Notes from the Field: On becoming a non-Chinese person (again) (by Casey Burkholder)

Before I became an Anglophone doctoral student living in a French neighbourhood in Montreal (Rosemont), I lived and worked as a teacher in Hong Kong. From 2008-2010, I taught at a public secondary school with English as the medium of instruction. Of course, the neighbourhood in which I lived (Wong Tai Sin) and worked (Kwun Tong) were largely Cantonese-speaking neighbourhoods. What does it mean to work and socialize primarily in English, and engage in only the most limited of conversations with your neighbours? Good morning. My name is Casey. I am a teacher. I want the barbeque duck, please. I live at 78 Yuk Wah Street. The weather is very beautiful today. Do you think so? Thank you. Goodbye. Etc.


My interactions with those around me were limited and I found myself having the same conversations again and again. It was as though my conversations were on a continuous loop. I would grasp for the most appropriate stock phrases to be used in the circumstance that I was in. When I wasn’t sure how to proceed, I would usually smile and say, ‘Yes, good.’ David Sedaris has written about this same coping mechanism in his life in France, but instead of ‘Yes, good,’ he often responded, “d’accord” . To be honest, my language interactions in Hong Kong are not so different than my experiences in Montreal, although, today, my French is much, much better than my Cantonese.


As we’ve seen in previous posts on this blog, naming linguistic difference is political, and it affects the way that we identify ourselves. In Quebec, I am called an Anglophone. In Hong Kong, I am called non-Chinese. Although Hong Kong is explicitly and legally bi-literate and trilingual (Cantonese, English, and Mandarin), Hong Kong primarily uses the term Chinese-speaking to refer to speakers of Cantonese, rather than Mandarin (the language of Mainland China). This distinction is inherently political, as it distinguishes Hong Kong’s language (and thus politics) from that of Mainland China. Interestingly, in Hong Kong, the word Chinese is used to confer common ‘ethnicity’ on the local population…distinctions are made by local Chinese people between historic and recent migrants from the Mainland…” (Knowles & Harper, 2009, p. 15). Like Quebec, in Hong Kong the political and linguistic realms are inextricably linked because knowing and learning Cantonese can strengthen a person’s sense of identification with Hong Kong as a distinctive culture; learning Putonghua [Mandarin] can strengthen a person’s sense of identification with [Mainland China]; learning English before 1997 could strengthen a person’s identification with Hong Kong as a colony of the United Kingdom (Morris & Anderson, 2010, p. 147).

In the Hong Kong Government’s Education Bureau’s publications, non-Chinese refers to people (specifically students) who do not speak Chinese as a home language. However, the 2011 Hong Kong census refers to non-Chinese as people living in Hong Kong who are not ethnically Chinese (Chinese includes Hong Kong-born and Mainland-born Chinese people). The distinction between non-Chinese as language and non-Chinese as an ethnicity is often unclear, and any definition of non-Chinese relies upon the assumptions of the listener. One thing is certain: naming and living under these categories is political.

Casey3Since September 2014, Hong Kong has experienced a student-led protest in support of democratic reform, responding to increased Chinese governmental control. As the situation unfolds—most recently the government has taken down the Occupy Central protest camps—and youth continue the call for democratic reform (in a myriad of ways), non-Chinese young people’s conception of what it means to belong, and to be a resident of Hong Kong comes into question. Hong Kong has 451,000 (6.4%) ethnically non-Chinese residents. Fewer than 1% of these ethnic minorities receive post-secondary education, although they make up 10% of Hong Kong’s workforce—83% of those in unskilled labour (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, 2011). These marginalized non-Chinese young people’s sense of self, belonging, and civic engagement in Hong Kong’s schools and society require serious inquiry. And, this is what I’m planning to do.

On December 31st, I will be travelling back to Hong Kong to complete the data collection for my doctoral project. I am going to work with my former students (who are non-Chinese young adults) to explore the ways that their memories of secondary school (and of Social Studies in particular) has shifted the way that they engage as citizens in Hong Kong. I will also be exploring how these youth might create their own critical media texts (Rogers, 2014) as a means of articulating their own representations via cellphilms (videos made with mobile phone technology). I will spend the first half of 2015 living as a non-Chinese person, and thinking always about the ways in which this category shifts the way that I identify. I will continue to ask: How do Hong Kong’s language politics affect the language and multiliteracy practices of non-Chinese youth, and where it is appropriate (or not appropriate) to be a multilingual citizen? Where do they feel that they belong? Where do I feel that I belong?


As I move from the linguistic and political landscape of Quebec to that of Hong Kong, I will keep these questions at the fore while I complete the data collection for my dissertation. I will continue to ruminate on these and other issues as I keep public fieldnotes of my journey at: Feel free to follow along!

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