Photo: City College of San Francisco's new Chinatown/North Beach campus.
SAN FRANCISCO – In August there were well over a thousand people on a waitlist for ESL classes at City College of San Francisco’s Chinatown/North Beach campus. Even as the school prepares for the possibility of closing in the spring, the need for its services within the city's Cantonese-speaking community is growing.
“It’s scary to come to a new country and not know anything,” says Bill Small, the ESL Coordinator at CCSF’s Chinatown/North Beach campus, which opened in September. “We give people language skills and vocational classes, they get jobs, they pay taxes, they buy homes. It feeds the economy.”
Cantonese is the language most commonly spoken by Chinese speakers in San Francisco. While global usage trends toward Mandarin, over 75 percent of the Chinese speakers served by San Francisco Unified School District identify as speaking Cantonese; as of three years ago, 23 percent of all San Francisco public school children were speaking Cantonese at home.
In addition, of the 30,000 Chinese speakers enrolled in Healthy San Francisco, a citywide health care program for the uninsured, 28,000 speak Cantonese.
Despite their numbers, the community remains one of the most “linguistically isolated,” according to the Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs. The term refers to households where no one over the age of 14 can communicate effectively in English.
For families, that means anything from reduced work opportunities to trouble accessing proper medical care. Angela Chew, who is studying Cantonese in order to communicate with her daughter’s daycare provider, says that when her uncle needs a Cantonese interpreter at a local hospital, “there are only Mandarin speakers available.”
Such isolation has long been on the radar of instructors and staff working in Chinatown.
Cuts to Vital Services
“We’ve played a significant role in the lives of our immigrant families,” notes Sue Lim Yee, a counselor at the Chinatown campus who provides personal counseling to recent immigrants. “A number of people on staff here at the Chinatown campus are former ESL students of City College,” she adds.
Susana Ma is one of them. A native Cantonese speaker, Ma works in admissions and enrollment at the Chinatown campus and started out at CCSF as an ESL student. “I’ve been here a very long time,” she says.
The campus serves about 25 percent of City College’s 20,000 ESL students, the vast majority of them Cantonese speakers. Student ages range from as young as 18 to the late 80s.
In addition to ESL, the Chinatown/North Beach campus also offers free Parent Education classes in Cantonese, as well as vocational classes with Cantonese instruction for those wishing to become early childhood educators, home care providers, home health aids, or small business owners.
In the past 25 years, almost 5,000 students from CCSF’s Chinatown educational sites – which operated prior to the opening of the new campus -- have also passed naturalization tests. The bulk of students currently enrolled in citizenship preparation classes are Cantonese speakers.
“They become citizens, they become voters … Free community college gets you on the road,” Small says. Still, with the school’s current fiscal and administrative woes, he is concerned these and other critical services may be cut.
California’s Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges in June issued a scathing report, citing prolonged mismanagement of the school’s finances, among other problems. City College now has until March to implement a rescue plan or face losing accreditation.
School supporters are pushing for passage of Prop. A, a citywide tax hike, as well as Prop. 30, a statewide initiative backed by Gov. Jerry Brown. Both would lead to new sources of revenue for the embattled City College. Small says that if one or the other fails to pass, ESL will be among the departments facing cuts of anywhere from 17 to 26 percent.
Cantonese Classes Disappearing
More vulnerable than the ESL program, though, is CCSF’s increasingly small Cantonese program, valuable to non-native speakers who want to work in the Cantonese-speaking community. Cantonese programs are no longer offered at UC Berkeley or San Francisco State.
Julie Soo, President of San Francisco’s Commission on the Status of Women, has taken Cantonese at CCSF’s Ocean campus.
“If our city is supposed to help immigrants and offer services in their languages, I should be part of that as a government appointee,” said Soo. “We need to reach out in Cantonese and make the effort to speak the language.”
Soo encounters issues of language isolation in her work; earlier this month she took part in a press conference at Chinatown’s Portsmouth Square that marked the start of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. “Women can be afraid to speak up, and language just adds another barrier,” says Soo.
Soo’s former teacher, Wen Yee Chin Wong, has been teaching Cantonese at CCSF for twenty-two years. She also teaches Mandarin and ESL, and taught at Galileo High School, her high school alma mater.
Cantonese course offerings have decreased since 2010, she says, as the department has lost several Cantonese instructors, and the budget won’t allow for the hiring of replacements. The problem, she says, is that in San Francisco, the importance of “Mandarin won’t replace Cantonese any time in the near future.”
Chew, who is taking a class with Wong, is adamant about retaining Cantonese instruction. “This shouldn’t be a dying language,” she stresses. “My father [a native Cantonese speaker] passed away in March, and I started taking these classes in September. I am thankful that I will be able to pass his language on to my daughter.”
That, as much as anything else, speaks to City College’s mission, according to Julie Soo.
“City College’s students are our future social workers, lawyers, and doctors, and these are the people who really want to serve language-isolated communities,” says Soo. “When you cut that out, it makes our society less cohesive.”
This story was made possible as part of a fellowship organized by New America Media and sponsored by the San Francisco Foundation.
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