Grace Yu can’t help but smile as she recalls the popularity of Cantonese lessons in the 1990s at City College of San Francisco.
“Every class was full,” she said in an interview with The Standard. “Students who couldn’t register just sat on the floor and listened.”
At the peak of demand for the program, the community college had a handful of faculty teaching at least 10 combined Cantonese lessons per semester.
However, whenever a Cantonese teacher retired or otherwise left in the years that followed, City College replaced him with a Mandarin teacher.
These days, Yu is the last one standing.
She is not only the only Cantonese teacher at the school, but also the only one to teach the last two classes in which students learn to communicate in Cantonese.
As Mandarin, the official language of China, gains global dominance, the community college in San Francisco struggles to salvage what remains of its Cantonese offerings.
Six months ago, City College’s board of trustees voted to save Cantonese education amid a Bay Area-wide movement to preserve it. But with no department willing to take ownership of the courses with such limited resources, the school has made little headway towards that end.
This puts immense pressure on Yu, whose love for Cantonese has spurred her to stay the course despite dwindling resources and a lack of institutional support.
A “lively and lively” language
Born in Canton and raised in Hong Kong, Yu comes from a traditional Cantonese family: speaking the language, cooking the cuisine and preserving the culture on a daily basis.
“Cantonese is a living, living language,” she says of the prose that has defined her life for seven decades and more.
After graduating from National Taiwan University, Yu moved to the United States in the late 1960s and earned her master’s degree in comparative literature from the University of California, Berkeley and a doctorate in bilingual education from the ‘New York University.
With such prestigious credentials, Yu could work at any number of elite colleges and universities. But she chooses to teach her mother tongue at the community college in her adopted city because she wants to stay true to her roots.
During the 1960s and 1970s, social movements pushed local schools to implement ethnic studies, and as part of the curriculum centered on Asian American culture and history, Cantonese education became a priority.
Yu became involved in Cantonese education as a student at UC Berkeley, and when she returned from New York to San Francisco, her passion for the language shifted from personal to professional.
Yu taught Cantonese from 1978 to 1983 at San Francisco State University and taught English to immigrants at City College. In 1990, she began teaching Cantonese full-time at City College, where she continues to teach what remains of the language classes to this day.
After more than four decades of City College offering Cantonese classes, the school may have let its support lapse, but Yu says public enthusiasm for the classes has remained strong. That’s why, although she prefers to stay out of the spotlight, she speaks publicly about the importance of the courses that have become part of her own legacy.
For the family and a better future
The benefits of learning Cantonese in San Francisco, Yu notes, are enormous.
Many American-born Chinese who live with immigrant parents or grandparents with limited English proficiency enroll in Cantonese classes to bond more with their families.
“A lot of them want to know more about their own culture,” she says.
Other students Yu teaches are non-Chinese with Cantonese-speaking spouses — and Yu says she has had many of those students learn to speak the language “pretty well.”
Besides cultural and personal reasons, Yu says there are also many professional incentives for learning Cantonese. Nurses can earn higher salaries if they speak both English and Cantonese, for example.
Local schools are looking for bilingual teachers fluent in Cantonese, which according to the San Francisco Unified School District is the primary language used at home by 75% of its Chinese speakers.
Meanwhile, there is a constant demand for social workers, lawyers, and government employees fluent in Cantonese, all of whom could use the language to better serve clients.
Even immigrants from non-Cantonese-speaking parts of China have come through the doors of Yu’s class in hopes of learning more about the dominant culture of San Francisco’s Asian American community.
Resources may be scarce, Yu laments, but demand has remained stable.
Melissa Chow, a Chinese-American born in San Francisco and a former student of Yu at City College, said taking the Cantonese classes helped her communicate better with her grandparents, who speak exclusively Cantonese.
“It was so helpful,” said Chow, who said she could only use “Chinglish” to talk to her grandparents before improving her skills. “Now I can talk to them about how my work is going, news about the pandemic and even the side effects of the vaccine.”
Chow, who worked in the medical field in San Francisco and is now a medical student in Florida, said Cantonese-speaking immigrant patients trust her more when she speaks their native language. And she can’t wait to get back to San Francisco to practice her bilingual skills.
Never fear: Cantonese is here to stay
Despite her disappointment with the state of Cantonese education at City College, Yu says she is very confident in the future of Cantonese at large.
“The tongue will not go out,” she said.
Tens of millions of people in mainland China, Hong Kong and abroad speak Cantonese, she notes, and she is encouraged by the efforts of younger generations to preserve the language.
Meanwhile, Yu says, Chinese cuisine has weaved Cantonese words into the ever-expanding canon of American colloquialisms: Words like “dim sum,” “cheung fun” and “siu mei” are anything but common.
“As long as there are Cantonese restaurants,” Yu says, “there will be people who speak Cantonese.”
Han Li can be contacted at [email protected].