Understanding the Cultural Narratives of the Migrant Chinese Mainlanders Living in Northern Ireland

Bing Feng, Dr. School of International Studies

Zhejiang University

Dr. Feng-Bing grew up in China. She obtained her first degree in the English Language and Literature from Luoyang Foreign Studies University, did her post-graduate studies in American Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University, and received her doctoral degree in Sociology from the University of Ulster at Jordanstown, UK. She has many years of cross-cultural teaching experiences at various universities in China, the Netherlands, Singapore and Northern Ireland. Currently she is a lecturer at the School of International Studies at Zhejiang University, China. Her research interests are ethnicity and identity and children.

This paper focuses on analyzing the cultural narratives of the Mainland Chinese parents living in Northern Ireland. In the process of high-lighting their cultural narratives, I shall characterize them in terms of the topics, themes and the nature of the activities. I shall focus on four issues they have chosen to talk about: 1) education, 2) leaving China/settling down in Northern Ireland, 3) ethnic isolation, and 4) bullying. I do so because on the one hand, they seem to be more concerned about these issues and they volunteered to talk about them. On the other hand, from my understanding of the (disadvantaged) position of the Chinese community in Northern Ireland, these are issues of concern from the perspective of the Chinese community as a whole. It will also be noted that the cultural narratives on these issues are separate but interconnected to the extent that they form a larger, more coherent pattern of cultural narrative. Namely, the cultural narratives on education and leaving China / settling down in Northern Ireland show the interviewees’ aversion to China; and the cultural narratives of mitigation on ethnic isolation and bullying show their preference to staying in Northern Ireland. In many cases, their cultural narratives display a collective predisposition of an admiration for Northern Ireland as a society. Their seemingly ‘intentional’ discursive strategies are actually the product of their unplanned surrounding social preconditions (see Van Krieken, 1998: 53). It is substantially important to look at their historical, political and cultural context in that particular era so that we can comprehend what they say today and relate their cultural narratives to what they have experienced in the past.

As the aim of this project is to reach an in-depth understanding of the ethnic Chinese Mainlanders in Northern Ireland, I have planned to participate-observe this research group and conduct in-depth ethnographic interviews with the voluntary Mainland Chinese interviewees. Initially, I composed a letter to 80 members of the Mandarin Speakers’ Association, asking for volunteers to participate in my research. I got 35 respondents who agreed to be included in my research. My participant observation has been long-term, two and half years to be more exact. The semi-structured interviews were conducted informally, most of the time at the interviewees’ own places or their chosen places with different settings. The data selected were divided into 4 different topics of their own choice.

I first started approaching my research subject from the Chinese Welfare Association in Belfast, an ethnic organization sponsored and established by the Hong Kong Chinese about 30 years ago. And from there, I knew the existence of the Mandarin Speakers’ Association which was established only recently by the Mainland Chinese scholars in Northern Ireland. According to the organizers of this association while talking about the necessity of establishing ‘Mandarin Speakers’ Association’, the scholars from Mainland China made a collective decision to establish their own association, due to the ‘unpleasant’ history of Mainland Chinese being ‘excluded’ from the already well-established Chinese Welfare Association (mainly composed of Hong Kong Chinese). The problem I had with the Mainland Chinese interviewees in the early stage of my interviews was that they were so much aware of my role as a researcher that they tended to be cautious in responding to me during our interviews. As a result of our frequent informal social gatherings which I actively attended or organised, a rapport between us was gradually built up. Eventually, they became less vigilant or alert of my role as researcher, instead, they saw me as one of their other Chinese friends who shared and therefore could understand their past homeland social and cultural experiences as well as cross-cultural ethnic experiences.

Therefore, in order to understand the cultural narratives of the Mainland Chinese interviewees, I must in the first place grasp their broader historical and social context in which they grew up, a political and cultural context in which their hearts and minds were framed. Thus, I shall begin with a brief contextual overview of their multi-layered conditions: 1) the family structure, the historical/cultural context where they grew up, and 2) the cross-cultural context where they re-position themselves, respectively, before I examine and analyse their specific cultural narratives.

2.1 The family structure, the historical and cultural background:

The interviewed ethnic Mainland Chinese family in NI is, in the normal case, as small as of three members: two parents plus one child. In rare cases, there is a second child. In some other rare cases, grandparents may be visiting for a few months. These teenagers’ life experiences in China are limited, given the fact that most of them left China before their school entrance age (age 7). Under such circumstances, it is imaginable that both parents form a larger and stronger ’family figuration’ for the single child than the local N. Irish families do. That is, the parents’ cultural narratives may constitute for the child an important source of information about China.

Most of these Mainland Chinese interviewees settling down in Northern Ireland were born and grew up during the Cultural Revolution (a political upheaval in China from 1966 till 1976 in support of the theories of Chairman Mao), and are now in their early 40s. Before I start analyzing their interview cultural narratives, let me first have a brief historical account of that period during which they grew up, so that we can see how their minds, values and attitudes have been related to that period. And this therefore will give us a better understanding of their interview cultural narratives.

The Cultural Revolution was launched by Chairman Mao in October 1966 and ended officially in October 1976, after Mao’s death. This was a disruptive period for the Chinese society in general and its education in particular (Surowski, 2000; Yang, 2003). Millions of teenagers, organized into brigades of Red Guards, followed Mao’s words ‘Bombard the headquarters!’ dragging the intellectuals out off their offices and humiliating them in public (Mao & Leung, 1986; Mao, 1990 [translated version]). Museums and libraries were sacked, and Buddhist temples and historical sites were also vandalized. During the early years of the Cultural Revolution, schools were closed until 1970 so that teachers and students could concentrate on the Cultural Revolution (Yang, 2003). The concept of key school1 was abolished; the system of university entrance examinations was halted, with the selection of students based on political virtue. Those from families of workers, peasants or soldiers were deemed the most ‘virtuous’, and among the first to be admitted to colleges and universities.

These Mainland Chinese interviewees were still in their primary schools during the Cultural Revolution, and spent most of their childhood and teenage years reciting and chanting the slogans and quotations from Chairman Mao, going through several nation-wide political movements. Schools could not function as normal schools, instead, they were demanded to teach students the Cultural Revolutionary values. In Mao’s words, ‘The more books you read, the more stupid you become’, ‘A school curriculum should be half’, and ‘A normal school term should be short’ (Kwong, 1988; Lee, 1978; Liu, 1987). This as a result, wasted the students’ normal school time and potential talents. Mao also regarded it as highly important to send high school graduates to the countryside to ‘be re-educated by the poor or average peasants’ (Joseph & Et al, 1991; Schoenhals, 1996). The idea was that educational substance should be simpler and students should be re-educated practically. In this way about four million urban high school graduates were transferred to the countryside or wilderness. It was only after Mao’s death in 1976, the Cultural Revolution was officially denounced as a source of social chaos and therefore, a ten-year tragedy came to an end in that year. With the end of the disastrous Cultural Revolution and with the ascension to power by Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese educational system reverted to those normal years before 1966. The guiding principle this time was that education should aim at realizing the ‘Four Modernization’ which refers to significant advances in the areas of agriculture, industry, national defense, science and technology (Yang, 2003). One of the first changes in higher education after the end of the Cultural Revolution was the restoration of the national unified university entrance exams in 1977.

For most of these interviewees, the impact of the Cultural Revolution is that they lost a decade of school education. They have been trying to chase back the time they lost ever since the recovery of normal education in 1977. However, the reform of the educational system went to the other extreme, and students were pressured extremely hard to aim at high scores so that they could be admitted into key schools, colleges and universities (Kwong, 1988; Surowski, 2000). Competition was severe. Most of these Mainland Chinese interviewees were admitted into the Chinese universities through highly competitive national entrance examinations during the period of educational reform (late 1970s and early 1980s). It has been suggested that this is a generation that was deprived of too much and now is desperately thirsty for knowledge and quality education (He, 1988). Compared with all the others in this generation, they are undoubtedly the most successful ones, in the sense that they have completed their university education in China through hard work and severe competitions. Given the fact that they suffered and survived the political and cultural turmoil in that era, for most of the Mainland Chinese interviewees, education is considered as the key to future career success, a guarantee of at least a decent (if not affluent) life. Thus, these interviewees tend to justify with their own experiences why their children should do well in school. As will be seen, being academia or professionals in business and industry, they use their own personal success stories to prove to their children the reward of hard work and getting a solid education. When I asked the interviewees about the two socially, culturally and politically different societies (China and Northern Ireland), they naturally picked up the topic of ‘education’ to compare and comment on.

2.2 The cross-cultural background:

Most of these interviewees came to the UK as post-graduate students. After obtaining their degrees, they started their academic jobs as research assistants, research fellows and lecturers at universities or IT professionals in the mainstream society. Compared with the large number of Hong Kong Chinese in Northern Ireland, this is a rather small group of Mainland Chinese (about 10%) (see Holder, 2003) who have done successfully enough to secure highly professional positions in Northern Ireland. However, this small number has been on the increase in recent years and it is of crucial importance to include these professional ethnic Chinese expatriates while researching the ethnic minority Chinese in Northern Ireland. Most of them pride themselves on their ability to secure professional jobs and settle down in Northern Ireland. However, it should also be noted that, from my ethnographic observations as well as interviews with them, they have been living in social and cultural isolation from the mainstream society. This is reflected by the fact that they maintain a relatively close contact with other fellow Chinese scholars, especially those living in the vicinity, through e.g. the Chinese language school, the Mandarin Speakers’ Association2 . This means that the cultural narratives that we shall hear below also get circulated amongst this ’closed’ community. There is a clear sense in which the Mainland Chinese interviewees and their children think and speak of the white mainstream culture as different from their own, usually in terms of the country of origin. For example, they routinely use the term ’local’, ’of local origin’, which also suggests the speaker as outsider when referring to the children of white majority culture. At the same time, it should be noted that they seem always to have a sense of themselves as being partially ’there’, i.e. in China. This can be seen especially in the fact that when they are asked to talk about things ’here’, they often go on talking about things ’there’, i.e. in China.

3. The Cultural Narratives of Aversion to China and Mitigation of Ethnic Tension

3.1 The Issue of Education

From my interviews with the Mainland Chinese interviewees, I observe that their narrative on educational differences between the two cultures is the most prominent in terms of quantity and detail. They often make contrast between the educational system in Northern Ireland and that in China of their own accord. More significantly, such contrasts lead to the construction of the Northern Ireland educational system as far superior to that in China. This notion of the Northern Ireland education is then used not only to justify their idea that their children and hence the family should stay ‘here’ rather than in China, but also to express a strong admiration for the host society as a whole.

The following interview is with LM, an IT professional with a PhD degree in Computer Science. She came to Northern Ireland about 10 years ago, first as Master’s student, and then research student in Computer Science. When this interview took place, she was working in an international company based in Northern Ireland. Unlike the other Mainland Chinese professionals, she is one of the few female professionals who came to Northern Ireland earlier than their husbands (her husband managed to come over to join her only a few years later). Highly independent and competitive, LM has been the main breadwinner in the family for some years. Now her partner is also working with a local IT company in Northern Ireland.

Example [1a]

FB: How do you find life here for your child?

LM: Generally speaking, here [Northern Ireland] is easier for our child than in China.

FB: Why?

LM: Because the whole educational system here is better designed. Children start schooling from the age of 4.

FB: Don’t you think that’s too early for a child to start school?

LM: No, I don’t think so. They learn things through play. This is the best age for learning. The Chinese educational system is more imposing. They force pupils to learn without caring about children’s interests in learning. But here [Northern Ireland], they guide and stimulate children to learn and pay special attention to their interests. The children don’t have any pressure, and at the same time they learn stuff. Um…generally speaking, I find the educational system here is simply excellent. We do have lots of good stuff in China, but we force children to learn by rote. We give the children very difficult things to learn, sometimes the level is set too high, and it lacks scope and practicality. And imposing such huge pressure on school children, I think, is a torture for them. Here children have a broader knowledge and more importantly, they don’t have pressure and as a result, they learn things easier this way

FB: It seems that children in China are always aiming at getting high scores.

LM: Yes, indeed, but when they leave school and start working, they are already so exhausted and stressed out, that they don’t have any interest in learning other things. They may have the depth of knowledge, but their ability to use it is low.

LM almost immediately gets into the heart of her preferred topic of education, which also shows her own aspiration. Although LM and her group (the interviewed Mainland Chinese interviewees) belong to ethnic minority in the mainstream society, their personal effort and conscientiousness (obtained with much greater hardship though than the local people in the sense of their disadvantage in English language skills) still place them in an academically powerful position. As such, as I have often observed, interviewees like LM routinely tell their children a simple and straightforward truth: hard work for academic success pays off in the end. Just as interviewees’ dispositions were developed and solidified by their individual families and broader social and political context, the children’s dispositions are also being partially shaped and developed by their families and an even broader cross-cultural context of living between the two cultures.

Obviously, from the above example, LM is critical about the Chinese way of learning and teaching: rigid, impractical, uninteresting and aiming up too high. This is one of the main reasons she does not want to bring her child back to China, for the benefit of her child. She strongly believes in the educational system in Northern Ireland. What surprises me most is the fact that when she was facing unemployment a year ago, she was still trying all she could to stay on in Northern Ireland so that her child could enjoy a more pleasant educational environment in Northern Ireland. She was even prepared for the worst, i.e. ready to go for restaurant jobs despite all her academic qualifications, as she confessed to me during our casual social gathering. When I asked her whether her child was the only reason for her decision to settle down in Northern Ireland, she said, ‘in China, social connections are important, and power brings you money and it penetrates everywhere in that society. But I don’t have these powerful social connections, so I’d rather live under a relatively fairer society in Northern Ireland.’ It is interesting that LM feels more fairness as a non-white ethnic Chinese in a white dominant society than in her own country where she grew up. As a discursive strategy, LM tries to justify her point by comparing the two different educational environments. The message she implied is clear: if they go back to their country of origin, their child will have hard time learning under high pressure from the society there; therefore, to avoid that, they decide to settle down in Northern Ireland.

Example [1b]

FB: So you like the schools here and the way they teach children?

LM: Yes. It all depends on what kind of educational system you have. They do have a better way to educate children here. The starting point is the development of human nature. I can give you an example: in China, they give children such difficult maths problems to solve, what they are aiming at is to make all of them the Olympic type of high-tech genius. But how many such geniuses does society need? China is aiming too high. But do we really need that? It’s such a waste. Look at myself, I have done thousands of maths exercises in my years, but it’s no use. It’s not practical. I don’t think that my child should come out first in everything. It’s unnecessary. As long as he has enough knowledge to survive, I’d be pleased. Here they emphasize the ability and methods to solve problems, methods to think. And I think this is more important than knowledge itself. They teach you the basic logic of thinking. Oh I appreciate this so much, and I don’t like the Chinese way of teaching and learning at all. That explains why this country is so well managed; the way of thinking is the key.

When LM mentions her own experience as a student in China, it does sound a bit contradictory to her competitive nature. However, we have to see where she came from, where she is positioned now and what she has been through. Coming from a small town in China, LM’s motivation was to have a higher education as a way to escape what she perceived to be her depressing town. LM was already in her late teens when the Chinese educational system returned to normal in 1976 after the Cultural Revolution. Since then, the catching up with the lost school time was in full swing. As someone from remote town with no social connections whatsoever, to be admitted by universities in China meant double effort for her compared with most of her peers living in big cities. She had to ‘do thousands of maths’ to increase her chance to success. Hence, having been through all sorts of severe competitions and the final national entrance examination in China, LM was admitted by a prestigious university in China. She finished her first degree there and finally made her way to Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, LM seems to have observed and learnt how the local schools manage teaching/learning, and thus realised that Northern Ireland is a much healthier place for a child to be, to learn and to develop in comparison with China. As we see from the above, she continues to use her discursive argument, her own school experience in China and her general knowledge about education, to justify her criticism about the Chinese educational system and her appraisal about the British educational system in general. All this discursive action may not be intentionally planned, but rather a result of her predisposition accumulated in the long-term process of her specific social condition. As such, LM’s predisposition of being critical about China reflects her past history, her early adult experiences in China. Predisposition as such has become her internalised second nature. As Bourdieu (1990: 56) powerfully argued,

The habitus – embodied history, internalised as a second nature and so forgotten as history – is the active presence of the whole past of which it is the product. As such, it is what gives practices their relative autonomy with respect to external determinations of the immediate present. This autonomy is that of the past, enacted and acting, which, functioning as accumulated capital, produces history on the basis of history and so ensures the permanence in change that makes the individual agent a world within the world.

The following interviewee is SZP, a senior engineer working with a company in Northern Ireland. 6 years ago, he gave up his lecturer’s job in a prominent university in Shanghai and came to Northern Ireland as a research student. After finishing his PhD studies, he landed a job by an engineering company in Northern Ireland and has been working there ever since.

Example [2]

FB: How do you like it here in Northern Ireland?

SZP: . think the educational system here is good, because it encourages children to do things and develop their ability to search for knowledge by themselves. I still remember, the first thing she [JS] learnt in school after she came over here was to use the library. The school gave the kids projects to do and each time they were supposed to search the library to find the relevant reference books to do the project. And they had to edit and type up the project report.

FB: Was it in the primary school?

SZP: In P6. Of course this teaching method is much better than that in China. My nephew is in China, the same age as my daughter. What he does there is merely to cope with the endless homework, no hands-on experience.

FB: So if you compare them, what are their respective weaknesses?

SZP: My daughter has stronger self-confidence, while the other has less–all he does is to cope with his homework.

FB: Why is your daughter more self-confident then?

SZP: . believe it’s the educational system. The Chinese educational system is just like ‘stuffing the duck’ [Chinese idiom, originating in ’Peking Duck’, meaning to cram one with knowledge without understanding]. The children do whatever the teachers ask them to do, no time for exploring other knowledge. But my daughter has so much time to explore what she is interested in apart from schoolwork and she has broad interest in many other things as well. This, I think, accounts for the success of the educational system here.

Indeed, for this generation that had lost much of their schooling time during the Cultural Revolution, it can be argued that quality education is treasured more than many other things. Although it may sound rather ‘contradictory’ to his strong educational aspirations when SZP critically describes the Chinese educational system as ‘stuffing the duck’, what he really implies here is that China needs a better way of learning and teaching, a more child-friendly approach. SZP is admiring the humanitarian part in the British educational system and the general care from the society for children’s psychological and overall development in Northern Ireland.

Like LM in example [1a, b], SZP compares the two educational systems and points out the advantages and disadvantages from both sides. He uses his discursive strategy of appraising the Northern Ireland’s educational system to emphasise his point. As such, the spontaneity of using this strategy is almost unconscious. It is a product of his internalised predisposition accumulated and developed from his unpleasant past experiences in China. His many years’ disappointment about China has given him this disposition of habitually looking at China critically. Sentences he uses to describe the Chinese educational system are ‘stuffing the duck’, ‘no hands-on experience’, ‘no time for exploring other knowledge’, and ‘lower self-confidence’ etc. Since he realises and appreciates those advantages in Northern Ireland, like every other parent in similar situations, SZP wants his daughter to enjoy the educational advantages as long as possible. In other words, he is not ready to go back to China and let his daughter repeat this unpleasant school experience that he had in China. He wants a better future for his child and a better future for the whole family in the end.

The interviewee’s determination is put into active planning and action. To achieve what they believe a better future, they need the whole family to work together. Here the theme of interdependence or power relations within the family comes out. The parents are setting a good example for their daughter by working diligently. They try to create a decent living environment for their only child, so that it would be easier for her to concentrate and achieve the best she can in school to guarantee a brighter future for herself as well as pride for the family. The parents need their daughter just as much the daughter needs them for emotional, psychological as well as social reasons. The parents particularly need their daughter to bring pride to the family by doing well in school. The daughter, on the other hand, feels the pressure from her parents by listening to their endless stories about the problems in China. These stories are slowly working in her mind and subconsciously becoming part of her impression about China so that she equally fears going back to that problematic country. It is a long and unconscious process for her to get this negative picture about China. To avoid the possibility of going back, she needs her parents’ effort, financial support, and respectable social status to help her get there.

The cause and effect relation between their practical concern about their children’s education and their choice of living in China or Northern Ireland is clearly shown in the following example. JWX in the next example is the mother of a 13-year-old boy. She used to work as lecturer in engineering at a university in Shanghai. In the late 1980s, her husband won a scholarship from the UK to do research at Cambridge University. In those years, it was not easy to go abroad from China. She could not join her husband until two years later, because of the many restrictions in China. In her own words,

He (her husband) didn’t plan to stay there [Cambridge] for long, because at that time I was already 7 months’ pregnant. He was hesitating whether he should go or not. But we agreed that this was a good opportunity and we decided that he should go for it. When he first saw his son years later, James was already 5 years old, because it was after the 1989 Tian-An-Men event (students’ movement). He couldn’t come back [from England] and I was not allowed to go out. That’s the most difficult years for me. I was doing my Master’s degree then, very hard time, and the most difficult time for me in my life.

JWX managed to join her husband only after several years’ separation from each other, which was the normal case determined by the Chinese policy then. After a few years’ academic experience in Cambridge, England, both JWX and her husband landed academic jobs in Northern Ireland and since then, the family has stayed on in Northern Ireland for 5 years now.

Example [3]

FB: Are you planning to settle down here?

JWX: Obviously, it’s not practical for our child to go back to China. We have reservations about the Chinese educational system. Another big problem is his Chinese language. And I don’t like the Chinese competitive system. This morning Jimmy told me about his choice subjects for the next semester. He said, ‘I have chosen 11 subjects already, and I’ll tell you what they are, Mum. You can tell me what you think about them but don’t push me or anything. I only need your suggestion.’ We are a very liberal family, we don’t push him that hard, we just give him the idea and it’s up to him to make a choice. Many Chinese families push their kids too hard, forcing them to recite ancient Chinese poems and learn piano and stuff.

Again, like the previous interviewees, JWX is critical about the rigid Chinese educational system, which is extremely competitive. However, this does not go against her own academic competitiveness. As someone who went through both the Cultural Revolution which despised knowledge and the post-Mao years when this generation was pushed into another extreme which created the phenomenon of ‘stuffing the duck’, JWX has a better version about what gaining knowledge should really mean. She still emphasises education like most interviewed Mainland Chinese interviewees, but this time she prioritises the teaching method and friendly learning environment to achieve the same purpose of gaining knowledge. Feeling happy in the learning environment seems to many Mainland Chinese interviewees more beneficial for their children than otherwise, and this realisation is only made possible when they are here and have the opportunity to compare the two different educational systems (in China and Northern Ireland or the UK). From here we can see, individuals are not only embedded within and products of a network of relations, but also they are dynamic and constantly in a state of flux and change. They are going through a long-term process of development (see Elias, 1978: 118; Van Krieken, 1998: 67). JWX’s negative narrative about China is only possible when she compares the situation in China with that in Northern Ireland. Therefore, there is a process of dynamic development and her critical narrative about China is the outcome of such process of development.

3.1 The Issue of Leaving China/Settling Down in Northern Ireland

To best understand the children’s attitude towards their life in Northern Ireland in previous chapters proves difficult without knowing the interviewees’ opinions on China and their reasons for living in / leaving China and settling down in Northern Ireland. As Elias has argued regarding figuration, the dependence of any given individual on the surrounding network of social, economic and political relations is the autonomous law of the human network. Each individual’s actions arise from and are directed into such human network (see Elias, 1991: xxi-xxii). What I am arguing here is that these interviewees’ actions and behaviors come from their experiences with all sorts of human networks (i.e. networks in China and Northern Ireland or anywhere they have had their past experiences), these networks have left impacts on them, which are being shown through their ways of thinking and speaking, actions and behaviors.

My overall observation of these Mainland Chinese interviewees is that they engage primarily in the construction of a negative picture of China. Such a negative picture of China is in comparison with the positive picture of Northern Ireland. Therefore it is relational. To warrant that negative representation, the interviewees’ provide an array of diverse reasons. They expressed for example strong dissatisfaction about the ‘social connections’ in China. Social connections, in Chinese ‘Guanxi’, are among the most important social phenomena in China today. It lies at the heart of China’s social order, its economic structure, and its changing institutional landscape (Gold, Guthrie, & Wank, 2002). This has been frustrating many people in China, especially those without strong economic power and elite social network. Fair competition in China does not work as efficiently as it does in many other Western societies. Other crucial reasons include rigid educational system and poor research environment in China. See the following extract:

Example [4]

FB: But why did you decide to leave China in the first place?

SZP: . just felt everything became sort of meaningless [in China], teaching the same stuff for years … no motivation to go any further. It seemed that there was nothing interesting for me to get anywhere. There was no way out then.

FB: Are you happy here [in Northern Ireland] with your work environment?

SZP: I’m an easy person, you know, as long as my life is settled, I’m happy enough. I don’t like to go through everything all over again.

FB: Life in China is also pretty comfortable, don’t you think?

SZP: The main problem is the complicated social connections and interpersonal relations there. I don’t like that, and I’m not skilful at that either. My principle is to have a simple life, not to compete with others for everything.

FB: Couldn’t you get that in China?

SZP: In China, it’s not determined by your own free will, but rather by the external environment. You have to compete with others for everything, like career promotion, salary rise, getting an apartment (in China apartments were distributed to people according to their working experiences and achievements). If you don’t compete, they would neglect your existence entirely. They remember you only when they need you to do what they don’t want to do.

So, what SZP complains about is that life in China seemed meaningless and people there habitually compete with each other for everything. But then is life in Northern Ireland much more meaningful? Is competition in Northern Ireland less severe than that in China? Is this a fact or an excuse?

Born and brought up during the Cultural Revolution, SZP seems to have all the reasons to feel resentful about China, especially the bureaucratic way of doing things, the complex social connections often coupled with corruption and bribery, and the overall highly competitive environment. Some of the critiques he mentions above can also be understood as practical excuses, because in fact, competition in Northern Ireland, or any other Western societies can be just as severe as that in China if not more, especially for ethnic minority groups. Working and living a foreign country, speaking an unfamiliar language and trying to survive in Northern Ireland can only be more challenging than that in China. However, this seems beyond his point. Indeed, being Chinese may be a biological reality, and as Chinese, living in a white dominant society may generate racial problems, but this should not be interpreted as an implication that there is only one way back to China. Rather, it should be an open choice for everyone and all nationalities to relocate themselves outside their countries of origin.

Another theme during the interviews with the Mainland Chinese is the sense of freedom they feel in Northern Ireland, compared with the overall repression of individual freedom in China. WZ in the next extract, father of a teenage boy, is a university lecturer in Northern Ireland.

Example [5]

FB: How do you like your life here?

WZ: . like it better here than in China. What I feel about China is that the social connections are too complicated and they don’t suit my personality. Being here is a lot easier, and nobody really bothers you. I feel free here.

FB: And what else?

WZ: Generally speaking, the research environment in China is not good. If you are talking about foundational knowledge in my area, I should say it’s better in China. But if you are talking about research quality and research environment, I prefer it here. I went back to China recently, they don’t seem to have a proper research centre…um…very few people are doing research.

FB: Don’t you want to go back and work on that?

WZ: No, I don’t think so, because I’m not suitable to be a leader. In the terminology of economics, the greatest interest is to have power. In China, you won’t get anywhere unless you are a high-ranking leader. Being a leader also means power and money. China is very corrupt. There is still quite a big gap between China and the West, I mean, in research.

Again, WZ habitually talks about China negatively without being aware of his predisposition as such, just like the previous parent interviewees. In other words, this kind of negatively talking about China or experiences there has become part of his second nature. The specific social and political context in China in his time has framed such predisposition of grievance. When WZ claims that he feels free outside China, it means he does not have to struggle through complex social connections, which often involve indecent bribery to get what one wants, i.e. parents must give ‘gifts’ to school teachers so that teachers will pay more attention (hopefully) to their children. This is the most common phenomenon in China. WZ is emphasizing the necessity of having powerful positions in China, which in his words, means control, money and all the conveniences.

The same concern about the child’s incompetent Chinese language and over demanding education in China is repeated as the following,

Example [6]

FB: Then what attracts you to settle down here if I may ask?

JWX: . think it is our research here. But most importantly it’s our child. We have to consider the aftermath seriously if we go back to China. This is a very impractical time for him to go back: language and schooling.

FB: I had a talk with him and my impression is that he doesn’t feel that much for China.

JWX: I think the main reason is that his Chinese language is not as good. All the information he receives is from the English media. And the English media very often report negatively on China. So in his mind, China is all very negative. When he went back to China as a visitor, he saw wherever he went was so dirty and crowded and he was shocked.

The mother’s explanation for her son’s negative comment about China is that James is under the influence of the English media. Since English is probably the only language James (her son) reads most efficiently (compared with Chinese), most of his knowledge and information naturally come from the English media. This definitely plays an undeniable role for James’s negative attitude toward China. More importantly, however, is how James is learning from his parents who talk about China much more frequently than the English media (nearly on daily basis) and whose choice of words on this topic could influence that of James’ to even more profound degree.

3.1 The Issue of Ethnic Isolation

As a central concern of my research, I pose the question of contact and communication between the interviewed interviewees (and children) and the white majority community. My observation is that they acknowledge the lack of contact and communication and they also formulate it as a sort of problem, for the children as well as for themselves. But what is particularly noticeable is that they then either supply a range of ’natural’ or ’insurmountable’ causes on their part or deny its importance or consequence. Effectively, these activities mitigate (the nature of) social and ethnic isolation or alienation. In this way, the perceived problem is resolved or smoothed over.

SL used to teach economics at a university in China. She came to Northern Ireland six years ago and joined her husband as a dependent. Now she is working as a librarian in Northern Ireland and her husband works as university lecturer. She taught some Mandarin in the Chinese school on Sundays during her first years in Northern Ireland, but she gave it up since she became a Committee Member in Mandarin Speakers’ Association in Northern Ireland. I got to know YN when I was teaching in the Chinese school as a part-time teacher (in disguise of my other role of participant observer as researcher).

Example [7a]

FB: I can see YN is pretty happy in the Chinese school.

SL: Yes. …He never plays with local children during break time in the English school, coz he has no friends there.

FB: Really?

SL: . mean he never spends time with local children outside the school. But I’m sure in the [English] school he has some. I heard him mention some local friends who are pretty good at maths or chess. But I don’t think he plays with them outside the school. He socialises only with these Chinese kids. It’s a small circle. A local friend from his school once invited YN to his house. My husband said to him later on, ‘you should invite him back to our house someday.’

FB: Did he do that?

SL: . think he is shy, not a very social type. I think he’s like me a lot, a very sensitive type. Sometimes he tells me, ‘Mum, I don’t think XXX ’s mum likes me. She thinks I’m a bad boy.’ Then I told him, ‘No, that’s not the case. It’s only your imagination.’ He said somebody’s parent looked at him that way. And I told him, ‘No, she is like that to everyone.’

SL straightforwardly admits that YN does not socialise with the local kids and that YN has no local friends. The way she explains it, however, is more good-natured self-criticising rather than complaining about the local children’s isolating YN, ‘I think he is shy, not very social type. I think he’s after me a lot, very sensitive type.’ Even when YN senses that he’s being misjudged by his outlook or skin colour or whatever, she still tries to pacify him, ‘No, that’s not the case. It’s only your imagination. …No, she is like that to everyone.’ So again, in her words, YN is being ‘too sensitive’, ‘too imaginative’. It could be true that as a Mum she was trying to make him feel better, which is spontaneous and understandable for many people. Nevertheless after this event, without the presence of her son, while talking to me only, SL still emphasises YN’s over-sensitivity and unsociability, which shows her overall consistency.

SL wants to believe that it is her son’s problem and as such she minimises the ‘problems’ described or experienced by her son. As she believes, racist bullying and isolation may be a problem, but not, in comparison to what they have experienced and what they will face in China if they have to go back. As such, the mother needs her son to settle down well in Northern Ireland so that the whole family will not have to go back to China where more serious problems may come up. Such interdependence upon each other within the family figuration requires both parents and child to co-operate and work hard toward their common goal.

Example [7b]

FB: Do you think the children may feel lonely if they stay at home all the time? Do they not need to socialise with other children?

SL: No, I don’t look at it that way. They have loads of things to do at home. If the parents are sociable, they might take their children out to play. Otherwise, if the parents are not sociable, this may also affect their children. But life is not all about socialisation. I don’t think it’s that important in my life. If you go to a poor area, kids are running around and shouting at each other. But in a decent area, kids don’t do this and they are not allowed to do so.

So the ‘little’ problem living in a foreign country for them is their inability of socializing with the local people. However, SL explains it as unimportant by concluding that ‘life is not all about socializing. She implies here that life has so many more contents than just socializing. Most interviewees including SL like to compare educational systems in both societies and they prefer the more natural and relaxing atmosphere here in Northern Ireland. In their opinion, children here have more space to develop their individual interest while kids in China are being driven to the extreme of learning pressure by having to do endless school work and homework. Hence, the lack of social activities with the local children in Northern Ireland is far less important than a good and pleasant educational milieu in their adopted society.

The following example contains similar theme. LH is a natural scientist with a 13-year-old daughter. Her family has settled down in Belfast for a number of years, despite the fact that she works in London five days a week and shuttles between Belfast and London once a week (her job as research fellow is based at a university in London). It is a pretty tough situation for most people. However the family has found the best possible compromise balance.

Example [8a]

FB: Have you ever invited others [local friends] to come over and play?

LH: No, because both of us have work and we are very busy, so we really have no time for that. But she’s been invited a couple of times.

FB: Do you not want to invite them back?

LH: Of course it would be better. But I’m not the social type. If I do, I’ll spend lots of energy and time. I’m too busy.

FB: Do you think your daughter will be happier if you invite her friends to come over?

LH: No, she doesn’t care that much. She is like me, not a very sociable type.

Again, like SL in the previous example, LH is self-criticising by claiming this is their own problem: she and her husband and their daughter are not a sociable type, and besides they are too busy with their work to socialise with the local people.

Example [8b]

FB: Are you used to everything here? Have you got many friends here?

LH: I don’t think we have as many friends here as in China. There is still a big gap between us

[Chinese and the local population].

FB: Can you tolerate this?

LH: I think so. Here [Northern Ireland] the family is the most important. My family is very close, and I don’t really care to socialise with others. I’m quite content with my family; just three of us are enough. You may think we are too traditional. [Laugh]. . don’t feel isolated at all. There are loads of places to go to [here] and we can always go out during holidays. If we really go back to China, our daughter may not be able to get into the universities [in China], because it’s hardly possible for her to pass the national entrance exams in China.

It seems that socialising is not quite their chosen life style. She cares more about her own close family and she feels content with it. When she does mention in the end the possibility of going back to China, her mind is focused specifically on her worries about her daughter who may not pass the national entrance exams in China, because of her relatively incompetent Chinese efficiency. And for this reason, I was told, they decide to stay in Northern Ireland and at the same time, they have to accept their reality here and be content with it. Clearly, there is a disposition in her narrative to minimise her ‘cultural isolation’ to justify their decision to stay here. Let me move on to Example 9, where SZP is talking about his daughter’s friends:

Example [9]

FB: Does she [JS] have many local friends?

SZP: She socialises with the Chinese friends, no problem, and she also plays with her classmates in school. But I’m a little worried about this… When she was in primary school, she never played…I mean…she never invited her classmates to play in our home.

FB: Do you know why?

SZP: I don’t really know. It could be that she felt some psychological pressure, like if she invited her local friends to our home, it might bring some inconvenience to her parents. I think she has this kind of feelings. Because if they come to our house, we have to be at home as well, it’s our time.

SZP knows clearly that his daughter plays with Chinese peers more than with local peers after school or during weekend and holidays. The fact that JS never invites her local classmates to her house worries him. However, SZP does not consider it as a problem of the local children, a problem that the local kids were deliberately alienating his daughter; but rather, he habitually believes it is his daughter’s personal problem. He assumes that she might be worried about bringing her parents into some sort of inconvenience (like time he mentions above), had she invited her school friends to her house. But what is his major worry here? Is he worried that his daughter might not be mixing up well with the local children? Or is his daughter not feeling comfortable to live between two cultures? No matter what that worry is, it is again an unavoidable consequence of such cultural relocation, which he has to accept; it is a problem of ethnic isolation. There is always an on-going compromise between what they gain and what they lose.

3.4 The Issue of Bullying and Discrimination

Most similar to the way that the parents treat the issue of ethnic isolation, they also seem to dismiss, play down or neutralize or naturalize the problem of bullying and racial discrimination. They are willing to tolerate discrimination and verbal or physical abuse because they consider their suffering only temporary and less intense than the problems back in China. Therefore, it is not that they do not recognize such treatment on their part, but that they have a variety of ways to explaining it away. Sometimes they even turn away from this issue and switch to talk about how their children are successful in school subjects.

It is interesting to see how parents use their discursive strategy to explain their children’s negative talk about China. The following interview is conducted with LAN, Ian’s mum. She has recently obtained her doctoral degree in social sciences in Northern Ireland and is teaching at the same university where she has just graduated. LAN came to Northern Ireland about 8 years ago as a visiting scholar. Divorced from her ex-husband, also a scholar in Beijing, LAN came abroad with her then 6-year old son Ian, struggling between her research and her responsibility as a single mum in a foreign country. The following example is her demonstration to show the general strictness and fairness of the Northern Ireland schools on racial issues.

Example [10a]

FB: Has he [Ian] been bullied before?

LAN: He told me once, when he was still in primary school, that a local boy called him ‘Chinese boy’ in the canteen. Immediately the local boy was asked by the teacher to stand up and apologise to Ian in front of all the pupils in the canteen. That school is very strict. We sent him there because we heard it’s one of the best schools in Belfast. But WY [her stepson] told me a couple of times that the local kids bullied him. He is a bit fat so they often make jokes on him. But…Ian hasn’t had anything yet.

LAN is praising the fairness and strictness of the school where her son attended. She gives this example to prove that the school is doing its best to prevent racial discrimination. Calling someone ‘Chinese boy’ can be such a huge humiliation in the eyes of the local people, while in LAN’s eyes, it may not be a really big deal, because in China kids could have given a lot worse a name-calling than that. The following is a positive narrative to talk about racist bully. There is no way to escape from it, but to face it and stand up for oneself even if when it involves violence sometimes.

Example [10b]

FB: Does he tell you about unpleasant experiences?

LAN: Oh, yes. The area where we live now belongs to the Protestants and it’s not a very good area. Some of the kids there are not very polite, I think. Once on his way back home from school, he was called names by a local kid. I was at home on that day, and suddenly I heard something was thrown in from the front door. I went down to see what happened, and I saw his school bag was thrown in. And within minutes he came in and said to me, ‘Mum, I need a pair of new trousers, coz I just had a fight with a kid whom called me names.’ He was 14 then and that boy was only 8. I said to him, ‘why did you fight with an 8-year-old?’ He answered, ‘I don’t care, but he can’t call me names!’ He resisted, you see, so he didn’t feel repressed.

LAN’s key point in the above description is to argue that as long as one resists, one will not feel repressed. In other words, bullying does exist; she has no intention to deny it. To tackle it however, one has to stand up for oneself. Thus, this is something that they have to learn to deal with actively if they want to settle down in a foreign country, not something that they should escape from passively.

Example [11a]

SL: But anyway, it [discrimination] happens for sure. I think. the difference is that in the UK, teachers pay special attention to this and try to avoid being accused of ‘racial discrimination’. Their legal system and moral education are excellent. In other words, they try their best to educate children not to discriminate against anybody.

FB: How about China?

SL: In China, teachers are also doing similar things. But we still have this phenomenon. Kids are kids, they fight and play, and that’s what they are. In the UK, they bully themselves as well, not just foreigners. At this stage of child development, such behaviour is simply unavoidable. The teachers and parents and the whole society here are taking this [racial discrimination] extremely seriously. For example, people at my workplace made a casual mistake by paying me less and I told them about it. They corrected it and explained to me, ‘it happens to other staff as well, not just you ’.

FB: Really?

SL: Yes, but I think it has to do with education. Like those who are well educated are more polite and friendly, while those who are less educated are often less polite, sometimes rude. Once a catering staff from our staff canteen gave me the wrong change, I pointed it out to her and she didn’t even apologise to me. I was very disappointed. So I feel it has to do with the educational level.

SL has mentioned more than once during our interview that teachers in Northern Ireland pay special attention to racial issues and that the legal and moral education in this society is aiming at implementing such racial and social equality. She perceives the problem of racial discrimination as being associated with the level of people’s education. The better-educated people are described as being more tolerant, polite and even friendly to foreigners. The less-educated people are usually, in her belief, less polite and sometimes rude to foreigners.

Example [11b]

SL: He [her son YN] is very sensitive. Sometimes I ask him things about the school; he would tell me that he could feel being discriminated against. But he wouldn’t like to say more about it. He always says to me, ‘you don’t know.’

FB: Would you like to hear him say more about it?

SL: Sure, but he feels it unnecessary to tell us more. He feels that he could just handle it by himself. I have never asked him more than that.

FB: No? Do you attend PTA3 meetings?

SL: No, but I do feel it’s hard to avoid this sort of things. First of all, the teenage stage is always more difficult than other stages, just like everywhere else. In China, we also have teenagers fighting or contending with each other. Some children bully others, it happens often. It’s not that serious. Actually I consider it as a kind of child language. We adults don’t do that. Bullying happens everywhere, there is no exception. It’s part of growing up and it’s very normal. Of course we should educate them not to do it or tell them how to handle it.

Again, SL admits the existence of bullying. But she is using the universal phenomenon to explain this way, ‘bullying happens everywhere, there is no exception.’ She regards it as a kind of child language and part of growing up. Playing down the issue of racial discrimination or racist bullying in a way implies that the problems they are facing here in Northern Ireland are far less than those they have experienced in China or will face if they go back to their homeland. Many interviewees from the Mainland China share this idea. See the following example:

Example [13a]

FB: Then has he ever felt discriminated against for being Chinese?

LM: Ah… this of course, if he walks on the streets, there must be someone calling him names. But… in school he has not yet experienced anything like that. If it really happens, JW would go away.

FB: Do you think that such things will ever happen in China?

LM: Of course! I. China, if you are from the countryside, you’ll be bullied just as much, exactly the same. Children from cities have a strong sense of superiority and they bully children from small places, especially from the countryside. The level of bullying can be even higher than here. Here you have laws to protect you, saying you can’t discriminate against foreigners.

FB: Do you think JW minds about such things? Or do you think he wants to go back to China for fear of racist bullying?

LM: No, he doesn’t mind, because most people around him are very friendly to him. It’s only those on the streets whom he doesn’t know.

Again, referring bulling in her homeland is to generalise such behaviour and unfair treatment and create for herself a space of psychological balance at the same time. LM does not believe that bullying only happens in Northern Ireland schools, it happens in China as well. It might not be racist bully, but it is certainly bully of discriminative nature. According to her personal experience, it is very common that kids from big cities bully those from less privileged regions or countryside. Children can be bullied for being a foreigner in Northern Ireland or other countries. They can also be bullied simply for being different from the majority, or for whatever reason the bullies pick up. It is a cross-cultural phenomenon existing almost anywhere, only with different levels and frequency. When the topic ‘racist bully’ is mentioned during our interview outside the Chinese school (functioning only on Sundays), LM expresses her different understanding and interpretation on this. She disagrees that we should take it for granted that the minority Chinese school children are always being racially bullied. For her, such vicious circle will not lead you anywhere positive. ‘Open-mindedness’ is what she suggests here for the minority Chinese children in Northern Ireland.

Example [12b]

FB: Do you think the local kids also bully themselves?

LM: I’m sure of that. It’s all the same. But we Chinese tend to think of it differently, thinking that we’re foreigners and being discriminated against. Lots of [British] children in England even go so far as to commit suicide because of being bullied; it’s really sad and serious. I think we adults should teach our kids and tell them to be open-minded. We can’t get stuck in this narrow alley, thinking that we are foreigners and that’s why they bully us. We should think carefully: do we have such things in China? And do we also do such things to ourselves? Of course we are different and we look different here and we can’t deny that. If they [Northern Ireland children] go to China, they will feel the same. Therefore, I think we should look forward and think of it more positively.

LM is challenging the widely held concept of racist bullying among minority groups. So, are the words ‘racist bully’ objectively phrased? According to her interpretation, if we stand at the point of racism to interpret ethnic Chinese children being bullied, it could be narrow-minded and we will never go beyond such a vicious circle. As ethnic Chinese in Northern Ireland, LM considers it as an effort to further separate the ethnic minority group from the mainstream group if we keep concentrating on racial conflict. She would rather regard bully as a universal phenomenon, suggesting that as parents of the ethnic minority Chinese, they should teach their kids to look beyond such ‘narrow-minded corner’, if they really want to settle down and mix well with the local people in Northern Ireland. It is a psychological and cultural balance that LM is trying to keep.

4. Conclusion

In this paper, I have looked at the political and cultural context in China where these Mainland Chinese interviewees grew up. I have referred to such context while analyzing their interview cultural narratives and I have also argued for the logical relevance between what these Mainland Chinese interviewees have experienced in the past and what they have to say today. Since an individual is always a social subject, not a self-contained entity, she or he does not exist in him or herself, but rather exist as elements of sets of relations with other individuals, families and institutions within a society. Their cultural narratives today are not accidentally produced, but rather they are a product of the accumulated process of their past history and experiences.

As clearly shown in the interview extracts I have analyzed, the Mainland Chinese interviewees are collectively inclined to see themselves not as minorities within Northern Ireland, but as members of global diasporas which span national boundaries (Ang, 2001). In their three chosen topics (i.e. 1. Education, 2. Leaving China and settling down in Northern Ireland, and 3. Ethnic isolation), much of their attraction to Northern Ireland is also in response to their negative experiences in China. Compared with what they experienced back home in Mainland China, racist bullying and ethnic isolation in Northern Ireland seem to be not a problem at all, at least relatively speaking. Their predisposition to minimize and deny the racial problems here in Northern Ireland shows their preference to stay on in Northern Ireland. To tackle the issue of racism, some of them even educate their children to look beyond racism and be more and flexible and open-minded. They tend to see more of the positive sides in this, to them, new cultural environment. Even though they always deny any racial harassment ever happened to them: they tend to say ‘I have heard about it, but we are O.K.’, this does not mean that everything is REALLY O.K. Such response indicates that it is more of personal nature, not of political nature as a group. Again, they would like to see themselves as members of the mainstream society, not as marginalized ethnic Chinese minority. For many Chinese intellectuals, it is a disgrace to admit too much of racial harassment. Self-respect, national dignity, glory and professional achievements are considered to be of paramount importance in their self-image. To admit racial discrimination or bullying is to admit their failure in the Western society or is to expose their weakness, inflexibility and lack of adaptability. Therefore, their tendency or predisposition is to deny or minimize their problems here in Northern Ireland, so that the overriding theme of their fundamentally negative cultural narratives on their homeland is stressed. Their discursive strategies shown above have become part of their dispositions, and such cultural narratives are objectively organized ‘without being the product of a genuine strategic intention’ (see Bourdieu, 1990:62). As Bourdieu further explained,

…because the practices that are generated by the habitus and are governed by the past conditions of production of their generative principle are adapted in advance to the objective conditions whenever the conditions in which the habitus functions have remained identical, or similar, to the conditions in which it was constituted.

Choosing to live in this white dominantly society means that they have to accept their conditions. They are less interested in holding on tight their ethnic national identity than looking ahead instead, pursuing their individual achievement and exploring different cultures and societies. The underlying question seems to be, ‘why should there be only one way back to China?’ Their assimilation mentality (Wang, 1994), however, is not always working, since most of them still find themselves socially isolated and excluded from the mainstream society. And the strategy of denying their racial identity does not always gain the acceptance of the local Northern Ireland society.

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1. Key school refers to school that has the best teachers and students in terms of teaching and learning.

2. Mandarin Speakers’ Association in Northern Ireland was established in 2001 in Belfast.

3. Interviewees-teachers’ association

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