Buddhistdoor Global is based in Hong Kong, a vibrant enclave of urban sprawl, country parks, and shimmering seas. The spirit of this metropolis is fiercely pragmatic yet also sincerely idealistic. Throughout its history it has created its own values, geared toward competition, wealth, and social prestige. Yet on the ground, most Hongkongers possess a fierce and overriding sense of loyalty to the four C’s—clan, culture, church, and country. The result is a constant tension between East and West, between a cultivated Confucian attitude towards life and intrepid capitalism.
Or so the story used to go. This glittering financial hub is struggling with increasingly entrenched social problems, and consequently, a far gloomier and aggrieved narrative has emerged; Hong Kong does indeed enjoy immense wealth, yet many elderly are foraging for trash and immiserated beggars can be found in the heart of the city. The quality of life and happiness ratings of Hong Kong (the latter of which have never been outstanding) have slipped in several global surveys over the past few years. Much of this has to do with the extreme pressure and high expectations that many Hong Kong people face. It is urgent that the government, families, and bodies with moral authority, such as religious institutions, encourage a cultural shift in understanding what we want, and whether our expectations of ourselves and of our children are too high, unrealistic, or even harmful.
Peer demands and work anxieties are commonplace the world over, but what makes Hong Kong particularly problematic is that such pressures begin early as kindergarten. Competition among students reflects a more dysfunctional culture of competition among parents and schools. The jostling is so great that kids have CVs by the time they enter preschool, having been forced by their parents to attend piano classes, dancing lessons, and extracurricular classes that focus on rote learning rather than critical or creative thinking. This is not to say that learning additional skills outside of school is undesirable, but when one looks at the insularity of the education system, a disturbing picture emerges: it is a life consumed by unrewarding work (not in the financial sense, but in the sense of “life purpose”), with no room for play or relaxation, let alone spiritual development.
This pervasive sense of anxiety is due to many factors, but parents are often identified among the culprits. They have little time for own children and often pass on the responsibility for raising them to hired domestic help, being preoccupied with their professional lives and a widespread corporate culture that demands long work hours. Without enough quality time spent with their parents, kids are less likely to grow up to be emotionally resilient in the face of perceived failure or difficulty. Instead, they are sent into a storm of rote learning and long, grueling hours of schooling and homework, a notorious characteristic of Hong Kong’s education system.
“I feel tired every day and cannot sleep,” said one student. “Almost every subject needs assessment. Including dictations, I have assessments almost every other day.” Another, who worked until midnight to complete her homework, lamented: “School was like a prison to me. I wasn’t allowed to move around, drink water, eat, go to toilet, or talk randomly in the classroom. I couldn’t even run during recess.” (South China Morning Post)
The human cost is tragically evident in the untimely deaths of students and shattered families that the system leaves in its wake. A recent report by the South China Morning Post (SCMP) newspaper highlights the Social Welfare Department’s child mortality reviews from 2006–11. These indicate that 29 to 42 per cent of youth suicides, between 2011–11, were associated with pressures related to schoolwork. Between 2013 and 2016, 71 young people took their own lives. Looking at the numbers above, a sizable percentage of these tragic deaths were probably linked to school-related pressures. (South China Morning Post)
Lau Ming-wai, chairman of the Commission on Youth, told the SCMP that, unlike societies such as Sweden, the UK, or even Macau, Hong Kong’s sister Special Administrative Region in China, Hong Kong has no holistic policy for the young. It is notable that children in Denmark and the other Nordic countries have far fewer school hours and much more time for leisure, play, and social activities, and yet score at the highest levels in international school league tables. Kids from Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea also score high, yet their happiness levels are much lower. “We talk about topical issues like the TSA [Territory-wide System Assessment] and student self-harm, but the way I would want education to be reviewed is to start by asking what education is for, and what students, employers, and society want out of [it],” said Lau. (South China Morning Post)
Even if a cohesive and coordinated government policy is put into action, there are social and cultural pressures that need to be revised. For example, familial and peer expectations (often trickled down from the parents) are pushing policymakers in the wrong direction. As the respected Theravada teacher Ajahn Brahm emphasized to Buddhistdoor Global,* the expectations of conventional society—including in Hong Kong—are irrational and need to be rethought with wisdom and compassion.
Ajahn Brahm highlighted a fundamental problem with the parental expectation that their child should perform at the top of his/her class, or at least above average: this is an unrealistic demand as the very notion of “average” implies that at least 50 per cent of children will not be able to meet these standards. “Where you are is where you want to be,” he declared, invoking the Buddhist idea that true happiness and contentment can only be found in the present moment. He evinced admiration for the education model in Finland, where children, who do not go to school until the age of seven, receive person-centered teaching methods, without standardized tests for the first six years, and, as such, do not experience the same pressures as the children in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong people have always created their own values. Values, by mere virtue of the fact that they are our own to live up to, grant meaning and joy to our lives. It seems to follow that we can rethink and change what our society wants and prioritizes. At present, we suffer from entrenched assumptions about what it means to be a successful child or adult, to the point that many of us have lost sight of what we are actually striving for, which is to be happy. Yet it seems that our very expectations of success are taking us further away from happiness, instead of helping us to achieve it.
We might never regain that overly optimistic narrative of Hong Kong as a society in a never-ending pursuit of riches and power. Perhaps we would be better off if we abandoned it altogether. With so many wake-up calls indicating unsustainable pressures on students and families, we might, and should, adopt more compassionate, mature, and grounded ways of being.
* In an interview on 23 March.
Time to face facts that student suicides in Hong Kong are linked to school workload (South China Morning Post)
After 71 student suicides since 2013, education chief told Hong Kong schools are like a ‘prison’ (South China Morning Post)
Out with the old, in with the youth: Hong Kong commission chief calls for a fresh approach to young people’s issues (South China Morning Post)
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