Scotland in the heart: Interview with Dr Dai Qian

Dr Dai Qian obtained her PhD in Psychology and MSc Education at the University of Edinburgh and has recently returned to China. Her research was on social identity and self-esteem among Mainland Chinese, Hong Kong Chinese, British Born Chinese, and White Scottish young people.

In this piece she discusses her findings and academic experiences whilst in Scotland.

By Dr Alex Tan 

Why did you come to the UK to study? 

I had three reasons for coming to the UK to study. Firstly, the UK has a reputable and high standard of education. This reputation has attracted many Chinese students to come over the years. The second reason was because I studied a BA in English Literature for my undergraduate studies. I was fascinated about British culture, history and literature. The third reason was because of my enthusiasm for pursuing cross-cultural educational experiences.

Did you experience any cultural differences living in Scotland?

I was not aware of the big differences between Scotland and England before I came to Britain. Soon after I arrived, I found Scotland to be very different from my expectations of Britain. Looking back, it was a very brave decision to come to Scotland without knowing much about the country. I think Scotland is a very friendly and beautiful country with both challenging and enjoyable experiences. It was very hard at the beginning to live in a country so far away from home and from my own culture.

I had to sacrifice many of my habits, customs, and acculturate myself into another system. But it was also very fun. It opened an opportunity to meet people from different backgrounds and to see the world from another perspective. The Chinese and Scottish have very different educational systems. In China, we are used to a didactic and directive approach when learning new things; but in Scotland we learned to be active in finding the answers to the questions by ourselves. I benefitted from this cross-cultural experience and I became a more respectful, non-judgmental and open minded person.

Images courtesy of the University of Edinburgh

Do you have any reflections for other Chinese students based on your time in Scotland/UK?

I think it is very interesting to reflect on this question. Most of my fellow students from the same year as me were intelligent and hard working. At that time, half of the students in my class were Chinese. As the masters course was only for a year, all of the students worked hard in order to achieve academic success. As time passed by, I saw an increasing number of Chinese students come to Scotland to live and study. In many of the post graduate courses at the University, 80-90% of students in the class were Chinese. Chinese students often  want to take on important roles in the school, such as undertaking the role of cultural ambassador; to show the world what the Chinese young generation are like. From the media reports on China, many criticisms focus on Chinese young people as a “neet group-highly dependent on parents” or a “material generation”. However, I had a different view of Chinese students I met in Edinburgh, on reflection I think many are active thinkers, good at expressing their ideas, and are independent.

The commitment required to complete a PhD is perhaps unique…what did you learn from your time as a PhD student?

I remembered after I finished my viva, I said to my viva examiners that a PhD is the hardest thing I have ever done. Looking back, I started my PhD in January, 2010, submitted my PhD thesis in May, 2013, with success in my viva in July, 2013 and graduated in November, 2013. It was a long process and definitely not an easy route. But it was also a rewarding process. When I look back to every milestone in the PhD journey, I feel a great sense of gratitude for having the chance to do my PhD work. It not only granted me the title of Doctor, but more importantly it helped my curiosity, problem-solving skills, interpersonal skills, and I built a determined and strong personality. I think what I learned from doing a PhD will benefit me for the rest of life.

A PhD can also be a personal thing, what was your reaction to the topic? Did it change over time? 

My PhD topic continued and expanded the work in my thesis for my masters course which explored the social identity of British Born Chinese (BBC) children in Chinese schools. It came from my personal experience of teaching in Edinburgh Chinese schools. The BBC children I met in Chinese schools were influenced by both Chinese and British culture. On the one hand they are studying in the UK and receiving a British education, on the other hand their parents send them to Chinese schools and promote Chinese culture and language at home. Thus, “what do BBC children think of who they are?” formed the basic question in my masters and PhD research. I have a very strong interest in this topic. With the research going deeper, I found the results became very interesting.

What other ways have you worked with Children besides in Chinese schools in Edinburgh? 

I have a particular interest in child development work. Apart from teaching Mandarin Chinese in Chinese schools, I undertook other interesting work with BBC children in Scotland. I was working as a youth worker for a Community Organisation in Racial Equality (CORE). I was also involved in organising and conducting a Chinese culture after-school club in a deprived area of Edinburgh. The purpose of the group is to promote Chinese culture among BBC children aged between 5-12 years old.

The initiation of this project was inline with the multicultural education policy of Scotland. It provided an opportunity for children to experience their home culture while living in Scotland. My colleague and I were organised different sessions, such as Chinese calligraphy, Chinese origami, Chinese dancing and singing, Chinese geographic puzzles and so on. We hoped BBC children could learn more Chinese knowledge or gain a deeper understanding of Chinese culture through play. The Chinese cultural club lasted for one year and four months.

Soon after I completed the work with CORE, I started to work as a project development worker for Multi-cultural Family Base (MCFB) to support vulnerable Chinese families with young children (0-3 years old) in Scotland. Most of the families I worked with came from refugee or asylum seeker backgrounds. They were vulnerable because of social isolation, lack of language skills, concerns about child development, lack of play opportunities, and so on. My colleagues and I conducted individual work, such as home visits to Chinese families who were in need. We established a trusted relationship with those Chinese families. With the funding supported by Blackford Trust, we were able to organise a play group meeting once a week. The group provided an opportunity for parents to get information and advice, to give support to each other, to learn about ways to encourage and promote their child’s development and to engage with the children in positive play. The families decided to name the group “Chinese Flower Group” and MCFB has become the first social work agency in Scotland to have organised its own Chinese child and family group. The group began in November 2010 and has continued each week. Although I have left the group with a great memories, I still closely watch the development of the “Chinese Flower Group”.

Did you learn anything about the British Chinese people whilst being in the UK, and what did you think about reading the studies and meeting the people themselves?

From my studies of British Chinese people, the views on British Chinese are ambiguous. On one hand, British Chinese people are a successful group in society. They are seen as an unproblematic group and are one of the highest earning groups in the UK. The academic success story of BBC children also contributed to the success of British Chinese people. On the other hand, British Chinese people in Britain have been perceived as a socially excluded “invisible” group, as they are not active in politics and public activities. Chinese people in the UK lack a sense of social equality and acceptance, have faced a negative response in society such as racial attacks, and lack knowledge of social systems. The ‘social exclusion’ of Chinese people in Britain is considered to be a result of their economic reliance on takeaway and restaurant businesses (market niche) and the lack of opportunities elsewhere in Britain*. I think literature on British Born Chinese generalised their lives based on two contrasting views.

However, when I met a British Chinese in person, I did not feel what was presented in academic literature was accurate. I think it may be because much of the British Chinese literature was not up to date. From my PhD research, I focused on British born Chinese children age 8, 11, and 14 years old. I am concerned about BBC children’s psychological well-being in comparison with their peers in China, Hong Kong and in Britain. I think it is a very new and a novel perspective to view identity issues from the young generation of British born Chinese.

*Chan, C. K., Cole, B., & Bowpitt, G. (2007). Beyond silent organizations’: A reflection of the UK, Chinese people and their community organizations. Critical Social Policy, 27(4), 509–533.


Are there any outcomes from your research you might like to share?

The findings from the study indicate that social identity is a complex and dynamic process in a child’s development, that cannot be understood without considering national and specific social and cultural contexts as frames of reference. There are two interesting findings related to BBC children. My research showed that although BBC children were born in the UK and have grown up in Scotland, they have a sense of collectivism that is higher than their White Scottish peers, and similar to their Chinese counterparts in Mainland China and Hong Kong. This finding implies that ethnic identity and ethnic culture play important roles in shaping an ethnic minority group of children’s perceptions of self.  My research outcome also shows that BBC children have an integrated identity (proud of being both Chinese and British) leading to a positive self-esteem.

What are your plans for the future?

I am working as a lecturer and students’ mental health advisor in Sichuan University, China. I would like to develop myself as a child psychologist specialising in child mental health, and design interventional measures or educational programmes to help children with mental health issues. I would love to continue my involvement working with British Chinese children and Chinese immigrants.


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