My Colonial Education

Unlike other ethnic writers growing up under colonialism and discovering the freedom of postcolonial identities, I loved my colonial education.

The school I went to summed up the cultural complexity of Hong Kong in the 50s and 60s. From the age of six, I started learning, and eventually speaking, English at Maryknoll Sisters School six days a week, while at home it was always Cantonese, since my parents didn’t know English. It wasn’t, and still isn’t, an anomaly for Chinese parents to want to enrol their children in a school run by some western religious order, be it Catholic or Protestant. These institutions are considered to be better organized, better sidled, and generally, they do have a reputation that travels well. Two examples will illustrate my point. At the Modem Language Association annual conference one year, I met up with a famous scholar from Hong Kong and we exchanged greetings. Then we exchanged school information, and I felt quite proud that I could mention Maryknoll Sisters School as my alma mater. The other example: only recently, I was waiting at a specialist office in Vancouver while my mother was getting a gastrocopy. The specialist, being an ethnic Chinese, attracted a predominantly Chinese clientele. I overheard two people discussing the respective merits of two well-known boys’ schools in Hong Kong, both run by Catholic orders.

The basic assumption is: these schools teach English properly, and proficiency in English translates into career mobility and opportunities.

Actually, that wasn’t true in the 60s and still not true today. Certainly at Maryknoll, we studied mainly western curriculum and the teachers taught in English, except for Chinese Literature and History. But, except for the American nuns, the teachers were Chinese who spoke English with a Chinese accent. Which meant that the students would have to be able to recognize what accent to imitate — a New York accent? A southern Chinese accent? Or in my case, a British accent? Furthermore, my fellow students didn’t really feel comfortable speaking English to each other, though the practice was encouraged. If a student didn’t speak in class, as was and still is often the case with Chinese students, and didn’t speak English during recess, and didn’t speak English at all at home, then she wasn’t going to be fluent in English, no matter how good the teachers were.

I actually quite like speaking out in school, especially in English literature and Biblical Study classes. And unlike my good friends who avoided speaking English if at all possible, I spoke English mixed with Chinese in recess and during lunchtime. My first group of friends in secondary school came from solid Chinese background — their parents might have had some education, but were from the lower middle-class and spoke no English. Somehow, in my senior years, I drifted away from them and got to spend more time with an elite group of Chinese girls. They came from fairly wealthy backgrounds, with relatives who lived in the U.S.; their parents knew some English; and these girls planned on going to MIT, or Harvard, or UC Berkeley. My parents were not in this western-educated social class, but I was accepted in this group because my English was considered idiomatic and somehow I managed to mimic a British accent. I learned early in life that linguistic abilities could be a social asset. I also became a teacher’s pet because of my ability to converse.

One of the most astonishing teachers I had, not counting the nuns, was a Chinese woman who just came back from finishing school in Switzerland. She probably came from an ethnically mixed background. She had porcelain skin, wore Chanel suits, and was dropped off each morning in a chauffer-driven Mercedes. She taught English literature and to this day, l still remember that Little Women and Jane Eyre were on the course list. One day she asked me to read out a few pages from Little Women aloud in class (the usual ploy a teacher uses when she wants to lecture less) and afterwards, she said, to herself as much as to the class, that I read beautifully. Of course I cannot tell if that was the beginning of my attachment to literature; but it was a very strong kind of encouragement to an impressionable girl. She also showed me that a woman could be a professional and still have a strong sense of fashion. We were awestruck by her wealth, her wardrobe, and her English. She also taught French, which all the non-Chinese or Eurasian students took instead of Chinese. I was quite envious of these students, not only because they belonged to the ‘special’ class of expatriates, but also because they could learn French instead of —what I felt — the dreary history of the many Chinese dynasties and the almost impenetrable classical Chinese texts.

Maryknoll adopted a fairly conventional western curriculum: English Literature, English Grammar, History, Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Music, Physical Education, etc. I was terrible in PE, and was no better in Home Economics. To me, it was entirely irrelevant to learn to make an omelette or to prepare a filet mignon, bake a gateau, clean the kitchen countertop and stove, when at home we only ate Chinese dishes and had a semi-traditional Chinese kitchen walled in tiles, equipped with gas cookers, wok and steamers. No oven. I supposed this course helped me feel somewhat comfortable when I started eating mainly western dishes in Canada. At least, I was taught how to hold a fork and a knife, which my mother found awkward to handle. O yes, the course also taught us the difference between a fish and a dessert knife.

[I am exaggerating the gulf between what I learned about eating at home and at school. Ironically, my parents were fans of western cuisine of a sort. They liked going to restaurants that served fish filet in a cream sauce, or calf liver with fried onion. Wang Kar-wei’s In the Mood for Love has a wonderful scene in which Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung share a western meal. That was the kind of places my parents took me to. My mother also liked cooking borsch soup, pork chops, and pomme fits as a special treat. We would eat the meal off Royal Doulton bone china and use silver-plated cutlery. But these were rare occasions; maybe once a year at the most.]

As for Physical Education, we had to play basket and volleyballs, run, do gymnastics, and other various assorted contortions involving bodily pain. I despised these activities thoroughly, and counting on my good grades in other areas, more or less resigned myself to fail in this course. For some reason, the PE teacher took pity on me, and though I ran with the basketball under my arm as if I were playing rugby, and never even managed to return a weak volley across the net, she passed me.

While the nuns taught me Biblical Study, English Language and Literature (except for that one year when the woman from the Swiss finishing school took over), Chemistry, and in some years, Music, Chinese women teachers were in charge of Civic Science, History, Mathematics, while two Chinese men, whom I thought of as eunuchs in this very woman-dominated milieu, taught Chinese History and Literature. Whether it was a dress code or not, the Chinese women wore cheongsam, the fitted and tailored dress made so glamorous by Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love, and the men wore suits. Thus were the staff and students at Maryknoll defined by their costumes.

If the nuns were dressed as the brides of Christ, in flowing white robes and a headdress (wimple) of black, the Maryknoll girls were “brides-of-Christ” manqué. In winter we wore a heavy navy wool dress with white Peter-Pan collar and a blue bow tie, and in summer a white variation. No heels. Only black or white Mary Janes. Regardless of cultural and religious backgrounds, we all wore the same uniform that defined us as different not only from those who could not attend a private girl school, but also those who attended other private girls schools. While the philosophy behind the uniform partly endorsed the equality of all Maryknoll girls and curbed any signs of personal vanity, ironically the uniform also provided us with a reason to practice pride. We were proud of our Maryknoll uniform and we showed off on the Hong Kong streets and looked down on girls wearing less distinguished school outfits.

But, along with Vatican II the dress code relaxed. The nuns, except for a few very old ones, changed to the modern habit of a blouse and light skirt; the Chinese women teachers, though under no obligation to change, began to wear pant suits; and instead of the white cotton uniform with Peter-Pan collar and tie, we could wear a yellow or a blue pinafore dress. In retrospect, I much preferred the older habits for both nuns and students. We looked quite serious then. The variety of colours, even when confined to white, yellow, and light blue, implied frivolity, after years of living in black and white.

I didn’t read Latin or Greek; I didn’t learn anything about philosophy or classical civilization. But I received, nonetheless, a solid western education that prepared me well for university study. And in the 60s, none of us felt that it was bizarre that we should start our mornings with hymn singing, use words such as tuck shop and recess, or to recite poems by Wordsworth or Tennyson on summer afternoons. We sang “Flow Gently Sweet Afton” and “Where the Bee Sucks” in citywide competitions, coached by a woman we thought was somewhat demented, so exaggerated were her gestures and instructions. She also wore a horrible wig that threatened to fall off her head with her vigorous shaking of her body and waving of her hands. We never won any singing competition and it wasn’t only because I always sang out of tune. In addition to western classics and twee British folk tunes, we celebrated Christmas, which was normal for me as a Catholic anyway, and we got a day off on July 4, because of the American background of the Maryknoll order.

Overall, Maryknoll Sisters School reinforced what I, as a teenager, thought was positive in the colonial culture in Hong Kong. Its very location on the hill affirmed, geographically and symbolically, the superiority of western culture.

The assurance and restrained arrogance of some of the nuns in dealing with the world outside the school, as well as their comfortable lifestyle, confirmed that westerners did have privileges that Chinese, unless wealthy, did not have. The respect acquaintances accorded to the school and my education also reassured me that to be tutored by westerners was superior to being taught by Chinese. Of course, the nuns belonged to a religious order, and an American one, and were not affiliated with the British colonial power. But to a politically unsophisticated teenager, they were all non-Chinese; they were powerful either intellectually or politically; and I wanted to emulate them.

Growing up in this women-dominated regime in which men were marginalized also fostered in me the courage to resist the patriarchal doctrine of Confucianist tradition. Even my Catholic parents believed in a world led by men, a family headed by men, a society in which successes were achieved by men. Women’s roles were confined to the traditional wife, mother, sister and daughter. But at school, my teachers were professional women. The nuns were powerful within school politics. Of course the Catholic Church was patriarchal as well. But since I never saw the Pope, and the priest only came on Wednesday and Saturday to conduct morning mass, I saw the nuns as role models. The Chinese male teachers were not only marginal in numbers, they were also terrible teachers, compared to the women. Again, masculine superiority was not in evidence for the many years I attended Maryknoll.

Those were wonderful days. Summer afternoons were spent reading Dickens or Hardy on the school lawn. Nodding off during Chinese classical literature while waiting for the bell to ring for recess. The noise in the tuck shop. The quiet of the chapel. The polished linoleum floor of the corridors. The excitement of changing from summer to winter uniform. The burnt cake in Home Economics, The giggles behind the giant potted palms in the foyer. The view of the hillside from the window of the library. I loved school.

Of course, my affection stemmed from the very difference between Maryknoll and my Chinese cultural background. At school, I could speak in class and was rewarded for it. At home, being the most junior person of the extended family, I had no voice at all. At school, I was with friends with whom I shared ideas, however subversive they might be. At home, I had not much to say to my parents, who were really traditional Chinese who believed in parental authority and in reticence, a Chinese virtue. At school, I was learning and growing intellectually. At home, I was treated as a subordinate and every act of autonomy required a shouting match and hysterical outbursts from my mother and me, while my father escaped behind his newspaper or book.

Like all over-disciplined children, I feared adults in general and especially the adults who had power over me. Every mistake or misdeed promised punishment. If fortunate, only verbal. If unlucky, corporal. Always psychological, through angry silence and an atmosphere of disapprobation. So my experience with the principal when I was in secondary school over a broken pot was a revelation. Some of us were fooling around during lunch break. I was pushed and to steady my steps, I grabbed the palm fronds of a big pot as I was trundling down the stone steps that led to a slopping lawn. Unfortunately, the pot fell down and broke into pieces. It was a large decorative item and everyone was stunned into silence. While some suggested that we should just leave the scene immediately, I decided that I had better confess to the Principal, Sister Stella Marie. (Well, the gardener saw us and though he said nothing, he wasn’t going to tell a lie for us. I had no choice.)

The interview was in her office. Sister S. M. was a tall and very clean-looking person. Clear skin, clear eyes, no wisp of hair escaped from under her wimple, though she did have a slight moustache. She listened to me without looking angry. She asked a few questions. Then she asked me to show her where the accident happened. Then she patted me on my shoulder and said that my honesty mitigated the damage in every way. There was no recrimination, but a smile of encouragement. I learned several lessons on life from this incident. I was braver than my schoolmates. Sister S. M. was more reasonable than my mother would ever be. A mistake was not always punishable. The more time I spent at school, the less fond I became of my family life. As a matter of fact, because the convent education liberated me, I wanted to become a nun at one point, so thankful was I towards Maryknoll and the Catholic Church. I don’t think I loved the vocation. The wish was more based on misplaced gratitude.

My education did a lot for me. Even though I came to Canada with functional but less than fluent English, the foundation and training were there. In less than a few months, I managed to reproduce a perfect mimic of Canadian English while retaining a faint British accent. And while I still wrote with dangling modifier and incomplete sentences in my first year at University, the grammar I learned at Maryknoll helped me overcome any written inadequacies fairly quickly. Having spent years observing western cultural behaviour, I felt comfortable with my mainly Canadian circle of friends, unlike my relatives, who remained within a predominantly Chinese enclave.

Quick acculturations have their drawbacks, though. I felt less and less attached to my Chinese root. I failed to find a way to bridge the already existing cultural divide between my mother and myself. How ironical it was then, when I studied Postcolonial Theory and found out that I should be critical of my colonial past! The very past that had equipped me to deal with the myriad difficulties involved in transplanting myself in a new culture, to adopt new practices, and to forge a career based absolutely on different demands and standards than those of Chinese Hong Kong. These confusing and conflicting scenarios were not much dealt with theoretically, but I am sure they exist for many who grew up in a colonial culture and have to navigate between shifting loyalties and opposing daily practices. Do I cook in the Chinese way or bake? Should I perm my hair (or even colour it!) or leave it black and straight? More importantly, should I maintain my individualism, be a feminist and refuse to follow any of the conventions expected of a Chinese woman, or should I be the filial and obedient daughter, although my mother and I cannot agree on anything?

Interestingly, my Maryknoll education continues to help me negotiate my life as a Hong Kong Chinese with a British-American education who now lives in Canada and works within the North American academic system. In Biblical Study, we were taught exegesis. We learned to interpret words; we learned to explicate; we were trained to be mentally flexible. That was the only way one could understand the many paradoxes in the New Testament. I see my life as a paradox. It is not a mathematical equation. Logic cannot be applied. Every day I examine my life as if it were a text to be explicated. Each cultural confrontation is analysed and interpreted as an illustration of the inevitable script of the transnational movement. I. am sure that Sister Bernadette never thought that her teaching would have such far-flung influence.

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