It takes an average 1.69 years to learn Arabic, a language considered the second most difficult in the world. This means it’s always impressive when a non-Arab not only takes on the challenge of learning Arabic but also becomes a fluent speaker and uses it to bridge cultures.

This is exactly what Hong Kong Chinese vlogger Oscar C. is doing via his social media presence. Fluent in Arabic, the 24-year-old recently launched an Instagram TV series titled Arab Life in Hong Kong. Its episodes aim at introducing Arabs to Hong Kong like never before.

In an interview with StepFeed, Oscar told us more about how he became so fluent in Arabic, why he launched his series, and how he aims to develop it in the future.

On his beginnings and career

Born and raised in Hong Kong for the first 15 years of his life, Oscar attended high school and college in the U.S. where he majored in Modern Middle East Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

After graduating college in 2017, he worked in the UAE for a few months before relocating back to Hong Kong where he’s been working in corporate consulting and research in addition to launching his Arabic series.

Oscar hopes to put his Arabic language skills into use in his career to help bring different cultures closer together.

“With my multilingual skills and cross-cultural insights, I hope to be able to engage in commercial and intercultural projects that would conceivably play a role in helping those in the Arab world and China appreciate each other’s diverse cuisines, music, traditions, and business potential at a deeper level (i.e.becoming a cultural ambassador to increase the respective regions’ “soft power” – in international relations jargon),” he told us.

On learning Arabic

Oscar never lived in an Arab country except for a brief few months when he worked in the UAE. He started learning Arabic way before he visited the region and often finds that people are curious about how he got into it.

“I always joke with Arab friends and acquaintances (or anyone who has been curious about my affinity with the Arabic language and Arab cultures) that I was from the Levant in my past life,” he said.

It’s been 12 years since Oscar started learning Arabic. What sparked his interest in the language further is a fascination with the Arab region, which developed shortly after he enrolled in a four-week Arabic immersion program back in 2008. The young man’s mother encouraged him to go for the course given his impressive linguistic skills (he speaks several other languages including English, Mandarin, Cantonese, and French).

In the years following this program and before enrolling in college, the young man turned to Arabic culture and music to help him enhance his vocab; he continues to do that today.

“I still keep up-to-date with the latest trends within the Arab world (particularly in Lebanon, Jordan, and the UAE) through social media. For the past 12 years, I have been engrossed in a wide variety of Arabic songs 95% of the time across genres and regions (though Lebanese classics like those by Fairouz, ballads such as those by Wael Kfoury and Wael Jassar, as well as arrangements by emerging fusion groups like Adonis Band are what I live for),” he explained.

Oscar says that “Arabic music is the bread and butter” of his passion for the Arabic language and Arab cultures.

“I would often even go as far as to explain to non-Arabic speakers the captivating and life-changing effect that Arabic songs have had on me by referring to our usage of the term ‘tarab’ (literally meaning ‘enchantment’) to describe emotive Arabic music,” he said.

To practice the language further, he turns to help from Arab friends he made during his stay in the UAE, who help him with his Arabic every now and then.

“To me, their willingness to assist me on my questions is the pinnacle of Arab hospitality!” he explained.

“The difficulty of a target language is strictly subject to one’s passion and experiences with other languages prior”

Though Arabic is considered very hard to learn, Oscar said he never found it to be “excruciatingly difficult.”

“The difficulty of a target language is strictly subject to one’s passion and experiences with other languages prior,” he commented.

“While I do recall the initial moments at which I struggled learning the alphabet and pronouncing the letter ‘ayn, Arabic, compared to other languages I have studied like French and Russian, has always felt like second nature to me,” he added.

Oscar was once pretty skilled when it comes to the formal Arabic language but now mostly uses a mixture of the Lebanese, Syrian, and Jordanian accents when he speaks and gets “the gist of slang and expressions therein.” What he finds difficult is understanding non-Levantine accents because he isn’t too familiar with them, especially when they are spoken too quickly. He’s hopeful he’ll pick up on them one day too. 

“With more exposure and willingness to learn the other accents, I am hopeful that my appreciation of those would increase,” he said.

On his Arabic vlog series

Oscar explained that his Arabic vlog series, Arab Life in Hong Kong, is a “personal attempt to expose the hidden Arab-themed gems” in a city where an Arab diaspora community is practically non-existent.

The series “showcases several Levantine eateries, a Lebanese dekkaneh (grocery store), and other unexpected Arab-themed spots” located in Hong Kong. Oscar said his show’s episodes are “catered to Arabs curious about HK, Arabs who are looking for a piece of home in HK, or even HK locals/expats who appreciate or are curious about Arab cultures.” The series isn’t just informative, it also aims to bridge major cultural gaps and kickstart conversations. Oscar explained that, saying:

“Throughout my numerous encounters and conversations with those from both the MENA and East Asia in the past decade, I have witnessed many instances of curiosity-ridden misunderstanding on the other region — to the extent where some Chinese (even high-level employees at international organizations) have lumped Arabs with other Middle Easterners and even Muslims into a monolithic bloc, whereas some Arabs have perceived the Chinese as no different from the Japanese, Koreans, and Filipinos, etc. Under this pretext, ‘Arab Life in Hong Kong’ is my first ever vlog and, simultaneously, attempt to kick-start conversations to clear some of the cobwebs in Sino-Arab intercultural relations for the layman at a non-elite and non-political level.”

So far, the two episodes he launched on Instagram have garnered a significant following from people interested in learning more about both Arab and Chinese cultures.

“Since I launched my series, I have received numerous questions from people in both regions who truly want to understand each other more accurately. By answering their questions (which has required me to cross-check information and perspectives), I am also frequently engaging in deep processes of reflection, learning, and analogizing to deliver the most culturally relevant and relatable insights for my audience,” he said.

Going forth, Oscar is looking forward to expanding his Arab viewership and travel around China, East Asia, and South East Asia “to make similar videos and satiate their curiosity on Chinese and other East Asian customs and issues.”