School bullying is a pervasive and insidious problem for school-age children and adolescents and has been the focus of considerable research over the past few decades. Among the school-age youth in China, there is a special group of students who are marginalized and vulnerable to school bullying-internal migrant students. This paper investigates the peer victimization experiences of an internal migrant student in an urban public school in China, analyzes the social context in which the victimization took place, discusses the variables that may have exacerbated or decreased the bullying behaviors, and ultimately makes some feasible suggestions to address the bullying problem.
Bullying, by definition, is a repetition of aggressive behaviors which physically or psychologically hurt the victim and in which a power imbalance makes it difficult for the victim to defend himself (Smith & Sharp, 1994). This power imbalance in the bully-victim relationship is echoed by what Roberts (2008, p.10) wrote-“the bully always has the upper hand, whether by strength, by numbers, or psychologically”. Bullying takes physical (e.g. beating), verbal (e.g. name-calling, threats), and relational (e.g. gossiping, suggesting shunning of the victim, persuading classmates to reject the victim) forms (Rivers & Smith, 1994; Crick & Grotpeter, 1995; Monks & Smith, 2000) and can extend over many years (Smith & Sharp, 1994). Victims may be tortured by fears, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem (Sharp et al, 2000), and even commit suicide (Dean, 1993).
Over the past twenty years, there has been an ever-expanding body of literature on school bullying, a wide-spread and significant problem for school-age children and adolescents (O’Brennan et al, 2009). It is only recently that this body of literature has started to focus on the peer victimization of specific sub-groups of youth, particularly marginalized children (McKenney et al, 2006; Williams et al, 2005). Among all the school-age youth in China, there is a special group which is discriminated and vulnerable to school bullying-internal migrant students. In the research conducted by Wang (2006), the migrant students reported that they felt unwelcomed in urban public schools as teachers paid no attention to them and local students often cursed at them. The migrant children surveyed by Lei (2004) also complained that they are mocked and bullied by local students in public schools. These studies together highlight an urgent need for the voice of this minority group to be heard by society so that their problems concerning peer relationship and mental health can be addressed timely and properly.
Xun, an 11-year-old boy, is in the sixth grade of a government-run primary school in Guangzhou, China. His family is from a small town in Hunan Province, where Xun received 4 years of elementary school education, and moved to Guangzhou city of Guangdong Province two years ago. Upon settlement in Guangzhou, Xun was supposed to enter one of the private migrant schools established for migrant students since he didn’t have a local hukou (local household registration). However, considering the poor educational resources in private migrant schools, his parents sent him to the government-maintained school which he is now attending with extra tuition fee. He then became a Tse Dok Sung (an official term used on the migrant students who study in a local public school without a local hukou).
A two hour face-to-face interview was conducted in Guangzhou on November 20 2010, and transcribed. This paper will only provide segments of the discourse which are deemed important to the analysis by the author.
Bullying and Victimization
Studying in this public school in which the majority of the students are from nearby districts and have a local hukou, he is marginalized and bullied verbally, relationally, and physically.
–“They always call me Ngoi Sang Lao. Almost all the boys in the class.”
–“There are some boys always picking on me. They swear at me loudly, saying things like ‘go back to your hometown, dog’ in Cantonese.”
Male classmates insult Xun with “Ngoi Sang Lao” (a derogatory name used to classify people from other, usually underdeveloped provinces) and “dog”, and ask him to go back to his hometown.
–“After class the classmates usually talk in Cantonese which I cannot understand well. They barely play with me. Every time the teacher asks us to do some group work, some boys will say ‘don’t group with Ngoi Sang Lao’. Then nobody wants me in.”
When the teacher asks the students to be engaged in group activities, some of the local students persuade others not to group with him, bullying him relationally.
–“There are some boys always picking on me. â€¦ When no one else is around, they will kick me. One time they grabbed the mobile phone I took from my mom and ran away. My mom asked me where the mobile phone I took was, I said it was missing. â€¦ Another time, they made a snatch at my bag to get my money. I fought back and they started to beat me. Someone hit my head with a brick and I bledâ€¦”
–“â€¦I don’t remember (how many times they have beaten me). â€¦ I am very afraid. I am afraid of them. I don’t want to go to schoolâ€¦ I often have nightmares in which they keep beating me.”
Some of the boys in his class bully him physically when no one else is around and even snatch at his belongings. With bullying episodes being repeated, the significant power imbalance that exists in the bully-victim relationship consolidates and the victim becomes increasingly powerless (Craig & Pepler, 2003). Xun becomes extremely helpless in this plight, haunted by the bullying scenes and afflicted by nightmares. He tried to skip class but was caught by his parents. The more time he worried about safety, the less time he had to spend on studies. As a result, he failed many exams.
As can be seen from the monicker and name-calling they use to depreciate Xun, the local students keep trying to classify and stereotype Xun. The local students call Xun Ngoi Sang Lao, a demeaning monicker generally used on migrant workers. Migrant workers has long been stereotyped by dominant discourse in China as potential perpetrators (e.g. Beijing Wanbao, 2004) and potential competitors for social rights connected with urban citizenship, being hated and feared at the same time (Wang, 2006). In Pun’s work (1999), migrant workers in Shenzhen are viewed by Shenzhen citizens as “peasant-like”, “untrustworthy” and “ignorant”. The children of migrant workers are unable to be free of these associations and are subjected to stereotyping from government, teachers and urban citizens. Migrant children were described by a Chinese government report (UNESCO, 2000) as weary of studying and academic inferior. Teachers comment that migrant workers’ “quality” is low and migrant children are hard to teach (Goodburn, 2009; Tan, 2010). Local students say that migrant children are “dirty”, “ignorant”, and “out of control”. Parents of local students even prevented their children from participating in activities together with migrant children (Goodburn, 2009). All these together give migrant students a low image and pose obstacles to their adjusting to the new environment.
Group Affiliation and Social Exclusion
Social identity derives from group memberships (Tajefel & Turner, 1979) and children develop their social identity by affiliating with those who are similar to them (in-group) and excluding others who are not (out-group) (Hamm, 2000; Tajefel & Turner, 1979). This similarity can be based on race, ethnicity, cultural background, or migrant status (McKenny et al, 2006). Such group affiliation creates a visible dividing line between children who are considered as members of a specific group and children who are not (McKenny et al, 2006). Such group affiliation also produces in-group identification which often induces stronger stereotyping towards and prejudice against out-groups (Tajefel & Turner, 1979).
In this case, native-born students associate with each other and try to create a boundary between them and migrant students. They call Xun Ngoi Sang Lo, explicitly marking them as insiders and Xun as outsiders and excluding Xun from their social group. The boundary is also created by the language they use to communicate with each other when Xun is around. Holmes (1997) noted that through language people indicate the social groups with which they want to identify and reveal the social roles which they intent to embrace. Through their choice of language, people can align or distance a certain individual or group. The classmates choose to speak Cantonese, which Xun cannot understand well, so as to convey a message that they are in a group which Xun doesn’t belong to.
On Xun’s part, by frequently using “they” and “me” to refer to the local students and him, he consciously or unconsciously created a boundary between him and local students as well.
Crisis of Identity
–“I wish I were born a local of Guangzhou. If I were born here, things would have been much better. Why was I born in Hunan?”
McNamara (1997) suggested that social identity depends on the specific inter-group context in which one finds oneself. When migrants are adapting themselves to a new environment, they strive to gather resources available to build new identities. Albeit Xun wants to be accepted by the new environment, he was challenged by local students again and again. Instead of letting him construct his own identity, local students keep stereotyping him, imposing negative identity on him, and bullying him with overt social exclusion. The great tension he experiences when trying to balance his own background and the new host culture makes him confused about his identity. When people are unable to construct a coherent identity that helps define their belonging to a new social group, they encounter a “crisis of identity” (Camilleri & Malewska-peyre, 1997).
The unfavorable interactions make Xun realize not only that social insertion is impossible for him, but also that his migrant status is the root of his stigmatization. Thus, he said “Why was I born in Hunan” and “If I were born here, things would have been much better”. Hogg (2004) argued that people pursue positively valued distinctiveness for their own group because positive in-group attributes furnishes positive social identity and self-esteem. In an inter-group setting, people adopt a variety of strategies to achieve this, one of which is the attempt to be categorized as a member of the more favorable out-group (Hogg, 2004). Thus, while getting to know the negative attributes of the group he is in and attributing his victimization to his migrant status, Xun expressed his deep longing to be identified with the new group and said “I wish I were born a local of Guangzhou”.
The Family and School
–“â€¦My father asked me what happened when he saw the wound in my head. I said I tussled with someone. He asked me if I won the tussle and I answered yes. He then said, ‘Good! You are a man! But don’t tussle with others any more.’ Later on those guys stopped me on my way back home and battered at my nose. When seeing my nose bleeding, my father asked me if I was bullied in school. I said yes and he went to school to find the teachers.
–“My father went to school for intervention 3 times.”
It was not until the bullies and victim got into a big fight that Xun’s parents came to know their son had been bullied and began to look for ways to help him. The parents could have been more sensitive to Xun’s victimization if they had frequently communicated with him about his new school life. Moreover, it doesn’t seem that the father has addressed the son’s emotional needs well and provided him with guidance on how to deal with the bullies.
–“â€¦The teacher asked the guys who bullied me to his office several times. But they are not afraid. They say that they are backed up by some gangs outside school. The headmaster cannot do anything, neither can the teachers.”
From Xun’s point of view, the school is not dong enough in intervening in the bullying episodes and protecting him. This is quite understandable in that the school is still not able to stop the bullying. Those milder bullying episodes probably being unnoticed by the school, it was only when Xun got wounded and his father went to school for intervention that the teacher asked the bullies into his office. Apart from warning the bullies, the teacher hasn’t offered any support to Xun. Macklem (2003) summarized that the attitudes and actions teachers take are critical variables which work to exacerbate or deter bullying behaviors. Teachers’ ignorance will serve to aggravate bullying behaviors rather than to decrease it (Gropper & Froschl, 2000). The weak involvement of the school in this case may give a wrong impression to the bullies that the intervention from the school is only temporary. Their bullying behaviors are very likely to deteriorate and be out of control since “the headmaster cannot do anything, neither can the teachers”.
In this case, the family and school are not doing enough in terms of protecting the victim and calling an end to the bullying. In order to be most effective in solving the bullying problem, the author recommends below a team approach advocated by Roberts (2008) which not only enlists the assistance of parents and teachers, but also requires active participation of the victim. Moreover, in that the minority group of migrant students in urban public schools is at high risk of being discriminated and bullied, actions taken by government and schools are also needed to specifically deal with the relational and psychological issues of migrant students.
Kochenderfer and Ladd (1997) reported that students whose victimization decreased over time used more strategies of asking a teacher or a friend for help while pupils whose victimization increased over time tended to use strategies of fighting back or walking away. In this case, Xun kept fighting back and didn’t tell anyone about being bullied until it got worse. Realizing that Xun was not protected, the bullies keep their abusive behaviors going. Thus, it is imperative for Xun to report to adults, whether teachers or parents, when bullying happens. It is also advisable that Xun try to make friends with those local students who haven’t been involved in the bullying episodes. Xun needs a feeling of acceptance in the peer group as well as intimate mutual communication with peers, both of which derive from basic social needs in childhood (Sullivan, 1953).
The parents should become aware of the severity of the victimization problem of Xun, offer enough protection, and make him feel that they are supportive. They should also inform Xun that he is not expected to be able to handle bullies who have so much power and there is no need to be shamed for being frightened by the bullies (Macklem, 2003).
Soutter and McKenzie (2000) pointed out that tackling bullying in a systemic way is more powerful than reacting to it as an isolated instance. Thus, particularly with a view to addressing Xun’s victimization problem, the school can establish a school-wide bullying prevention program (Curwin & Mendler, 1997). The program should carefully define bullying, clearly specify its consequences, and describe it as inconsistent with the values of the school (Rigby & Slee, 1999). The program will work better if there are staff keeping the whole school under close supervision (Macklem, 2003) and teaching students coping strategies through activities such as group discussions or role play (Shreffler, 2006). Besides, the school should take adequate notice to how well migrant students such as Xun are making an accommodation to new school life. This can be done by setting up an informal support group which is composed of counselors and gives advice as needed. The school should also create opportunities for migrant students to blend in with local students and facilitate better understanding among them.
As the internal migration process in China continues to unfold, more and more migrant workers will bring their children to urban public schools or private migrant schools. It is estimated that there are over 20 million migrant children who have accompanied their migrant parents to settle in urban areas (Xinhua News Agency, 2005). Guangdong, the most preferred destination for internal migrants in China (Liang & Chen, 2007), should pay attention to the adaptation of migrant children to both public schools and migrant schools so as to enable migrant students to achieve academic success on an equal footing with local students. Meanwhile, the government should try to enhance public awareness of the contribution of migrant workers to urban development with an aim to eliminate the discrimination and prejudice against them (Tan, 2010).