Friday, September 14, 2007

Speaking Up Against Injustice

Jared Diamond conveyed this well-argued statement in his book “Guns, Germs and Steel”: “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environment, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.”

Perhaps it is also true that a person’s mentality and beliefs are shaped by his/her own life experiences, rather than by his/her race or class.

I can still remember how impressed I was when I heard a white Canadian co-worker at a company in Toronto make this rebellious remark: “I’m not paid enough to think – I am only a secretary!” For someone like me who had always been taught that it was natural for female workers to be submissive to bosses or superiors and to do whatever work they demanded, that remark totally changed my outlook on the boss-subordinate relationship.

Female workers at the time (we are talking about three decades ago) were often taken advantage of, in that they were made to do servile work like serving their bosses coffee, running their bosses’ personal errands and sometimes even shouldering executive responsibilities, in addition to handling normal secretarial work, while being only paid a dismal salary. It was normal for highly paid managerial staff to take the whole afternoon off to play golf (presumably with clients) while leaving their secretaries to the mundane task of manning the office. What was even worse was the bosses’ inconsiderate behavior and condescending attitude towards the female staff. It was a time of blatant gender discrimination in an unequal society, in Canada as well as in Hong Kong. (I know things have improved a great deal in corporate Canada since that time, but perhaps to a lesser extent with Hong Kong companies.)

A few weeks after voicing her opinion, that co-worker resigned from the company. On her last day, she heroically stomped into her boss’s room, lashed out at his overbearing and inconsiderate behavior towards her and other junior staff and slammed the door behind her when she came out.

The image of that scene has stuck in my mind ever since and she has remained one of my heroines (another one is Simone de Beauvoir). Her brave action helped to shape my belief that to fight injustice, the first thing one must do is to speak one’s mind against all odds. It was a valuable lesson that my schools had never taught me. In the times of my childhood, meekness was expected of the female gender.

Talking about injustice, there was one social phenomenon in the colonial days that particularly irked me. It was the unspoken rule that local Chinese were required to speak English when spoken to by British people. I felt that this was totally unjust. Why weren’t the British required to speak Cantonese, when they lived and worked in a basically Chinese society?

I debated on the issue with one of my British bosses then. He told me that it was in the Chinese’s own interests to be able to speak and write good English, as English was a commonly used international language. I agreed with him on this point, but I was still not convinced as to why the British didn’t bother to learn the language of the place they resided in. After all, they were the guests and we were the hosts. Shouldn’t they at least have the courtesy of speaking the language that their hosts spoke? I felt so strongly about this issue that I wrote a letter to the editor of the South China Morning Post on this topic, arguing that breaking the language barrier depended as much on the British as on the Chinese. It got published, although I didn’t know if it had any impact or not.

Over the ensuing years, I have tried to stick to my principle of speaking my own mind whenever I detect gross injustice, but not as vigorously as I would have liked, not least because of livelihood realities. Still, I would like to think that I have done my part, as I firmly believe in what Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” It’s immodest of me to regard myself as good, though….(smiley)


Anonymous said...

A few points:

Your blog is in English, not Chinese.

Is this because you want to reach a wider audience?

"they were the guests and we were the hosts" - I'm not sure about that.

No matter what Beijing says, Hong Kong and Kowloon were ceded to the British.

And how many people fled to the Colony after 1949? They were allowed in as guests by the government.

You also talk about Cantonese as if it is just a language. It's one of the most difficult to learn.

I've always said, that if I was in France or Italy or Spain or maybe event Germany (but not the Netherlands) I would have been fluent years ago.

A native English speaker can live in Hong Kong and not speak any Cantonese at all.

When I speak Cantonese to people, they are looking at me, and listening in English.

So my bad Cantonese has to be repeated.

I've lost track of the number of times I have spoken just two or three words, and people are surprised.

It makes me wonder how often foreigners try to speak the language.

You complained about the British colonial masters speaking English.

How about the Beijing masters now speaking Mandarin here? Should they learn Cantonese? Should Donald not speak in Mandarin at functions when people from the mainland are involved?

And anyway, quite a few government officials did try and speak Cantonese in the old days.

Alice Poon said...

Hi Anonymous. Thanks for your comments.

Yes, one reason for writing my blog in English is to reach a wider audience and to try to enhance the English-speaking world's understanding of things happening in HK & China. Another is that I'm more proficient in expressing myself in English than in Chinese (having been educated in an English school and I've always loved the English language).

I think at least Hong Kong natives are entitled to call themselves hosts, irrespective of colonization, which itself is deemed a barbaric act anyways.

I agree that Cantonese is difficult to learn, but it is the effort that counts. Look at Daisann McLane's blog - I do admire her for her efforts at learning the language and she's excellent at it! And I'm sure she's gaining Chinese friends faster than any other newly in town gweilo or gweipo who don't even try to speak the language.

Beijing people who live in HK should try to speak Cantonese. Likewise, HK people who settle down in Beijing should try to speak Mandarin.

hkorbust said...

The temptation for most Western visitors to Hong Kong will be to learn Mandarin, not Cantonese.

It is considerably easier and will be much more useful in the future.

No disrespect to Cantonese, which is a fun language, but that's probably the reality.

Alice Poon said...

(To richard h)

Hi Richard,

Thanks for your comment. Yes, it's the reality. It's just that we Hong Kongers are striving so hard to retain our own identity, and Cantonese (especially Hong Kong style Cantonese) is one of the many Hong Kong cultural features that we would like to hang on to and even promote. On the other hand, I'm absolutely OK with Westerners' preference for Mandarin (or Putonghua) over Cantonese, although I would strongly advise that they learn traditional Chinese writing rather than the simplied version, especially if they want to delve into Chinese history and culture.