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.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at [email protected]­nadai­ Wang Yuke re­ports.

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.

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