Bicultural. Or, the contradictions of identity.

This is the third post in a three-part series describing how we are trying to raise our kids to be bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural. While not essential, it may be helpful to read parts one and two before reading part three below.

It’s one thing to raise a child to be bilingual. It’s quite another to raise them to be biliterate, especially in languages with two very different writing systems, such as English and Chinese. Then there’s the challenge of doing raising children to be bicultural. I’ll first discuss the contradictions posed by ethnic and legal conceptions of identity and then explore the knottier issue of culture and education.

Ethnic identities

My wife is Han Chinese, both ethnically and through her citizenship. I was born in the UK but I hold dual citizenship through as a result of my mother being a Canadian citizen with Scottish ancestry, and my father being British. Both my parents are “white”, as am I.

We have two children together. A son and a daughter. They are “mixed”, which is the English term we have preferred to use, perhaps as a derivation of the non-prejorative hunxue (mixed blood) expression that is used in Putonghua.

Why does this matter? Well it matters because the nations and heritages literally embodied in our children have different ways of reconciling this notion of ethnicity. Our daughter appears less mixed than our son, so that when she plays with ethnically Chinese (include note about shorthand being used here to refer to all Chinese) playmates, she stands out. Conversely, when playing with a group of non-ethnically Chinese children, it would be hard to identify her as having any Chinese “blood”. As Chinese friends often tell us “she looks more like her daddy”.

Our son’s genes orientated themselves a little differently (but of course). Friends tell us “he looks more like his mummy”. Amongst his Chinese friends, he looks mixed. With non-Chinese friends, he clearly appears mixed as well.

While Canada has a mostly civic national identity, countries like China have struggled to conceptualize a national identity beyond an ethnic one. According to Chinese law, Tibetans, and Xinjiang Uighyurs are all Chinese even if they are not the first types of people to come to mind when you think of someone Chinese. And now there are increasing numbers of mixed marriages between Africans and Mainland Chinese within cities like Guangzhou. A strict ethnic-based Chinese identity presents many of these sorts of conundrums.

I don’t think anybody we know cares that our children are mixed. And that’s the way it should be. Many are slightly envious of the increased and easier opportunities they have to learn either English or Chinese. And it’s true, in many cases, our children speak better Chinese than the children of Chinese immigrants overseas, or even in nations like Singapore. But they don’t look Chinese, especially our daughter. So who is more Chinese?

The simple answer is that it shouldn’t matter.

Legal identities

If part of a cultural identity emerges from ethnicity, which also presents conflicts, more problems emerge from legal identities.

When our family travels, we travel on three nations passports: Canadian, for myself, British for our kids*, and Chinese for my wife. The beauty (or tyranny) of bureaucracy in functioning systems, is that if you finally can get your documents in order, the documents work there magic. But often, even the sternest border security guards will pause and try to reconcile the three-way mix of nationalities in one family before succumbing to their curiosity to ask how this is possible.

We don’t follow sports as a family, but when it comes to the Olympics, we are increasingly confronted with a conundrum. Who to support? Any of the countries represented in our family that make the podium rounds? The one with the coolest uniform? The nicest athlete? The underdog?

These are two rather banal examples. Many refugees and migrants around the world do not have the privilege of either using or possessing a citizenship that allows global movement. A Syrian, Palestinian, Rohingya, or one of countless millions refugees would take on any citizenship if it was a means to a better life. But to enjoy bangers and mash, maple syrup on pancakes, or dumplings? No.

Education and Culture

At the end of the day, all families have to make their own decisions regarding how to get on with life. What foods to eat. How to organize the household. Which languages to use. Where to live. Which faith to subscribe to. Which groups of friends to spend time with. What principles to use when raising children, and so on. An overview of many of these opportunities and challenges can be found in this book, Intercultural Marriage: Promises and Pitfalls, which I found helpful.

We have not found answers to all those questions. And we never will. But one area we constantly have to reflect on and adjust to is the question of how to raise our kids and how to provide them with the best education. This is also a highly relevant question for those of us involved in international education where the majority of students are now made up of nationals. What’s going on when the teachers are mainly expats, but the students are not? Is what worked before going to work now? Is the native English speaker benchmark the relevant one when the majority of students in international schools are now bilingual? We feel this tension within our own family.

An ongoing debate that happens in Hong Kong, and in International Schools with students from non-western countries, is the inquiry vs. rote-learning debate. Taken to an extreme, the stereotype of the Chinese education system is one of rote learning oppression. A stereotype of “International”, aka, English-medium western curriculum schools, is one of woolly, conceptual, play-based fun. But with very poor math skills to boot!

van Oord uses the work of Balaghangadara who argues “culture is a tradition that can be identified in terms of a specific configuration of learning and meta-learning. In each configuration, one particular kind of learning activity will be dominant: it will subordinate other kinds of learning activities to itself.” Western culture, van Oord also argues, with its preoccupation with orthodoxy, or right thinking, contrasts with the Asian concept of orthopraxy, or right action.

Many of our discussions (and arguments!) as a couple revolve around variations of orthopraxy and orthodoxy. Cram schools and tutorial centers thrive on the orthopraxy, with tips on how to top-up marks or jump a band or two on an examination. The majority of Hong Kong students receive some kind of additional tuition outside of school. Regardless of how mind-numbing this process appears to me, it can and does yield results. By contrast, Canadian education has very few standardized tests and in my province of Ontario, there are no high stakes tests determining university entrance.

The Chinese writing system also requires more rote learning and more practice than the English phonetic system. This is why there are very few people who were not educated in a Chinese school that can read and write Chinese fluently. It’s also why the levels of Chinese proficiency attained in English Medium schools with a Chinese program of a few classes a week do not yield bilingual and biliterate students.

My wife and I often feel we never fit in anywhere. We’re too Western for the Chinese, and too Chinese for the Westerners. What’s considered an ideal education for a Chinese parent can contrast and even conflict with what’s considered an ideal education for a Western parent.

We have learned to compromise with our approaches. At our kids’ current private bilingual school, where I also teach, our son (aged 6) and daughter (aged 8) need to complete between 1-2 hours of homework each night. This is non-negotiable. This amount of homework is on the low-end compared to Hong Kong and Mainland public schools, but it raises eyebrows when I share this with friends whose kids are in English medium international schools, many of which have a no-homework policy for the first couple of years of primary. But outside of homework, we do not have any academic extra tutorial classes for our kids. Instead we’ve tried to get our kids more involved in sports.

Are our kids “roting” or “inquiring” as good as they could? Perhaps not, but we’re trying our best.


Children are amazing language processing creatures. Virtually all healthy children learn to speak/sign language with mere exposure to language in the first few years. More incredibly, children can create new languages, creoles, with imperfect inputs. Reading and writing is harder, as I’ve described in the first two posts of this series.

And as I have tried to show in this post, identities that are based on racial, ethnic, or legal descriptions, quickly break down in mixed and intercultural families. An important way forward is to minimize these identities. I would argue that international schools in particular, should drop the flags and make a concerted effort to move beyond the food and festivals in their celebration of culture. International education, which can take place anywhere, would benefit from emphasizing our membership and responsibilities to our global family and planet. They would also benefit from prioritizing the maintenance and development of first languages.

For our children, we have now come to telling our children that they do not have to choose between or balance being Canadian or Chinese or British. No, they are first and foremost ren, that is people.

As to the orthopraxy/orthodoxy debate, perhaps the answer is best left unresolved. Maybe our children can creolize culture and configurations of learning. Find a better both/and mix to the traditional either/or options. I don’t know.

And maybe that’s okay.

*Because neither I nor our children were born in Canada, they are not eligible for Canadian citizenship through descent. If I had been born a year later, then it’s quite possible they would not have been eligible for UK citizenship either because of a change in law.

**Van Oord, Lodewijk. “Culture as a Configuration of Learning: Hypotheses in the Context of International Education.” Journal of Research in International Education 4, no. 2 (August 2005): 173–91. doi:10.1177/1475240905054389.

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