Pakistani masters Cantonese
Hina Butt was pilloried and ostracized for her faltering Cantonese in childhood. But the determined girl of Pakistani descent shocked her peers by mastering the local dialect and finding a vocation in the process.
Looking at her today, confident and reassuring in her manner, no one would suspect that Hina Butt had been met with scorn, ridicule and rejection by classmates in her quest to land her dream job as a Chinese teacher. Butt, who is of Pakistani descent, teaches a class of 20 nonChinese kids. She pronounces the Chinese words carefully and clearly, then asks the class to repeat the words.
“You may not believe how miserable I was when I was in school. I was a total outcast,” Butt revealed.
Back when she was at school, her classmates scoffed at the notion she could not speak and read Chinese as well as them. She hated that period of her life, but in a way she is thankful. “I was driven to prove myself to others who once undermined me and laughed at me,” she said.
“I have Pakistan blood, but I identify myself as a Chinese,” said Butt, 27, who is among the very few Chinese teachers of non-Chinese origin in Hong Kong.
She has taught Chinese at a Tuen Mun secondary school for eight years and also tutors children on weekends. She has made a determined effort to identify difficulties facing ethnic minority students in their Chinese studies, experimenting with different teaching methods to help them navigate the steep learning curve. “My class always stays ahead of other classes and finishes learning tasks ahead of time,” Butt said with a touch of pride.
Her career stems from her upbringing at home. Her parents put great emphasis on learning Chinese from the time Butt and her siblings were very young. Cantonese is the language spoken in the home.
As a child, Butt went to a mainstream primary school in the hope that she would learn to speak and write Chinese as well as her local peers. In Primary 4, Butt was put in a class for non-Chinese students. Her father was dismayed; the textbooks were so simple, they seemed like kindergarten stuff.
“By the time I graduated, I was far behind my local peers in Chinese,” Butt recounted.
Babel in the woods
Worse still, mainstream secondary schools refused to enroll her. Fortunately, the headmistress of Butt’s primary school stepped up for her, referring Butt to a mainstream school.
However, life at her new school wasn’t anything like Butt had hoped for. Her life was all about shaming and bullying from local kids. Even the kids who had been friendly shunned her eventually, giving in to peer pressure. “I cried a lot during the day,” she recalled. She would seek sanctuary in the school library. But she kept up appearances at home, not wanting to give her parents reason to worry.
Making matters worse, her grades fell during her first year of secondary school, which seemed to fuel the hostility of her classmates. She failed every subject but English in term exams. Her classmates could recognize at least 4,000 Chinese characters, while Butt barely knew 1,000, and could understand only about a quarter of what was said in class. She had to scribble down notes and look up the words in a dictionary after class. Butt became silent and withdrawn and started protesting to her parents: “I hate this place! I hate learning Chinese!”
For all the defamation and mockery, Butt stubbornly kept up her determination. “I began to work really, really hard. If others studied one hour, I’d do six hours.” She immersed herself in Chinese newspapers and TV broadcasts as well as Cantonese costume dramas – which she said helped her improve on her weakest subject, Chinese History. Butt’s mother, a housewife with little education, offered to help. “My mom let me teach her to pronounce the Chinese words we learnt. Then she would memorize them in her own way so that she could help me with my Chinese dictation.”
It took Butt a full year to catch up with her classmates. In her third year, Butt climbed to the top of her class, taking classmates and teachers completely by surprise. Clutching the trophy she earned for achievement on stage at assembly, Butt loved the applause that gave her a sense of validation that had been denied her in previous years. “I use my story to communicate that ethnic minority people can excel in Chinese. I want to tell them: ‘You cannot simply define a Hong Kong person as someone who can speak good Chinese or deny someone’s Hong Kong identity just because he or she doesn’t look like a Chinese or can’t speak proper Cantonese.’”
Her accomplishment, on one hand, fueled further resentment from some of her classmates. The memories still sting today as she recalls the comments she heard: “She just worked a little harder than us. We were just lazy and not bothered about the exams. She’s still nothing…” On the other hand, some admired her success and began taking her seriously. With improved self-confidence, Butt allowed herself to be more outgoing. “Before, I didn’t dare to speak in front of my classmates,” Butt said. “Finally I got the courage to open my mouth and, surprisingly, they softened up and asked questions about my mother country and religion.”
Her triumph, after bitter personal struggle, became the catalyst for her to study teaching Chinese as a foreign language at Beijing Normal University Zhuhai campus, Guangdong province. Afterward, she went on to study Chinese language for non-Chinese speakers for her master’s degree at the University of Hong Kong (HKU).
Benefit of experience
She began her career as a full-time teacher in the Tuen Mun school she went to as a student.
The school uses School-based Curriculum Development, which allows teachers flexibility to come up with their own teaching materials and strategies based on what they see as the strengths and weakness of students. “Ethnic minority children do need a specifically designed Chinese curriculum and assistance from specialized teachers,” Butt said.
She recognized that non-Chinese learners easily forget new vocabulary if all they do is memorizing it while using their mother tongue. Butt introduced humorous imagery and stories to teach new vocabulary. It became an exercise in word acquisition. Some prosaic works by famous Chinese writers that are included in mainstream Chinese textbooks are too complex for ethnic students. Butt would prepare a short simple version of the original text, eliminating the difficult parts that were not needed to communicate the message. She created a video before each lesson to give students a preview, explaining the meaning of key words and paragraphs they would be learning. Realizing that Chinese writing poses a great challenge to non-Chinese learners, she created formulas to help students learn faster. “It turned out that they learnt faster and nobody appeared bored anymore,” she said.
Butt’s younger sister, Iaza, had similar experiences academically but was better at initiating friendships with local kids and managed to make some local friends. Iaza introduced her local friends to her sister. “Amazingly, we also got along very well,” grinned Butt, noting that the enlarged social network helped her build confidence and a sense of belonging.
Butt reckons that Hong Kong has lagged behind the Chinese mainland and other Asian locales such as Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia when it comes to researching and cultivating talents in teaching the Chinese language to non-Chinese speakers. “It was only recently that Hong Kong started paying real attention to the demand for Chinese education systems specially designed for nonChinese speakers,” said Butt, noting that she was among the first group of postgraduates enrolled in HKU’s program.
Despite the authorities’ advancements in teaching Chinese to ethnic minority students, in 2014 ethnic students fared little better in practice, according to Butt. Some basic skills are overlooked in the framework, such as Chinese consonants and vowels and how to write Chinese pinyin. These, she said, are crucial for non-native speakers in pronunciation.
Some fundamental knowledge, from the origins and background of Chinese characters to the structure and patterns of sentences, to the usage of Chinese words and terms in different contexts, are given low priority and not explicitly stated in the framework. Butt compared Chinese study (as a second or third language) to a Chinese learning English. “You won’t start with reading Shakespeare’s works, will you? Just like you can’t risk running before being able to crawl and walk. Maybe you could run, eventually, but you have to work really, really hard.”
Raymond Ho, senior equal opportunities officer of the Equal Opportunities Commission, concurred in viewing the framework as ineffective. He noted that every year only a fraction of ethnic minority students take the Chinese language examination of the Diploma of Secondary Education Examination (DSE) “because they know they can’t pass the exam designed for locals”.
Only if the assessment framework is updated and a set of Chinese teaching strategies for ethnic minority students is hammered out can ethnic minorities compete with locals on a level playing field. And that could take a while, Ho thought.
I was driven to prove myself to others who once undermined me and laughed at me.” Hina Butt, non-native secondary school teacher of Chinese
Hina Butt volunteers teaching Chinese in underpriviledged schools of Chinese mainland cities.
Above and right: Hina Butt customized teaching content and materials for nonChinese students and her approaches proved to be effetive.