Friday, 28 March 2014

Montreal through new eyes

My dear friends, I think my time in Montreal is coming to an end.  I came here because I thought I was going to have a large social life. Every time I visited Montreal, I would be staying at a friend's and they would have friends over so I naturally thought that it was very easy to make friends here. Instead, for most of the time I've been here, I've just studied, then went back home. Studied, then went back home.

It's true, I could've tried harder.

As I was walking down the street today, I looked up and thought, "Where else (other than New York) would you see Hipsters walking next to Hassidic Jews? What other place has, right next to this neighbourhood, a mix of Greek, Pakistani, West African neighbourhood next to Little Italy? Someone from Colombia in my French class said that he loves Montréal because of the cultural diversity. "What about Toronto?" I asked, thinking about the city that claims that over 50% of its inhabitants are born outside of Canada. "Too Chinese," he repsonded. "How about Vancouver?" "No, too Chinese." As someone who is Chinese, I felt offended, and yet I understood what he meant.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

French in Québec, Cantonese in Hong Kong

Of course these are very different situations, but I'm trying to reflect on and find out my identity vis-à-vis languages.

While I'm grumbling about not having good enough French to work anywhere in Montreal even though I have been studying French in school for way too long (which is actually part of the problem), I might as well reflect on this.

It's true that my writing still sucks in French, but I have a feeling it's sometimes difficult for Francophones to write as well, since the rules are so multiple and rigid. In any case, I automatically come out as a foreigner when I speak, and I speak mostly the way I would write, so it sounds funny anyway.

Anyway, I'm rambling. What I wanted to say is that I go to a "Francisation" school for adult immigrants to make them learn French so that we can participate in Francophone Quebec society. One of my teachers there said, "Montréal est une ville francophone. Quand on habite ici, il faut qu'on parle français." I totally agree with her. Coming to anywhere in Québec and not speaking French is like going into someone's home and rubbing mud on the floors and kicking the dog. Just don't do that, because it's expected of you not to. What I do disagree with is the harsh language policies from the provincial government, the governing of all-French signage and the 'language police' and just bizarro things from OLFQ, and of course these tensions between the English and French languages contribute to the debate on separatism, even though there are Anglophone separatists. So I'm going to try to compare and analyze the status of Québec French to that of Hong Kong Cantonese in order to get into the heads of people trying to protect a language I don't see going away any time soon.

So here is my take:

  • there are tensions in both territories over issues, and both Québec French and Hong Kong Cantonese have peculiar statuses as they are situated in a context in which the rest of the country does not speak their language! sort of. there are Francophone communities in Anglo Canada and I'm sure there are Cantonese communities in the rest of China
  • neither language is going to disappear non-officially, any time soon, in their respective territories
  • Cantonese, though, was never an official language of Hong Kong. When it was growing, English was the official language, and after the handover, it's been Mandarin. Sort of. I can still speak to government officials in Hong Kong in Cantonese
  • educational tensions abound!
  • if an English-speaking Canadian, knowing that in Québec people speak French but also the younger generations know English, goes to Québec, often they'll be confused as to why people don't want them to speak English (actually, this is really different for Montréal) JUST AS if a Mandarin-speaking mainlander, knowing that in Hong Kong they speak Cantonese but the younger generations know Mandarin, goes to Hong Kong, often they'll be confused as to why people don't want them to speak Mandarin - of course there is a difference for each individual but for these two example people, I see a parallel situation here
  • The federal government is bilingual, so this would be very unlikely to ever occur, but hypothetically, if the federal government in Canada suddenly said that all official government business in Québec must be conducted in English, including state TV stations and so on, there would of course be an uproar. Well, it's happened in Guangdong, a province in China where they speak Cantonese:
The point of all this quipping is that I feel like I'm in a weird place. I don't identify exactly as 'anglophone' in Québec because then that's basically saying my mother tongue is English, which it is but isn't. I think and dream in English, but I learned it all in school and I still don't know how to pronounce some things after 22 years of usage because I never heard my parents say it, or they've pronounced it incorrectly themselves. Anyway, sure, I'd say English is my stronger language compared to French. So I come to Québec and try to learn the French language. And then they speak English to me. I almost dare to say it's the same feeling as if I were a Mainlander trying to learn Cantonese in Hong Kong and people spoke English to me. Except in Hong Kong, I only know Cantonese, the de facto language, but if everyone is being educated in Mandarin, then somehow I'd feel as if the population would lose its Hong Kong or Cantonese culture and identity.

So me being in Hong Kong as a Cantonese speaker (let's just forget the whole English thing, because I don't really speak English in Hong Kong anyway) is like if I knew only how to speak French in Québec. Except not, because I can't even write. And if I did know how to write Chinese, I would have an easier time accessing the more federally more powerful language. But in any case, if I grew up in Hong Kong speaking only Cantonese, and then because of a bilingualism-trilingualism policy after handover, Mainlanders started coming in and taking jobs I couldn't get and speaking in a language at parties that I don't understand and going to schools I couldn't get into and doing business with people I can't do business with because I don't know Mandarin, yeah, I'd be pissed off and I would want to have laws to protect Cantonese. Just a point to all the haters - This is all hypothetical, okay? It's mostly what philosophers call a 'thought experiment'.

And so this exercise has been futile because there are many differences between the situation of Québec French and Hong Kong Cantonese. If someone wants to straighten it out for me, be my guest!