June 17, 2006

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Talking my language

A recent conversation with an American over the vexed topic of immigration:

Yank: "The problem with the Mexicans is they don't integrate. They don't learn the language or the culture and just keep to themselves and then wonder why people resent them."

Me: "How long have you lived in Hong Kong?"

Yank: "Four years. Why?"

Me: "How much Cantonese can you speak?"

posted by Simon on 06.17.06 at 09:53 PM in the World category.


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LOL! I bet the dude can't even do yardwork or wash dishes, either.

posted by: Derek Scruggs on 06.17.06 at 10:08 PM [permalink]

"Me: "How long have you lived in Hong Kong?"
Yank: "Four years. Why?"
Me: "How much Cantonese can you speak?""
Well said. I admire your sense of homor. However, is your friend is trying to become a citizen of Hong Kong? Well, being an Asian, I am veyr proud of Asia but I have to admit that you can become a citizen of western countries easier than Asian or African countries.

posted by: Razib Ahmed on 06.17.06 at 10:17 PM [permalink]

Actaully, lots of studies have shown that Hispanics learn English at about the same rate as other immigrants. In the second generation everyone speaks English, and by the thrid only a minority still know Spanish. No matter how good their English gets however, their skin is still brown.


posted by: Alan on 06.17.06 at 11:55 PM [permalink]


I suspect that if the US didn't constantly threaten to kick out migrants many Hispanics wouldn't be seeking citizenship.

posted by: shwe on 06.18.06 at 10:49 AM [permalink]

With only 20% of Americans having passports, the chances that Americans have been in a day-to-day situation where they are a language minority is pretty slim.

And for the ultimate irony, it may be interesting to see the results of the same questions being asked of the mainland's Hong Kong Liaison Office cadres.

posted by: Tom - Daai Tou Laam on 06.18.06 at 05:52 PM [permalink]

The debate in America is not about immigration. It is about people who have come into the country illegally. How do you think other countries deal with such a situation? How does your beloved Hong Kong SAR China deal with law breakers from other countries? Offer them citizenship? Give them a tax break? You are so far off on your mighty high horse to come down on America like this. As for learning the language, how much Cantonese do you speak? And are you trying to become a citizen of Hong Kong SAR China? Are you legally or illegally in Hong Kong working? What do you think the Hong Kong (Beijing--50 years of autonomy my ass!) government would do to you if were working in Hong Kong illegally? Are you so into yourself that you can't even see the comparisons here?

posted by: an American (not a "yank") on 06.19.06 at 07:58 AM [permalink]

I believe Mexicans do learn the language and assimilate. However, the English language IS an official language of Hong Kong.

I also disagree with that guy in that I don't think people resent the Mexicans, BUT waving Mexican flags at a rally for immigration and naturalization could start getting people on the road to resentment. No?

Some groups are wary of the political force that they have the potential to be, but that is common in situations of change.

posted by: Shenzhen Whitey on 06.19.06 at 11:05 AM [permalink]

I think you're confusing the issues at hand. Westerners in Asian countries are given the name expatriates mainly because they are not expected to remain in the country permanently. This is definitely not the case with Mexicans who plan on living in the USA for the rest of their lives.

Cantonese is also a very difficult language for most native English speakers. While if I was living in Hong Kong I would probably learn the language, I don't see the need for all of these people to pick up Guangdonghua fluently if they are only going to be in HK for a couple of years.

Plus if the whole language issue ever becomes a problem for expats, I do have a solution for you. You should simply abandon that overpriced, poluted, penal colony of a SAR, and set your sails south for SEA. The wonderful nation of Singapore is always looking for foreign talent and I am sure that all qualified expats will be welcomed with open arms down here.

Furthermore when an Australian lectures the Americans concerning the issue of immigration the words, "physician heal thyself!" come to mind. Don't you guys pay off South Pacific islands to house your unwanted migrants? Or is it taboo to discuss Aussie immigration problems on your blog?

posted by: Chris on 06.19.06 at 11:18 AM [permalink]

Yes I think that is actually the crux of the problem - that gwailos are generally don't come here as immigrants but as temporary expatriates - as they have for all of Hong Kong's history. Nor do locals particularly invite Westerners to become part of their society.

This is a Chinese city, and the concept of truly being a Hong Kong citizen means that you must, as a pre-condition, be Chinese. You will never truly be accepted as a local here otherwise, regardless of how much Cantonese you speak (and I should know, as a western-looking Eurasian). That, I think, is the main difference between Hong Kong and America - if you are an English-speaking Hispanic, you can be as American as anyone else. Not here.

While this can be chalked up to the still-recent experience of being a Colony, there is also a definite racist element to Hong Kong identity that I think is stronger here than even in mainland China. Hong Kong will need to shed this parochial element of its identity if it does want to keep welcoming expats to its shores (as opposed to Shanghai or Singapore).

Having said that, I can definitely say, that Simon is right - if you speak Cantonese here, even if you are a Westerner, people can be incredibly nice to you. People I think are surprised and proud that a gwailo has bothered to learn their incredibly difficult language that has very limited utility outside of this city.

posted by: HK Dave on 06.19.06 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

When I first came to Hong Kong, I took lessons in both Cantonese and Mandarin. Surprisingly, the response I got from locals was always "why would you learn another language when you already know English?"

As someone else has pointed out, there's virtually no debate or controversy in the US over legal immigration. The debate is over illegals. I taught at a university in HK for 6 years because the university wanted to hire me and because I was given a legal permit. My children, when they were born in HK, were given temporary visas and were allowed to stay only as long as I continued to work there under a valid contract.

Being an invited guest is different from breaking into someone's home and then complaining over not being given enough food or hospitality! I was grateful to be allowed to visit Hong Kong and would have left if the government had told me to.

posted by: Ann on 06.20.06 at 02:01 AM [permalink]

You should have asked the yank, "And prey tell, what is the official language of the USA?"

(the answer is, there isn't one)

posted by: hdp on 06.20.06 at 11:17 AM [permalink]

Ann, have you heard of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo?

Seems they are breaking into "our home", which we seem to have robbed from them.

posted by: bobby fletcher on 06.22.06 at 01:02 AM [permalink]

To bobby fletcher, your comment, insinuation, that the US stole Mexico is outright BS (that means bullshit, amigo)! The two governments, who both did want the land at the time, came to a financial agreement. And the people who were living on the land in question had a lot to say about which country they would rather align themselves. And if you want to really call the kettle black, can tell me what language Mexicans speak? Spanish? Seems to me that the Spanish stole the land called Mexico from the Native American Indians, just like you might insinuate the Americans and Canadians did, and frankly, every single country in North, Central and South America. Get off you high horse too! I don't think you know enough about history to comment on the subject.

posted by: an American (not a Yank) on 06.23.06 at 08:22 AM [permalink]

"We didn't cross the border, the border crossed us!" is a ridiculous cop-out because very very few latinos can actually claim descent from anyone involved in the Mexican-American war. (Oh and I know this didn't work for Mrs. Thatcher, but over in the Americas a treaty signed back in the 1800s is still a treaty, regardless of the current political climate...)

Hong Kong has razor wire separating itself from the rest of the country. Do we really want to compare expats passing through Hong Kong to families crossing the border in the US? Has anyone read Steve Vines' recent column in The Hongkong Standard re: right of abode families? And is Hong Kong society really prepared for someone whose parents came from Pakistan or Nepal going to school and being treated as an equal? Can he walk in to a room of Chinese, say "ngoh dou haih heung gong yahn" in perfect Cantonese, and expect to be treated with respect?

Having said all this, I'm not in favor of criminalizing the Mexican illegals--aren't conservatives also fans of letting the market decide, of less government intrusion? Mexicans cross the border to work, not live off of the dole. If you're going to be against government programs, then I think it's a bit hypocritical to all of a sudden want a giant brick wall built along the Rio Grande when all these people are doing is filling jobs, earning money, and trying to get ahead in life--just like the ancestors of most every other American. American really can accomodate these extra people.

PS I speak Cantonese with near-fluency. It's really not THAT hard to learn, and, well, you hear it every single day, so why not give it a shot? You tend to get treated differently...

PPS why is xanga considered "questionable content" when I try to post here?

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