Sometime in December I attended a seminar by a fellow grad student who is researching language and the group in Hong Kong called “ethnic minorities”. Largely, EMs as they we are called are “South Asians”, another appellation I had never heard until I moved here. South Asians/EMs are people from the Indian subcontinent, including yours truly, but in policy-speak they generally refer to people who had moved generations ago, as far back as with the British, but who have remained marginalised and economically backward. A big reason for this is blamed on langauge – that they are not adequately conversant with the Cantonese language and hence have failed to integrate and to gain better employment.

The issue of Cantonese is a vexed one for me. Since I moved to Hong Kong, I have felt the need to learn to speak Cantonese. While Hong Kong bills itself as a world city where East meets West, and it is true that there is a large expat population and the influence of British and later other Western culture, since 1997 it has become more and more a Chinese city where Cantonese dominates but is (officially) supplemented by English. Unlike Japan, where you cannot get by without learning Japanese, in Hong Kong, many expats live quite happily without going beyond the most cursory lei ho ma? (how are you?) in Cantonese. However, to do this is to restrict yourself to the expat ghetto, which is something I was not willing to do.

I’m also sensitive to the issue of language and belonging because I am not comfortable in any Indian language. My first langauge is English, has been so in my family for probably a little less than a century, and while I use Hindi words picked up from the streets of Bombay in my English and I can get by in Hindi, I cannot speak Hindi or anything else fluently. Obviously, my Hindi has deteriorated further since I moved to Hong Kong but it was never much to start with. Although theoretically English is an Indian language as much as any other, and moreover that language is not the only means of belonging, I know the vast majority of people do not agree and I feel their disapprobation.

So I brought this baggage of language to Hong Kong, where it was compounded by the fact that you are really restricted from interactions at a deeper level with locals if you don’t speak their language. Unfortunately, my attempts have been largely unsuccessful, though I have more Cantonese than the average expat.The whole endeavour of learning “Chinese” is complicated by the fact that one has to choose between Mandarin, which is the more widely spoken form worldwide and is easier to learn to boot, and Cantonese which I am stubbornly drawn to, more so after the political events of the past couple of years.

Then, my kids were born and I rehearsed the same anxieties – I wanted them to learn Cantonese and I knew they had a better chance of picking up the language than me, but if we weren’t going to be here forever, was it worth the effort of putting them through Cantonese schooling? I decided against it based on the personality of my first child, who was not inclined to like school in concept, leave alone the prospect of being at sea in the language of instruction. Then, in international schools, and weirdly increasingly in local schools, Mandarin is being taught as the Chinese subject. So now while I have some Cantonese, I have to help my kids with Mandarin homework.

Underlying all this is my fear belief that one cannot belong in Hong Kong without Cantonese (a feeling strengthened by the localists movements today) and that one cannot succeed without Cantonese/Chinese. However, attending the seminar was therapeutic in that it took on exactly those two assumptions.

The researcher pointed out that while government policy, and the general commonsense, often places the failure of the ethnic minorities in Hong Kong to learn Cantonese, or rather Chinese (in its written form) as responsible for both their failure to integrate and their poor economic condition (because they cannot access good forms), this line of thought is riddled with contradictions. First, that many of the economically disadvantaged ethnic minorities do speak Cantonese, but apparently not well enough and they cannot read and write. So it is not speaking that is the issue, but level of proficiency, and the bar keeps getting raised. At a practical level, since university’s require a high score in the Chinese exam for entry, ethnic minority students never manage to get in, and now the good jobs require Mandarin proficiency too. So the government policy has been to lift the level of ethnic minority students’ Chinese, though they have only started doing this. Ironically, government policy towards Chinese students is to focus on their English, which everyone knows is the first ticket to success. Many ethnic minorities speak better English than their Chinese counterparts but noone seems to care. In fact, might not the focus be on improving their English so that they can join the other (elite) expat kids?

The answer I think lies somewhere in between. The government cannot provide international schooling to ethnic minority kids because the locals who also would like the same would complain. Moreover, neglecting Chinese is an option for those who have a ticket out of Hong Kong like most expats do, but if you’re here to stay, you’d better learn. However, actually, many ethnic minorities do speak decent Cantonese…so the issue of their failure to both integrate and get better jobs seems to be more complicated than language alone, and possibly has a lot to do with class and race.

The point is that listening to the seminar was therapeutic for me. I realised that I had internalised a lot of the (flawed) conventional wisdom, undergirded by my own insecurities from India.This is reflected in my yelling at Nene during this Chinese homework, and insisting he write in the correct stroke order, until at a PTA meeting his Chinese teacher told me to ease up or risk him hating the language, and while that was the traditional way of teaching that was not her way.

While I had previously felt that speaking Cantonese was the ticket to belonging, I realised that race would prevent one from ever completely belonging. (This is not to deny that speaking Cantonese would make daily life easier.) Moreover, that it was unlike that Chinese proficiency of non-local kids would ever get to the level of proficiency of locals, since apparently even Chinese kids increasingly struggle to attain the required level (though I still think it’s importantly to learn for long-term stayers).

In the meantime, I still want to learn Chinese, and I’m trying to convince myself to learn Mandarin this time. Here we go again.