15. A Language Adventure. Discovering Asian Culture. Creating An Opportunity, Ottawa 1967
He who depends on himself will attain the greatest happiness.
– Yi Jing (Book of Changes), 2nd Millenium BC
I did not know when I entered the Canadian Diplomatic Service that I would end up being immersed in the cultures of both China and Japan. My language adventure would soon confront me with the challenge of learning languages that previously had seemed strange and distant to me. To achieve fluency in these languages required commitment, intensity and good learning techniques. But I could not have succeeded without a strong interest in the people and the culture, and the confidence that I would become a fluent speaker of these languages.
In 1967 in the Canadian capital city of Ottawa, I began my first full time job as an Assistant Trade Commissioner. Most of our group of young and eager Trade Commissioners-in-training had visions of serving their country in interesting foreign postings. However, fully one third of all Trade Commission posts are in the United States. Everyone wanted to avoid an assignment to Cleveland or Buffalo.
When the Trade Service announced that they were going to appoint an officer to Hong Kong to learn Chinese in preparation for the expected establishment of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, I figured that this was my chance to avoid Buffalo.
I started taking Chinese lessons from an elderly Chinese man in Ottawa. While I did not learn much by merely taking lessons once a week, I let the Director of Personnel and other senior people know what I was doing. Given the opportunity, why would they not choose as a language student someone who was already committed to learning Chinese? Hong Kong was not my first choice as a posting; I was in fact more interested in getting to Rio de Janeiro or Rome or Madrid. But Hong Kong still sounded exotic.
I was very pleased when I was
finally assigned to Hong Kong. I was obviously chosen because I had already made a commitment to learning the language. Commitment pays dividends in many ways. As to the choice of Hong Kong, in those days China was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution and Taiwan was not politically acceptable for a future Canadian representative to The People’s Republic of China. Instead, Hong Kong with its Mandarin speaking émigré community was the most suitable place to learn Chinese.
I remember that a good friend questioned whether I should accept the assignment. “What if you cannot learn Chinese?” he asked. But after my experience in mastering French, I had no doubt that I could master Chinese, too. The reason linguists can master several languages is largely because of their increased confidence. Language learning becomes demystified. Also, the more languages you learn, the more you develop the ability to cope with new ways of saying things. It is a bit like sports. A person who has developed fitness in one sport can more easily learn another sport.
My kindly Chinese teacher back in Ottawa had warned me to be wary of the charms of the attractive girls in Hong Kong but I did not heed his advice. I ended up finding my wife, Carmen, in Hong Kong and we are still happily married more than thirty years later, with two sons and five grandchildren. But I did not know that as I headed out to the exotic Far East for the first time.