Abigail Soryal





Odd sign, I thought, for the door of the student press. I wonder where they got it from.

The door was held ajar by an old shoe. I knocked. No one answered. Perhaps my knock wasn’t strong enough to be heard over the game of mahjong behind me.  I leaned into the weight of the door,  the sign seemed to be staring me in the eye as if it existed only for me to see.

I glanced around as the door opened. Posters hung here and there. A slice of marker-drawn melon graced the wall to my right. Next to it, old rags hung in the window above a collection of comic books. To my left, the wall was stacked with bookcases. English, Chinese, philosophy, history and fiction were jumbled together in geometric omnishambles. At my feet were piles of outdated proof copies and overflowing boxes of plastic bottles waiting to be recycled. Ahead of me were archives of previous publications grouped together by year and issue. Those being referenced were strewn across the table amongst leftover instant noodles and siumai and half-finished drinks and soy sauce packets and dry pens and tangled wires and an unnecessary number of toilet paper rolls and other miscellaneous and unidentifiable ornaments of student life.

The door stopped against a collection of abandoned umbrellas. I stepped in slowly. The room seemed empty until K moved to greet me.

“You’re early.”

“Oh, sorry I thought A said it started at 7:30.”

“Well technically yes. But no one will be here before 8. Come in, come in. Put your bag down.”

A few weeks before, A and I had struck up a conversation on sociological perspectives in Veg Can. He asked if I would be interested in working with the student press if they started publishing in English. Of course I was. It wasn’t long before he and M met me and invited me to join the discussion groups with the proposed committee, Psithurism. At that point A, M and I were the only members planning to write in English, the other proposed members would continue the traditional Cantonese publications. Despite serious concerns about the feasibility of a regular English edition (both A and M were also writing in Chinese editions) we continued to draft a platform for the English edition..

In January we filled our suitcases with kilos of previous publications and went to Ma Wan for three days to finalize our platforms. The little apartment was crowded to the gills with members of Psithurism and previous committee members (lou gwai, old ghosts) who travelled out to help us. I spent long hours during those three days listening to conversations in Cantonese–sometimes forgetting that I didn’t understand. 

(Such long meetings, characteristic of local committees, are puzzling to many internationals and test their patience.) It felt ironic when, in just one short hour of the three days the entire English platform was finalized. Although I have to admit those three days were long, I was very touched to be welcomed into the press by my own committee members and lou gwai. 

A  couple months later, a slight detour in the election process landed us in a meeting with the CUSU Council. Each of the members of Psithurism were asked to introduce themselves and why they wanted to be in the student press. A hurriedly gave me instructions as the meeting host struggled with my name. Coming up to the mic I couldn’t quite remember everything I was supposed to say. Whatever.

“Dai ga hou. Ngo hai Abigail.” My Cantonese gave out. Year. Major. I forgot to mention my college. “…I hope the English edition can be a new place for Cantonese and non-Cantonese speaking CUHK students to bridge the culture, information, and language gaps…”

There is too much story to tell–handing out flyers at the MTR station, midnight translations, epic google translate fails… 

When Psithurism was elected, a number of people pointed out that it was the first time an international student was elected to one of the three main bodies of the CUSU (the Exco, Campus Radio and Student Press). But that statement seems to underestimate the role that the rest of Psithurism, especially A and M played in making it possible for me to join the Student Press. In fact, by the time Psithurism was elected, A, M and I weren’t the only ones sharing the mission of the English Edition. The English Editorial team was growing as both locals and internationals resonated with the vision and volunteered to make it possible. 

The main point of this story is not that a non-local student was elected to the CUSU for the first time. It’s not even that we have a regular English edition. What really matters is that my story isn’t, or doesn’t stay an anomaly, that locals and internationals continue to get to know each other, that we keep coming out of our comfort zones (that symbolic American sector), that we value what we each have to offer over the effort it takes to communicate, that this becomes normal.

Others have and are bridging the gap, and in their stories are common threads: They all involve and depend on two-way cooperation between internationals who were willing and eager to step out of their comfort zone to get to know locals and contribute to campus life and locals who welcomed, encouraged, and supported them. Below are the thoughts and experiences of seven students who have come out of their metaphoric “American Sector.” Their names and some facts have been omitted or altered to preserve their privacy and the privacy of those whom they work(ed) with.


An international student:

Several student organizations rejected my applications because of language. Their application forms were bilingual, and I filled them in in English. They sent me the interview invitation emails. Some clearly noted that the language used in the interview would be Cantonese, so I just replied to them that I was not able to speak Cantonese very well, and they kindly replied to me “OK, practice more, hope to see you next year.” Some other organizations did not specify which language would be used in the interviews, so I just attended the interviews. In one interview, the interviewer just started with Cantonese, and I asked them whether I could speak English because my Cantonese was really bad. They accepted, but the following questions were all about how I could contribute to our organization if I couldn’t speak Cantonese. Some organizations also told me that even if we admitted you, you might have a hard time communicating with us. I said no problem but they rejected me in the end.

I have joined other student organizations with great tolerance and flexibility in language, and some also set English as the official language. But no matter in which organization, Cantonese would always be a plus if I want to make friends with other jong members and talk with them beyond the jong stuff. I also tried my best to learn and practice Cantonese. Many jong members also taught me a lot and made clarifications in other languages if I couldn’t understand. I really appreciate that.


An international student:

When my society started recruiting members in my freshmen year, I didn’t know that there was a difference between local societies and non-local societies. I think if I knew that at the time I would not have joined. During OCamp I was invited to join the society and I felt really welcomed but a few months later I wondered why they invited me if they knew this was a thing just for locals. 

In December and January when we were finalizing our year plan it was all going well. But then the consultations started and I didn’t know what to expect. We had three consultations and at the first one everything seemed suddenly so official and I was really confused. I asked something in English and they didn’t respond. I thought maybe I had offended them. They ended up speaking Cantonese all night long. After a few hours I took my phone out to text and someone spoke in Cantonese and another person translated it and asked  me in English to put my phone away. I was very confused. I had no idea what was going on and I didn’t understand why they couldn’t all speak English when they spoke to me. If someone had sat down and told me “OK, we will be having three consultations. First consultation is gonna be twelve hours in a row” at least I would have prepared for that. If someone told me this is how it works, if they told me the rules, this is how it goes and this is our tradition I want to respect them. But they didn’t tell me anything about that. However, after that they explained things to me and for the next two consultations it was much better, which I really appreciated. Of course the consultations still had to be in Cantonese but they assigned someone to translate everything for me. Sometimes my jong-mate would translate everything to me for hours but there were times when I thought it wasn’t necessary to translate every detail. I just wanted to understand what was going on.

There were times I thought it would be better to quit before inauguration, but all my committee mates were convincing me not to quit and I thought if they were okay that I, a foreigner, was joining their society then I would stay. But at the same time I thought, ‘just let me go if you don’t want me to be here.’ I stayed and we had inauguration and everyone was so appreciative that I joined and that was really encouraging. The whole point of my joining the society was that I wanted to assimilate and become closer with local friends.  

Because I could not work with everything in Cantonese I could only manage my own little event and I felt so irresponsible. The meetings as well were in Cantonese even though we were sitting together. Overall though, they were very nice and very helpful to me and I actually went out with them a lot. I cannot really blame them because my committee mates were very responsive after that first consultation. They always translated to me and were very helpful. It was just the first time ever that they had an international student in their society and they didn’t realize that I didn’t know their traditions. 


A student:

And from what I have heard, before you [speaking to Abigail] there was never an international in the CUSU. I remember there was an international student who has graduated now, but he tried for all four years to get into the CUSU but was turned away every year because he did not speak Cantonese. 


An international student:

I remember sometimes feeling so lonely after long meetings in Cantonese. I understood that they needed to discuss things and maybe I wasn’t crucial to the conversation but I still wished that they would reach out to me more in English. I am hesitant to judge since I don’t know Cantonese and have been slow to pick it up, but I don’t know why they don’t speak English to me even though they know the language. I remember coming to my room after long meetings feeling totally drained after expending so much patience during meetings I didn’t understand. But I don’t want to give up. I’d like to be closer to the group and be able to share in the jokes and discussion.


An international student:

I was part of an otherwise all-local sports team. I relied on one or two teammates to translate what the coach was saying during training and debriefs and sometimes missed information about practice and matches that wasn’t translated. The team used English in all their messaging which at the time I took for granted but come to think of it, they were likely trying to accommodate me though and it made a huge difference. I remember though, after our first competition of the year, all of a sudden teammates who I thought couldn’t speak English started chatting with me. I felt like I was finally accepted as one of the team after having competed together, but it took more than six months.


Local Student:

When you join a local society as an international student, you shouldn’t feel embarrassed or uncomfortable that the whole group has to speak English. If you have this mindset it only makes things more difficult for both you and your groupmates. In the situation when locals speak amongst themselves in Cantonese while you are in the group, it is not an intentional exclusion. It’s just that sometimes we forget that you can’t speak Cantonese. So just ask us to repeat it or bring the issue up. I also think that making an attempt at learning Cantonese can go a long way. Most locals are very happy to improve their English but they are also very happy to teach you Cantonese.

I think it would be good to try joining local societies with another international. This way it is less likely that society members will forget you cannot understand and you will have someone to talk with when things are going on in Cantonese. It could also be helpful to have a second pair of eyes for English documents.


An international student:

At first I didn’t know I was joining the society because they just sent the link to Zoom in our group. And the first two meetings were in English–which was strange now that I think about it. In the third meeting I joined, they were proposing different positions and I thought External Vice President would be good because I would be able to use English to talk to other internationals and universities because at that time I did not know that usually all the societies speak Cantonese. I thought it would be more logical since if I were the IVP, I would have to manage internal affairs and some of the people in our society sometimes are shy to speak English. When I said I wanted to be EVP the previous EVP was like “ I think this position is suitable only for locals.” And I was like “why? If you are letting us participate in your meetings and join the society I think all the positions should be open–even for internationals because this is an international university.” They are always saying on the posters “Diversity and Inclusion!” But there is only diversity. There is no inclusion: I’ve never seen other international students who were in local societies. I even spoke with an international who wanted to join my society previously but who was afraid that she wouldn’t be able to fit into the Cantonese speaking society and decided not to. 

At that time I was quite angry because they told me I could only take a lower position. It sort of motivated me even more. I thought “No, why should I take just a designer position if I want to be an EVP? Why can’t I take the position that I would like to work on?” I thought some of the previous committee members were hating me. Although some of them were very open and told me they thought I could join but it would be very hard. When I discussed with the other proposed committee members, no one else wanted to be EVP, so I asked them if they would be okay with me as EVP and if not what the reasons were. They were all okay with that and they started to think about how to solve the problem of me not speaking Cantonese. 

Basically, my society mates help me to translate everything. If I have a meeting one of them will join with me and either translate for me or just listen and then tell me what I need to do. When we organized the inauguration ceremonies with other ceremonies, they were all okay with replying  to my messages in English. Because I don’t speak Cantonese, some of my responsibilities go to my other society mates and they just give me what I can do. For example, for the year plan I wrote in English and they translated and proposed it. So I do the work that I should do but sometimes I don’t have the ability to present it. I think that solved the problem.

Every time we have meetings, even the very very long ones, I am there. In many of them, I was just sitting because they wanted me to participate but the meeting was in Cantonese. So they were like “just sit here…so we can feel your presence.” 


Cross-cultural cooperation is much like a three-legged race. Neither party can complete it without the other and they two need to be aware and in sync with each other. It’s certainly not as fast or simple as a solo sprint, but with a bit of practice and perseverance it’s much more rewarding. Gayau!


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