Last week, I had a conversation with my physiotherapist. It started with how long I’ve been in Hong Kong, then progressed to my kids and the inevitable question of their schooling (to his credit, he did not ask me the more inevitable question of whether I speak Cantonese). I said they were in international school, but felt obliged to explain that had we decided to be in Hong Kong long term, I would likely have chosen the local system.
Note that he did not ask. I volunteered. When the question of language in Hong Kong comes up, I feel the need to voice my guilt. Pre-emptively voicing my desire to and attempts at learning Cantonese usually mollifies people.
The physio said something I think I’ve never heard from a local person: it may be better to be able to speak good English, because that’s what you need to get the better jobs. (Incidentally, this is also a view I heard expressed my a researcher on ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, that it might be more productive to build on their existing English skills than aim for a never-going-to-be-good-enough command of Cantonese.) I’m not sure whether my physio was simply being polite in the way that Chinese people are, seconding the option that would enable me to save face. I’m not even sure I agree with him. But I appreciated his possibly unintended attempt at assuaging my guilt.
My language deficiency extends to both places I have lived extensively in, but with Indians, the inquisition is more fractious and I always end up feeling like some kind of weirdo.
For example, I go to wax at this Indian beauty parlour which really has the most annoying staff. This woman comes into the room I’m waiting in and shoots of something to me in Hindi. When I looked confused, she repeated it in English.
Later, as she was waxing my legs, she asked, “You don’t speak Hindi?”
“No,” I replied somewhat shortly. This is my new tack. I refuse to explain because explaining gets me nowhere. I was hoping she would drop it but she persisted.
“Why?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “My parents didn’t speak Hindi.” Now, the easy assumption that every Indian must speak Hindi is problematic in itself – a friend insisted recently that this is so because we all learn Hindi in school, only if I only learnt Hindi for five years in school and it was very badly taught. V usually circumvents this with a defiant questioning of how many south Indian langauges the Hindi speaker speaks, but I don’t have recourse to this. It would be impossible to explain to these people that English is an Indian language, it really is my mother tongue, that my grandparents spoke it and I have no historically trauma except the trauma of being asked over and over again why I only speak English.
And it really is turning into a trauma. I find almost every conversation with a new person leads to this. Usually the trajectory is: how long in Hong Kong – do you speak Cantonese – here, I would volunteer that I don’t speak any language other than English even though I grew up in India – watch the interlocuters head implode. But because I’ve grown weary of the resulting inquisition, I bite my teeth, swallow my need to confess, and don’t volunteer the “shameful” information anymore. Nevertheless, it is somehow unearthed. I don’t know how conversations with new people seem to inevitably lead to this.
I have toyed with shutting down the why and how with “I must have some sort of mental deficiency in this regard”. Which is frankly quite possible, but I think it is really a matter of a combination of factors that have led to my language poverty. Nevertheless, I never realised that this lack is something I would have to apologise for to every new person I met.
V has suggested that I should say that I speak Hindi but not fluently so while I understand what they are saying, I will reply in English. This usually satisfies people, according to him. I’m not sure this will work because while it’s true that I can follow simply conversation in Hindi, my vocabulary is poor. Nevertheless, I’m going to try this. It’s that or the ‘mental deficiency’ line.
Anyone else in my boat? Do you get a lot of questions about language and how do you deal with them?