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Cross-Cultural Education in China—and in Chinese Families

From the series Cross-Cultural Education


In my previous post I introduced a general framework for thinking about cross-cultural schooling. I explained that schools teach not only information but values, and when kids are taught different values at school than they are at home, conflict ensues! In this post I’m going to talk a little about how this plays out in a Chinese context specifically.

Most of my research into Cross-Cultural Kids (CCKs) has involved Third Culture Kids (TCKs).[1] TCKs are one sub-group of cross-cultural kids.[2] The other CCK group I work with a lot are Educational CCKs (EdCCKs). EdCCKs live in their passport country but attend a school of a different language/culture. I’ve worked with EdCCKs in several countries, where the same dynamics occur. In China there are both traditional EdCCKs and also children who hold foreign passports but have little or no connection to that country/culture. The latter group might technically be classed as TCKs but their experiences are more similar to EdCCKs. For the purposes of this post, I will class both as EdCCKs.

One difficulty associated with the EdCCK experience is that the cross-cultural nature of their education, and how deeply this impacts their identity and socialization, is often unseen or underestimated. The assumption from their culture and family is that they are “normal” Chinese kids, who should have the same attitudes, values, and language skills as peers attending normal Chinese schools. But their instruction on how to think, and behave in society, follows different cultural norms.

I have worked with a lot of Chinese EdCCKs, their teachers, and their parents. Most Chinese EdCCKs attend English-language schools taught using a Western curriculum (whether British, American, International Baccalaureate—there are even a few schools with Canadian or Australian curriculums).

There are several reasons Chinese parents send their children to these schools.

  1. 1. Parents see an immersive English-language environment as the best way to develop strong English-language proficiency, which they see as an asset for future study and work prospects. 
  2. 2. They want their children to have the opportunity to do higher education overseas, and see this as the best route to get there. Some will send their children overseas as boarding or homestay students in high school, or even middle school, as part of this strategy.
  3. 3. Their child possesses a non-Chinese passport, and the parents therefore believe an international school seems like a better place for them than a traditional local school. This may be related to point one, or it may be that the family has strong international ties (perhaps the child is even bi-cultural or biracial).
  4. 4. The parents may have selected a school specifically because it has different educational values than those the parents grew up with in China.

That last group recognize that the school will teach their child not only language and academics, but will use a different method to teach, and instill different values as they do. This, for them, is an advantage. They are generally the smallest group, however. The rest are often largely unaware of the additional cultural influences they are inviting into their families by choosing an international education for their children.

Less common, but still important to recognize, is the cross-cultural experience of foreign children attending local Chinese schools. Again, there are several reasons families make this educational choice, but in most cases there is a desire to connect to the Chinese language and culture. There is more awareness that attending a Chinese school will be a cross-cultural experience, and less expectation for higher education to be conducted in China/Chinese. Most families I have spoken to who chose local schooling did so only until the end of primary school (elementary school) before transferring to an international school (or another option in the family’s heritage language or even in their passport country).

Even with this awareness of cultural difference, many families are still taken aback at just how different the school experience is. The method of teaching and discipline is very different. The expectations of what parents and teachers (and even students) ought to do to further their education – even from a young age – takes some families by surprise. Then there is the sometimes slow-dawning realization that while they approve of and appreciate some of the values taught, there may be other values or ideologies that conflict with the family’s own values. Each family has to then come up with a strategy for how to cope with these conflicts (something I addressed in my previous post).

Another issue is that of visibility. Some of these children come from Chinese-speaking families, or families of Chinese ethnicity, even if they do not speak Chinese at home. These children have more of a chance to blend in and be accepted as a “normal” student by their peers. Children of other ethnicities, however, always stand out and are regularly "othered" or excluded, even if they speak Chinese fluently.

There are pros and cons to each situation. The student who can blend in may find it easier to make friends, and not feel singled out. However, they may also feel their true identity is ignored or glossed over, and that they are expected to be a typical Chinese child even if they don’t feel like one. The child who stands out visibly may attract a lot of attention which may be unwanted and onerous, even if it is ostensibly positive attention. On the other hand, they may receive extra grace or understanding should they struggle to catch up or keep up with the language.

These posts are a short introduction to a huge topic, and one that can be quite emotional. If you want to dive more into this, it is one of the topics I cover on my own blog,[3] and I will be posting more content on cross-cultural education in the coming months. So come on over to Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing up Overseas in the 21st Century and explore this topic indepth!

Image credit: Steve Riot from Pixabay
Tanya Crossman

Tanya Crossman

Tanya Crossman is the author of Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century. She is passionate about building bridges of understanding between Third Culture Kids (TCKs) and those who care for them. She has mentored hundreds of teenage and young adult TCKs over the past... View Full Bio


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