Crossing borders or carrying borders?

Christmas party at an International High School in Yunnan

Christmas party at an International High School in Yunnan

Over the past few decades, an increasing number of Burmese international students have enrolled in high schools in Yunnan, a province in the Southwest of China bordering Myanmar. More and more Burmese students are crossing the border in order to receive formal education in China. These international students have come to China with various dreams and parental expectations. Upon crossing the border gates, the contrast between the two countries remains imprinted on their memory, marking the beginning of Burmese students’ lives in China. One Burmese university student told me about her first impression upon crossing the border:

我们的国门,我们的路是石头满地飞,中国是油漆路,有多大区别! 这边是,国门很大,我们的国门就是一个篱笆一样的,去到中国人,人家很有礼貌,穿着制服问你:‘你好 怎么怎么样’; 我们是穿着拖鞋,拿着钢笔在那里给你勾,给你过.

Our national check-point, our road is full of gravel flying everywhere. In China, it’s a tarred road. What a big difference! On this side, the [Chinese] national gate is very big. Our national gate is like a bamboo fence. When you go to the Chinese border soldiers, they are very polite, dressed in military uniform and greeting you with ‘nihao blah blah blah’ [makes typing motions with her fingers to indicate computerized bureaucratic procedures]. Ours are wearing flip-flops, holding pens and ticking boxes on forms before allowing you to pass.

The modern border buildings and infrastructure, advanced computer technologies, standardized Chinese language and homogenous military uniforms seem to mark a positive beginning for the international experiences of Burmese students. However, being able to cross the geographical border does not mean that Burmese students are able to cross the various ideological boundaries that they encounter in their daily lives.

The story of Yingying (a pseudonym) shows that even after crossing a physical national border, international students may continue to carry the border within them.

Yingying, a straight-A student in Myanmar, came to China to attend high school in 2013 when she was 14 years old. She and her parents had a long-term plan for her education in China: after studying hard, she would go on to enrol at a Chinese university and eventually graduate to become a doctor.

However, things did not go according to plan. Her experience at school brought her nothing but feelings of discomfort and exclusion.

来这边在得不舒服,学习也跟不上,我旁边坐的是学习好的人,老师讲呢,不懂呢问他们,但他们爱理不理,不想理啊! 问老师,老师在批作业没有时间,等晚自习时才能去问。 以前在缅甸发高烧时都要去读书的,来这边连点小感冒都不想去,看他们觉得太不舒服了。

I have never felt comfortable since I arrived here. I can’t catch up with the others. I’m surrounded by high-achievers and my teacher said I could ask my peers if I don’t understand something, but they are indifferent, and can’t even be bothered to speak! I could ask my teachers for help, but they are busy marking students’ homework and don’t have time. I have to wait until evening class. When I was in Myanmar, I insisted on going to school even if I had a high fever, but since coming here I don’t want to go to class if I have even the slightest cold. Seeing them really makes me uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, sitting with the high-achievers does not help the new Burmese students successfully integrate into the class. To her surprise and disappointment, Yingying receives nothing but indifference and blank rejection from her Chinese classmates. Her only hope is that help will be forthcoming from her teacher, but the likelihood of this too becomes quite slim and her cumulative questions and uncertainties arising from the heavy coursework load have to wait until evening class every day. Within two months of starting at the school, this formerly outstanding student has already ‘learned’ to be absent from class in China, something she would never have been in Myanmar even when she had a high fever.

What has made this straight-A student learn to play truant, and what makes her feel ‘uncomfortable’ sitting with her Chinese classmates in class? Her laziness? Her isolation from her peers? Each and every Burmese student will have had different expectations of their life abroad before their departure, but what they could hardly have imagined is the overwhelming feeling of isolation from the mainstream school culture that they would experience. The students are all receiving the same education in the same school, but what has separated them from the mainstream group? What invisible borders stand between them? To answer these questions, I adopt critical race theory (CRT) as a lens to analyse the intersection between race, language and other social categories on campus.

Yosso et al. (2009) demonstrate how racial micro-aggressions can create a negative campus climate in US schools. Latina/o students were found to experience various forms of micro-aggressions at individual and institutional levels. Micro-aggressions include assaults, such as intentionally derogatory verbal or nonverbal attacks; insults, such as subtle put-downs of a rude and insensitive nature regarding a person’s racial heritage or identity; and invalidations, or remarks that diminish, dismiss, or negate the realities and histories of people of color (Yosso et al. 2009, p.662). No matter whether micro-aggressions are conscious or unconscious, they permeate everyday mundane life on campus, which can cause extreme stress to marginalized students.

Similar to exclusions experienced by Latina and Latino students on US campuses, Burmese students are also being racialized in Chinese schools. At educational institutions in China, Putonghua is the (only) legitimate medium of instruction and Burmese students’ linguistic repertoires are often problematized. Most of the participants in my study are huaqiao (华侨), Burmese nationals but ethnically Chinese. Huaqiao students such as Yingying believe that their motherland is in China even though their nationality is Burmese.

However, crossing the border often changes what it means to be huaqiao. Yingying speaks perfect Chinese; in fact, her Chinese writing has received the acknowledgement of her teacher by being awarded the highest mark in the mid-term essay writing exam. Despite this, she is treated as an outsider and excluded by her Chinese peers.

Yingying’s dream of pursuing her academic aspirations in China ended after only half a year when she could no longer cope with the exclusion she experienced. She has gone back to Myanmar to continue her studies, rationalizing her return as motivated by ‘the cold weather in China.’

Crossing the border back from her imagined motherland to her birthplace must also have changed her perception of the meaning of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’.

Yingying is not alone in traversing national borders only to find that borders are also being carried within as a sense of difference and exclusion. Every day thousands of Burmese people are crossing borders to seek their future in China. More and more highways, railways and airports have been established to facilitate mutual cooperation and understanding. China is working hard to open up to and strengthen its ties with Myanmar and other ASEAN nations. But Yingying’s story shows that transforming physical borders is not enough. Critical race theory can help us understand the intersection between language, race and other social categories in China’s rapidly transforming border regions, and more specifically, in China’s rapidly internationalizing educational institutions. Her experience reminds us that borders can take many forms. Tara J Yosso; William A Smith; Miguel Ceja; Daniel G Solórzano (2009). Critical Race Theory, Racial Microaggressions, and Campus Racial Climate for Latina/o Undergraduates Harvard Educational Review, 79 (4)

Author Li Jia

Li Jia is currently a PhD student in the Linguistics Department at Macquarie University and she is also a lecturer at Yunnan University. Her research interests are in the sociolinguistics of language learning and classroom discourse. She is passionate about improving language education in her native Yunnan and beyond.

More posts by Li Jia
  • Laura

    Interesting post. It is especially thought provoking to consider the way in which this experience would lead Yingying to reconsider her identity in relation to Burma. It also underlines the potential gap between language knowledge and group membership.

  • Cross the border is not good for anyone because it is a dangerous step.