On For the longest time, Chinese parents who speak English to their children have always puzzled me. This happens everywhere, whether in Hong Kong, or where I grew up, Canada. This also happens to my cousins’ children in the U.S. or Australia. I understand that there are practical reasons for this. But first, I want to get this off my chest.
Language is a narrative of cultural imperialism
Edward Said, the author of Orientalism, wrote that “The power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism, and constitutes one of the main connections between them.” Drawing on Said, the English language is no doubt a colonising tool in the narrative of imperialism.
We are denied our dignity of speaking our native tongue
I grew up in a Canadian small town. When I attended primary school, I was placed in ESL class. It is still very vivid in my mind that up on the wall under the clock, there was a sign that said, “Speak English only.” This was to discourage immigrant children from speaking their language to “assimilate” them into “Canadian” society, a white settler colony.
Chinese are shunned for the very act of being Chinese
Growing up, I felt that I was shunned for speaking my own language. In high school, I remember a white kid who told a group of Mandarin speaking Taiwanese students to speak English. I called him racist. He denied being racist, but said, “This was Canada.” I responded that Canada was a multicultural society and they could speak whatever they please.
Speaking our language is a marker of our cultural identity
Though I was in Canada, I grew up in a Cantonese speaking household. It was without question that I speak Cantonese with my parents, even if I had to speak English outside my home. I felt that English in my home was distasteful. I wanted to make a point that in my own home, I will refuse to speak the language of the very people who denied my culture.
English was a form of systemic discrimination in Hong Kong
Until 1974, English was the sole official language of Hong Kong. The reason for this is to shut out the Cantonese speaking Chinese population from the political structure. Language was a form of discrimination by the colonial government. Law which governs the land was entirely in English where much of the local population only knew Chinese.
Legacy of English language a testament of British imperialism
Dominance of the English language is a testament of the supremacy of the British Empire in the 19th century. Britain was once said to be “the empire on which the sun never sets.” The ceding of Hong Kong to Britain remains to be a black mark etched in the history of the Chinese people. It was such a humiliation that the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1911.
English language is a tool but not at the expense of our culture
English as a language of communication in an ever so globalised world is a practical tool. But I think to go to such lengths as to give up who we are is too much of a sacrifice. Perhaps, Kang Youwei’s (康有為) famous phrase, 「中學為體，西學為用」(“Chinese knowledge for the body, Western knowledge for practical uses“) might find some applicability here.
To me, English is a language that was forcefully imposed by our colonisers. How the British carved up our land which rightfully belongs to us is one of the greatest injustices of our collective history. This history should be studied, remembered, and taught as a lesson. Nevertheless, I do note the irony that my blog is in English. But then again, please forgive me as I too am a victim of imperialism.