Chinese Language

Mandarin: A Language of the Chinese-Cubans Today

Of the Chinese-Cuban population found on the streets of Havana today, relatively few are fluent in the Chinese language. Those who can both speak and write in Chinese have almost certainly either come from China themselves or had a father or mother (though seldom both) who had emigrated from China.

These parents used Chinese in speaking with their children in the seclusion of their own homes, but outside this setting the children found the language of little use and, as many expressed with regret, did not try to maintain it. With regards to the older generation, many of whom were born in China, a large percentage still speak Chinese with ease. It is more commonly among the third and fourth generation descendent Chinese where the usage of language has begun to erode into obscurity.

The causal factor behind Cantonese (instead of Mandarin) being the most pervasively spoken Chinese dialect among residents of Havanas Chinatown is rooted in the same reason that one finds Cantonese more widely spoken in the Chinatowns of San Francisco and New York. The majority of the Chinese people who first traveled to work and build their fortunes abroad on Cuban plantations, or during the California Gold Rush, originally emigrated from the southern coastal provinces of China. Cuban history saw its greatest influx of Chinese people enter long before the Communist revolutions swept either country; and during the 1870s especially, many shiploads of Chinese coolies, meant to replace the African slaves, moored in Cuban harbors to supply plantations with cheap labor. Almost none of these Chinese workers arrived without full intentions of returning to their homeland after having made their fortunes abroad.

Since most of the original Chinese peoples who immigrated to Cuba came from the areas of Fujian and Guangdong province in the southern reaches of China, most Chinese-Cubans generally speak Cantonese or some other southern Chinese dialect. Mandarin Chinese is the dialect originally found in northern China and is the dialect of the Han Chinese nationality. Although China claims 52 different dialects within its borders, Mandarin was made the national language after the Communists takeover in 1949; and this has helped unify the country since all schooling in China on is taught in Mandarin. It is worthy to note however that although many of those who had parents or grandparents arrive in Cuba long before Communism gained support in China, and who consider themselves Cantonese speakers, most of these people could also speak enough Mandarin to carry on some degree of conversation.

Thus, although it is still currently more difficult to find fluent Mandarin speakers in the Chinatown of Havana, (compared with those fluent in Cantonese, Shanghai dialect, or other); but these statistics are changing. Since Mandarin holds such importance today as Chinas national language almost everyone with whom we spoke or had chance to interview about studying Chinese in Havana had chosen Mandarin. With Sino-Cuban ties increasing, the demand for Mandarin proficiency is being encouraged by the Cuban government. The Chinese Embassy in Cuba has even helped efforts by bringing in several native Chinese language professors from renowned foreign language institutes in China to teach Mandarin classes to students in Havana. Except for classes given by several of the Chinese societies, most students of Chinese said they do not have any blood ties to the Chinese heritage. When questioned about why they are interested in studying the Chinese language they stumble about for an answer almost as much as do their Anglo peers in the US when fronted with the same question. Most concluded however that it is for business or diplomatic interests. Several just shrugged their shoulders and laughed saying they were fascination with the Chinese language and culture. Humorously enough it was usually those around retirement age who expressed this kind of feeling.

The Cuban government encourages interest in studying Chinese and has sent some of its own people to live in China and attend school at some of Chinas leading universities. We had opportunity to visit with several professors of Chinese, both from China and from Cuba. Their classes usually consist of no more than 2-15 or more students so with the classes kept small the students are able to progress at a very rapid pace. In some cases Chinese businessmen looking to set up joint-venture companies in Cuba have volunteered themselves or have paid some of their own native speaking Chinese employees to give free classes to students eager to learn.

One professor, a native Cuban lady in her late thirties said she did not have a trace of Chinese blood in her veins, but because of her deep interest she was allowed to go to China to advance her studies enough to become an instructor herself. She spent seven years in Beijing, with most of her time studying Chinese at Beijing University (BeiJing DaXue), often referred to as the Harvard of China. She explained that she had been allowed to go abroad in order to learn Chinese fluently enough to enable her to return to Cuba and teach Mandarin there. Many of her students were in their fifties and sixties, which seems quite interesting since it is older than what is considered the optimal age to learn a new language.

Another Mandarin instructor who was teaching at the Lincoln Language School (connected to Havanas Abraham Lincoln Library) was brought in by the Chinese Embassy. He was a native of Beijing and had been living in Havana for more than two years. Before traveling to Havana he had been an instructor of Chinese language at the respected Beijing Foreign Language University. He told how he left the rest of his family behind in China since his son was still in college. He expressed great enjoyment for his teaching position in Cuba and said that he had not really decided how much longer he would plan to remain. He said the lower standard of living and differences in custom he encountered in Cuba were not a bother. The only real drawback about his current teaching position he expressed regret over was not being able to have his family with him. He did say that they do have the opportunity to spend time together several times out of the year, but lamented that it is not the same as living together.

Unfortunately we could not sit in on his class because permission allowing foreigners to observe a class requires a week and a half to process and our time was too short. Opportunity twice permitted us a chance to chat for with him for about 45 minutes during lunch breaks. Our conversation consisted primarily of Mandarin Chinese with an occasional line or two of Spanish to help clarify points of the conversation where Spanish vocabulary permitted greater ease, especially when dealing with names and places. Several students arrived 15-20 minutes before class and this allowed us to speak to them as well. None of those we spoke with were of Chinese descent, but they were highly interested in learning Chinese for reasons other than heritage ties. The students, all of whom had been studying for less than a year showed remarkable proficiency for 3-7 months of work with the language. Most of the other facilities or rooms designated towards learning Chinese were located more within the Chinatown district.

It was interesting to find that certain quarters of the eldercare home facilitated Chinese classes, often times being taught by some of the doctors. The classes at this location proved to be the most diverse as far as generation grouping , ranging anywhere from around 7 years old on up to those in their 50 and 60s. None of the elderly being cared for in the quarters were seen attending the classes however, but, almost all of them grew up in China and so they had no real need or interest to study since they could all read, write and speak at least one dialect. Since China has so many different dialects, sometimes our only mode of communication was through writing. It is fortunate that all the Chinese dialects can make use of the same writing system with regards to the characters and grammar. This being the case we at least always had a method of communication.

We could not always rely on being able to write out what we wished to express however. Problems arose with this method whenever we encountered second, third, and fourth generations Chinese descendents whose parents had been too busy, or who as a child had refused to learn the character writing system. Their lack of desire in the past has seen a turn around in recent years however and is one reason why so many of the middle-aged, and even elderly are found sitting in the classrooms today.

The reason for the current increase in the number of people wanting to learn to speak, read and write Chinese is probably at least two-fold. With the rise of China becoming more and more clear all the time it is wise for the Cuban leadership to encourage as many citizens as possible to have command of Mandarin, Chinas national dialect. Not only will the government need diplomats, and business relations are ever increasing, but cooperation on any level begins first with communication. While many Chinese are learning English, few Chinese are learning Spanish and this makes it more necessary for the Cubans learn either English or Chinese in order to work with their rising economic friend in the East.

The Cuban leadership is understandably shifting (at least a portion of) its hopes towards gaining recognition from China and towards fostering relations with the mounting economic gains the future promises. From the standpoint of the Cuban government any promotion and furtherance of Chinese language skills and familiarity with Chinese culture will benefit their ties with China. China on the other hand has not as much to visibly gain from the building of Sino-Cuban ties, except for opportunities Cubas geographical position has to offer.

Lincoln Library and Language School

The Abraham Lincoln Library located on the avenida de Presidente presented many opportunities for Cuban students to learn a different language. One of these languages was Mandarin. The professor (shown in the picture)teaching at the language school worked at the Chinese embassy. Inside the library were many old issues magazines. Among them were: National Geographic and Time. Also, old fashion (dress) magazines dating back to the 50's. Upon entering the library, shelves filled with language workbooks surrounded to small tables with wooden chairs that served as study desks. Each shelf had a label tag with the language the books corresponded with.

The students that arrived at the school were very enthusiastic and welcomed the opportunity to speak with Chinese major students from Southwestern to practice. The librarian there asked that issues from America be sent to her, since most of the resources for students at the school were out-dated. She liked the idea of adding a new fashion magazine and other resources to add to the library. Despite the age of the books, most were in good condition.

Chinese Calligraphy