World insight: preparing asylum seekers in Hong Kong for higher education



“What’s a nursing home?” I ask my class.

I am greeted with five blank faces. My students, asylum seekers and refugees, mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia but now here with me in Hong Kong, have never heard the term before.

“Is a nursing home an orphanage for old people?” one of them enquires.

I look again at the writing prompt on the photocopied sheet in my hand: Many elderly people are no longer looked after by their families but are put in nursing homes. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this trend?

“Well, I guess in some ways, yes,” I say. “But maybe best just to answer that a nursing home is a place that takes care of old people who don’t need to be in a hospital.”

I’ve been teaching English to this group – all men, ranging in age from 24 to 48, from countries as diverse as Congo, Somalia and Sri Lanka – one afternoon a week since 2014. We are currently preparing for the IELTS exam, an English language proficiency test taken mostly for higher education and global migration purposes.

In 2014, 2.5 million people across the globe took the test, most of them planning to enrol at universities in the UK or the US, or to emigrate to another country. My students currently don’t have either of those opportunities – asylum seekers in Hong Kong are forbidden from working, traveling or enrolling at university – but I had managed to get the £190 tests for free, and the class needed some near-term goals.

Preparing them for the test, however, has taught me as much as it has taught them, throwing into stark relief cultural norms that I take for granted but are not, in fact, universal. “Oh, we don’t have those in Africa,” my Cameroonian student says of nursing homes. “We take care of our old people at home. We don’t put them anywhere.”

It has also highlighted for both of us the barriers that they face in finding a place in societies where cultural codes and behaviours work to exclude the uninitiated.

Before embarking on the IELTS test prep, I had thought my biggest challenge would be cramming the classes with enough grammatical and idiomatic know-how so that the asylum seekers – none of whom was able to speak English upon arriving in Hong Kong – could tackle a multi-hour, “high stakes” exam. Motivation, too, concerned me. While my students harbour future dreams of university studies, the fact that IELTS test results expire in two years combined with the unlikelihood that any in my class would be relocated anytime soon, made their scores nearly moot.

However, I’ve discovered that instead of simply teaching English language grammar and syntax, I’ve become a cultural chaperone of sorts, ushering them through an alien world that was once so familiar to me.

In our preparatory materials, we’ve read about dieting and Picasso museum leaflets and the rules to follow when frequenting beaches in Australia. In a written section designed to help students develop paraphrasing skills, one of the sentences referred to chocolate: The British lead the world in their love of the cocoa-based treat. My student from the Ivory Coast remarked that cocoa beans are one of his country’s main exports, but few people he knew while at home had ever tasted chocolate, or even knew what the beans they were harvesting would be used for.

In the past, English language textbooks and standardised tests have been criticised for using references such as Buckingham Palace or the White House that smacked too powerfully of cultural colonialism and lacked resonance with non-native speakers, many of them aspiring university students from across the globe. While progress has been made in creating more culturally sensitive materials, the world of English language instruction, full of chocolate bars and signet rings, remains one largely shaped by the wealthy and privileged.

For my students, learning the language not only presents a shiny, bright universe that exists alongside theirs, but also one that at best marginalises the protocol and structures that they value and hold dear.

Earlier, I had coached my students on how to best navigate the spoken interview part of the test, where even benign icebreakers such as “Do you have siblings?” pose potential hazards.

My Ivorian student has 21 brothers and sisters (one father, three wives), while another student’s father had three children before going to prison for 10 years, and then seven more – including him – after he was released. I imagined my voluble students getting lost in confusing digressions with their invigilator, as the IELTS interviewers are known. I suggested sticking to an abridged version of their backstories.

“Just remember you’re being tested on your English ability,” I said. “The content of what you say doesn’t have to be entirely true.”

“OK, maybe I’ll just talk about the children my father had before he went to prison,” my student conceded.

At the same time, I’ve developed a kind of self-loathing, hiding the telltale plaid lining of my Burberry coat, ashamed by the raised metal letters shoutingMICHAEL KORS on my leather handbag. As an American bearing the trappings of consumerism and wealth, I’ve become a symbol of the exclusive world redolent in the test materials I teach. In my last class, I assigned homework that entailed writing an essay answering the following suggested prompt:

What difficulties will your country face in the next 10 years? How can these difficulties be overcome?

I was embarrassed by the questions. Each of my students is living proof that no one has come close to knowing the answers.

My class, a subset of the estimated 10,000 asylum seekers in Hong Kong, which is, in turn, a tiny microcosm of the 65 million displaced across the globe, isn’t alone in knowing that they must largely abandon their origins in order to assimilate into a more powerful society.

Learning English is inevitably part of that process and, to most, the potential payoff – a better life and, hopefully for my students, a university education – vastly outweighs the negatives. However, I can’t help but feel the loss as more people try to fit themselves into a regulated globalised existence and begin to believe that an enormous family or the hard business of taking care of the elderly have no place in their new world.

Author Bio: Anna Esaki-Smith is editorial director for Education Intelligence, the British Council’s global higher education research service based in Hong Kong.