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Students continue fight to save Cantonese at CCSF

CCSF Save Cantonese
Katherine Simpson
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Julia Quon, Melissa Chow, and Lauren Chinn on CCSF's campus.

City College San Francisco and Stanford are two of only 20 Cantonese language education programs in the U.S. Both have come under threat due to budget cuts this year, but students at both universities worked to keep Cantonese classes in the catalog.

Lauren Chinn, Julia Quon, and Melissa Chow were in Cantonese class when they learned that CCSF was cutting classes for the following year. Cantonese were a few of 600 courses and hundreds of part-time and full-time faculty members that came under threat as a part of budget cuts.

“Someone asked the question in class,” Quon says. “And that's when our Cantonese professor told us that Cantonese was going to be cut indefinitely.”

Quon, Chinn, and Chow make a tight team. They arrive for our interview with a stack of typed notes several pages thick.

Chinn comes on her bike, in sweatpants and a hot pink t-shirt with an illustration of Malcolm X and Japanese American activist Yuri Kochiyama. Quon and Chow wear shirts emblazoned with the words “stop Asian hate” and a graphic of the Golden Gate Bridge respectively.

Their efforts over the spring 2021 school year were successful — they got two classes of Conversational Cantonese in the schedule. Both had full wait lists as of this fall.

But despite “saving” Cantonese for the 2021-22 academic year, they’re hoping to convince CCSF to create a certificate program. They see it as a more permanent solution to a recurring problem.

Chinn tells me about similar activism in 2015 which saved Cantonese classes from budget cuts, but only temporarily.

“As of this moment, we’ve been told that Cantonese classes will be preserved for the next couple years. But honestly, this has happened before,” says Chinn. “In the past, Cantonese classes have been starting to be cut, and there's been petitions before.”

Students at Stanford organized a similar effort to preserve Cantonese language classes this year. Mandarin language programs and classes far outnumber Cantonese ones, nationally and locally.

“There's like 17 Mandarin classes, and only a few of them were full. But Cantonese only has two and they were 100 percent,” says Quon.

This is especially stark in a city like San Francisco, where, according to the Census Bureau, 70 percent of Chinese-language speakers speak Cantonese. Nationwide, it’s hard to say which language is more commonly spoken as most Cantonese and Mandarin speakers simply choose “Chinese” on the census. Among those who specify, there are more than 455,000 Cantonese speakers versus 485,000 Mandarin speakers.

Gina Anne Tam, a Stanford alumna and assistant professor of Chinese History at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, says that how universities teach languages is based on what they think will benefit students.

“One of the reasons it's so common to have Mandarin classes across the U.S. is because we commonly think that Mandarin is a very economically valuable skill to learn,” says Tam.

“What makes a language valuable is not decided in a vacuum, right? It is often decided by global power dynamics ... the fact that Mandarin is a national language of China and a national language of Taiwan really matters because nation states have an enormous amount of power to dictate what languages are important.”
Gina Anne Tam

Tam’s research focuses largely on how Chinese nationalism has influenced language use in China, but she says many of the same dynamics are at play in the U.S.

“What makes a language valuable is not decided in a vacuum, right? It is often decided by global power dynamics,” says Tam. “The fact that Mandarin is a national language of China and a national language of Taiwan really matters because nation states have an enormous amount of power to dictate what languages are important.”

For Quon, Chinn, and Chow, the issue is much closer to home.

All three grew up in San Francisco and all three have worked in health care or city services. They each have stories of how even limited Cantonese skills improve the quality of someone’s day.

Take Chow for example. In her work with melanoma patients, she saw the impact of Cantonese language skills firsthand.

One patient in particular, an older man, who only spoke Cantonese, stood out. Her co-workers had warned her that the man was only pursuing treatment to appease his family.

“Just being able to tell him the doctor is gonna take care of you, we're here to support you, we're here for you. And that really changed his mood, I was able to touch his life in a different way,” Chow says.

“The next day his daughter called me and said, 'You know, my dad is so much happier today. He's usually so distressed after treatments, and whatever you did, you really helped him,'” says Chow. “So even a little bit of language that I know really changed his life and mood.”

“It's paying homage to people who have really paved the way for us, and especially with all the Po Pos, and the Je Jes,”
Julia Quon

Each have stories like this. Chinn is a census enumerator and volunteered at Chinese Hospital’s vaccination clinic. Quon is a doula at Zuckerberg San Francisco General.

Quon says that studying Cantonese connects her to San Francisco’s history. “It's paying homage to people who have really paved the way for us, and especially with all the Po Pos, and the Je Jes,” says Quon.

“Saving Cantonese is something I'm really passionate about because I think that we need to take care of each other.”

For Quon, Cantonese is more than a language, it’s about family. She cites sihk jó faahn meih a? (食咗飯未呀?) as her favorite Cantonese phrase because it treats people as if they were family.

Tom Boegel, Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs at CCSF says, “The college has not yet determined instructional budgets for the 2022-23 academic year. The decision and effort involved in pursuing the development of a Cantonese certificate lies with department faculty. They are discussing the development of a program, but have no firm plans at this point.”

The Spring 2022 semester includes the second level of conversational Chinese.

Katherine Simpson is a teacher and journalist in the Bay Area. She's been working in public radio since 2018.