Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

language exchange

During our last meeting, my language exchange partner asked me how I was doing in terms of meeting the local Hong Kong people. It was a simple question, but immediately I felt pinned by the fact that other than him and my two roommates, I’ve had little luck with making a serious connection with people here. I knew as well that it had everything to do with me.

I feel that I have a conflict of interest. On the one hand, I know that I am perfectly able to communicate and connect with many of the students here through the English channel. I’m here hopefully to meet people who will teach me a thing or two about Hong Kong. Doing this comes at the expense of working up the Cantonese, which is also a reason why I’m here. I’m stubborn so I’ll stick it out with Cantonese just to see where it goes (usually, not very far), but because I’m not so confident in my ability, the opportunities to break into conversation appear less frequently, and it hurts me socially.

There must be a way to reconcile these two opposing forces. I’d prefer not to speak English, but it’s my only option in many situations. When I do need to dive into English, I want to let people know of my intent to learn Chinese. I figure starting out in Cantonese is the best way to tackle this. Honestly, it feels like using English is the same as conceding defeat. But more importantly, it gives away the fact that I am not from around here.

Ideally, I want to remain hidden under my skin in other people’s eyes for as long as possible. My friend from Shanghai tells me about the gap that even he feels being recognized as a mainland Chinese. Like me, he is able to communicate and connect through the Putonghua channel – and because of this I feel he is better off than I am in getting around and getting by in Hong Kong. But he expressed his distaste for this mode of communication because while it could be opened to get the point across, it is hardly a means of establishing a genuine connection. His impression is that Hong Kong people have a degree of pride in their identity that is reflected by shoddy spoken Mandarin.

I feel that this is even a bit of an insult to him: presumably, the occasionally poorly spoken Mandarin is the mark of one who doesn’t feel a strong need to utilize the language, especially when all the comforts in the world are made readily available by one’s ability in the local dialect of Cantonese. I’ve met another friend from Hubei who expressed her frustrations as well. There are regional dialects all over the mainland but the common mode of communication exists in Mandarin. Hong Kong people may speak Cantonese, but they are also Chinese and should be proficient in Mandarin as well!

Cultural and social differences aside, I think that it is surprising that CUHK coheres as it does with the language barriers. When I first arrived, I fully expected to meet exchange students from the mainland, but when the school term began, I was surprised to find that there are students from the mainland whose primary school of instruction is CUHK. According to my roommate, one out of every five students in regular attendance is from the mainland.

Surely the barriers perceived by my friends are a real challenge, but it clearly isn’t an impossible challenge. Several weeks ago, I had lunch with my friends in the student hostel, and preparing the meal was a collaboration between two groups across two floors, the Mandarin speaking students from mainland China who I tagged along with and another group of Japanese students. One of the Japanese students was fluent in Mandarin, and because of this, the problem was solved. Of course, there is also English, which came in handy for sorting and sharing the cookware, but the native languages took precedence.

So, it isn’t an impossible situation as we all get to eat together at the end, but I never encounter this situation in my daily life in the United States. Maybe I have been missing the point, and I should be taking every opportunity to connect as possible, regardless of language. It’s better to get something – anything at all – going!