How one police officer uses his Chinese heritage to support his community

Maxine Jacobs

29 Sep 2022

Sergeant Qian Yang remembers the delight he saw in a young man’s eyes as he began speaking in Mandarin.

A police officer in Manawatū, Yang had pulled him over for running a late yellow light, a typical offence seen when patrolling the streets.

The man had stepped out of his car to walk towards Yang, again, typical of Chinese who have moved to Aotearoa.

It’s the way things are done back in China, Yang said, it’s arrogant to expect the officer to come to you.

“First I approached in English … because you can’t take an Asian-looking person as Chinese. [So] he’s showing me his driver's licence, I read it, ‘Oh yeah Chinese.’ So I start speaking to him.

“He looked very excited. He found it so lovely that he can talk to a police officer in New Zealand in his own dialect.”

Being able to connect with people through Chinese languages and bridge the gap between citizens and officers is one of the reasons Yang loves his job in the police.

As the Central District’s ethnic liaison co-ordinator, Yang’s focus is on making connections with communities from Ōtaki to Taumarunui to better serve and protect.

As an immigrant, he understands the difficulties that come with travelling to another country with limited knowledge of its dominant language or culture.

But that’s what makes his role as one of two Chinese-speaking police officers in the district so important.

“With officers who can speak different languages, it’s beneficial. Number one – language barriers, if you get someone from China, you need someone who can speak Chinese to talk to them.

“It’s easier, they understand their cultural background, you can talk to them, [the] matter can be resolved in minutes.”

Yang, then 20, arrived in Aotearoa in 2000 to learn English. He travelled from Qingdao in China’s eastern Shandong province. He grew up speaking Shandongese, the local dialect of his community.

“In China we have 100-plus different languages, local dialects, but everyone has to speak Mandarin, otherwise it’s very hard to communicate.”

He planned to become an international trader back in China after learning English, but fell in love with Aotearoa’s lifestyle, and chose to use his now three languages to help people like him who struggled with language barriers.

Manawatū Chinese Community Trust chairperson Wen Li often refers people from her community to Yang.

She said they trust him and feel more comfortable speaking with a Chinese police officer.

“The people ask for the police who can speak Mandarin, it’s better for them to explain, and they feel comfortable to talk … with the police officer in their own language.”

When Yang doesn’t understand someone’s dialect, he can refer to the Chinese script which is the same across the dialects.

Li said having someone like Yang she can call on to help bridge the language and cultural barriers for victims of crime has been an asset for the community.

“It’s very uncomfortable and not easy when we talk to the police officer or the lawyer or a doctor, because of language we stay away from this kind of normal life,” Li said.

“I think the language can have a very important impact on people’s lives [but] it’s improved since we have a Mandarin-speaking policeman.”

Auckland University's Dr Danping Wang said she’s seen how difficult it can be for Chinese language speakers trying to communicate with different services.

“They don’t feel they have the power in having a conversation with the police and giving the information they want in a way that they are comfortable with, so a lot of times they don’t say anything.”

Wang said being able to communicate with officials using your mother tongue was important, especially when engaging with the police.

“When you speak the language to a person using the language that he understands you only speak to his brain, but if you are speaking the language that is the mother tongue of that person then you are speaking to their heart,” she said.

Having more people who can converse in the Chinese languages in service positions would go a long way to increasing inclusion in Aotearoa, but also understanding across its people, Wang said.