Text: Cheng Sum Yin Anson
Illustration: Waithamai on Flick
As an exchange student from Hong Kong, I vividly remember the first time I read the Finnish Nightmare comic along the passageway in the Helsinki-Vantaa Airport. Finnish humor is pretty dark and sarcastic, which piqued my interest to explore the “happiest” country in the world. Language is intrinsic to the expression of culture since it always reflects the values and beliefs of a certain place. To understand a culture, language is key. This is the primary reason why I started my suffering by beginning to learn the Finnish language.
Kuka sinä olet? When learning a new language, the first thing we are taught is often self-introductions. As someone born and raised in Hong Kong, the part about identity might sometimes be more complex than it seems – Hong Kong is officially part of China, but at the same time they are not the same in many ways. Since the return from British Colonial rule to China in 1997, Hong Kong has been ruled under the constitutional principle of ”One Country, Two Systems”. It intends to ensure Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy” to continue its way of life including its own judicial and administrative systems, without much influence from mainland China. Halfway around the world, I discovered that there is another place that enjoys a special status like Hong Kong during my visit to the National Museum of Finland. Off the southwest coast of Finland Åland Islands is a self-governing, autonomous and demilitarized province. Moreover it is a Swedish-speaking region of Finland.
”We cannot underestimate the power of language in identity building.”
When we think about it, language is a big meaningful part of how we identify ourselves. In Åland, nearly 88 % of the inhabitants speak Swedish as their first language. The official language is Swedish and the schools teach in Swedish as well. Same as Finland, Åland was a part of the Kingdom of Sweden. When Finland gained its independence in 1917, Ålands municipalities decided to seek a reunion with Sweden. In 1921, The League of Nations granted Finland sovereignty over Åland, but Finland was obligated to guarantee their autonomy in preserving Swedish culture and the system of self-government. Under this special status, the issue of the ethnicity of the Ålanders, and the correct linguistic classification of their language, remains somewhat sensitive and controversial. The situation is similar in Hong Kong, where Cantonese Chinese, instead of Mandarin Chinese, is the native language of the majority of the population.
We cannot underestimate the power of language in identity building. One example is the name of our course management system. The word “sisu” is considered as the Finnish national ideology and the core of Finn’s well-being that cannot be translated to other languages. It describes grit and perseverance in the face of tough times. The word is tied to the way the country transformed after the Second World War, pulling itself up into a thriving, eco-friendly, technologically advanced, highly educated and progressive democracy. “Sisu” has provided a blueprint to build a utopian ideal society. This simple Finnish word can already demonstrate the relationship between language and nationality. Moreover, I have discovered that there is Kalevala Day in Finland, which is celebrated on the 28th of February in honor of the Finnish national epic: Kalevala. Known as Finnish Culture Day, the Finns value their literature and language a lot. Perhaps it is part of the reason why the Finns have a strong sense of belonging to their homeland.
Understanding how the Finnish language is important to its people, the Finland government seems to also respect how the language is important to the Ålanders. Respecting the distinct culture and their way of life, the government seems to have maintained an amicable relationship with the region.
Yet the case in Hong Kong is a little different. Perhaps recognizing how Cantonese sets Hong Kong apart from the mainland, the government started to replace Hong Kong’s Cantonese education with Mandarin and integrate simplified Chinese into Hong Kong people’s lives. The Education Bureau had started publicizing its long-term goal of switching Cantonese to Putonghua (standardized mandarin) as the medium of instruction in Chinese classes. Some Cantonese groups estimate that 70 % of all primary schools and 25 % of secondary schools are using Putonghua to teach Chinese at the moment.
Some see that as the start of a constant invasion against the local culture and a violation of the “one country, two systems” principle. They see that the homogenization process will eventually weaken the distinctive culture and sense of identity. It partly contributed to a larger conflict between China and Hong Kong and created grievances against the government. In 2019, the government wanted to pass the Extradition Law Amendment Bill, which became the last straw to turn Hong Kong into a battlefield against Chinese authoritarian rule.
In the aftermath of the political upheaval, there is a growing number of diaspora communities from Hong Kong around the globe. A poll conducted by the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies indicated that 44 % of Hong Kong citizens would emigrate if they were given the opportunity. To stay or to leave, has become a common question for this generation. For the diaspora communities language becomes a tool for them to recognize their companions. In late March, I went to London and visited the Hong Kong Film Festival and watched the movie “Revolution of Times”. The documentary is a gripping account of Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democratic social movement. In the cinema, the audience and the host spoke in Cantonese. At that moment, sharing a common language became a bridge to link the people in that space. Cantonese was essential to the sense of being a Hongkonger.
Nationalism is a complex and often problematic concept. The historian Benedict Anderson defined the nation as an “imagined community”. People within the same nation state share a common sense of unity and belonging and are thus connected by national identity. Nationalism exists because we create it, the community exists because we imagine it. Apart from being a means of communication, language serves as an important social function in generating imagined communities. Sharing a common language can foster feelings of group identity and solidarity. It also explains why there was a Fennoman movement during the 19th century in Finland.
Identity is a crucial factor that affects social movements. In fact, identity is not fixed, it is fluid. The social movement provided an opportunity for the Hong Kong people to build their imagined community, which helped to consolidate the idea of Hongkongers, as well as creating a sense of alienation towards China. In the book “The ethics of memory” written by Avishai Margalit, he tells us that it is our ethical duty to remember the people or events shaped by the simultaneous commemoration of a shared history. Living in an imagined community, we all share the same memories and we all suffered together. As long as we hold the same beliefs, distance will never change the identity of being a “Hongkonger”.
Kuka olen? Hei, minä olen hongkongilainen. I am an exchange student from Hong Kong. I am a Hongkonger.