Nasirah says she can understand Cantonese but she cannot speak or write well. She picked up most of her Chinese in primary school, when her parents made her study Chinese instead of their own native tongue.
When she entered a secondary school with many other ethnic minority students, she attended Hanyu lessons in her junior years but she found them to be useless. “They taught very basic stuff like counting, how are you? And stuff like that. I had gone through six years of Chinese so I knew everything already.”
Nasirah regrets not having the resources to learn Cantonese better at the time. “Schools during our time did not pay much attention to Chinese for ethnic minorities,” she sighs.
Chitra Karamchandani, an ethnic Indian who is studying at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), agrees speaking Cantonese would make life a lot easier in Hong Kong. “I really feel that it was bad that I couldn’t learn how to speak Cantonese in school,” she says.
Karamchandani attended a local school where English is the Medium of Instruction (EMI), for 11 years, and studied Chinese in her first three years of primary school. The lessons stopped the following year when the school asked ethnic minorities students to switch to French.
“My parents and I were quite against it because we feel like why are we supposed to speak French well if we want to live and work in Hong Kong?” says Nasirah. She recounts how they went to the principal and made a request. “Would you please? Can we please learn Cantonese? She was like, ‘It is the rule. I just can’t’.”
Karamchandani says her Cantonese is “really bad” now, adding that she can understand most things but cannot speak well.
Locally born and raised, Karamchandani recalls a difficult childhood. Besides the struggles with the local language, she also had to put up with taunts at her school where most students were Chinese. “I remember sometimes when we were to play games, they would not want to touch my hands, or group up with me, just because I look different.”
For Karamchandani, there is always a distance between local Chinese and the ethnic minorities. “We thought of you as unapproachable, and you thought of us as unapproachable,” she says.
At the age of 20, she says she still does not feel very integrated into local society. She says she regrets not trying harder to make more local Chinese friends before she transferred to an international school after Form Five. “I still feel like a bit of an outsider, like an expatriate.”
Karamchandani thinks Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities are deprived of opportunities and that the root of the problem rests in education. Before 2005, the number of public sector schools ethnic minorities could attend (because they were allowed to skip Chinese classes) was very limited. Most of them were lower-band schools. Karamchandani considers herself lucky because she attended a good EMI school. Most ethnic minority students who could not afford to go to international schools ended up in low-band local schools.