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Coming to Hong Kong, not quite belonging, and the Belonging Research Network - James SIMPSON

[Blogpost #1] Coming to Hong Kong, not quite belonging, and the Belonging Research Network

Coming to Hong Kong, not quite belonging, and the Belonging Research Network - James SIMPSON

James SIMPSON writes about coming to Hong Kong, not quite belonging, and the Belonging Research Network

05 Aug 2022 (Fri)

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James SIMPSON writes about coming to Hong Kong, not quite belonging, and the Belonging Research Network.

As our calendars mark the years, so anniversaries offer opportunities for reflection. I arrived in Hong Kong on 3 August 2021 for a job at the University of Science and Technology. One year on, I am writing this reflective, inaugural post for our new Nexus: BRN website blog. 

I moved here from the University of Leeds, UK, where I had worked for the previous 17 years, uprooting from a settled home and work environment, one where I’d become very embedded. The shift with my family to the other side of the world took place in the aftermath of profound social and political upheaval in Hong Kong, and mid-pandemic. I certainly felt I was swimming against the stream. 

This is not the first time I have lived in a country other than the one in which I was born. In my early career I was an English teacher in countries in Southern Europe and the Middle East. I returned to the UK in my early 30s, where I taught English to adult migrants from diverse backgrounds. Post-PhD, I carried out research in adult migrant language education, and in the sociolinguistics of mobility. In my work with language learners who had migrated to the UK, often as refugees, I developed an academic interest in identity and belonging.


Belonging – for me – is primarily the sense and experience of identity in social life, that is, in relation to those groups or communities with which we have an affinity. It is also something that is constructed in interaction, verbal or otherwise, with others. Belonging as an aspect of identity for people on the move is therefore up for grabs. David Block hits the nail on the head when he says that it’s in the migration context more than others that ‘one’s identity and sense of self are put on the line, not least because most factors that are familiar to the individual – sociohistorically, socioculturally, sociolinguistically and linguistically – have disappeared and been replaced by new ones’ (2007: 5). My research in language education in the UK seemed to speak to a concern with the reconstruction and redefinition that people must undergo if they are to adapt to their new circumstances. I came to the conclusion that the entire purpose of the field of adult migrant language education was probably to support people in their process of belonging.

With my move to Hong Kong – my very own migration – I hope to explore similar ideas to those which had intrigued me in the UK, but in a quite different context. This has now become a personal concern, not least because my own belonging is somehow unsettled, detached. The move has also sharpened the memory of my earlier experiences of ‘not quite’ or ‘not yet’ belonging, which I had thought existed only as the vestige of an emotion. Belonging is typically thought of as a good thing, but I recall contentment with being on the outside. The comments of Hiltunen et al, in their excellent paper on anchoring belonging through material practices in arts-based research (2020), resonate with me today as I recall my earlier liminal status: ‘We challenge the assumption of belonging only as a desirable state and point to the fact that for some people, non-belonging or an outsider position can be even positively liberating, and voluntarily adopted.’

Work will begin soon on my first project as lead investigator in Hong Kong: Navigating Belonging: Exploring settlement for South Asians in Hong Kong through narratives and participatory photography. The project brings together my interests in belonging, narrative, participatory collaborative research using creative methods, and a long-standing interest in the Indian diaspora, originally motivated by research into mobile digital literacy practices that I carried out in Gujarat, India in the 2010s. In my reading about Hong Kong in preparation for arrival, I found out about the history of Hong Kong’s South Asians. I also began to understand how the concerns of South Asians here are tied to the broader fate of Hong Kong. 

The Belonging Research Network, where this blog post is hosted, was born at a stakeholder event held to support the development of the bid for the Navigating Belonging project, back in September 2021. The theme was Settlement and Belonging for South Asians in Hong Kong. We met in Christian Action’s Centre for Refugees, in the Chungking Mansions Support Centre on Nathan Road in Kowloon, with the purpose of gauging the appetite for research on the topic of belonging, shaping the research questions and methodology for the project to come, and clarifying the hoped-for outputs.


At our seminar we explored the central themes of the project, around the idea of belonging, how we personally relate to the concept, and how South Asians in Hong Kong, including new arrivals, understand their belonging and settlement. South Asians in Hong Kong are subject to many of the social inequalities associated with being minoritized: we hope that the study of how our participants understand and navigate their settlement and belonging – from their own points of view – will help inform those charged with making policy on social integration. You can follow the progress of the project, and enjoy the digital stories developed by the participants, on this website. 


The success of the stakeholder event prompted me to set up the Belonging Research Network and to instigate a series of events that explore the theme of belonging in Hong Kong from a range of perspectives at the intersection of language, arts practice, migration and education. Our Nexus website intends to become the online home of our activities for some time to come. We hope you like it and find it useful. And please get in touch if you would like to contribute, either to lead an event, or to write a blog post, or to otherwise join in. 


References & Recommended Readings

1. Book

Block, D. (2007) Second Language Identities. London: Continuum.

2. Book Hiltunen, K., Sääskilahti, N., Vallius, A., Pöyhönen, S., Jäntti, S. & Saresma, T. (2020) Anchoring belonging through material practices in participatory arts-based research. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research 21(2), Art. 25,