didn’t feel the need to stress over the ones in Hong Kong. Not saying that I didn’t care at all, but there is a fine line between being chill and disregarding it.

 

 

I still wanted my son to be in the correct mindset to face the challenges of exams and therefore would reward him when he did well and showed progress. We would agree on a target to meet as it’s more sustainable when these goals are achievable and in reach.

 

I was told by some parents that I wasn’t pushing my son enough and that he should be doing more work. I did feel judged, but by not conforming to these comments, I have given my son happy memories of school life in Hong Kong and it is not an experience that he will forget easily.

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Did the teachers fully understand your predicament?

 

I have to give credit to his teachers, each and every one has been so supportive and mindful of his language ability. In Primary 1, his teacher would pay close attention to him in class and would help translate in English. In order for him to integrate quickly, the teacher made him class monitor and English class representative. Without the pro-activeness of the teacher, I don’t think he would have made such a smooth transition. I am very proud to say that he placed 10th in his Primary 1 class. 

 

During the pandemic when schools had to be closed, his teacher gave us her personal number so that we could contact her if he encountered problems with school work. She would periodically check in on him and her thoughtfulness didn’t go unnoticed and so my son really made an effort to work hard and prove himself to her. He has been incredibly fortunate to have understanding and accommodating teachers. I was extremely grateful that he had the best support system.

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How stressed were you with the homework load?

 

I could sense that the parents in the class Whatsapp group would get quite anxious about it and there would be various factors of pressure, but I didn’t let it affect me. I would try my very best and find ways to teach my son what he didn’t understand – I would draw pictures and make bullet points about the topic. Heck, we even consulted YouTube together!

Now that you’ve returned to the UK, are there any parts of the Hong Kong curriculum you miss?

Haha, I don’t miss the homework! Saying that, at least with the homework, I know what he is learning each day. Whereas now in the UK, because he doesn’t have textbooks, I have no clue what topics he is being taught unless I pro-actively ask him. When we were in Hong Kong, my son and I bonded over our love and hate relationship with homework, it strengthened trust in our relationship. I actually feel now that there’s a lack of motivation for him to excel at school because he isn’t required to study for exams.

 

A skill that my son has picked up from schooling in Hong Kong is to be diligent and complete homework on time. He learnt early on that stalling on homework just means he has more work to do.  Of course he would complain and moan about it, but at the end of the day, he simply didn’t have another choice. I commend him for powering through the years and overcoming challenges.

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Will you try to maintain his Chinese reading and writing skills?

 

He reads Chinese books before bedtime and it’s something that he enjoys and finds pleasure in. 

 

Once he has fully settled back into the UK school routine, I would like for him to continue to learn to read and write in traditional Chinese. Unfortunately, the language schools in my town only focus on Mandarin. I will need to explore online options and I would prefer 1:1 sessions instead of group. As he doesn’t need to do homework now, I feel that he should dedicate an hour a week to keep building on his reading, his writing and most of all, his interest in the language. I do not want him to lose the blood, sweat and tears that he has put into learning Chinese.

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Writer's Notes

Tammy’s thoughts on academic progress is crucial for both motivation and growth, but showing her son that having a positive attitude in life matters more. I really like that her chill attitude towards tests and exams rubbed off on her son and instead of hindering him, it actually activated him to reach higher. I don’t think any parent wants to see their child fail, but we need to acknowledge that we should give them this room to fall down and pick themselves up again. It’s the learning process of this trial and error, and we as parents can provide a safe space for this to happen, which would set the child up for success.

February 2024