Rooted Cosmopolitanism and Transversal Politics: South Korean (non-)Expatriate Parents in China and Their Choice of Schools

Dr Xiao Ma, East China University of Science and Technology, China

Research Highlighted

Ma, X. (2020). Rooted Cosmopolitanism and Transversal Politics: South Korean (Non-)Expatriate Parents in China and Their Choice of Schools. The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, 1-18. doi:10.1080/14442213.2020.1734070



This article draws on the choice of schools for children as an important lens through which the practices and perceptions of South Korean (non-)expatriate parents in China are revealed. In line with Giddens (1991, p. 81), I argue that choices are ‘not only about how to act but who to be’, and the act of making choices implies the creation of self-identification. Expatriate parents who are globally mobile tend to choose international education for their children owing to their ideas of mobile futures and aspirations to become international (Hayden et al., 2000; Weenink, 2008). Recently, local schools have also become options for Western expatriate parents who anticipate arming their children with local knowledge and language proficiency, which they consider as an integral part of a cosmopolitan disposition (Farrer & Greenspan, 2015; Groves & O’Connor, 2018). Korean parents tend to diversify their choices and frequently transfer their children from one educational track to another, neither merely choosing an international nor a local school. This trait distinguishes them from Western expatriates.

Expatriate Parents: International Immersion and Pursuit of Local and National Engagements

Although most expatriate parents tended to choose the most expensive school for their children, namely, an international school, their options were seldom restricted. The replacement of international schools with bilingual schools often occurred. Parents were aware of the Chinese language becoming a hegemonic language globally, in addition to English. They have developed a ‘Sinocentric cosmopolitan’ view demonstrated in both their willingness to engage with Chinese culture and language and their pragmatic awareness of their home country’ s geopolitical stance between the two global superpowers, China and the United States (cf. Farrer & Greenspan, 2015).

For most expatriate parents, their children’s present immersion in an English medium programme did not necessarily generate aspirations to send them to an English-speaking country for higher education on account of the unaffordable cost. Most believed English competence to be beneficial for their children’s return to Korea for admission into a prestigious Korean university. The reason being that Korean universities reserve special quotas for the children of Korean nationals returning from overseas, which requires high scores in TOEFL and SAT to succeed in the admission to elite universities. As Sassen (2008, p. 63) puts it, ‘the global can be constituted inside the national’. Despite enrolling their children in non-native language programmes, these parents’ educational arrangements were predominantly home-oriented.

Non-expatriate Parents: Local and National Exposure with a Cosmopolitan Outlook

Due to inadequate education subsidies and family income, non-expatriate parents are likely to arrange Chinese or Korean educational tracks for their children. Despite their relatively less privileged socioeconomic position, these parents appeared to have no less cosmopolitan aspiration than their expatriate counterparts, demonstrated by their strong desires to send their children to a bilingual or pure English-medium programme in the future. Korean parents’ cosmopolitan striving with regard to their children’s education is by no means ‘entirely classed’ (cf. Park & Abelmann, 2004). It is because the burgeoning international education market in China provides affordable alternatives to international education for the rank-and-file families, including the non-expatriate Korean ones.

Parental pursuits are not only globally oriented but also paradoxically entangled with ethnonational consciousness, particularly when children experience Korean and Chinese styles of pedagogy. By transferring their children to a Korean school in China, the parents cultivated traits of ‘Koreanness’ in them whilst washing off their acquired undesirable ‘Chineseness’. Nonetheless, relentless criticism was also made regarding the overseas Korean education. The major concern was that its curriculum was neither sufficiently international nor superior to the average level of education provided in the motherland. This demonstrates the parents’ cosmopolitan pursuit is not so much an effort to raise the youngsters as ‘global citizens’ as a meticulous plan to equip them with necessary competencies in order to be able to compete against their peers in their home country (cf. Koo, 2016; Park & Abelmann, 2004).

Rooted cosmopolitanism and transversal politics

This article has examined the home-oriented cosmopolitan identities of South Korean expatriate and non-expatriate parents in China through their strategies in choosing schools for their children, which I frame as transversal politics. Cosmopolitanism is demonstrated as openness to alien cultures without losing one’s attachment to home as well as the desire to return home. Cosmopolitanism is not the absolute acceptance of cultures as inseparable entities but, rather, the process of selecting cultural aspects that are suited to the interests of individuals and families (Hannerz, 1990, p. 240).

I have deployed transversal politics as a term to conceptualise the specific educational strategies practised by Korean parents. These strategies are not constrained to the national education system but extend to different systems that signify non-national and international cultures. In contrast to Western expatriate parents in certain Asian countries, the identities and practices of South Korean parents in China are demonstrated as more likely to be multi-faceted, constrained and de-elitist. Neither expatriate nor non-expatriate parents in this study should be viewed as cosmopolitan elites. Rather, they are essentially ‘ordinary foreigners’ sojourning in the increasingly globalised Chinese social milieu (Seo, 2007). What remains to be known is whether their children will become ‘cosmopolitans’ owing to the hybrid cultural capital they have accumulated through their education in various school systems.

Author Biography

Dr Xiao Ma received her doctoral degree in Chinese Studies and Anthropology from Leiden University Institute for Area Studies, The Netherlands. She is currently conducting postdoctoral research in the Department of Sociology at East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai. Her research interests include migration and education, ethnic community and economy, foreigners in China, Korean migration, agency and structure. Her recent publications also include “Unpacking ‘Koreatown’ in Chinese Metropolis: urban governance, variations in ethnic incorporation and consequences” in Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. She can be contacted via:;


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