I am a bilingual speech-language pathologist working with mostly special needs children in Hong Kong. I cannot imagine how my life would have turned out if I did not spend my undergraduate years at W&L.
Growing up in Hong Kong and spending many summers in Canada, my plan was to experience life in America and see if I wanted to move there or Canada after graduation. I can assure you that I was the happiest international student on campus: when I was fresh off the boat in 2003, I weighed myself at the antique scale outside the then-newly built fitness centre, checking in at a gangly 180 pounds; at graduation I revisited the same scale, and the needle read 250 pounds. Full credit goes to my lovely fraternity house mother Irma Ayers, and the equally wonderful house cook Faye Chittum.
My parents were progressive enough to allow me to pick my own life as long as I could find a self-subsistent living. Following their advice, I became a double major in Philosophy and English. Reading and writing were my passions, and I thought this path would aptly set me up for a career in sports journalism. When I was not playing rugby with the University Minks or the ice hockey club, I would be writing for The Trident's sports section. My course work allowed me the luxury to wake up every day and ask myself: "Who do I read to find myself today? French existentialists, literary theorists, the films of Alfred Hitchcock, or the Bible as literature?"
Then graduation hit us like a freight train. I was left with two options – take a soulless consulting job in Toronto, or move back to Hong Kong to search for more soulless finance "opportunities." At the time, I consulted all my mentors on campus – from Professor Conner, Professor Pickett and Professor R.T. Smith from the English department, Professor Sessions and Professor Pemberton from the Philosophy department, Professor Porter from the History department, the school psychiatrist Dr. Luder, to my rugby coach Tom Lovell, they all told me the same thing that I still take heed to this day: strive for a profession you would enjoy and be happy with, not something just to be rich and socially acceptable.
I took their advice, reflected on my passions and goals, and decided to pursue a masters in speech-language pathology (SLP). I really wanted to do something meaningful that could also pay the bills. I was thinking about this when I was babysitting Professor Pickett's daughter Clara: "I'm happy working with children, and I like languages, I should do something that marries the two." Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia took me, and three years later I graduated with the masters, passed my Canadian certification exam, and moved back to Hong Kong in April 2011.
The Canadian job market was scarce at the time as the economy was abysmal; on the other hand, I was offered a position at a pediatric clinic in Hong Kong to undertake a Cantonese- and English-speaking caseload. The experience allowed me to be clinically proficient in both populations, something that could not have happened had I worked in an Anglophone setting in Canada. Because I am one of very few SLPs in Hong Kong who are bilingual and Chinese literate, I was able to open my solo practice in the December of 2012.
Moving back to Hong Kong has not been easy. From daily struggles to locate cheap western food, meeting new friends, finding the right hockey and rugby clubs to join, to working with an all female local staff, the experience has been often frustrating, at times downright racist, but mostly fruitful.
For one, my local colleagues rarely spoke to me during the first three weeks of my employment. Later, I found out that it was because they thought I was half-Chinese, half-Caucasian, thus they assumed I would not be Cantonese-fluent. Meanwhile I was churning out language reports in Chinese on a daily basis, and they still thought I was a foreigner. My first week on the job a Cantonese-speaking mother also requested another clinician to work with her son because she did not want her son to be, in the most candid way possible, "treated by a gwei-lo (Translation: "White devil")." I did not appear capable of connecting with my Cantonese clients.
To remedy my work situation, I forced myself to attend a karaoke social with my colleagues even though karaoke was a joke to me culturally, morally, and principally speaking. But I showed up, and their uneasiness gradually washed away with the free-flowing beer I bought. That "gwei-lo" was not so bad after all.
With my clients, I had to adjust my approach. Day in and day out, I preached to parents about the importance of structure and regular delivery of home programme. I did not alter my clinical principles, I only presented myself in a more acceptable manner to my Cantonese clients: less advocating flexibility and fun, more emphasis on discipline and diligence. It was just a slight adjustment in my approach and attitude, but it has worked wonders – since then, I have not had a complaint about my alleged foreignness.
In spite of these absurd challenges, I can't complain about my career and direction in life. And I have to give W&L its due credit for making me who I am. The one thing I appreciated most about W&L, besides the food, sports and socials, was how much the faculty cared about their students. It was not just academic and professional brilliance, it was also their genuine passion for teaching and guiding us during these formative years. Those mentors I mentioned and many other professors made a difference in my life, and I really hope that I can have the same impact on the children I work with.
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