Hong Kong Makeup Your Mind! English, Mandarin, or Cantonese…Aiya!

Life Status Check-in.

1. Relocate to Hong Kong – status: completed on November 25, 2011

2. Secure living quarters – status: completed on December 28, 2011

3. Started University – status: started/in progress on January 9, 2012

Hong Kong has an interesting mix of history of East meets West.  Former crown colony of the British (English-Speaking) Empire melting pot with native Cantonese (Southern dialect of Chinese).  With this rich diversity also comes multiple languages (sometimes a bit confusing!).

My University (which shall remain anonymous) has a website that is completely in English.  When I applied for my Masters program, the only language requirement was proficiency in English.  I thought, okay, that is easy, I have it in the bag!  [Side Note: I am fluent in English, Proficient in Mandarin, Shanghai dialect, and Spanish] Unbeknownst to me, I was in for a big surprise!  Last Monday, walking into my first class, there was some language issues/questions in the beginning of class.  5 of the 6 classes available to me are lectured in Cantonese, did I mention my Cantonese does not exist?! My only savior is that the bulk of class reading material is in English.

As with the duality nature of all things in life, diversity has its own downside. Which language trumps all? Can we use all three languages in class? My feminist professor does not like the idea of using English to lecture to a class full of Chinese.  The list of issues and questions goes on and on…

From a Chinese-American or native English speaker’s perspective, I love the ease of using English in Hong Kong.  Things are easy for me, it works why change it.

From a local Hong Konger’s or Cantonese speaker’s perspective, using English to teach to a class of Chinese can seem to bring back colonial times and pressure to adhere to a different tongue. Using Mandarin (or PutongHua) can mean the loss of identity for a Hong Kong person.  According to a recent Washington Post article, a survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong has shown “…that the number of respondents who view themselves as Hong Kongers is more than double the number who see themselves as Chinese…”

From a mainland Chinese or Mandarin speaker’s perspective, Hong Kong is Chinese, part of China, and should try to speak Mandarin.  English is ok sometimes. [ Side note: I see a lot of Nouveau riche Chinese coming to Hong Kong to shop, they are full of money to not so full in class (sorry my mainland Chinese!), which makes native Hong Kongers despise them even more. >_<]

Personally, I don’t think there is a perfect solution, only an ideal one. In order to accommodate diversity, an extra amount of empathy is needed. Everyone must take part and work to understand the other party.  No one person is 100% right or 100% wrong.  I am going to learn some Cantonese and improve my Mandarin.  I will speak English and Mandarin slowly in class so my Hong Konger and Mainland classmates will also understand. 

This upcoming Wednesday, I am meeting with my Masters Program Director to discuss my language ‘issue’.  Looking forward to the outcome for a win-win solution.

I close with a street sign of Lan Kwai Fong (expat nightlife).  This was founded by Hong Kong’s most famous Jew, Allan Zeman.  See, I did figure out how to throw some Jewishness into this post. haha. 😉



  1. I am not discouraging but I dun think there is a great solution in your case. When I first met u, I already …..sigh x10000….. (speechless) i know there will be a problem. I mean not your problem its the program or the school problem. its hard to tell you the whole story about the last term. Thats y couple times (when we were walking to MTR station) u asked me why i looked like angry, I didnt reli response. coz it is too complicated. I want to tell u the situation but at the same time I dun want to. I want to tell u becoz I dun want u to put too much hope n suffer in disappointment (like most of us). I dun want to tell u because its in my perspective, and narration, u may not believe in what i say. some people think i am over react and crazy ==…..
    If u r free after class on Wed, we can go to starbucks at Shatin. i can tell u the whole story if u want.

      • I dun wanna be extremely sensitive but u better record your conversation secretly…….in case, she speaks something offensive. Protect yourself….since there is no third party in the conversation.

        The first time, I met her, I didnt bring my ipod touch to record. She spoke that she always turns down applicants who dun know Chinese. she explained that it is because English hegemony. To my opinion it is not acceptable, also it is not fair to the other non Chinese speaker applicants they need to pay for application fee. I suggested her to at least wrote down in the web but she refused. I think that is because she wanna show the statistic that the program is attractive had many applicant each year. This case sounds more discrimination and swindling. I wrote a letter to chancellor telling him if this is the way to swindle people I am going to write to newspaper and they sent me the school of social science dean to talk with me, but our program is not under any department, so technically speaking he is not helpful at all…..plus I cannot provide any evidence …..What the heck….@@.

        Anyway, u better bring your ipad and turn on the voice recording before talks to her. if u let her know u r doing records either she refuses to talk (like the monday lecturer) or she wont say anything useful. She always acts like nice to young students and asked everyone call her Auntie Po. But as my experience for talking with her so many time. I knew that the things she promised only 10% will become true. So that is what I learned. This is HK. People cant really trust especially verbal promises and need u to provide evidence. They scare news paper and media more than court and law!

  2. That’s a bit odd. This is not likely to happen in HKUST, though I’ve heard some issues in first year undergrad PolyU and CityU in some of the new programs which were partly resolved after the few internationals voiced their concerns to management.
    I think professors are required to teach in English, but some of them choose not to if there are no foreign students in class. I suggest you talk to the professor & the department chair and if that does seem to work itself out then take this up with the director of international student. The universities here do seem to care alot about their “internationalization” rankings.

    Good luck with your studies. Sounds exciting.

    • Yeah, am talking to the program director. If the classes are taught in Cantonese, the program criteria needs to state Cantonese as a requirement explicitly! I have been told the school assumes applicants know Cantonese, which I think is an incorrectly assumption from a local’s perspective only!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s