Thursday, July 09, 2015

Mainlanders in Hong Kong, and Cultural Sensitivity

There can be no doubt that Hong Kong has become much less welcoming towards Mainlanders. There are many reasons for this, from the large number of tourists and shoppers who have crowded parts of the city, changed the ecology of shops, and made rents rise, to simple resentment that formerly poor neighbors are now rich. There is no doubt that a kind of Hong Kong provincialism contributes to this too. But there is also a kind of Mainland arrogance that many do not even recognize as such.

Recently an article by a financial sector employee who moved from Hong Kong to Shenzhen has circulated widely (here is the Chinese, and here is a translation in Foreign Affairs). Most of the article takes the tone of a disappointed fan. He says Hong Kong is no longer on the cutting edge, no longer the place for dreams and for the future.  That may be true, but it is also true that Hong Kong looks bad in comparison to the rapid growth of the Mainland, but that the Mainland's growth is not sustainable.

What struck me, however, in an otherwise gentle commentary, was this passage:

[B]ecause I speak Mandarin, I’ve endured hostility and nasty glances from service people in [restaurants and supermarkets], and had several instances where I heard my taxi drivers insulting me in Cantonese. I wanted to get angry, but ultimately tolerated it. They think I can’t understand Cantonese, but thanks to my seven years in Hong Kong, I not only can understand but can speak fluent Cantonese. It’s just that I normally insist on speaking Mandarin — it’s my mother tongue, I’ve already spoken it for 20 years before coming to Hong Kong, and it’s my habit. If I need to change it to be accepted, to fit in, doesn’t that show that Hong Kong society is sick?

Well, no, it does not show Hong Kong society is sick. It says to me that he is arrogant and insensitive and expects everyone to speak Mandarin.  Just because Hong Kong is now part of China does not mean everyone has to speak Mandarin, as he seems to assume. If he can speak Cantonese, why does he not do so?!  It is precisely because of his attitude--that Hong Kong people SHOULD speak Mandarin--that people in Hong Kong are increasingly resistant towards using Mandarin. It is one thing for Hong Kong people to try to use Mandarin to communicate with visitors when they don't speak your language. But it is annoying when these visitors come and make no effort to speak your language and assume you should speak theirs.

I have always complained about Americans who travel abroad and comment at the "low level of English." If you want a high level of English, I say, stay home, or go to England.

The problem goes back to interpretations of "One Country Two Systems." In Hong Kong, that is interpreted as meaning Hong Kong can continue to use Cantonese (as is, in fact, legally the case). But some Mainlanders, perhaps affected by the triumphalist news media about 1997, think that because Hong Kong is part of China, they should be able to use Mandarin in Hong Kong.  Of course, Hong Kong shopkeepers would be smart to use Mandarin to cater to their clients, and many do. But it would help smooth ethnic relations if Mainlanders did not take it for granted that everyone should use their language to speak to them in Hong Kong. To willfully refuse to use Cantonese, like the author of the above piece, is quite arrogant and culturally insensitive. I myself mix Cantonese (which I speak badly) with Mandarin precisely to try to "fit in" and to recognize that I am an outsider in Hong Kong, but trying to fit in. I think if Mainlanders did not just assume everyone speaks Mandarin, and used Mandarin with a demeanor showing they knew they were speaking an outside language for Hong Kong, that would help Mainlanders be better accepted in Hong Kong.

But I can just hear the above author's reply: "Why should I; I'm Chinese, and I'm in China." And that's the rub; he comes across as arrogant in Hong Kong. And he does not see it, or understand why.

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