Jonathan Lee was a top performer who achieved 32 marks in five subjects in the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exam in 2015. He could have enrolled in any prestigious programme, but he chose to major in Chinese Language and Literature, which was hyped by the media. In recent years, top scorers of public exams have never failed to make headlines. Jonathan shared his view on this phenomenon.
A top scorer choosing to major in Chinese makes newspaper headlines—what's your view on this?
There is also too much spotlight on top scorers entering medical schools. On one hand, our society would praise students majoring in literature for their courage to fulfil their dreams. On the other, the public would admire those who get into prestigious programmes, such as medicine, because those programmes promise a lucrative career. There is no conflict between the two. Why can't students develop their potential and fulfil their dreams while striving for a happy life?
The problem is most Hong Kong people accept the idea that the workplace is not where we should develop our interests and potential. If you want to earn a living, you have to give up your dreams. I fear that these stereotypes are deeply ingrained in our thoughts. The media not only pick on the motivation and family backgrounds of students who major in a 'loser's programme', they also go as far as questioning their choices and the possibility that they can live a rewarding life. People also criticize students who major in the 'winner's programme' for being too pragmatic, but in their heart of hearts, they know they are envious of them.
The media's fascination with top scorers' programme choices reflects the delicate difference between envy and jealousy. I do not think this is the way it should be. A student's choice of his or her own degree programme shouldn't be a subject of widespread reporting. Students shouldn't be made to go through all the grilling, too.
You once aspired to teach in a private tutorial school. Were you attracted by the lucrative incomes of celebrity tutors?
The DSE Chinese exam is dubbed 'the paper of death'. It's heartbreaking for me to see my classmates showing little interest in their own language. I wished I could fix the negative impression of learning Chinese among teenagers. While the work of a regular school teacher of Chinese is made difficult by various limitations, tutors at tutorial schools could design their courses more flexibly to better motivate their students. The huge monetary reward was not my major consideration.
Does studying the Chinese language at CUHK quench your thirst for knowledge?
Before entering the university, I was worried that Chinese would be taught in the same way as in secondary school which overemphasizes practical skills. Surprisingly, the curriculum affords me a close examination of the characteristics of the Chinese language, modern linguistics, and classical and modern literature. The solid training provided by the Department enables us to gain wider exposure and develop a stronger foundation to analyse the Chinese language. My training at CUHK has assured me that the world is larger than we thought. It also opens up new avenues in Chinese language studies.
Who is the most impressive teacher you have met at CUHK?
I have met many good teachers at the Department of Chinese Language and Literature, among whom I must express my hearty thanks to Prof. Feng Shengli, the advisor of my graduation thesis. His achievements in prosodic syntax and stylisticregister grammar inspired my research in sentence-final particles in Cantonese. He is very willing to give his students a hand and share his research expertise and life experience generously.
Does your exchange experience in world-leading universities affect your plan beyond graduation?
I went to Yale, Cambridge and Université Catholique de Lyon for student exchange. I enjoyed the New Asia College-Yale University Student Exchange Program (YUNA) most. It provided me an opportunity to make friends with people who are well versed in a broad spectrum of knowledge. This experience significantly broadened my horizons and reinforced my interest in language learning. After returning to Hong Kong, I decided to minor in French and Philosophy. I plan to apply for postgraduate studies in the US or Europe to continue my exploration in linguistics.
As a Chinese language enthusiast, have you ever felt like being the 'odd man out' among your peers?
We are all different. Everyone has his/her own unique gifts and abilities. We can all learn from one another.
Which language do you prefer to use for sending text messages, Cantonese or written Chinese?
I believe I am similar to most Hong Kong people who habitually code-mix written and spoken Chinese, English and Cantonese Romanization. Code-mixing is a crucial characteristic feature of Cantonese in Hong Kong. While I would use written Chinese in formal occasions, I swap between Cantonese and written Chinese in sending text messages.
This article was originally published in No. 522, Newsletter in Sep 2018.