By John Patkin
A few times a month, an NGO, academic or government department releases the findings of a report into the lives of Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities. In what has almost become a cliché, they suggest non-ethnic Chinese (NEC) Hongkongers need to learn Cantonese in order to integrate into society.
The authors argue this would be a positive development leading to social mobility and cultural appreciation, but beneath the apparent goodwill lurk the dangers of loss of identity, diminishing familial connections, and false hopes.
Cantonese is the dominant language in Hong Kong and spoken by more than 98 per cent of the population, while English competency is seen as a sign of a higher education level and elevated social standing.
Despite assumptions about the latter, the city’s ethnic minority youth, who are much stronger English speakers than their local peers, are often chided for their lack of Chinese proficiency. Many NEC students in government-funded schools feel they are incorrectly perceived as poor English speakers when they are, in fact, speaking it as their first language.
During field research in different parts of Hong Kong, NEC students aged between six and 21 asked me why their English language skills were not considered on par with those of expatriates. They wonder why they cannot enter local universities and study alongside both local and overseas students, who all use English as a common language. They also wonder why, as graduates, they are not considered to be native English speakers.
The identity of NEC students is linked to language. Some students I have interviewed have described themselves based on what they perceive as their first language. Some identified as “an English boy” or “Nepali,” for example. They also apply these labels to their peers.
The shift in language and identity is awkward for NEC families in Hong Kong. Parents celebrate a child’s Cantonese skills, but it comes at the cost of a family’s own language of origin. Some children who visited their families in the sub-continent may not communicate with grandparents and similarly aged cousins.
Hong Kong’s education system aims to provide high quality instruction to every child, no matter where they live. In the current model, thousands of children travel out of their neighbourhood to other districts in the belief that schools which use English as a medium of instruction (EMI) offer a better standard than those which do not.
The competition for places in these elite schools means that some NEC students miss out on places in their neighbourhood schools and are forced to travel outside of their local catchment to get an education.
NEC parents lament that the focus on learning Chinese causes a great deal of stress, disappointment and confusion. The pressure to get an acceptable grade in Chinese takes the focus off other subjects and the final result often leads to missed opportunities after completing the DSE.
Those students who miss out on a place in UGC-funded programmes are faced with the options of paying for a degree or entering the workforce as a day labourer, waiter or security guard, with the latter denying them social mobility.
A cursory review of the relationship between language, ethnicity and salary in the 2016 census (pp. 46-51) shows that among Hongkongers identifying with a South Asian background, Pakistanis have the highest level of Cantonese fluency but have the lowest level of education and earn the least.
Fewer Indians speak Cantonese but they have a higher level of education and earn more. This suggests that the challenges of integrating are more than simply Cantonese proficiency.
A radical plan would be to make all government-funded schools offer both EMI and CMI (Chinese Medium of Instruction) education. To avoid bias and elitism, all government-funded schools would have EMI and CMI teachers.
This would give all children access to the same education, instead of some schools having a perceived elite status due to their language of instruction. The guarantee of the same bilingual education in every neighbourhood would also reduce the need for long journeys.
Similarly, all public post-secondary institutions, including UGC-funded universities and the Vocational Training Council, should scrap Chinese requirements from all but language-based subjects and provide classes in English.
Churning out reports and presenting findings in news conferences only highlight the problems facing NEC Hongkongers. Providing education at the cost of one’s culture and identity is discriminatory. It is time to move forward by appreciating Hongkong’s diversity rather than diluting it.
John Patkin is a research assistant at the Education University of Hong Kong.