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Hassan: School life was bittersweet, but fluency in Cantonese, English, Nepali and Urdu, is unique.

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

Hassan is 22 years old and studying film and TV at the Hong Kong Design Institute. He has his own YouTube channel where he posts commentaries on internet videos, film photography videos and video essays.

Hi Hassan, You are quite a polyglot - what languages do you speak at home?

Usually, I speak Nepalese to my Mum and Urdu to my Dad - with some Nepalese mixed in there. My parents speak very good English, so sometimes we speak English and sometimes my sister and I speak Chinese together.

When did you start learning Chinese?

At first I went to an EMI kindergarten, but we moved to Fanling when I was about 5 years old and my parents put me in the nearby Chinese language kindergarten.

For primary I went to the Fanling public primary school – that was all taught in Chinese.

There was one other South Asian family with children in the school, but I didn’t really know them.

In the first couple of years, I didn’t have many friends and I would sit in the classroom on my own during recess. But by Primary Three I had made a few friends and I’m still in touch with them now. It was a bit lonely, but I guess it was OK. I wasn’t bullied or anything.

Could your parents help with the homework?

No, not at all. My parents can both speak some basic Chinese, but they can’t read or write. My mother found me a tutor, an old retired teacher, who focused on teaching me the basics of Chinese, rather than simply doing the homework for me. She taught me stroke order and even basic Chinese vocabulary. To be honest, the level of Chinese at school wasn’t suitable for me, so my tutor helped me a lot.

How was school socially?

For most of my primary school it was very hard for me to communicate, I remember that vividly and I think because of this I missed out on how to make Chinese friends, especially in lower primary school. It took a long time for me to communicate with other Chinese children, I didn’t have a head start - I was late in the race.

How were Chinese lessons?

I remember I was very afraid of the Chinese teacher, not because he was a bad guy, he was very nice, but because he taught Chinese, I didn’t really understand a lot of those lessons.

In Form 4, they start teaching classical Chinese which is very different from normal Cantonese. This kind of Chinese was very hard for me to understand, but it was hard on the local kids too. That was a weird shift for me, because now I wasn't the only one who found Chinese tough.

Do you have any tips on how to deal with dictations?

I can’t give you any tips, I needed them myself!

I was very bad at dictation. I think maybe I had dyslexia, which made words a terrible nightmare for me, especially Chinese ones. As I’ve got older, I’ve been able to focus more but when I was small I didn’t know what the hell was happening .

How did you cope psychologically?

My mood was normally OK. The main reason for this was because my parents didn’t force me to get good grades in Chinese, they understood I was a foreign kid learning Chinese. Sometimes, when I showed my Mum my report card, she would look disappointed, but often she would just make fun of me, she would say I was “first from the bottom of the class".

If you didn’t know Chinese, a lot of the other subjects were also affected – especially maths and science. My Mum is good at maths and she could help me at the beginning, but there was so much written Chinese in the textbook, so eventually I had to get a maths tutor.

For design, I was very good at the subject but I was often confused by the writing in the textbook, it was if I had the tools but didn’t know what to do with them.

How was secondary?

Not easy!I went to the The Church of Christ in China Kei San Secondary School in Fanling, where I was the only student from a non-Chinese speaking family.

Form 1 to form 3 was academically very hard, we needed to learn a lot of subjects.

There was a period of time in Form 2 where I was kind of bullied. But generally I was very friendly with everyone, so I had the support from the bad boys in class and they took care of me. Once time, one of the students was calling me ‘ah chai’ and I was very pissed about it and went and pushed him. After I hit him, everyone was asking me if I was OK, because they knew that usually I am very even tempered.

What extra help did you get from the school?

Not much.

It felt like, ‘this is secondary school, it’s your own responsibility to learn well and get good marks’, so I didn’t get any help at all. Also, by then we had moved to another part of Fanling, so I didn’t go to the tutor anymore.

At Secondary school I had a teacher who recognized I spoke very good English, so she started training me for the poem speaking competitions. This helped me, I felt the school valued my English language skills and this boosted my confidence.

I wish the teachers could have helped me get more Chinese friends; if I’d been able to spend more time doing engaging activities with them, it would have given my Chinese a boost.

What did you gain from the experience?

From the beginning I always knew I was different. For me, knowing this made me question why I was different and this questioning leads to a lot of self- awareness. I think that’s a useful thing to have as you grow older.

Speaking Cantonese must be good for your job prospects?

For sure. Recently I worked for the Salvation Army Integrated Service for Street Sleepers. Quite a few of their clients were South Asians, so I was able to translate for them. It was a great experience for me too as I felt I could use my language skills to help people in my community. Now I’m doing some bilingual presenting, in Cantonese and Urdu, for a series of Chinese language learning videos; speaking English, Cantonese and Urdu fluently, is quite unique.

You are studying film and TV – are your language skills useful?

I think being able to speak Chinese and other languages helps me see more sides of an issue. Hong Kong is becoming very polarized, but my view of Hong Kong is different and I’m able to be less biased.

Looking back how do you feel about your educational experience?

Looking back it’s bittersweet. Not easy at all. I wish I could have been more mature and not felt ashamed that I didn’t know certain things in Chinese. I wish I’d talked to the teachers about the things I didn't understand.

I still recommended that my sister also go to a Chinese secondary school. I think the education system has improved with regards ethnic minorities. The school supports her, they give her extra classes with one-on-one teachers for Maths and Chinese. So I’m hopeful things are changing for the better.

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