Language, as the primary means of communication, plays an integral part of people’s lives and interacts with other aspects, such as their assimilation into a cultural group and our identity formation. For the Thai-Chinese interviewees, their language choices actually have an influence on how they integrate into Hong Kong as well as the Thai community.
While some of the old generation speak Thai and Cantonese, especially the father or mother from Thai tradition, it is found that the second generation has an overall lower frequency of speaking Thai. Instead, their language choices are substituted by Cantonese, English, or a mixed form of both languages. Thus, a slight language shift is observed in the targeted families. Could it be assumed that the second generation experiences relatively higher social integration and assimilation with local Hong Kong people? On the other hand, could it be supposed their difficulty in connecting with Thai community?

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1. Assimilation in Hong Kong

1.1 Language is not the sole factor of assimilation

Despite their different extents of using Cantonese in daily contexts, both generations feel strongly connected and assimilated with Hong Kong people. The father from the first family speak Cantonese sometimes/rarely when he is at home (50%*), work (10%*), church (15%*) or with friends (15%*), yet he told us that,

“Although I am a Thai, I feel like I am a member in the Hong Kong society. I love this city and would like to help other Thais assimilating into Hong Kong.”

The Thai mother from the second family who mainly speak Thai at church (80%*) also noted that,

“I enjoy living in Hong Kong. Here I have my own family. In Hong Kong, there is not much discrimination against ethnic minorities. I feel like I’m one of them.”

Likewise, for the second generation in all cases, none of them has experienced discrimination. They have received education in local schools and made friends with Cantonese-speaking peers. They are highly assimilated with the local culture and lifestyle (e.g. dressing style, language use) which makes them appear like local people. Given that their mother tongue is Cantonese, they can speak and understand it as a native. These second generation Thai-Chinese mostly communicate in Cantonese (sometimes mixed with English vocabulary) in Hong Kong due to its dominance in their social lives. As a result, speaking Cantonese helps them integrate into local environment successfully and effortlessly.

1.2 Assimilation influences language use

Comparing the two generations, it is found that language choice is not the only factor affecting immigrants’ social integration. Other factors, like the attitude of local people and the cultural differences, are also influential. Since the second generation Thai-Chinese are raised in Hong Kong, they are totally assimilated with Hong Kong culture. However, although the parental generation feel they are part of the Hong Kong community, they still try to maintain some traditional habits of Thai (e.g. going to a Thai church). In these occasions, they prefer speaking Thai to Cantonese even though they are able to speak both of the languages. From their language shifts between daily situations and habitual Thai events, the generation assimilates themselves to both Hong Kong and Thai communities by flexibly shifting their language uses.
It is noteworthy that while their language choices partly influence their extent of assimilation, it is also true that their choices are affected by how much they want to be assimilated. For example, the brother in first family uses 100% Cantonese code mixed with Thai when he goes regularly to a Cantonese-speaking Christian church. Since his parents are pastors in another church for Thai community, he knows a lot of religious terms in Thai. However, when he goes to his church, he uses mainly Cantonese mixed with some special terms in Thai. On the other hand, his sister goes to a Thai-speaking church so she speaks 65% Thai during religious activities. Since there is a Cantonese-speaking group in the assembly, she uses Cantonese mixed with English that allows her to join the discussion of the group. Otherwise, she may be isolated from this Cantonese-speaking group.

2. Assimilation in Thai community

2.1 Language plays an important role in assimilation

From above, it is illustrated how Thai-Chinese families are assimilated with Hong Kong. How about their integration in Thai community? Indeed, speaking Thai makes one more easily integrates into the Thai group. The father in the first family who speaks Thai very often has made himself part of the Thai community in workplace, social space and church. It is the same family which speaks most frequent Thai at home among all three families. The brother and sister in this family are taught well with Thai that they can not only understand but also speak it. This increases their assimilation with Thai community such as making Thai friends, working in a Thai company and going to a Thai church. As an Italian-born American educator mentioned, language is an intangible heritage, “a racial memory and a nationality symbol.” (Covello, 1939) In this way, to speak a language means to share a cultural memory and a sense of belonging within a group of people (Covello, 1939).

In the other two families, speaking less Thai makes them less connected with Thai community at school/work and social circle. The brother in the third family could not speak Thai at all. Even though he could still maintain a little relationship with his Thai relatives, language barrier has been the greatest obstacle for him to assimilate into Thai community. As he commented,
“If I have a chance to learn Thai in the future, I could communicate with my Thai relatives and make Thai friends more easily.”

1. Consanguinity

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).

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Source: Thaiworldview.com

2. Attitude to cultural diversity in the society

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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References:

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

1. Interview

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Right methods help us gathering data that enable us to answer our research questions. Two methods have been used in this research, including interview and domain analysis.

According to Talmy (2010), the use of interview has been increased in applied linguistics. And this method is particularly useful for studies aim to investigate participant’s identities, in applied linguistic. It is particularly useful for studies that aim to investigate participant’s identities, experiences, beliefs, and orientations. Therefore, interview allows us to investigate complex ideas in this study, for instance, their experience as a linguistic minority in Hong Kong, Thai-Chinese identity and how they think about the relationship between language use and identity etc.

During the interviews, it is better to sound as natural as possible. This is because giving a feeling of an informal chat helps encouraging interviewers to tell us what they really think about. Therefore, we have adopted semi-structured interview. A list of questions was prepared in advance for asking the interviewees accordingly during the interview. At the same time, flexibility was allowed during the interviews. We asked follow-up questions and were open for interviewers to develop on our questions. We treated our question list as a guidance which offers topics for participants to talk about. By doing semi-structured interviews, we are able to have a more dynamic discussion with the interviews which can help generate richer and more interesting ideas. Moreover, this could also help creating a more relaxed atmosphere during the interviews, which echoes with our goals to make the interview like an informal chat. This helped us to collects the interviewers’ true thoughts by providing a casual environment and encouraged them to voice out their true beliefs.

Three face-to-face interviews with audio recording were done in total. In each family, we interviewed two generations, including the parent generation and the son-or-daughter generation. For sampling, we adopted the “Friend of a friend” or social network sampling (Bijeikienė & Tamošiūnaitė, 2013). This “Friend of a friend” principle is useful in research, in which researcher has to investigate a community that he or she is not familiar with. As all of us are Hong Kong local people, we are not familiar with the Thai-Chinese community in Hong Kong. However, by asking around in our social circles and through our friends’ social network, we were able to gather participants from this unfamiliar community. By taking the identity as “friend” also allowed us establishing a closer relationship with the interviewees in limited time. We were also more welcomed to interview them and investigate into their community.

Reference:

Bijeikienė, V., & Tamošiūnaitė, A. (2013). Quantitative and qualitative research methods in sociolinguistics: study guide.

Talmy, S., & Richards, K. (2010). Theorizing qualitative research interviews in applied linguistics. Applied Linguistics, amq045.

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