Although the Thai generations show a large extent of assimilation into Hong Kong, it does not necessarily mean they have identified themselves solely as Hongkongers. In fact, cultural diversity and multiple identities do exist in a place with successful integration like Hong Kong (Otto, 2005). Since the parental generation shifts between Cantonese and Thai in diverse contexts, it is found that their processes of identification are more complex in acknowledging two dominant identities: Hongkonger and Thai. For the second generation, however, it is clearer to see their preferences of Hong Kong identity over Thai-Chinese identity. The brother in the second family explained his identity.
“I regard myself as Hongkonger primarily but of course I do acknowledge my identity as a Thai-Chinese. People around me treasure the Thai culture. This makes me proud of this double identity and somehow motivate me to learn more about the Thai language and culture.”
Does the language play an important role in the formation of identities? What are the major factors of constructing the Thai-Chinese identity among our subjects?
Even though most of our Thai-Chinese interviewees are born and raised in Hong Kong, they tend not to deny the family relationship with their relatives and Thai ancestry. The acknowledgement of family ties could be separated from their language choices. In other words, even with the absence of language influence, one could develop his or her Thai-Chinese identity based on their blood ties and origin. In the third family, the brother has little knowledge about Thai language. He could only speak a few Thai words such as those meaning “eat” and “shower”. However, he still recognizes himself as a second generation of Thai-Chinese.
“I see myself as a Thai-Chinese second generation because I am born with this identity, although I speak Cantonese most of the time and hardly speak or understand Thai.”
Thus, language could influence one’s identity, but it is not the only determining factor in the cases we have investigated. Blood relation, as an attribute of an individual, provides the easiest way for people to categorize themselves into distinctive social groups and gain physical and mental resources from a social identity (Sears, Fu, Henry & Bui, 2003).
Because of the negligible discrimination towards Thai community in Hong Kong, most of the Thai-Chinese acknowledge their second generation identity. Hong Kong people have shown appreciation in Thai culture, especially Thai food and the traditional festival of Songkran in Hong Kong. Some of them are even proud of this identity and willing to learn more about the Thai language and culture. Thus, the open attitude towards cultural diversity in Hong Kong has reinforced their Thai-Chinese identity.
However, according to Equal Opportunities Commission, systemic barriers still exist in education and employment for most ethnic minorities in Hong Kong nowadays (Chow, 2013). For the second generations, they may be easily failed if they could not master Chinese (Chow, 2013). This not only limits their language choices, but also affects the development of their Thai identity due to systemic discrimination (Chow, 2013). As in the focused cases, there were not much incentives for these second generations to acquire Thai language and culture in local schools.
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According to Bucholtz and Hall (2005), adequation, the feeling of being similar to a community, would foster the construction of identity. Since the Thai-Chinese are born and raised in Hong Kong, they are highly assimilated in the Hong Kong community and culture. There are only little families which maintain Thai traditions or language. This could be an obstacle for them to recognize their ethnic identity through the ways they live or the language they speak. As a result, most Thai-Chinese have acknowledged themselves primarily as HongKongers, or even if they realise they are also Thai-Chinese, they see themselves no difference from Hong Kong people in terms of living style.
Besides culture, political identity, social circle and Cantonese proficiency could also reinforce the Hong Kong identity of the Thai-Chinese second generation (Wylegala, 2010). Understanding the fact that they are enjoying same political rights as local Hongkongers and making mostly Hong Kong friends are positive factors contributing to their Hong Kong identity (Wylegala, 2010). In Hong Kong, speaking Cantonese is also a factor constitutes this identity as it makes the second generation feel socially integrated (Wylegala, 2010). However, the ethnic language, Thai, may thus be suppressed in daily language usage.
Speaking Thai or not has a great influence on Thai-Chinese identity. It is found that the more they speak Thai, the more they recognize themselves as Thai-Chinese. The brother in the first family has agreed that language is a reminder of his ethnic identity.
“I am indeed very thankful to my parents who taught me the Thai language. I am proud of myself that I can speak Thai fluently. I know many second generation of Thai-Chinese can only understand Thai but cannot speak it. Speaking Thai also reminds me of my special ethnic identity.”
Also, the brother in the third family, who cannot speak fluently in Thai also has some comments on language and identity.
“If I have a chance to learn Thai in the future, I believe I will see myself more a Thai because I could communicate with other Thais. In this way, I could establish a connection with the Thai community.”
Language is the foundation on which people base to construct their own identities. It is not only because it acts as a tool for people to communicate. It is indeed a medium of memories and culture which can be inherited from generation to generation (Wylegala, 2010). Thus, although one could still identify themselves with a specific identity because of the feeling of a shared past, memories, traditions, culture etc., without language, one could only express and/or practice these cultural understandings with difficulty (Wylegala, 2010). Language is thus the foundation and core element in one’s identity (Wylegala, 2010). Language is found to be very fragile and prone to distinction if nobody cares. At the same time, if one does not often speak a language, he or she is less likely to be aware of their ethnic identity (Wylegala, 2010).
Otto, H. (2005). Identity, Integration and Assimilation: Factors of Success and Failure of Migration. Refugee Survey Quarterly, 24(4). Pp. 132-150
Wylegala, A. (2010). Minority language as identity factor: case study of young Russian speakers in Lviv. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 2010(201), p.29(23)
Bucholtz, M., & Hall, K. (2005). Identity and interaction: A sociocultural linguistic approach. Discourse studies, 7(4-5), 585-614.
Sears, D., Fu, M. Y., Henry, P. J., & Bui, K. (2003). The Origins and Persistence of Ethnic Identity among the “New Immigrant” Groups. Social Psychology Quarterly, 66(4). Pp. 419-437.
Chow, Y. (2013, May 25). Racist Hong Kong is still a fact. South China Morning Post. Retrieved from http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1245226/racist-hong-kong-still-fact