Students work on an assignment during a Cantonese language class taught by Professor Grace Yu at City College of San Francisco on Feb. 8, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
n Wednesday evenings, about 35 students crowd into Grace Yu’s classroom at City College of San Francisco to study Cantonese late into the night.
These aren’t your average 20-something college kids. Many of the students in Yu’s oversubscribed classes — both of her two Cantonese courses this semester have full waitlists — are essential workers hoping to apply their newfound skills to their careers.
In San Francisco, a city where about one-tenth of the population speaks Cantonese, essential workers are beginning to realize that their ability to communicate in Cantonese can have life-or-death consequences.
The city employs some of the workers in Yu’s class as first responders, but there also are medical professionals, social service providers and community volunteers who are learning the language to better serve Cantonese-speaking residents.
“I see being able to speak Cantonese as not only about cultural preservation, but also making sure that people can receive essential services in a language they understand,” said Julia Quon, a doula and nursing student who took Yu’s class, referencing concerns that the language’s future is threatened by the Chinese government’s campaign to promote Mandarin and by younger generations losing the language.
When her Cantonese-speaking patients at San Francisco General Hospital see her walk in, Quon said, they breathe a “huge sigh of relief.”
Cantonese, a regional Chinese language spoken by over 80 million people across the world, is the most-spoken Chinese language in the Bay Area, and it is spoken at even higher rates in San Francisco.
“San Francisco is the Cantonese capital of America,” said Alan Wong, president of City College’s Board of Trustees.
But there are limited opportunities to learn the language later in life in San Francisco, which in turn diminishes the hiring pool of essential workers who can speak Cantonese. High school students in the public school district hoping to earn world language credits in Chinese only have the option of taking Mandarin. And City College, the only higher education institution in the city that offers Cantonese, has reduced the numbers of teachers in its program over the years.
Puppy Valentine, a student in Yu’s class, said learning Cantonese creates a better rapport with many of the people she sees in her capacity as a community health supervisor at St. Anthony’s Medical Clinic, which provides a broad range of safety-net services to San Franciscans in need.
“Even when you’re not doing the best job with the language, people can tell you’re trying,” Valentine said.
Jonathan Sit, co-founder of the Chinatown Volunteer Coalition, said he regularly steps in to serve as an interpreter, both in person and over the phone, for Chinatown residents seeking the help of first responders.
He keeps an eye out when he’s outside for people who may be in need of assistance: “I’ll walk by, show them the card that we’re volunteering for the CVC and say, ‘Hey, I’m just checking in to see if everything’s OK. I can translate in Cantonese. Do you need any help?’”
Raymond Wong, who works with Sit, said his experience has made clear the importance of Cantonese, and he’s signed up for one of Yu’s classes to deepen his vocabulary as a result.
“Hire, educate and provide resources,” he said, ticking off steps the city could take to ensure better language access. “We need to ensure our community feels safe and protected.”
A life-and-death community need
When Yu first began teaching at City College, there was a team of Cantonese instructors. Now, she is the only one remaining. In 2021, administrators threatened to cut the program, but community members, led by Save Cantonese, an advocacy group that Quon co-founded, rallied to preserve it.
Shawn Lee, policy director for Save Cantonese, said there is a clear community need for these classes, especially specialized courses, such as one focusing on medical terms. “Even knowing how to talk about preexisting conditions and allergies are the things that can make a life-and-death difference,” he said.
Recent high-profile incidents in the city — including hateful attacks against members of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities — have also intensified calls to ensure that essential workers can provide services in Cantonese.
“We don’t know where the communication went wrong,” Boudin said at a press conference about the incident. “But we know she didn’t get a ride home. She didn’t get a ride close to her home … I think all of us feel that, had there been more language access, perhaps this devastating situation could have been avoided.”
A spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department said he was not aware of an issue of translation in the department’s response to the first woman, and he wrote that a certified Cantonese-speaking officer assisted the victim in the initial investigation. The California Highway Patrol, which responded to the latter incident, did not respond to a request for comment.
“These are dramatic cases,” said Russell Jeung, an Asian American studies professor at San Francisco State University. “But I also know lots of cases where people don’t call 911 because they don’t know how to speak to dispatchers, or they don’t seek out health care because they don’t understand the doctors.”
Jeung, who co-founded Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition that tracks and responds to hate incidents, added that the March and May 2021 incidents came at an “inflection point” where there was a heightened awareness among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of attacks. (Jeung is no longer with the coalition.)
He said institutions’ failure to provide access to services in an appropriate language constitutes a form of hate.
“This type of cultural insensitivity is a problem,” he said. “Addressing racism involves both addressing the hate incidents but also the broader, institutionalized forms of hate.”
'We can be a source of comfort'
Stop AAPI Hate has received 942 reports of hate incidents in the last year in San Francisco, with 63% of those incidents being reported by Chinese respondents, according to data provided by the group.
Some essential workers pointed to such incidents as the motivation for their efforts to learn or use Cantonese on their jobs, as well as first-hand experiences with language access.
Christine Chow, a student in Yu’s class who works as a medical assistant at a Daly City dermatology clinic, said she thinks of a Cantonese-speaking patient who visits the clinic after picking up his prescriptions to have his medications explained to him, even though pharmacies in California are required to provide services in languages other than English.
“We can be a source of comfort for patients when we can provide that help,” Chow said.
Wong, the City College trustee, cited an incident at a San Francisco hospital where he stepped in to interpret for an older Chinese woman as the motivation for his advocacy.
He recalled walking down a hallway when the woman flagged him down. She had a “big purple eye,” Wong said, and she told him that she had been punched on a bus. According to Wong, she told him that when police officers arrived, they were unable to communicate with her, and she was further unable to communicate with staff at the hospital.
“Whenever I think about the importance of having a Cantonese education, I think about her,” he said.
'We still have a long way to go'
Jeung, the San Francisco State University professor, added that in some regards, San Francisco is ahead of other cities in providing language access as a result of its Language Access Ordinance, one of the strongest local language laws in the country.
The law requires that all city departments that serve the public provide “fair language access” and establishes a reporting process for departments and residents to determine whether the city is following the law. But Jeung said there is still a question of how well the law is implemented.
“The fact that the community continues to cry out for these types of services shows that we still have a long way to go in implementing these types of policies,” Jeung said.
The question of language access is important to city officials, added Mason Lee, spokesperson for Mayor London Breed, citing the law.
“The system is not perfect, but everyone who works for the city knows how much we value being multilingual,” Lee said.
Some first responders employed by the city are also working to improve language access. According to spokespeople for the fire and police departments, about 4% of fire department employees and 6% of police department employees speak Cantonese.
Stan Lee, a San Francisco firefighter who leads the Asian Firefighters Association, said Cantonese language skills are already underrepresented in the department, and new Chinese hires are often born in the U.S. or come to the department from outside the city, making them less likely to speak Cantonese.
Lee added that not having appropriate language skills can be dangerous when responding to calls. He gave the example of a firefighter being unable to understand what medications a victim is taking: “That could be a life-or-death situation,” he said.
San Francisco Police Department Sergeant Culbert Chu, who leads the department’s Asian Peace Officers Association, added that in emergency situations, dispatchers prioritize sending first responders who can speak the appropriate language, and when that is not possible, responders are able to use the LanguageLine app, an on-demand interpreting service.
Chu noted that all four Chinatown beat officers can speak some amount of Cantonese, and he has worked on community outreach in Chinatown, such as by providing residents with the phone numbers of Cantonese-speaking officers.
“When they hear us speaking [Cantonese], it puts them at ease,” he said. “It makes people more comfortable talking to us about what happened.”
Curran Gong, a police officer who works with Chu, added, “The more Cantonese speakers, the better.”
This story was produced with support from the Bay Area chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) and Comcast California’s Rising With the Tides fellowship, a storytelling project aimed at amplifying Asian American Pacific Islander stories and voices.
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