Rick Lavoie

White Chopsticks and Business Cards: Mastering the Hidden Curriculum in Hong Kong

March 2005

On January 14, Janet and I arrived in Hong Kong for a seven-day speaking tour through the International Schools on that special island. It was a wonder-filled adventure! I have visited dozens of major metropolitan areas throughout the world and Hong Kong cannot be appropriately compared to any other city. Its blend of modern wonders and ancient traditions makes it one of the most fascinating communities on the planet.

During our stay, it was obvious that the people of Hong Kong were still numbed by the tsunami that had occurred a fortnight before in neighboring Thailand and India. Similar to the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, nearly every conversation we had with our new friends centered on the horror of the recent natural disaster. Most New Year’s events had been cancelled out of respect for the victims including Hong Kong’s unparalleled January 1st fireworks display. The events that were not cancelled were converted into fundraisers and the citizens of Hong Kong raised $100 million within seven days of the tragedy…and this total did not include corporate gifts.

Hong Kong’s reaction to the Tsunami was a deeply personal one. The region that was devastated – particularly Thailand – is a favorite vacation spot and retirement locale for Hong Kong’s citizens. Because the catastrophe occurred during a Hong Kong school vacation week, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers were in Thailand during the holiday. Every school that I visited during my stay had experienced the loss of some students, faculty or staff during the Tsunami. It was estimated that over 1000 Hong Kong citizens were among the missing.

Unlike the American press, the Hong Kong media did not become preoccupied with the "survival stories", the up-close-and-personal tales of swimsuit models who witnessed the tidal wave or the latest home videos of the water rushing through hotel lobbies. Rather, the press conducted its somber duty of connecting Hong Kong families to their missing loved ones. Daily newspapers printed grotesque headshots of unidentified victims…not for shock value…but in hope that someone could recognize and identify the body. Many Hong Kong television outlets elected not to show the aforementioned home videos out of deference to people who lost relatives and friends. As I said, the Tsunami was a deep and personal loss for Hong Kong and its citizens.

Amid this backdrop, however, Hong Kong continued to be the hustling and teaming city that has fascinated the Western world. Seven million people live in 300 square miles and the city truly never sleeps! Luxury hotels and office building are abutted by bustling outdoor market places where customers can buy anything at anytime for unbelievably low prices. The people are warm, welcoming and friendly and the crowded streets do not feature the pushing and shoving that is generally found in densely populated communities. People move about smoothly, but with great consideration and respect for others. Despite the lack of observable police presence, Hong Kong prides itself on being among the safest cities in the world. You can feel secure walking in nearly any part of the city and any time of the day or night.

It is impossible to discuss Hong Kong without mentioning the children. They are simply beautiful and we so enjoyed watching them in their school uniforms as they giggled, pranced and paraded their way to school. The girls walk arm-in-arm and the boys seem to have limitless energy and are in constant motion. Their laughter filled the streets and market places. Beautiful!

The children of China will be among the most closely observed and studied children in history. Several years ago, the Chinese government in response to China’s population crisis implemented a law that limits each family to one child. As a result, a generation of "only children" is coming to school age. Because these kids receive the focused attention of their parents, researchers are finding that these children are healthier and larger than previous generations. However, some child development experts fear that these children will be overly indulged and may become a "generation of brats". Time will tell.

We were in Hong Kong to consult and speak to the faculties of the various International schools (including the Canadian, German/Swiss, American, and British International programs). As you may know, these names are not actually descriptive of the student populations of those schools. That is, the Canadian International School is not necessarily filled with the children of Canadian citizens living in Hong Kong. In fact, if a Canadian were to relocate to Hong Kong, he would not necessarily seek enrollment in the CIS. Rather, each of these fine schools has carved out a niche in the Hong Kong community and expatriates and Hong Kong natives elect to send their kids to the school whose programs best meet the child’s needs. As a result, each school is a miniature United Nations with students of every nationality and background. Watching these joyful disparate children together at play provides a life lesson that would benefit many, many adults who are unable to understand the universality of the human animal!

These fine schools are facing a conundrum…a crisis, if you will. Interestingly, their challenge is very similar to the challenge faced by many American, parochial, religious-based and independent schools.

We wish to be a family school; a program that enrolls and embraces all the children in a family…BUT…we don’t feel comfortable dealing with children who have learning problems.

Unfortunately, schools cannot have it both ways. If a school elects notto offer special remedial programs for kids who struggle with learning…that’s fine. But they can no longer consider themselves "family schools".

And, if a school’s mission is to serve the family, it must come to recognize that – eventually and inevitably – a child will apply who simply learns differently than his siblings do.

The Hong Kong schools I visited recognize and are confronting that crisis. They are creating and enhancing their remedial programs and working diligently to train their faculties in the latest research and practices in Special Education. My audiences were large and extraordinarily responsive. These school communities are eager to serve these struggling children and fully recognize their duty to do so.

My week in Hong Kong was a busy one. Dinners, receptions, press interviews and luncheons accompanied each presentation. This intense exposure to the Hong Kong culture – and the individual cultures of the various schools – provided me with an invaluable view of Hong Kong’s HIDDEN CURRICULUM.

Those of you who are familiar with my work know that I have had a career long fascination with the Hidden Curriculum of schools, homes and communities. These Hidden Curricula consist of the "unwritten and unspoken" rules that dictate the behavior (and acceptance!) of the members of that community. For example, the Hidden Curriculum at a school might be that a Principal insists on a quiet cafeteria so all voices drop an octave whenever he enters that room. The Hidden Curriculum at home may be that Grandma Jones gets upset when you feed the dog at the table, but Grandma Smith is not bothered by that behavior. As a result, Fido eats heartily when Grandma Smith visits, but is relegated to dining on the porch whenever Grandma Jones dines with the family. A child’s ability to observe, understand and follow this Hidden Curriculum will largely determine his social acceptance and popularity.

My visit to Hong Kong required me to quickly learn and master the island’s Hidden Curriculum lest I be viewed as unresponsive, insensitive or boorish. I found myself doing things that I advise students to do when in unfamiliar settings: Observe the environment; Watch what others do; Follow their lead!

Some Tales:

  • My first presentation went quite well and the audience was very engaged and enthusiastic. However, when I was finished, their applause was somewhat strained and lukewarm. One of my hosts provided me with some useful advice: In Hong Kong, it is customary that the speaker responds to the audience applause by applauding the audience. The group was puzzled by my failure to do so. In subsequent presentations, I returned the audience’s applause in kind. Problem solved!
  • Like many Asian cultures, Hong Kong has a fascination with business cards. Nearly everyone I met – however briefly – handed me a business card. Most of the cards were printed on fine linen paper in bright colors and with intricate designs. I was a bit embarrassed by my "100,000 cards for $10" specials from Staples.

Even the distribution of business cards had a Hidden Curriculum component. It is expected that you will hand and receive the card with both hands (not an easy exchange for the uninitiated). To hand or accept a card with only one hand is considered disrespectful. It is also important to read and review the card before placing it in your pocket or wallet. Failure to peruse the card is considered dismissive and rude.

  • Although the handshake has replaced the traditional bow in Hong Kong, I noticed that most people bowed their heads slightly when shaking hands, particularly with an important or influential person.
  • I am relatively adept at handling chopsticks, but I learned some Hidden Curriculum rules related to their use. It is considered rude to ruby your chopsticks together (this indicates that you are concerned about splinters and that the host has given you inferior utensils). At a formal dinner, the black chopsticks are for eating and the white ones should be used to serve the communal food.
  • When toasting (a rich and cherished Hong Kong tradition), the wine glass should be held with both hands. Toasts are generally made at the beginning and end of each meal. Although dinner conversations in Hong Kong is rich and enjoyable (often focusing on the quality of the food being served). Once a meal ends and the final toast is given, the table is vacated immediately. The western custom of lingering over a cup of coffee at the end of a meal is unheard of!
  • Toothpicks are a traditional part of every Hong Kong meal. Toothpicks are prominently displayed on every table and it is considered very appropriate to use them at the table…provided you use them between courses and cover your mouth as you do it. Sneezing or coughing at the table, however, is considered rude and unacceptable.
  • The color red is considered very special and visitors can impress and please their Chinese hosts by wearing a red scarf or tie. Interesting, white symbolizes sadness or mourning and I saw many older women in white, lace bonnets to signify that they were in a mourning period for a close relative.
  • In Hong Kong it is considered rude to refuse a drink if one is offered…even though it is not necessary to drink it. If you empty your glass, that is a signal to your host that you want more to drink. I learned to leave a little liquid in the glass when I was finished.
  • In a restaurant, diners acknowledge good service by thanking the waiter (if the waiter is Caucasian) and lightly tapping the table with two fingers (if the waiter is Chinese).
  • When attending a meeting or a group meal, the host or leader will generally assign the seating and the middle seat is viewed as the most important placement, not the "head of the table" as in the western culture.
  • Gift giving is an important custom in China and Hong Kong, but it is a violation of the Hidden Curriculum to give "bad luck gifts" including any form of cutlery, clocks or anything in sets of four. Again, white wrapping paper should be avoided due to its association with death and mourning.

The most notable aspect of Hong Kong’s Hidden Curriculum involved the concept of Proxemics. This is an area of nonverbal communication wherein the physical space between two people sends a clear social message. For example, when I pass a female stranger on the street, I allow several feet between us lest I be viewed as threatening or forward. If I wish to ask her for directions, I may decrease the space between us to a distance of about two feet. If she is an acquaintance of mine, I may decrease the distance even further and it may even be appropriate to make a brief physical contact in the form of a handshake or a hand on her arm. However, hugs and other intimate contacts are reserved for very close friends or relatives. It is important to respect and follow these guidelines in social situations.

Because Hong Kong and parts of Mainland China are so densely populated and crowded, these "personal spaces" are greatly altered. People stand very close together, even when it is not necessary. As they navigate themselves through crowded stores and market places, they move smoothly and steadily around and among one another. The "people jams" that are common in major US cities simply don’t seem to occur.

The concept of "waiting in line" to be served in restaurants and business establishments is virtually unknown. It is truly "every man for himself" and you need to be quite assertive if you want to attention of the staff. Failing this, people will simply cut in front of you and demand – politely but firmly – the attention of the clerk or hostess.

So…our trip to Hong Kong confirmed my belief in the importance of understanding and adhering to the Hidden Curriculum in order to succeed and gain acceptance in any social environment. Failure to do so lowers your social standing and offends others in your social environment. It is critically important that children who struggle socially be aided in understanding and following these unwritten rules.

As teachers and parents we need to become amateur "social anthropologists" and make ourselves aware of the Hidden Curriculum in our social environments so that we might teach these rules to our children. Many kids with learning disabilities simply do not learn these rules via independent observations.

All environments have these unwritten rules and these regulations are constantly changing. For example, restaurants in San Francisco often give diners a "doggie bag" even if one is not requested. It is expected that the customer will hand the bag to a homeless person that he meets on the street as he leaves the restaurant. Restaurants in Canada’s Maritimes routinely serve complimentary bowls of a food that looks like crumpled black stationery to diners before a meal (it is salty, dried seaweed to cleanse the pallet). Georgia restaurants serve iced tea at each mean, in the same manner that northern restaurants serve water.

A recent Hidden Curriculum wrinkle has been added to the dining scene in Boston. If a diner is choking and needs assistance, he reaches for an envelope than is routinely placed with the salt and peppershaker in Boston restaurants. He tears open the envelope and shows his fellow diners the new international signal for choking…a team picture of the 2004 New York Yankees.

Sorry, I had to.

With every good wish, Rick