By Julie Tong, AsAmNews Intern
Trustees of City College of San Francisco voted unanimously Thursday to save the community college’s Cantonese language program.
Board of Trustee Alan Wong introduced the program to create a Cantonese certificate program and classes transferable for credit to the University of California. Two other trustees co-sponsored the measure.
During a visit to St. Luke’s Hospital in San Francisco, Wong was flagged down by an old Chinese woman with a “big purple eye.” In Cantonese, the woman explained to him that she had been randomly punched and then pushed off of a bus. However, because she could not speak English, both the police officers at the scene and hospital workers were unable to help her.
For Wong, the incident emphasized the need for a strong Cantonese language program that could provide critical training to first responders, government workers, and other essential service providers. Cantonese language courses are particularly critical in San Francisco, where the majority of the Chinese population speaks the language.
Despite overwhelming support and interest from the local community, Cantonese classes at CCSF had been steadily cut. The two classes in Fall 2021 were overenrolled by 152% and 120%, and the single Spring 2022 class already has a waitlist. The problem is that CCSF, unlike the College of Alameda does not offer a Cantonese certificate program; thus, courses cannot fulfill the University of California’s non-English course requirement. Further, because state funding for the college is determined by student outcomes in certificate or degree programs, budget cuts have resulted in the near elimination of the Cantonese program.
During the meeting attended virtually by AsAmNews, Wong spoke about how critical Cantonese courses were in ensuring the safety of the San Francisco Chinese community.
“Ensuring that we have a strong and robust Cantonese program is not just about protecting Chinese culture, language, and history,” Wong said, “but ensuring that we can train and support the next generation of public safety, health care, and social workers to serve our community.”
During the board meeting, numerous CCSF students, alumni, and community allies spoke out about the importance of the Cantonese program in their personal and professional lives. In the minute they were each allotted during the meeting, they spoke about how critical Cantonese language skills were in their jobs as firefighters, public utility employees, medical workers; they recalled bonding with Cantonese-speaking family members; they reconnected with their cultural roots.
Safety and access to emergency services were a major consideration for numerous community members, reflecting how language differences are a significant barrier to accessing emergency services in San Francisco. Per the city’s 2021 Language Access Compliance Summary Report, 43.6% of Limited English Proficient client interactions in the city were in Cantonese. The language was the second most requested translation for 911 domestic violence calls, and the most common barrier for Asian callers seeking help from the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Numerous speakers observed the tangible effects a lack of language has on community members. One recalled having to intervene and translate after seeing an EMT standing outside a women’s home without doing anything, as the EMT was unable to communicate with the woman. Doug Mei, a firefighter paramedic and director of the Asian Firefighters Association, observes that immigrants may not be comfortable calling 911 “regardless of how their emergency maybe.”
CCSF Cantonese classes were also critical for multiple speakers working in the medical field, who experienced firsthand how language proficiency could improve patient treatment. A reproductive care specialist described the “culturally inclusive competent care” she was able to provide to Cantonese-speaking mothers with the help of her language skills. A volunteer at a Chinese hospital spoke about how her Cantonese speaking abilities helped her contribute to vaccinating “hundreds of people per day” against COVID. A third speaker who had worked in medicine for 12 years found that CCSF Cantonese classes helped her better secure treatment for the patients she saw.
“I have seen countless times when Chinese patients who don’t speak English get confused and lost in the healthcare system due to a language barrier,” she said. “By taking these Cantonese classes at City College, it has given me the ability to assist the Chinese patients with basic communications and direct them correctly so that they can receive that the care that they need.”
For Hudson Liao, the founder of the nonprofit advocacy organization Asians are Strong, language classes have become even more crucial in an era of rising anti-Asian hate crimes against the Chinese community.
“This is not a budget decision. It is a decision that will directly impact the lives and safety of the Chinese population in San Francisco, especially right now,” he said. “We have already heard the testimony regarding victim support. Humans rights should not be dictated by the language they speak.”
For numerous other members, taking Cantonese classes had significant personal value for them. Taking CCSF Cantonese classes over the pandemic allowed one community member to bond with his 92-year-old Cantonese-speaking mother during a time of isolation. Another learned to communicate with her Cantonese-speaking in-laws, bringing her family closer together.
For Brian Quan, a board member of the Chinese American Democratic Club, Cantonese classes are essential in ensuring cultural knowledge continues to be passed down to later generations.
“We are an inflection point with our generational transfer of knowledge and culture, especially as Asian hate is growing,” Quan said during the hearing. “Policies like this support the ability for younger people to reconnect with their older generations and learn a lot of facts, history, knowledge and cultural continuity that would be lost if they could no longer speak to their elders.”
Overall, the unanimous approval of the resolution marks an important stepping stone in the accessibility of essential services and the preservation of the culture of the city’s large population of Cantonese speakers. As Wong observed, prioritizing Cantonese classes in the city he describes as the “Chinese capital of America” is an important precedent: “if we don’t have this program here, then we’re not going to have it anywhere.”
“Cantonese is the backbone of so many in the Chinese community. And without having appropriate bilingual public safety staff, firefighters, police officers, social workers, health care workers, as demonstrated in my own personal experience, then the Chinese community would be isolated,” he said. “For me, this would lead to the erasure of the entire community. And this is why it’s so important to me, and this is why I’m pushing this resolution.”
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I have fond memories of the grandfatherly Mr. Dan Kwan, who taught the gateway class for Cantonese: 10A.
Unfortunately, he’s no longer with us.
In another example of nothing new under the sun, in 2013, Mr. Kwan is mentioned here:
“CCSF Healthcare Interpreter Program 15th Anniversary Graduation Celebration”
Lastly, regarding the rationale for service workers being able to interact with English-less members of the public, there’s a Chinese phrase for that:
As a 3rd-generation San Franciscan, I was the only health provider at a Community Health Center, “NOT” fluent in Cantonese. I had to learn quickly on-the-job! This skill was tested when I intervened to translate a police investigation in my neighborhood Walgreens. I stepped in to translate for a police officer questioning a non-English speaking robbery victim. She was pickpocketed of her $5 purse on a bus. “Auntie, how much was stolen?” The surrounding shoppers all gasped… “$500 cash!” The victim was less embarassed to report because I spoke her language.