Educating Burmese migrant students in China

By September 22, 2017Education

Dr Li Jia (4th from right) with her supervisor, Professor Ingrid Piller, and members of the Language-on-the-Move team

The Language on the Move team is proud to celebrate another PhD in our group. Dr LI Jia was awarded her PhD degree by Macquarie University for her thesis about “Social Reproduction and Migrant Education: A Critical Sociolinguistic Ethnography of Burmese Students’ Learning Experiences at a Border High School in China.”

Congratulations, Dr Li Jia!

The thesis takes the reader to the Chinese-Burmese border area of Yunnan province in South-West China, and begins as follows:

Excerpt from Li Jia (2017), Social Reproduction and Migrant Education: A Critical Sociolinguistic Ethnography of Burmese Students’ Learning Experiences at a Border High School in China

Borderlands are often flashpoints for political or ethnic tensions. At the same time, they may also be sites of heightened intercultural engagement and contact. The China-Myanmar border area is an example of the latter, where in recent decades people’s desire to interact with each other and to understand each other’s languages and cultures has increased substantially. As a native of the China-Myanmar border area, I was born and brought up in a Chinese border town close to Myanmar, and many of my relatives and friends to this day work and live on the Burmese side of the border. Like many Han people, my family has kept our ancestral book, which traces my family’s presence in the region back to the military migrations during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The book records the male names of each generation and highlights the images of those who bore official ranks. Despite the fact that my family can clearly trace our Han ancestry over six centuries, our lifestyle is quite different from that of Han people in more central areas of China. As border people, we find it much easier to go “abroad” to Myanmar than to travel “nationally” outside of Yunnan province. Border people are conveniently allowed to travel to designated Burmese border towns without applying for a visa. Crossing this international border for us often means little more than crossing a bridge, a road or a river. Living in the border area, we are more familiar with the tropical foods imported from Myanmar and Thailand than many of the foods advertised on Chinese national television.

Trilingual signage at the Muse checkpoint on the China-Myanmar border

Despite this familiarity, interactions between Chinese and Burmese are not necessarily deep. Over the past three decades, Burmese people can also be seen across all walks of life on the Chinese side of the border particularly in domestic work, on construction sites, in restaurants, shops, hospitals and schools. However, despite their increased visibility, I grew up knowing very little about this group of “familiar strangers” who cover their faces in thanaka, a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark, and who wear longyi, a sarong-like skirt, and flip-flops in the streets. At a very basic level, my research was motivated by the desire to learn more about interactions between the “familiar strangers” calling the Chinese-Burmese borderlands home.

The interactions I am interested in are embedded in significant socio-economic and developmental differences between China and Myanmar. With China and Chinese people the “senior partners” in most border relationships, Chinese language learning is of immense economic value to Burmese people. For instance, Burmese workers are often paid differentially according to their Chinese language proficiency. The owner of a seafood restaurant in Tengchong explained to me that she paid the lowest wages to Burmese workers who could not speak any Chinese and who were washing dishes in the kitchen. Servers with some Chinese proficiency were paid more and could hope for further pay increase if they improved their Chinese. The top job in the restaurant was being a cashier and was reserved for the most fluent Chinese speaker. When I asked the cashier how he had learned Chinese, he explained that he had learned all his Chinese on the job. Having migrated to Tengchong from Myanmar two years earlier, he spoke the local dialect fluently. His dream for the future was to improve his standard Chinese, to move to Shanghai, to marry a Shanghainese girl and to start his own seafood restaurant. His story is not unusual. As I discovered over the course of my fieldwork, Chinese language learning plays an important role in the trajectories, experiences and aspirations of border people from the Burmese side of the border.

“Learn Chinese, Double Your World”: Promotion of Chinese as a global language

Burmese border people are not alone in learning a new language to be able to communicate more efficiently in the border regions. While Burmese may not be as essential to the socio-economic prospects of Chinese citizens as Chinese is to those of Burmese citizens, there is no doubt that Burmese language learning is beneficial and widely desired. For instance, a Tengchong policewoman, Ms Lei, told me that she had been recruited into the police force because of her Burmese proficiency. After failing the national university entrance exam, Ms Lei had to look for a job in her home town. Unsure of her prospects, she considered the importance of Burmese and decided to attend an evening school. Compared to English, Ms Lei felt it was so much easier to learn Burmese. It took her only two months to pass an interview for a border trade company selling agricultural machinery and equipment to Myanmar. This job experience helped her improve her Burmese greatly because she had to communicate with her Burmese customers every day. With her enhanced Burmese skills, she got a chance to work for the police emergency hotline. From there, she got promoted to a police officer role that focussed on the registration of Burmese migrants. Normally, such a position can only be attained by someone with a university degree but for Ms Lei Burmese proficiency proved more valuable than a university degree. Again, Ms Lei is not unusual, and many border people orient to local transnational opportunities rather than more centralized opportunity structures. Apart from being successful in finding work with a government institution, Burmese language skills are particularly useful in the burgeoning border trade with Myanmar.

Stories such as these are part of the everyday experiences in the border region, where people have come to realize the increasing importance of interacting with each other and knowing each other’s languages in doing business, making money, looking for a good job, gaining promotion or even creating a desirable marriage. For Burmese migrants, the hope that learning Chinese will improve their future is not only observable in worksites such as the restaurant described above, but also from the fact that an increasing number of Burmese students are sent to high schools on the Chinese side of the border for their formal education. As an educator, I decided to focus my research on this group of young people caught up in the socio-political transformation of the borderlands and the corresponding intense transnational interactions they experience. What are their educational trajectories and experiences?

Migration for educational purposes has become common practice as students and their families seek a better future. In the twenty-first century, educational migration is no longer confined to English-speaking countries and “the West”. Many Asian countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore and mainland China are emerging as popular destinations for international students (Chiang, 2015; Gu & Patkin, 2013; Kang, 2012). Therefore, there is a necessity to extend existing research in migrant education to include a greater diversity of sociolinguistic contexts (Piller, 2016a, pp. 1-15). Considering the increasing prominence of Chinese language promotion worldwide and very little research on international students’ learning experiences in mainland China, this thesis aims to contribute to the knowledge of migration, Chinese language education and social justice, in general, and of Chinese border high school education and Burmese students’ language learning experiences, in particular.

Want to read more? The full thesis is available for open access through our PhD Hall of Fame.

Author Lg_on_the_move

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  • Eleonora Beolchi

    What an interesting publication Dr Li Jia! I am not very knowledgeable about the Asian languages and the exchanges and interactions among them but I surely enjoyed the reading and learnt a bit more about the cultures, life experiences and languages involved in your post. What I can say is that while reading about your research and the stories of these people, I kept thinking of the European context which is more familiar to me and recalled trips I made on border regions where I felt that same exchange which you describe between the Chinese and the Burmese border. The importance of knowing the language of the country across the border can raise your work aspirations and job opportunities. learning another language is such a resource that is always worth exploring because it may result useful in future experiences.

  • Dhanisa Kamila

    Hi Dr Li Jia! I really enjoyed reading your publication. It gave me deeper insights about people’s lives and society in the border areas of China- Myanmar. In my home country, Indonesia, people who are living in the border area also value the language of our neighbor countries such as Malaysia and Singapore. For those people who live in the border area, knowing their languages is considered important as it can raise their economy and job opportunities in such countries because rather than going to Indonesia’s capital, it is closer and cheaper for them to go to the countries across the border.

  • Kaniz Rahman

    Congratulation Dr Li Jia! It’s interesting to see how you enjoyed living in the border and welcomed your neighbouring language. Your experience reflects in your paper and shows significant it was to learn chinese. Also how knowing a language can be more benificial than a university certificate. I have always lived in an area which is monolingual but coming to Australia makes me feel that how interesting it is to live in a cou ntry where people speak different languages. It makes me feel how it amazing was for you to grow up in an area which is bilingual and also can go to that country just like visiting the neighbourhood.

  • MB24

    Congratulations Dr. Li Jia. Cross border language issues are a fascinating area and will no doubt continue to be an important area of study. The search for opportunities across borders no doubt comes with perils. It is such a rich area for research. Your focus on the everyday experiences of people in the border region has tremendous value for other such studies.