By Hazel Fok

Most college orientation camps are held in Cantonese only. So you can imagine the communication barrier non-local participants face. Romario, an Indian student in CUHK, once told me that his “father” (a senior student that is supposed to guide freshmen in the camp) had to translate every conversation to him during the camp as all activities and discussions were conducted in Cantonese. He quitted the camp halfway. He didn’t remain in touch with any of his group mates other than his “father”. And Tomi, who was sitting next to Romario, concluded the story, “Having a translator is bad. It is like you are watching a show, but you are in the show.”

As I am a local student, I couldn’t truly understand the feelings of being in such situation. However, from what I have heard of from my non-local friends, the language barrier is real when it comes to immersing in a local community, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether learning Chinese can be the start for breaking such barrier. Therefore, I invited Tomi, the friend who split out the wise words, to talk with me. Tomi is an Indonesian student in CUHK, and he has just finished his fifth course in Chinese, marking the 1.5 anniversary of his journey in learning Putonghua.

Chinese, heartbreakingly difficult

“A lot of my friends quitted right after [finishing] the six compulsory credits in Chinese.” said Tomi. Right at the beginning of our interview, as I asked Tomi about his experience in learning Chinese, he jokingly said, “You have no idea about [non-locals’] Chinese courses huh. You so convenient huh?!”

“Chinese — both Putonghua and Cantonese — is like the hardest language,” said Tomi, which is in a way true. Chinese deserves its reputation of being heartbreakingly difficult, for it has a complex writing system. Firstly, the writing system isn’t phonetic. In CUHK Putonghua courses, teachers will teach students both pinyin (the romanization of Chinese) and han zi (the doodle-like Chinese characters). The difficulty in learning Chinese lies in the separation of sound and character–the sound won’t give you a clue as to how the character is to be written and vice versa. Secondly, one character has ambiguous meanings and can generate a thousand meanings when combined with other characters. Thirdly, even looking up a word in the dictionary can be hard. Subtle differences such as a stroke or even a dot would mean entirely different characters (and meanings). You needed to master 26 alphabets for English; now you got to know more than 3000 characters to acquire a functional literacy in Chinese.
“We get to choose either simplified or traditional Chinese in our courses. I have an American friend who is the one and the only person I know that picked traditional Chinese. He regretted it a lot,” said Tomi. Simplified Chinese is easier as its characters involve fewer strokes and less tedious details. However, Hong Kong writes in traditional Chinese. Therefore, learning simplified Chinese means you will still suffer to read in Hong Kong.

From the above-listed details, you can imagine the difficulties non-locals face when learning Chinese, as well as the struggles for teachers in teaching the language. In fact, the demanding nature of pinyin and hanzi has deprived these Chinese language courses of cultural elements. “It’s like how you learn Spanish. You just learn about different vocabulary, tenses, and sentence structure,” said Tomi. However, Chinese courses–being part of the university core programmes–are supposed to help promote cultural understanding, especially for non-locals who wasn’t familiar with the city’s culture.

Little by little — Small but delightful changes

I felt somewhat disappointed after hearing Tomi’s experience in learning Chinese. It seemed like learning Chinese couldn’t remove the substantial language barrier at all. Non-Chinese speaking students still couldn’t join the show, as it would take years before they get to communicate with locals fluently. However, Tomi’s sharings has also shedded some light.

“One thing for sure, I can talk to my dorm guard now,” Tomi said. A lot of frontline workers in CUHK are not fluent in English and often experience difficulties in communicating with English-speaking students. “In the past, I have to ask my roommate who knows how to speak Chinese to pass my messages to the dorm guards,” Tomi said, “One time, in my first year, my dorm guard challenged me to learn Chinese within my four years of study here. (Q: How did you understand his words?) He talked in Cantonese and gestured it to me. He raised four fingers and did something like pointing his mouth. Now, I sometimes mess around with him [in Putonghua].”

When talking to local students, Tomi usually uses English as “local students can understand what [he] said [in English]”. But his Chinese comes into use and is even at times life-saving outside school.

“I was shopping with my friend who travelled here for vacation at the Ladies’ Market. I asked in Cantonese ‘唔該呢個幾多錢?’(Excuse me, how much does this costs?) and I got a ‘local price’ instead of a ‘tourist price’. Not bad, not bad…. I also went to Shenzhen with my friend to fix a broken phone screen. Apparently, the phone worked, and we got a normal price — much cheaper than fixing in Hong Kong. And my friend and I could read the menu and order food at the restaurant there.”

Tomi’s Putonghua was the most useful during his trips in Mainland China. “I travelled to Yunnan, Beijing, Xiamen… (Q: Did you try to speak in Putonghua there?) Of course! No one speaks English!”

I always thought that learning Chinese is important for conversations between non-locals’ and locals. It turns out that the language barrier between locals and non-locals is hard to overcome, as it would take a long time for non-Chinese speakers to master this language. To be honest, it will always be easier to ask a local to speak English rather than a non-local to speak Chinese. But after talking to Tomi, I realize that perhaps having completely fluent communication with locals was not the essential purpose of learning Chinese — at least it is not as important as I thought. For non-locals, learning Chinese matters in the sense that it can broaden one’s experience of living in Hong Kong and deepen one’s connection to the local community. Although the changes can be slow and subtle, a change is a change after all.

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