Letters from the dorm: you’re in England ... why not speak English?

Cyril Ip
Cyril Ip |

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“I’ve never heard him speak English.”

This statement about a fellow boarder from Hong Kong kind of gave me chills. My dear, English friend’s careless observation gave me a feeling of guilt, even though I try to be fully involved in the local culture.

At lunch, I casually started a discussion with other Chinese boarders about the “need” to truly immerse ourselves in British culture, as we receive education in the country. It seems obvious to me, but many of them disagreed. The most interesting reason I heard was, word-for-word: “I don’t need to speak much English, and I don’t need to have English friends; I have my Chinese friends.”

In my three years of education in the UK, I’ve never really put much thought into the “need” to have English friends. I just have them, the same way they have me as a friend, a “Chinese friend”.

The discussion got heated as I put forward my argument that it is a waste of time and money to come all the way to a foreign land, just to do the same things and hang with the same people you did back at home. The opponent’s comeback was: “I am very happy with my circle, and that is all that matters.” But is that shallow happiness really the only thing that matters? I use the word “shallow” because this kind of happiness doesn’t seem to be the true, long-term, self-fulfilling kind. To stay in the comfort zone of only speaking your first language does not exactly fulfil the purpose of going to study abroad.

I understand the need to have a circle of friends that you can relate to culturally, ie, friends that come from the same place and grew up with the same things. There is a sense of harmony when you meet a fellow Hongkonger in a foreign land. However, you shouldn’t stay in this bubble forever. I believe that being in one of the most historic, extraordinary places in the world, you almost have an obligation to soak up the culture: afternoon tea, fish and chips – everything. But you can’t have that if you don’t even try speaking English for your own sake!

Besides all of that, speaking your language around people who don’t speak it is just disrespectful and annoying: all they hear are weird sounds and noises – especially with Cantonese.

I was going to analyse this problem in more depth, until I realised that it’s just not that deep. With a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go abroad to study, it’s common sense to make the most of it, instead of making excuses or hiding from fears and uncertainties. If you’re struggling to make yourself a confident newcomer, here are some words of encouragement from the amazing Ayn Rand: “People create their own questions because they are afraid to look straight. All you have to do is look straight and see the road, and when you see it, don’t sit looking at it – walk.”

The best advice I could give is, it’s completely up to you to find out how fascinating “culture” really is, and you can only do so when you’re truly committed to experiencing it, and willing to gain something more for yourself.