So this morning was the first day of my summer internship/training/placement, whatever you want to call it. Starting from today, and lasting a couple of months, I will be working a nine-to-five day on top of night classes on Tuesdays and Fridays. I woke up this morning, excited and looking forward to the day. I arrived in lab P1800 at 9:00am sharp and took my seat. However, the first word that came out of the lab tutor’s mouth really disappointed me. In a way I kind of expected it by now but that doesn’t mean I was not secretly hoping for something different. I’m thinking ‘not again’ as the speaker continues to speak in fast Cantonese. I raised my hand timidly and said as politely as I could, “erm… Can you speak in English please?” He immediately apologized and continued with his introduction in English.
Just once I would like to attend class or lecture or lab or whatever it may be and not feel so out of place. Just once I would like the speaker to present in English without me having to tell him/her to do so first. Because even though they almost always apologize sincerely to me and immediately switch language, I somehow still feel out of place. Maybe it’s the way the whole class would look at me or the way the speaker would glance at me every few minutes throughout the rest of the seminar. And always, always, at the end of the presentation, he/she will approach me and ask, “is it ok? Do you understand?” as if I’m a little kid. What I feel like doing at that moment is to scream, “duh! Of course I understand, as long as you speak in English I will understand!” But of course I couldn’t do that, so instead I’d just smile and say, “yes, thank you”. I know that the only reason I am asked this question is probably because the speaker is not confident in their English and they simply just want to make sure that I managed to follow what they’re saying. But honestly, speaking in broken English is still much, much better than speaking in Cantonese.
I once attended a compulsory seminar only to find out at the venue that the whole thing was to be conducted in Cantonese. The e-mail informing me of the seminar was in English and it did not specifically mention the language in which the seminar will be delivered so I naturally assume it would be in English seeing as attendance will be noted. When I explained my situation to the woman in charge, all she could say was, “oh, sorry, you may be excused from this talk” and that was it, which left me feeling rather frustrated. I couldn’t help thinking ‘what a waste of my valuable time’.
More than once, during class, a professor would repeat something in Cantonese if it’s really important in order to help the other students better understand. I have no problem whatsoever with this. But what I’ve never heard is a professor saying, “let me repeat or rephrase or elaborate for you (in English) in case you didn’t quite get it the first time”. Why is that?
I know some of you may be thinking, if it’s such a problem, why not learn Cantonese? Believe me I really want to. It would make my life so much easier. One of the reasons I came to study in Hong Kong was my desire to be fluent in Chinese by the time I graduate. Before coming here I used to think to myself, surely it’s gonna be easy, after all I’ll be surrounded by people speaking Chinese every day. How wrong I was. Not only was this distracting and disconcerting, but also between juggling my studies, assignments, exams, making new friends and generally adapting to life in a whole other country, I barely had enough time to go out and enjoy myself let alone learn a new language (especially one as complicated as Cantonese – all those different tones!).
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I shouldn’t have to feel like the lecturer/professor is speaking English for my sake and for my benefit only, surely the local students can improve their English more quickly if they are exposed to more English. I shouldn’t have to feel like I need to stand up and apologize to the whole class: “sorry for making your life so inconvenient”. I shouldn’t have to feel disadvantaged every time my classmates have a discussion with the lecturer or during those important Q&A sessions regarding the final exams (there is no point answering the question in English if the question was posted by the student in Cantonese). In fact I shouldn’t have to ask at all in the first place. Sometimes I wish that the professors would encourage the other students to speak in English more often, at least when in class/lab.
Having said all that, I don’t want to discourage any international students from coming to study in Hong Kong; if anything I encourage you all to do so. We can always do with more international students. I will never regret my decision to study in this magnificent country, despite the fact that my experience of uni life does not quite exceed my expectation of it, because I have met some of the most remarkable, amazing and generous people here, some of which I’m sure will be in my life for a very long time. So there you have it: my long, overdue confession.