Revisiting and Articulating Identity and Belonging in Hong Kong (by Casey Burkholder)

Hong Kong is a complex place. Languages, cultures, and identities are constantly interacting in public, private, and digital spaces. I think this complexity is part of why I first fell in love with the city. In my first life in Hong Kong 2008-2010, I worked as a teacher at a government funded school that largely catered to ethnic minority students. I taught in English. My multilingual students learned in English. They did not learn their home languages in school. They also did not really learn much Chinese. In my time as a teacher, I began to think about the ways that these language policies and—in the case of my school—practices of systemic racial and linguistic segregation, might affect the ways that young people see themselves as citizens in Hong Kong. These notions deeply troubled me as a teacher, and as time has passed, they still trouble me as a person and as a researcher.


I have come back to Hong Kong twice, in a research role, asking questions of, about, and later with, my former secondary school students. First, in my Master’s work, I looked to the governmental policies regarding the inclusion of ethnic minority youth in schools. I had read previous work on ethnic minority people’s experiences with education in Hong Kong from a legal perspective (See, for example, Loper, 2004; 2008; 2011). From this legal perspective, ethnic minority young people were being systematically discriminated and disadvantaged in regard to their access to school, and to language in school. I wanted to explore these realities from an educational perspective, and to do so, I asked my former students about their lived experiences of schools. I found that the policies set out by the government largely did not align with the lived experiences of my former students. One of my participants even told me that it’s “just the school [that] makes us non-Chinese,” a phrase that has stuck with me ever since. If school systematically segregates and others you, what might this do for your sense of self? How might you feel included and excluded? If you were born in Hong Kong, and you grew up in Hong Kong, and you consider yourself a Hong Kong person, how might this conflation between ‘non-Chinese speaking’ and ‘non-Chinese’ shape the way you view yourself?


Now, I keep my Master’s work at the front of my mind as I live in Hong Kong, and navigate my (sometimes isolating, sometimes depressing, sometimes invigorating) doctoral fieldwork. Methodologically, I am employing something called the reflexive revisit. Burawoy (2009)—a leading scholar who developed the method—argues that grounded theorists often focus too narrowly on the now, while reflexive revisiting firmly situates a study both in theory and in the history of the field. Here, the site of the research is seen as in-flux, and constantly changing. The revisit acknowledges that the field continues to exist, to evolve, and to change when the researcher is not around, watching. In this, the revisit asks the researcher to look around, go back, look again, and continue to develop a reflexive understanding of her place in the field and to the participants as well as the research. Focused revisiting looks to reexamine the researcher’s previous understandings of the field, and thus fits well as an anchor for this participatory project. Participation involves understanding multiple perspectives and experiences, as well as making participants decision-makers in the project, which encourages a rigorous participatory approach to interpretation (Greene, 2009). Here, revisiting is helpful as it exposes researcher motivations and understandings as time, participants, and the field shift and change.


In my revisit, I have decided to use cellphilming (video-making with cellphones, see Dockney, Tomaselli & Hart, 2010) as a participatory visual method that produces a text that can be easily disseminated across digital and physical spaces. I found that in my Master’s work, although I wrote about my findings in my thesis, and in an academic publication, there was a real disconnect between the spaces where I was writing, and the spaces that were accessible to my participants, to their communities, to policy makers, and to people outside of the academy in general. I realized that I needed to create texts that were accessible to larger audiences, and texts that could be shared by participant-creators, as well as by me, the researcher. I began this project by creating a cellphilm that explored my own sense of belonging in Hong Kong, and rationale behind the study: Who Am I in All of This? My participants have also made cellphilms that explore three questions: 1) who am I in Hong Kong? 2) Where do I belong? And 3) How do I participate as a citizen of Hong Kong? We are currently in the middle of the cellphilming, and the next stage will be sharing these cellphilms across digital spaces and in community screening events.


As time has passes, my relationship with my participants has shifted. We cannot ‘go back’ to the relationship that we had before. My former students are now young people who have new and very adult realities (including partners, babies and full-time employment). When we e-mail, they still refer to me as Ms. Casey despite my instance to be called Casey. How do I address the change in our relationship from teacher-student to researcher-researched while maintaining my commitment to researching ‘with’ instead of researching ‘on’? In employing participatory arts based methodologies, as well as semi-structured interviewing, I am attempting to lessen the barriers between myself and the participants, but these barriers remain. I look to address these concerns, and return to these questions throughout my fieldnotes, which I have made public ( Here, I am not hiding my thoughts from my participants, but instead, including them in each stage of the research. They have been reading the blog, and we talk about what I have written and drawn. The goal here is to use multimodal texts (especially drawings and cellphilms) to encourage reflection, inclusion, and dialogue.

Casey5 In revisiting my Master’s work, creating cellphilms, and in keeping public reflexive fieldnotes, I have also begun to think about the need to work toward social change through participation. I have designed my study to be driven by and reliant on my participants’ views of their community’s strengths and challenges with regard to access to education, to their sense of identities, to the spaces where they feel they belong, and the ways in which they engage politically in the city. Importantly, Burawoy (2014) reflects upon an ethnographic study he completed in Zambia in the late 1960s. As he describes his experiences in sharing his findings with Zambian policy makers, he notes:

I had thought that ‘speaking truth to power’ would challenge power. Far from it; powerful players can easily deflect, absorb and even exploit criticism, especially if it is not backed up by collective force, such as a social movement or an organization. The conduct of the research was covert, but I could have collaborated with social forces that shared my interests in the study’s publication. This was, indeed, my first lesson in public sociology (p. 965).


I will keep these words in mind as I continue to engage in this focused revisit. What lessons might I learn in public sociology in engaging in this project at this particular point in time in Hong Kong? What about the role of English in all of this? Colonialism? Gender? Race? Space? I will immerse myself in thinking through these questions as I continue my work in the field.


Burawoy, M. (2003). Revisits: An outline of a theory of reflexive ethnography. American Sociological Review. 68, 645-679.

Burawoy, M. (2009). Extended case method: Four countries, four decades, four great transformations, and one theoretical tradition. Berkley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Burawoy, M. (2014). The colour of class revisited: Four decades of postcolonialism in Zambia. The Journal of Southern African Studies, 40(5), 961-979. doi:10.1080/03057070.2014.946213

Burkholder, C. (2013). “Just the school make[s] us Non-Chinese”: Contrasting the discourses of Hong Kong’s Education Bureau with the lived experiences of its Non-Chinese speaking secondary school population. Educational Research for Social Change, 2(2), 43-58.

Dockney, J., Tomaselli, K. and Hart, T. B. (2010). Cellphilms, mobile platforms and prodsumers: Hyper-individuality and film. The Citizen in communication: Revisiting traditional, new and community media practices in South Africa. Cape Town: Juta Press.

Greene, S. (2009, February). Accessing children’s perspectives and experience: some impediments. Paper delivered at: Advancing Participatory Research Methods with Children and Young People. Vol. 23.

Loper, K. (2004). Race and equality: A study of ethnic minorities in Hong Kong’s education system. University of Hong Kong Centre for Comparative and Public Law, Occasional Paper No. 12, 2004. Retrieved from

Loper, K. (2008). One step forward, two steps back: The dilemma of Hong Kong’s draft Race Discrimination legislation. Hong Kong Law Journal. 38(15), 15-30.

Loper, K. (2011). Race and equality: A study of ethnic minorities in Hong Kong’s education system: Project report and analysis. University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law Research Paper No. 10722/54929. Retrieved from

3 thoughts on “Revisiting and Articulating Identity and Belonging in Hong Kong (by Casey Burkholder)

  1. Interesting post Casey! Keep your ideas coming and I certainly like how this who-am-I question drives our research. Are you heading back to Canada soon?


Join the conversation below!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s