SCMP Saturday, September 1, 2001

International outlook puts the world in focus


I have just made an enormous cross-cultural leap, without leaving Hong Kong or even moving house.
I have left the world of the local Hong Kong secondary school and my former role as a native English-speaking teacher (NET), and crossed into the expatriate world of teaching in an international school.
It is difficult to quantify the enormity of such a move, professionally, socially and culturally. At the moment, it feels as if I have leapt from one continent to another.
At this early stage in my transition, looking back is still a little easier than looking ahead. When I recall the 300 individuals with whom I arrived here in August 1998, I am struck by the incredible courage and determination we showed in the face of the challenges that lay before us.
If truth be told, we probably had no idea what we were heading for. I certainly didn't. Were we prepared? Were we provided with any centralised support? Were there hotlines to call? Well, no. We were on our own, one per school, spanning the SAR from Tin Shui Wai to Siu Sai Wan.
Yet, after six months of floundering, the NETs had not only set up their own support group, but also established the beginnings of a professional development scheme designed to assist both themselves and local teachers in improving English language education in the SAR. Hats off to them!
Even now, when I compare the induction and new arrival arrangements that I experienced as a NET and those provided by the international school, I am speechless. I have just learned things about living in Hong Kong that I had not picked up in three years of being here.
My move to an international school has been smoothed by people who have all made the move before. There is an appreciation of the puzzlement of the newcomer. Even the dumbest of questions is treated with respect and sensitivity. My gaucheness has not been ridiculed, nor viewed as some kind of weakness of character.
It is not always so, I'm afraid, in the inner world of the Hong Kong school. Friendly welcomes notwithstanding, there are very few local teachers who have chosen to make such an adventurous move themselves. They may have studied overseas, but they surely were never alone and working in a foreign country. They were at least familiar with the language of their overseas universities and some of the "ways" of their hosts. No doubt, they sought housing and academic advice from officers whose job it was to make them feel at home.
To be a newly arrived NET in a school in a public housing estate in East Kowloon or the northwest New Territories is to enter a world as unfamiliar as Alice's Wonderland. There are any number of Cheshire cats grinning and suggesting which direction one should go to get where one wants to be. Like Alice, every NET would like to go "somewhere". The difficulty lies in finding one's direction when the schools have only rudimentary ideas of what they would like one to do.
When you've lived in one place for your whole life, and worked in the same or similar environments for many years, it is difficult to comprehend the needs and different perspectives of a new arrival.
The bureaucratic processes of immigration, taxation, international banking, insurance and rental agreements are not things that one has ever done in a foreign language.
NETs, you are finding it tough, but you are doing it well. By the rules of any cross-cultural movers' handbook, yours would be called a "hardship posting".
The observations and suggestions made by NETs should be treasured and closely considered by schools and education authorities. The eye of the newcomer sometimes sees more clearly. These educational professionals are speaking from the perspective of encounters and experiences that no non-teaching bureaucrat could ever begin to imagine.
To survive and even thrive as a foreign teacher in a local school is an achievement worthy of much greater public recognition than NETs are currently accorded.
For far too many NETs, there is a very basic welcome and a very quiet farewell. We come and we go, and we may not be too sure of where we've been.
Pauline Bunce is an English teacher at Hong Kong International School.