At home in the world, and just as much a Hongkonger

Joyce Man says her accented Cantonese is no excuse for name-calling

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 June, 2013, 2:06am

I will no longer apologise for my flawed Cantonese and foreign ways. I am that Westernised child who emigrated in the 1990s, returned later, and attended expensive international schools and a foreign university. I speak English fluently and Cantonese with an accent.

I am also, if you like, the product of the struggles, hopes and fears of upper-middle-class Hongkongers in the handover era. Out of fear, our parents uprooted us to Canada, Australia, the US and Britain before 1997. Out of frustration from not finding jobs, they later moved us back but invested heavily in international education.

That does not give anyone carte blanche to laugh at the way I speak or accuse me of disloyalty

For us, the children, that meant growing up speaking English. Between studying Western curriculums and doing after-school activities, all in English, there was not much time left to absorb Hong Kong culture.

Moreover, at my school, Cantonese was forbidden.

But as a result of my upbringing - one which many Hongkongers continue to want for their children - I have ended up on the receiving end of comments and questions that would otherwise find no place in polite conversation.

Relatives, friends, colleagues, acquaintances and even strangers have laughed at me for the way I speak Cantonese. I have been accused of forgetting my roots or, worse, of not being a Hongkonger. I have been called gwai mui in professional settings.

Last year, a restaurant owner yelled at me in front of her entire clientele: "Do you even speak Chinese?"

Some think my background is an invitation to comment on my family's finances. "Your parents must be rich," a co-worker once said.

No matter where I am, there will be someone from home to cut me down to size.

At a recent gathering in Munich, I was switching between German, English and Putonghua in a conversation about, ironically, intercultural communication. When I stumbled over a phrase in Putonghua, a consultant from Hong Kong whom I had just met laughed out loud.

It could have meant nothing. But, then again, it could have meant all those things that people have said before. Normally, I laugh along, to preserve the peace. This time, I walked away.

Never mind that I once told a gun-toting policeman in the violence-ridden Caucasus in Russian that I would not pay the 2,000 roubles (HK$479) he had demanded for my release, because my documents were in order. Never mind that I recently caught up with a friend in Paris in basic French. Never mind that I am doing a fellowship at a German newspaper. And never mind that I can wax lyrical in English about the way snow looks in a Vermont winter.

All the skills I have gleaned from my cross-cultural background apparently count for nothing when I say or do something differently from a "local" Hongkonger, because supposedly I have turned my back on my roots.

I don't need a pat on the back. But until the people who laugh can do all these things too, they have no right to laugh. I realise no one wants to hear that we privileged children have something to complain about.

Yes, our families were wealthy enough to afford educations that the majority could not. But that does not give anyone carte blanche to laugh at the way I speak, accuse me of disloyalty to my birth culture, or tell me I don't earn my own rent.

They have names for us: third culture kids; cross culture kids; international school kids. But none of these sums up who I am - a Hong Kong kid. It's about time everyone acknowledged that we fit that definition.

Joyce Man is a freelance journalist