Climbing up a gloomy stair inside a tenement building, I had a mission to help a little South Asian girl prepare for her Chinese-language examination, but also to do what I could to incorporate her and her entire family into our local community - a Chinese community.
I entered her tenement, which was composed of two bedrooms - and also two families. A Pakistani housewife was busy painting a wall. 'I have to do so, because her father is busy outside earning a living. He's exhausted when he gets home,' Erica's mother told me. This is a typical life for many South Asian families. Underprivileged, poor levels of education, separated from mainstream Chinese - all these things apply to their hard lives, but they insist on residing in Hong Kong. It is all about money. They can be paid better here than in their home countries.
Language, undoubtedly, is one of the toughest challenges they face. Chinese is only their second language, or perhaps even third behind English.
Erica speaks pretty good Chinese. She can articulate most of the Chinese words she has learned in school. Unfortunately she is inferior to local students because she does not realise the meaning of those words.
'Hai pa (害怕),' she says. But when I ask her what it means, she is silent and stares helplessly at me. 'It means afraid,' I say. During weekly workshops organised by Joint Hall Social Service (JHSS) I had not fully realised the seriousness of this language barrier. But at that moment, as a mentor and a tutor, I understand. That is why I have dedicated myself to serving as the person-in-charge for JHSS, despite being a core member for a year already. South Asians living here are keen to learn more Chinese grammar and vocabulary, but they also wish to be incorporated into our community in Hong Kong.
Biases, nonetheless, are everywhere. The Race Discrimination Ordinance was gazetted in July, 2008, and will come into full effect sometime this year. At its core is fairness to all regardless of racial or ethnic characteristics. In terms of language issues, it makes translation services for ethnic groups compulsory.
On the one hand, I consider this a big step towards an ethnically harmonious society. But on the other hand, I am worried about whether it will truly create harmony. If ethnic groups get less chances to make use of Chinese, how can they integrate and become 'real' Hong Kong citizens?
I prefer the idea of boosting educational resources. Education is always a powerful tool and making an effort to strengthen Chinese proficiency would make for better communication between minorities such as South Asians and us.
Love would be my recommendation as well. Whenever I play with these children, when I teach them, I gain satisfaction. Their simple-heartedness truly touches me. It is what I learn from them. Pure love would be my offer in return. I love their smiles and hence I promise myself that I must keep those smiles sustained. To help them be rid of isolation, poverty and bias are my goals.
We did not know how long the Joint Hall Social Service would last when we started out. There are several of us who regularly and unfailingly attend the Saturday gatherings and keep in close contact with the children. When we recruited new members, there were a hundred students who wanted to join. We could not offer them enough service opportunities. It's now time to plan for a bigger project or new target groups. The passing of the anti-race legislation in 2008 came as a boost to our morale as well. We feel proud that the Hong Kong community can move one step forward in inclusiveness.
Building a better world is not hard, it just depends on your mentality. As university students, we benefit a lot from the community. It is time we paid back."