Their faces are stoic, their eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep. They answer when called, volunteer very little, hiding behind their armour of books. They carry the weight of their parents’ expectations, stress of peer and societal pressures, and fear that nothing they do will be good enough. They are Hong Kong students and my heart bleeds for them.
Hong Kong students are intellectually strong, yet emotionally frail. As babies, they’re coddled by domestic helpers, then thrown into the intense, high-stakes poker game that is Hong Kong education. There, they endure years of being sorted – every label and grade pored over by their parents with a magnifying glass. Their parents are so stressed out, you’d think their kids were in Afghanistan, not grade school. In the classroom, the children are not encouraged to be creative, to think critically, to express themselves. It’s no wonder half of secondary students show signs of depression and anxiety.
When I started teaching in Hong Kong in 2005, I set out to achieve one very specific goal: to teach Hong Kong kids to become better writers. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly they picked up the technical skills. Yet their essays lacked fervour. They lacked urgency. They sounded … bland. That’s when I realised to make a story really good, you have to take risks. You have to be willing to share a deeper emotional truth, and for that you need confidence.
If I wanted to make my students better writers, I had to build them back up emotionally. So, for the past 12 years, that’s what I’ve been doing. It’s not easy, especially children who already feel defeated at the age of 10. I’m not just talking about the kids at the bottom; it’s also those at the top. They’re under enormous pressure to “keep performing”, like a racehorse, not a child. This can have lifelong physical and emotional effects.
And while I did not face the same pressures as a child, I can relate to these kids because I faced other pressures. My parents were struggling first-generation immigrants in America and life was very hard. So I know about anxiety and pressure.
Every child is like a puzzle and, to figure them out, you have to be part therapist, part mentor, part teacher. You have to be willing to sift through the huge sandpit of fears and inhibitions until you find the one thing they enjoy learning for the sake of learning – and go from there.
Yet, rather than having to build up our children, there’s no doubting it would be better if we didn’t break them down in the first place. It would be wonderful if we, as parents, talked to our children about things other than school. Maybe then, they wouldn’t fear that our love is tied directly to their grades.
It would be doubly wonderful if teachers were given the freedom and encouragement to teach with passion rather than a long checklist of things that need to be covered for the next exam. Maybe then, our children would actually enjoy school.
Most of all, it would be wonderful if the Education Bureau stopped patting themselves on the back whenever Hong Kong kids score well in an exam, because high exam marks are not the sole indicator of educational success. Things like student happiness, emotional strength, love for learning, ability to think innovatively and creatively – those are the real markers of educational success because they will give children the confidence to forge their own future. And, right now, Hong Kong is falling embarrassingly short.
Kelly Yang is the founder of the Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debating. Her latest children’s novel, Front Desk, is due out next May.