provoking thoughts about the presence of our past

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Bilingualism isn't a sign of Community Decay

OpEd in the Province "Racism in Paradise" Series, Oct. 7, 2013

Resentment over multiculturalism seems to fester just under the surface

Guest column: Bilingualism isn’t a sign of community decay

Professor Henry Yu.

Photograph by: Arlen Redekop , PROVINCE

While riding the 99B bus last year when it was filled to standing room only, I overheard a man say to his companion that he hated how people spoke Chinese to each other. He said it with a visceral anger that caught my attention. I noticed that he was staring at a group of young people across the aisle who were conversing in Cantonese.
I wondered what so infuriated this man. Were they saying something that had offended him? I listened for several minutes but they were just joking about a mutual friend. I realized that what angered the man was not what they were saying -- it was that he could not understand what they were saying. The man, in the meantime, was now telling his companion how Vancouver had gone “downhill.”
I spent the rest of my cross-city journey listening to this pair of conversations -- one a lighthearted discussion among friends, and the other a running social commentary about everything wrong with our society.
Who are we in this city? Is that crowded bus a microcosm of us? On the one hand a city full of young people speaking Chinese, Punjabi, Filipino, English, and dozens of other languages; on the other a seething mass of not-so-quiet resentment?
I was born in Vancouver and I have seen many profound changes here in my life. I also study these changes as a historian. As with many devoted Vancouverites, I wonder about our future together. But I see it through a different lens. For me, the question of who we are is tied to where we are, and when we are.
Where are we? We live in a place that is the product of a long series of continual engagements between trans-Atlantic migrants, trans-Pacific migrants, and indigenous peoples. Our neighbourhoods contain a diversity of origins but also other important aspects of what makes for a rich and vibrant society.
Richmond, a city that to many seems monolithically Chinese, in fact contains a diversity of ethnic Chinese from a wide spectrum of backgrounds. Some speak Cantonese and others speak Mandarin, languages as different from each other when spoken as Italian from French.
When are we? For the first half of our civic history, we were a city of many origins speaking many languages. These included Cantonese, Japanese, Punjabi, and English, but also many Coast Salish and First Nations languages.
We are again a city full of many origins and multiple languages. The challenge is how we deal with what happened in between. We are still recovering from a dark period when non-whites could not vote, were legally excluded from most good jobs, and could not live in many neighbourhoods.
Residential schooling systematically split aboriginal youth from their families in order to strip them of their language and culture.
On the whole, we have repudiated many of the laws and moral values that shaped that period. But there are still many legacies that remain and which cannot be wished away just by saying we have changed.
One of those legacies is the odd belief that it is better that we all speak only English for the benefit of those who can only speak English, rather than allowing those who can speak both English and other languages to be respected and even rewarded for being able to speak many languages. English is extremely useful as a lingua franca, a language used in common by many people who can also speak other languages. That is fundamentally different than saying we should all speak only English all the time.
In this city, almost all those under the age of 25 who can speak Chinese can also speak English. They have the wonderful ability to speak multiple languages.
Those Cantonese-speaking youngsters on the bus likely use English most of the time at school and work. Why be angry at them for being able to also carry on a conversation in another language?
Earlier this year, a proposal was made to Richmond City Council that would require all businesses to have English-language signs. We should celebrate the council’s rejection of that idea. For too long, anti-Asian laws existed in Vancouver and British Columbia that targeted Chinese and other Asians. The memory of that legacy is still raw.
Is there a challenge for non-Chinese customers in a Chinese restaurant that has only Chinese menus and signs? If those who cannot speak Chinese want to eat at some of the best Chinese restaurants in the world, my suggestion is to make a friend at work, or in your neighbourhood, or at your church, who can speak both English and Chinese.
To thank them for translating, host a meal in return. Rather than trying to pass laws, cross the aisle and create a social bond that will make a more civil society that talks and eats together.
Dr. Henry Yu is a professor of history at UBC and was the Co-Chair of the City of Vancouver’s “Dialogues between First Nations, Urban Aboriginal, and Immigrant Communities” Project.


  1. Moving to small regional city I missed listening to (and still miss) the music of different languages, different voices I was used to hearing on the buses and trams of my home city.

  2. That comment got away from me - I meant some fester, some are at ease.