A CLASS OF THEIR OWN.
As reported in Sunday Express dated 29/7/2007. by Premankur Biswas.
A quiet corner of the city bears witness to a quieter movement. The Chinese community of Kolkata wants to reaffirm their identity by learning how to read and write in their native tongue.
The lazy July afternoon may unfold itself in the narrow moss covered Bentinck Street lane. Ten year-old Albert Lin may cast a furtive glance at the ticking Ajanta clock. The ramshackle ceiling fan may whirr up a lullaby like in films depicting typical classroom situations. But make no mistake. This is no ordinary classroom. “This class is held together by history. A common history that each one of the students here shares,” claimed Paul Chung, president of the Indian Chinese Association. “ Every student here has made a conscious decision to reconnect with his or her roots. Which is why for the past one year we have been teaching an eclectic bunch of Chinese people from all walks of life, how to read write in their own language,’ he adds, before gently pointing out to little Albert a mistake in a neat row of logograms, the units of the Chinese script.
However, Albert betrays no such sense of purpose. “ I’m here because my father want me to read and write in Chinese,” says the standard five of St. Joseph’s Collegiate School. Many of his more mature classmates nod their heads in agreement. “ I’m of Chinese origin, I do not know how to read and write in the language. Moreover, I do not know how to speak in Mandarin, the most popular dialect of China. I felt that it’s something I need to do,” affirms William Wong, who owns a chain of dry cleaning stores across Kolkata, before going back to memorizing a page from his cop of Han Yu, a beginner’s book in Mandarin. “It’s difficult,’ he smiles “to go back to the books.”
“Mandarin in the most widely spoken dialect in China. However, many Chinese of the city do not speak this dialect because their ancestors were Hakka or Cantonese speakers,” states Chung, who has arranged for a teacher from China to help him over his endeavour. “And before you ask me, let me confirm, the Hakka noodles that you love in called so because it’s a dish that belongs to the Hakka people.” he smiles.
Noodles and sauces are stuff that 26-year-old Paul Liu is more comfortable with. An employee with a popular city-based Chinese confectioner, Liu seems somewhat listless within the timetable and flow charts covered classroom. Yet he is determined. “ I’m slowly picking u Chinese, and it’s wonderful feeling to read poster and newspapers in Chinese. If you ask me why do I need to learn Chinese now, I wouldn’t know what to say. All I know is that there is an overwhelming need.” States Liu.
For Fiona Lee, a student of JD Birla College, the answer comes more easily.” I’m learning how to read and write in Chinese because I want to brighten my career prospects. With a burgeoning demand for Chinese speaking people in the IT sector, a sound knowledge of Chinese will definitely improve my prospects.’ States Lee.
Her namesake, Fiona Lin, though, has a different ambition. “ My only aim now is to follow the Mandarin dialect so that I can follow the Chinese films of my favourite actor Chow Yun Fat n CCTV, the Chinese channel available in cable networks around Kolkata,’ laughs Lin. “ Actually, I feel learning Chinese will help me understand my culture better. Difficult as it is to deal with all the stereotypes we are attributed with,’ she adds.
Paul Chung agrees. ”The Chinese identity in the city suffers from many dichotomies. At one level we feel very Indian, at the other, there at this sense of insecurity which generations of Chinese have inherited since the 1962 Indo-China War. That was when our loyalties were questioned. I remember how my own community deemed me a traitor when I took up English as the medium of higher-level education way back in the 1950s. Today the situation is quite to the contrary,’ he states.
Maria Chung, a teacher in Our Lady Queen of the Mission School, has dealt with such complexities all her life.” When I was growing up as a young girl in Kolkata, I used to feel detached from my community. The rituals, the signboards and the festivals never made complete sense. Today, when our teacher tells us about the significance of each word, and sentence, I feel much more rooted. In a sense it’s like going back home,’ claims Maria, who feels her stint as a “born again” student has made her a more sensitive teacher.
Chung’s faith, it seems, is bearing fruit.” My students are being slowly initialed to various aspect of Chinese culture. Today they actually watch Chinese movies and follow Chinese television serials. If they accept Chinese popular culture, it will be easier for them to learn the language,’ says Chung.
So now poster of Chow Yun Fat and Jackie Chan vie for attention on the walls of self-confessed Hrithik Roshan fan, anl Liu. “ I make it a point to watch Chinese movies whenever they age screened in multiplexes. Earlier, I would follow the subtitles, but now I’m confident about the dialogues,” beams Liu, before going back t his copy of Han Yu.
As the students of the class ready themselves for another three hour session. Paul Chung excitedly announces that there is a surprise for them. He introduces Chang Kha, the new teacher, who has been quietly observing the going ons all this while. A round of applause and giggles greets the newcomer from the Chinese mainland, who doesn’t speak even a word in English. “ He will teach them authentic Chinese and will also help them get the accent right,” Chung beams, “Soon my class will go to different schools around the country teach people Chinese.” He sums up.