On most days at the University of Hong Kong, it’s a common sight to see hundreds of students crowding around a stage in Happy Park, tip-toeing and craning their necks in an effort to catch a glimpse of the ongoing event. Excited chatter floats across campus, acting as an informal invitation for passersby to join them. However, if you listen closer, everyone, including audience members who discuss the event and the emcees, all speak Cantonese; effectively isolating non-Cantonese speakers from participating, or even enjoying, the event. International students stroll past the area, and they too, seem intrigued. Their presence is acknowledged as the others shift to let them join the crowd, yet nobody offers to translate. Perhaps feeling unwelcomed, they leave after a few short minutes.
This is an everyday occurrence for most international students, who currently constitute 23.7% of the undergraduate student body. The high proportion of international students is something HKU prides itself on; compared to the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where international students constituted 18.7% and 11.3% in 2014 respectively, HKU is undeniably the most international.
Most foreign students come to HKU as it is among the top 30 universities in the world, and is also marketed as being international. Hayoung Joh, a Korean Year Three student studying Business and Wealth Management, had high hopes when she applied to HKU. Although born in Korea, she spent most of her childhood in Singapore, a country that prides itself on multi-cultural harmony and the bilingualism of their citizens. “I heard Hong Kong was similar, so I applied here”, she says. “In fact, I remember quite clearly that the website stated that all activities are conducted in English.”
Similarly, Zhou Xing Zhi, a Chinese student, actually gave up the chance to study at one of China’s top universities to come to HKU. “I wanted new opportunities [that otherwise wouldn’t be available in China]”, she says, “I’ve never been to Hong Kong, so everything was new and exciting to me.”
However, their actual experiences turned out to be quite different. Joh said, “I feel quite excluded from everything, to be honest.” As a non-Cantonese speaker, she says, almost all of the activities are impossible to participate in, since the main language used is Cantonese. “I feel bad when people have to translate for me”, she says. “I feel like a burden, so I would rather just not participate.” In Hong Kong, ‘Asia’s World City’, it is ridiculous that the language barrier is such a prominent problem. “My status as a full-time undergraduate student is the same as local students”, Joh says, “yet my opportunities are limited.” Despite feeling like the situation is unfair, Joh has come to reluctantly accept the situation, as she does not believe much can be done to improve it.
As the language barrier seems to be the main problem, it would seem that Zhou, who speaks basic Cantonese, would have an easier time. However, she says that she still feels disconnected from most of what happens at HKU. Other than tutorials and lectures, in most group discussions and extracurricular activities, people mainly speak Cantonese. “Sometimes I don’t fully understand what they’re saying, because I’m not fluent in it”, she says. Compared to English, Mandarin should be a language that more HKU students should be comfortable with, yet students seem to be just as unaccommodating of students from the mainland.
The university offers basic Cantonese courses, which teaches students how to introduce themselves or how to order food. However, some find that it’s ineffective. Joh says, “The course is only offered for one or two semesters, so we don’t actually learn much.”
Samantha Sutowo, a Journalism freshman, adds that “it could be improved if we get more opportunities to practice our Cantonese with locals.”
Despite HKU’s reputation as one of Asia’s leading universities, many non-Cantonese speaking students find themselves isolated from the activities and events due to the language barrier, and the lack of interaction between local and international students. This is something that many international students find unsatisfactory, which may potentially hurt the reputation of the university. The percentage of international students is actually factored in when calculating the QS University Rankings, a well-respected gauge of tertiary education that most high school students refer to when choosing universities. HKU, which was ranked 28 in 2014, has fallen 2 places since then. In fact, UST is now ranked 28, causing HKU to lose its spot as HK’s top university.
Sylvia Wong, the Chief Advising Officer on Campus Life, says that the university is aware of the problem. In 2012, a survey for international students was conducted, which returned less than stellar results about their satisfaction at the university. Wong says, “we think arrival satisfaction is important; a good arrival experience can have a very positive impact on forthcoming studies.” As a result, the Center of Development and Resources for Students (CEDARS) implemented the Weeks of Welcome (WoW) program, a two week long program that aims to ease foreign students’ integration into HKU’s community.
Ruby Tam Wan-Ching, a local freshman who attended one of the WoW events, sadly found the experience underwhelming. “I don’t think it’s promoted much; there weren’t enough people”, she says. “Apart from myself, there were a few other local students, but they kept to themselves and didn’t really interact with others.”
Apart from WoW, other less-known programs also aim to improve student integration. The Family Sharing Program, which pairs foreign students with local host families, offers students the chance to personally experience Hong Kong culture by attending their ‘family’s’ gatherings and celebrating traditional holidays with them. According to CEDARS, in 2014, 161 foreign students were matched with 79 host families.
Another example is the Campus Internalization and Integration Funding Scheme, which is a University Grants Committee-funded program, which supports activities “initiated, planned and organized” by students to promote international integration. Funding for this program is generous, with a maximum subsidy amount of HKD$100,000. In 2014, 17 of the 57 submitted applications were approved and funded by the UGC.
In terms of student-initiated activities, the International Society is one of the student groups that cooperates with CEDARS to host these initiation activities, and also organizes their own to welcome incoming students. The society was formed as the students saw a lack of English-speaking societies, and hence wanted to fill this gap. Jessie Chui Tsz Yan, the Internal Vice-Chairman, says the society is “a community that anyone can join without any language barriers”. Despite the fact that the society is a mere two years old, the number of members have rapidly expanded to reach around 300-400 members this year, which reflects the high number of HKU students who appreciate the society’s use of English. The society mainly organizes social gatherings, which include recreational activities such as hiking, and meals together; yet these events are invaluable, as they allow students to form friendships and a community that they belong to.
It’s safe to say that despite efforts to mitigate the problem, international students aren’t exactly satisfied with their university life here at HKU. They pay HK$146,000 per year, an astronomical sum compared to the HK$42,100 per year for local students, yet they still cannot participate in most of the activities they have paid for, due to the fact that they do not speak Cantonese.
However, this is not their fault – as local students are the ‘hosts’ in this case, they should be actively welcoming foreign students instead of alienating them. For HKU to remain respected as an ‘international institution’, it is up to local students to be aware of this problem, evaluate their behavior and initiate change.