Saved! Community rallies to rescue City College’s Cantonese classes

‘We need to stop Asian hate and make sure the Chinese community has access to bilingual services’

After years of uncertainty, Cantonese classes at City College of San Francisco have fended off an untimely demise, thanks in large part to mobilization efforts within the community.

The college’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously last week to approve Trustee Alan Wong’s proposal to save the classes and set City College on a path to create a Cantonese certificate, as well as a Cantonese language program transferable to the University of California system. The proposal also requires the college to disaggregate and track Chinese language data in more detailed categories, such as Cantonese and Mandarin. The measure is fiscally neutral and will not generate new costs for the college.

“We need to rescue the Cantonese program to stop Asian hate and make sure the Chinese community has access to bilingual services,” said Wong, whose parents are both Cantonese-speaking immigrants from Hong Kong. “We need to have firefighters, police officers and social workers that are bilingual.”

During the meeting, Wong recounted having to once “help an elderly Chinese grandmother translate at a hospital after she was beaten to a pulp because there were no hospital or police translators available to take her information … Language should not be a barrier for victims of crime and immigrants reporting an incident and needing care.”

Currently, CCSF will offer only one Cantonese class for this upcoming spring semester. According to City College enrollment data, every Cantonese class since fall 2019 has had over a 100% fill rate and an abundance of people on its wait lists.

The program had been at risk of elimination due to budget cuts, especially as CCSF dealt with sharp drops in enrollment throughout the pandemic.

During previous semesters, college administrators explained that the Cantonese program was more likely to be cut because the college had to prioritize classes that contributed to a degree or certificate. State funding for City College is partially based on student certificate or degree outcomes. Prior to Wong’s resolution, City College Cantonese classes were not part of any certificate or degree program and were not transferable to the UC system for the “language other than English” degree requirement.

Program advocates pointed out that City College already offers certificate or degree programs for languages such as Spanish, Japanese, French and Mandarin, but not Cantonese. Programs at the College of Alameda and Sacramento City College have Cantonese classes that satisfy the UC system’s general education degree requirements.

Students and alumni at the meeting expressed frustration that existing certificate and degree policies at City College are not inclusive of the Cantonese program, and they spoke in favor of Wong’s resolution.

“Taking Cantonese classes helped me communicate with injured and traumatized victims and become a better civil servant,” said Doug Mei, a firefighter paramedic and director with the Asian Firefighters Association. “When firefighters are responding to an emergency, every second counts and fumbling because of language can have devastating consequences. The Cantonese classes need to count just as much as any other language program.”

Others like Julia Quon, a student leader with Save Cantonese at CCSF and a healthcare worker, spoke about the ways in which the program helped her career.

“When I discovered that the Cantonese program might be eliminated, my heart dropped,” she said. “I took these classes to better serve the immigrant community as a health educator and reconnect with my culture. If we don’t have these classes, who will listen to the Cantonese-speaking immigrants? It’s unfair that our classes don’t count.”

“Saving the Cantonese program isn’t just about protecting Chinese culture and language, it’s about equal access to resources for the Chinese community,” said Wong. “Reduction of the program would treat an entire community in need of resources as if they did not exist. San Francisco is the Cantonese capital of America and the Chinese community deserves equal access to public safety and social services. This proposal would finally value Cantonese as much as the other languages and ensure that we can train the next generation of bilingual public safety, healthcare and social workers to serve the Chinese immigrant population.”

Wong’s second part of the proposal called for CCSF to disaggregate and track Chinese language data in more detailed categories — such as Mandarin and Cantonese — that took in factors such as educational attainment, English proficiency, and socioeconomic status among students.

“In our history, groups have often been lumped together, and we’re unable to see the kind of differences in the population, even amongst the API population,” said Wong. “All those different groups have different challenges that they’re facing and so disaggregating the Chinese data into different languages allows us to really weigh the need and see what’s the appropriate level of resources for different groups.”

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