One of the most frustrating things about living in Hong Kong has been my struggle to speak Cantonese. More often than not, my attempts end in failure, with the person I’m talking to – despite my persistence – switching to English. One of the worst experiences was when a shop assistant mocked my attempts, muttered something about “gweilo”, and then finished the transaction in English. After a number of failed attempts, I became desperate and thought a way around this would be to simply tell the shop assistant (in Cantonese) that I didn’t speak English. When I tried this, the cashier laughed and continued speaking English.
I think the root of the issue is a question of practicality and cultural sharing. Hong Kong is a fast-paced city – everyone has a place they need to be and work that needs to be done. No cashier or taxi driver wants to humour my clumsy Cantonese when they often speak English better than I speak Cantonese. What they don’t realise is that I’ve also considered this, but still choose to try to speak. I realise that it would be easier if I just used English in public, but that’s not the point. I could easily survive here without knowing a lick of Chinese – in fact, I’ve met many expats who do just that. But as I see it, I am living in Hong Kong, and I want to pay respect to the local culture and language, and trying to learn Cantonese is a great way of doing that.
In fact, I would argue that “humouring” foreigners who want to learn the language would actually be a mutually beneficial act. Cantonese is a defining feature of Hong Kong. At a time when a lot of Hongkongers are struggling with their identity, Cantonese is one way of reaffirming that. A healthy interest from the outside wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Of course, many other factors are at play when it comes to interest in the language. Foreigners, if they learn a Chinese language at all, will most likely choose Putonghua.
These issues aside, I think the attitude to foreigners learning Cantonese could be improved. People should not have to fear being mocked or laughed at when they try to speak the language of the country they live in. If a person is actively making an effort to learn, it does not make sense to push them away.