Reading a copy of the South China Morning Post, over lunch on Wednesday, a small story on one of the international pages caught my eye. 'Woman comes home - after catching bus 25 years ago', the headline read. For those who missed it, here are the facts. Jaeyaena Beuraheng, 76, from southern Thailand, caught the bus one day in Malaysia thinking it was headed for her hometown, Narathiwat, a Muslim province, where people speak Malay. Instead of taking her home, though, the bus was headed for Bangkok, 1,200km away and, to make matters worse, she compounded her mistake by boarding another bus for Chiang Mai in the north, thinking it was headed south. She wasn't seen again by her family for 25 years, surviving as a beggar until she was sent to a centre for the homeless in 1987. The story, which was originally reported in the Nation newspaper in Thailand, had a happy-ish ending (if you can call rescue after separation from your family for 25 years happy). The woman was reunited with her eight children after students visiting her centre realised she wasn't mute, as staff there thought, but could speak Malay. The whole tragic tale was the result of the woman's inability to read or speak Thai and I began to wonder whether the same thing could happen in Hong Kong. Shortly before lunch I had been reading the story on our back page this week, 'Volunteers show real class'. This is about student volunteers in Hong Kong helping asylum seekers with a range of activities, including learning Cantonese, and my imagination conjured up a minority man or woman getting lost on the MTR or boarding a ferry to an outlying island and not being seen or heard from again. Unlikely, I thought, because Hong Kong is smaller than Thailand, but not impossible. We have carried numerous stories about second language provision for ethnic minorities here, specifically recently related to universities' acceptance of GCSE Chinese as an entry requirement. But what this story brings home is how vital it is for people of foreign ethnic origin to be able to negotiate their way safely in the society they live in. Jaeyaena Beuraheng's case is, of course, extreme. That's why it was singled out as worth a story. But you can bet your boots there are countless other cases, both here and elsewhere, not deemed worthy of headlines but tragic nonetheless. Stories of family separation, lack of access to benefits, poverty, exploitation, ostracism, or worse. If you can't negotiate with people then you are at serious risk. Picture yourself for a moment in a country where you can't read, write or speak any local language and have no resources - money, credit cards, contacts or even basic ID - and ask yourself what you would do.