John Whelpton

From Oxford, to Nepal, to Hong Kong

By Cindy Mak

Photo by Cindy Mak

John Whelpton has a Ph.D in history from Oxford University. He spent two years in Nepal and speaks Nepali. Now, he teaches English in Hong Kong.

Born in the United Kingdom, John Whelpton decided to explore Asia when very young. He had the opportunity to teach English in Nepal. Returning to the U.K. to complete his Ph.D., he decided to go back to Asia. Fascinated by Asian culture, Mr. Whelpton moved to Hong Kong, where he now is learning Cantonese. Settled in Hong Kong with a wife and a daughter, he shares his uncommon experiences with his students at Baptist Lui Ming Choi Secondary School. Mr. Whelpton still dreams of going back to Nepal.

Question: Why did you move to Nepal and teach English there?
Answer: I studied in Oxford University for my first degree. After finishing this degree, I volunteered to teach English in Pakistan. Unluckily, there was no vacancy for me, so I went to Nepal instead. It ended up to be the best bad luck of my life.

Q: How did you get to learn the language?
A: I was in Nepal for 2 years. I started reading and translating Nepali for personal leisure at that time. I mainly learnt Nepali this way. I can understand and write Nepali well, but my pronunciation is very bad.

Q: What does the culture in Nepal look like?
A: The culture in Nepal is very similar to the Indian one. The languages are also very similar. They have the same writing system. It is like the relationship between Cantonese and Putonghua. The society is very religious, especially in the countryside. People still maintain a class system and have arranged marriages. They are very strict in their diet. The only kind of meat they usually eat is chicken. They do not eat beef and pork. Also, they are very relaxed.

Q: As you are from a rather wealthy country, what was the most difficult for you when you arrived in Nepal?
A: The thing that troubled me the most was the diet. The meals usually have vegetables and rice only. The people usually eat with their hands sitting cross-legged on mats. Also, there was no telephone in the place where I was living. I needed to walk a long way to a small shop for a phone call. That really exhausted me.

Q: Did you enjoy living in Nepal?
A: Yes, I really enjoyed living there. The landscape was very beautiful and the people in the village were so friendly. The buildings were also spacious.

Q: What did you do after your two years in Nepal?
A: I worked as a civil servant for six years in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, I started my research on Nepali history. I got a Ph.D. on 19th Century Nepal and its contemporary politics.

Nepal and Hong Kong. (Varsity file)


Q: So, you have a Ph.D. from the Oxford University. Why did you decide to come to Hong Kong to teach English?
A: That’s because of the power of money. Well, even though I like doing research and hope to go back to Nepal to teach, I still need to earn my living. The topic of my thesis is not very popular, so I did not find a job in university. I continued to work for the government, but the salary was very low. I saw a scheme recruiting an expert English teacher in Hong Kong. The salary and allowance were very attractive, so I decided to try it.

Q: After teaching in both Nepal and Hong Kong, what is the main difference between students from both places?
A: I think all of them know the importance of English in their lives. They know that they need to learn English. However, the students in Hong Kong consider English as a second language, while Nepal students treat it as both a second and a foreign language. The students in Hong Kong have more chances to learn good English. Moreover, nearly all the students in Nepal who have enough money to carry on their studies through high school can get into university, regardless of their competencies to study well. In Hong Kong, good students have to struggle to be accepted in a university.

Q: How about the people in general?
A: The people in Hong Kong and Katmandu, the capital city of Nepal, are very alike. They are not very friendly. They only focus on their own life. They are very reserved which is very like British people. A friend of mine who is from the United States told me that he is really surprised that people do not say good morning to each other in Hong Kong. However, people from Nepal countryside villages are very friendly and do not feel embarrassed in asking questions.

Q: Do you like Hong Kong, then?
A: Yes, I do like it. I love hiking so much and Hong Kong gives me so many opportunities to stretch my legs and enjoy physical exercise. I do know a bit of Cantonese. Even though not many people speak English, my life in general is still fine.

Q: It has always been said that learning Cantonese is very difficult for Westerners. How do you manage to learn it?
A: Well, Cantonese is difficult to learn because it has no link with any European languages. For a linked language, a strange accent can be accepted and understood. However, when you speak Cantonese with an accent, people will hardly understand you. It seems that Hong Kong people are a bit less supportive in this sense and will easily make fun of you. I really need to speak it because my wife is from here and I need to communicate with her parents in Cantonese. When you do not need to speak a language to survive and communicate, it is a lot more difficult to learn it. It is the main reason why Westerners find it so difficult.

Q: You are really used to life in Hong Kong. One last question: Will you spend the rest of your life here?
A: Well, that’s a question that concerns the future of my family, not only myself. We are now all in Hong Kong and I have a very well-paid job. Most probably, I will spend the rest of my life in Hong Kong.

Cindy Mak
John Whelpton: Content to spend the rest of his life in Hong Kong.