Studying at a local Chinese school can be one of the most educational experiences in a child’s life. It plunges them directly into a Chinese cultural setting—and their fledgling Mandarin skills improve so fast, you’ll soon have trouble helping them with their homework. While being one of only a few Western kids in a local Chinese or bilingual international school can be incredibly rewarding, your child will also draw lots of attention—and some of that attention will be unwanted. It’s also incredibly difficult to be “different,” as kids are notoriously insensitive. How can you ensure that your child is adjusting to their local school experience—and, more importantly, that they aren’t being hassled for simply being a laowai among locals?
Bullying happens all over the world. Victims are targeted for a variety of reasons, but much of it comes down to perceived differences. If your child attends a local school and is a bullying victim, you’re definitely not alone—many other children have grown up in similar circumstances. Sara (a pseudonym) is a teenager who recalls being bullied at her local elementary school in Shanghai. She agreed to talk about her experience anonymously. “[The bullying] was mostly verbal,” she explains. “The students would say mean things to my face and behind my back, sometimes they would talk about me when I was around like I was not even there to hear it. Or they would play tricks on me ... sometimes people would even push me.”
Theresa Ahdieh, an expat mother, says that her son also experienced bullying in the fourth grade. At one point, it got so bad that he refused to go to school. Their teacher addressed the class—and according to Ahdieh, his classmates admitted that he was targeted because he wasn’t Chinese: “They shouldn’t be here in China if they can’t speak Chinese!” piped up one of his bullies.
“I was peeved, because he speaks beautiful Chinese! He was just so intimidated at school—he didn’t want to sound like he made a mistake or anything.”
School bullies also tend to exaggerate the the victim’s “otherness” to make the victim feel even more like they don’t belong. Sara explains how this happened to her: “I don’t think I ever felt like an outsider because I never even felt like I should belong. I didn’t have any friends because no one ever made an effort to be my friend. I always felt like the people in my class hated me or didn’t have respect for me.”
“No one would miss me. No one even talks to me,” Ahdieh recalls hearing from her son. One time, she came to pick him up from school and noticed that his classmates ignored his goodbyes. “Kids just walked right on by and didn’t say anything!” When she brought this up with her son, he dismissed it. “No, that happens,” he told her. “They must just not have heard me.”
No parent wants their child to go through something like this. And just like Ahdieh's son, most victims simply feel too embarrassed to tell their parents what is really happening inside the school gate. So what signs should parents look out for? Psychologist Ru-Chi Yang from LIH Olivia’s Place says that signs include stomachaches, headaches, bad sleeping patterns, having nightmares, becoming withdrawn or making up excuses not to go to school, among others.
Bullying can have both short-term and long-term effects. Short-term effects include suicidal thoughts, depression, increased bouts of illness and anger. Longer-term effects include marked difficulty trusting people, avoidance of social situations and self-esteem problems. According to Dr. Yang, there is some research to suggest that being bullied at a young age is generally easier to recover from than bullying during the teen years. That said, both situations can be traumatic for a child.
There are things you can do as a parent, though. The first step is talking about the bullying, so your child understands they have support. Dr. Yang reminds us that kids often feel embarrassed about being bullied, so parents have to take the initiative. To open up discussion, you can say something like: “Sometimes kids pick on other kids. It happened in my time and it wasn’t okay then, it still isn’t okay now. Have you ever experienced this?”
If your child does open up, don’t overreact. It’s important to stay calm, and above all, let your child know that the bullying will not be tolerated. This will tell your child that the bullying has to and will stop because it’s inherently wrong.
Talk to your child about steps you will take to stop the bullying. These might include organizing a community anti-bullying campaign or meeting with other parents to discuss the situation. You should also talk to school counselors (if available) or teachers, as well as administrative staff in your child’s school to see what they can do to educate students. If your child is being bullied because they are from another country, try organizing adult-supervised events where kids from the school learn more about your child’s culture in a fun way.
It’s important, according to Dr. Yang, to discuss with your child your plans to solve the bullying problem. If you show them which steps you are going to take to fix the problem, the situation will no longer feel so hopeless—and it is often this sense of hopelessness that can be detrimental to your child’s mental health.
When Ahdieh informed school staff about the bullying problems her son faced, they were quick to organize a parent meeting. While teachers and staff (some of them foreigners themselves) were sympathetic, other parents were in denial and tried to shift some of the blame onto the bullied child.
It wasn’t until the principal started to threaten to expel the bullies that any real progress was made. But it was too late for Ahdieh’s son. He refused to go back to his fourth grade class, and Ahdieh had no choice but to eventually pull him out of school.
Give your child constant reminders that there isn’t (and never was) anything wrong with them. Not everyone in this world looks or acts the same; and that’s where much of the beauty of this world comes from. Attending a local Chinese school is an incredibly brave thing to do—and it is absolutely not their fault that they look different.
Explain to your child that the kids at their school are simply not used to seeing or interacting with children from other countries; and it is not entirely their fault that they are acting this way. Ultimately, preventing bullying behaviors is up to teachers and parents—they are the ones who must ensure a safe learning environment for all children. If you explain the situation along these lines, they won’t be as quick to direct their anger towards their peers—and it will avoid negative stereotypes about local children.
Bullying happens all over the world. The bullying that happens towards non-Chinese kids in local Chinese schools is no different: it’s traumatic, but it’s not hopeless. Your child did not choose their country of origin, but with the right education and in-school anti-bullying campaigns, local schools can change for the better and learn to become more inclusive.
At the end of the day, it’s children like yours, immersed in a local school, that helps bridge the gap between China and the rest of the world. If more kids go outside of their comfort zone and interact with kids of different cultures, the world will be a far more accepting and interesting place.
Being bullied is tough, really tough—Ahdieh is still dealing with the aftershocks. She is hesitant with advice for other parents, as “this is such an individual thing,” she says. “Just talk with [your children]. Work with them. Tell them it is not them. Tell them how much you love them. Tell them what a bully is.”
Kids who are bullied do experience trauma. They typically need some sort of counseling to help them process what they’ve been through. It is necessary, and not something to be ashamed over.
But, they’ll eventually grow from the experience and see it for what it really was. “The advice I would give those who are bullied in school to get through the days is that all your pain makes you, you,” sums up Sara. “In the future you will find that you are happy to have that experience. And you should never think that there is something wrong with you, because there truly isn’t.”
Cover Photo: https://www.pexels.com/photo/nature-person-summer-girl-33824/
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