A Christmas Letter: Messages from a Life in Translation

To my family in Singapore

Firstly, to my sister who celebrates her birthday on Christmas Day, because the celebrations are often conflated and lessened when they ought to be separate like it is for other people whose birthdays are far from Christmas – I wish you first a very Happy Birthday and then I wish you a very Merry Christmas – this is my feeble attempt at separating the two! But more seriously, may all the double feasting give you some temporary relief from your year of adaptations – and maladaptaions – in home and work lives, in personal reckonings and the search for meaning in everything that you do. 

To my ‘Christmas’ sister, my other sister, and my mother, the ones I share a group chat with, every so often we talk about you visiting us, and all of you have, Mother being the most regular visitor who comes for a few weeks leading up to Christmas. And less often, you ask when I am coming home. Last Christmas, I probably said ‘next year’ without commitment and sincerity. But this Christmas, I want to say ‘next year’ – still without commitment but with a lot more sincerity. This year I truly mean it – I do want to go home – next year – when the border re-opens, when I can travel with managed risks, when I can gather the financial and mental resources to arrange travel for my family of five, when I can finally say with conviction it is worth all of it to go home.

To my father, the memory of you sending us off at the airport with cold burgers and fries as we were delayed at customs, your warm wishes of asking us to ‘enjoy the good life’, and your polite promise of visiting us, taunts me now and again. But this Christmas, I will remember the neat Christmas gifts you have given me and my sisters when we were kids, the toys and quirky things you’ve given my children, and the skill of gift wrapping I learnt from you – Merry Christmas Daddy! 

To my family with me in New Zealand

Our Christmases since we have moved to this country have been low key compared to our feasting with family back home. I’ve tried to start some Christmas traditions – remember the mac n cheese for Christmas in the first couple of years? And then the agar agar with condensed milk – an adaptation of my grandma’s recipe – for another couple of years? And the Christmas tree with homemade decorations outshining the store bought ones? And of course the boxing day shopping – often for Christmas gifts! And your grandma visiting us a few weeks before Christmas was the Christmas family cheer (along with suitcases full of prezzies) that we all looked forward to. And then this Christmas – after this year of ‘Sturm und Drang’, with grandma not visiting, with the hopes of settling in Wellington with our own home dashed over and over again, I’m almost out of breath and simply too tired to get into these new traditions. But I’ll summon all my energy and try something new and get all of us into the Christmas spirit – a time when we need to be grateful – and hopeful – to be sure of why Christmas is called Christmas! We remember Jesus Christ, son of God, born of the virgin Mary, sent as a Gift of Redemption.

To my friends and colleagues in New Zealand

Friends from Hamilton – you became friends through our shared circumstances of being ‘international’ PhD students, or you emerged as part of campus life, or were two degrees of connection with my immediate circle – Merry Christmas to you and thank you for the happy memories of Hamilton life. I don’t know if our paths will cross again but if they do, I hope we will easily pick up where we left off a few years ago.

Friends in Wellington – I found you in church and our friendships are still new and growing – may our bonds through faith be strengthened slowly but surely. To friends from elsewhere, some of you may be from the distant future as parents of my children’s friends but I won’t be disappointed if it doesn’t work out (as friendships in Hamilton taught me a few lessons). And some of you may come from unexpected places that God has planned – perhaps to be reported in the next Christmas letter.

Colleagues from the various paid and volunteer work I’ve done, you probably know me the best of this category called ‘friends and colleagues’ – or more precisely, you know the ‘best of me’ since it is work where I have to present the ‘best’ version of myself, the professional persona that justifies my being in this country – it is being employed in work that utilities recognised qualifications and skills that allows me to live here. I hate to be called one but it is true, I am a ‘skilled migrant’.

Before coming to New Zealand, I thought these labels were just administrative and that once I was in the country, I would simply be part of the fabric of a wonderfully accepting and inclusive nation. But that must have been some sort of marketing gimmick that played on the naive desires of a ‘wannabe’. I’ve been living with administrative labels for the past 6 years, and often working hard to justify the label. 

But this Christmas, after several years of working as a professional alongside other professionals, and experiencing a work culture that recognises the individuals for their unique contribution, and having colleagues who value and appreciate each other as individuals, I can start to peel off these labels. No doubt I will be tagged with various descriptors as it suits those who need to, but I am thankful that my colleagues know me for who I am – and spell and say my name correctly!

After reading this Christmas letter, and after you have decided it has been too short, and too long, not enough context or too much information, I look forward to hearing from you – whether as a Christmas letter or message, or some form of communication – in the translation of your choice.

Life is a 9 layered cake

Image by Lydia Bauman from Pixabay

The cake I have in mind is steamed, not baked; made with tapioca and rice flour; and is a sweet treat that is part of the rich food tapestry of Peranakan culture in Singapore and Malaysia (see also the thorough Wikipedia entry). This is my heritage and a culture I am proudly rooted in – although relatives would deride my low level of cultural authenticity!

So it is never quite enough to say I’m Singaporean, or a Chinese Singaporean, and certainly not just ‘‘Chinese’. I am Peranakan, or as a woman, a nonya. And this 9 layered cake is not just a part of my heritage, but my childhood, and also now a precious memory and taste of home while I live in a country that can hardly appreciate the nuances of the Chinese diaspora, let alone have any idea of this uniquely Southeast Asian sub-culture.

The 9 layered cake is really gao teng kueh in the Chinese dialect called ‘Hokkien’ or  jiu cheng gao (九层糕) in Mandarin. I grew up calling it the ‘rainbow kueh’ – the picture will tell you why.

Taken from mysingaporefood.com

My earliest memory of the rainbow kueh is of my father bringing it home on Saturday morning after his weekly shopping at the wet market, and picking up breakfast from the adjoining hawker centre. Saturday breakfast was a real treat as it took a break from the routine weekday sandwiches and cereal.

The Saturday breakfast options formed a delectable range from springy noodles with thin slices of barbequed pork (kolo mee), peanut pancake (ban jian kueh), rice noodle roll (chee cheong fun), soy bean curd (tau huay) and deep fried dough stick (you cha kueh), or mung bean soup (tau suan) and deep fried dough stick (you cha kueh), and of course, my favourite sweet treat, rainbow kueh. Apart from rainbow kueh, which was a term I coined putting the obvious word that came to mind and the type of food it was (kueh – Hokkien for ‘cake’ or ‘steamed cake’ to be precise), all the other food items I’ve listed here I’ve known them by their Hokkien names (the terms in brackets).

The rainbow kueh comes to mind today in celebration of life – the layers of varying density, the mixed flavours of coconut, pandan and tapioca, and the bright red symbolising happiness – usually the first (and thinnest) layer I peel off to enjoy what I imagine to be sweetest one of them all!.

The rainbow kueh comes to mind as I think of home and what life means to me after being through this year, the year of 9 layers, the layers of: 

Delighting in the now
Chucking out false hopes
Saying yes to opportunities
Loving unwindy sunny days
Pondering over past regrets
Keeping head barely above water
Finding no escape route for shame
Heaving sobs in silent darkness
Riding unfastened in roller coasters

And the sweetest one of them all – delighting in the now – means I am finding the present to be the only thing I have to make or break. At this moment, I am delighting in recollecting my memories, and making sense of who I was and who I am. I used to chant ‘Carpe Diem’ in my teens, after being inspired by Dead Poets Society, so why not again now, after peeling back the 9 layers of life?

Seize the day!
Yesterday is over
Something good is waiting
Wild weather keeps you humble
Disappointment has future lessons
Surviving comes before thriving
The way out of shame is forgiveness
Take time to grief and groan
Cling on tightly to the Immovable Rock

And so life, just like the 9 layered cake – the rainbow kueh – I peel layer by layer, tasting the different textures and flavours of different colours, some more pleasant than others, but savouring each layer and finally completing my quest to consume the rainbow kueh.

Migrants: Money or multiculturalism, cash or culture, productivity or people?

I have been, and continue to be, troubled by how (im)migrants are portrayed by the media, and by extension, viewed by readers of media, and one could argue, on the basis of how society has made up its mind on the topic. To put it crudely, migrants are valued more for their economic contributions than the multiple cultures and histories they bring with them. All other nuances are lost in the need for quick conclusions in a busy and distracted world.

The economic migrant is a fairly recent construct, spurred by the bigger constructs of globalisation and international trade (see edited book by Trlin, Spoonley, and Bedford (2005) for articles on immigration policy in the 2000s). No doubt migrants and the receiving country are strongly attracted to each other on the potential and promise of financial reward. For migrants, however, the reward is not simply and purely economic. From my own experiences and insider observations, reward can be construed as short-term gains (better jobs, higher pay), longer-term returns (better opportunities for their children), and are often intermingled with other motivations ranging from lifestyle upgrades to escaping political uncertainty. (See Castelli (2008) for an insightful overview of different types of migrants.)

How does one measure ‘contribution’ of migrants and multiculturalism if not by the sure and firm way of dollars and cents?

For the receiving country, one could also argue that the reward is not simply and purely economic. Migrants contribute to the cultural diversity of the nation and enrich the social lives of locals and all residents in the country. The statement I’ve just made is unfortunately more rhetoric than real (something grandiose and admirable enough to be valid), a description, perhaps, of an ideal world that exists in policy and organisational statements signalling inclusion. How does one measure ‘contribution’ of migrants and multiculturalism if not by the sure and firm way of dollars and cents?

In the wake of post-covid rationalisation of immigration, the economic argument still holds strong, if not stronger than before. In a Newsroom article, Professor Steven Poelhekke re-hashes the classic argument for migrants in New Zealand – they do the jobs locals shun (while locals learn how to be more productive), and bring in innovation and patent worthy ideas. The article highlights two extreme values of immigration: low unskilled labour versus high-calibre talent – and appears to welcome them in equal measure.

Another article from the Financial Times reiterates the economic argument but favours one group over the other. It builds its case around Foriegn Minister Winston Peters’ claims that the pandemic has “exposed the problems of building an economy on consumption driven by immigration.” Peters is of the view that relying on high immigration rates to contribute to GDP is ‘unsustainable’ because of the pressure it places on infrastructure, health and education. Instead, New Zealand should focus on a select group of highly skilled immigrants essential to wealth creation.

Interestingly, the FT article contrasts Peters’ worldview with that of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, supposedly “a great advocate of a multicultural New Zealand” by demonstrating hospitality towards migrants. However, apart from the one mention of ‘multicultural’, nothing else is said about multiculturalism. Thus nothing much is known about so-called advocacy for multicultural New Zealand, if indeed there is a specific rationalisation of immigration on the basis of creating a multicultural nation. (Or if my suspicions are right, it’s just too tricky to define and measure.)

… the predominant rationalisation for migrants is that they serve the receiving country’s economic purposes. And in a post-covid recovery state of mind, that surely must be the most important reason.

So putting the two articles side by side, immigration or migration, whether you stick strictly to the definitions of immigration as permanent, and migration as temporary or more mobile, the predominant rationalisation for migrants is that they serve the receiving country’s economic purposes. And in a post-covid recovery state of mind, that surely must be the most important reason.

The case for multiculturalism, while elusive, is suggested in Professor Paul Spoonly’s article for HR practitioners titled ‘Why ethnicity diversity is essential in a post-Covid world’. Spoonley argues that there is an ongoing need for a migrant workforce by providing both economic and cultural perspectives on immigration, but highlights that the cultural perspective is of greater significance.

The economic case for migrants can be summed up as: migration numbers will go down and there is an understandable shift to up/re-skill local workers, but there will still be a need for migrant workers as we can’t fill the gap quickly and efficiently enough.

The cultural perspective that comes after, however, is not strictly a case for ‘multicultural’ New Zealand through immigration, but rather, alludes to the fact that immigration in the past has contributed to a multicultural New Zealand and therefore “ethnic diversity is a major consideration in terms of the current and future economy and labour force of this country.”

Unfortunately, the way ethnic diversity is framed is nebulous – as a ‘consideration’ to promote the ‘viability’ of businesses. What conclusion is one to draw from these words? Reading Spoonley’s argument more closely and inferring the ‘unspoken’, I conclude that companies should hire on the basis of ethnic diversity as opposed to hiring based on the predominant Euro/Anglo culture, and going beyond the existing ethnic diversity policies regarding Māori and Pacific employees. ‘Asian’ is mentioned once as a characteristic of diversity and so if one were to pick that up, that’s one specific group of people you should consider hiring. And the reason for choosing ‘ethnic diversity’? It makes better business sense!

So once again we come back to the tiresome argument, however true and trite, of ‘money makes the world go round’.

So once again we come back to the tiresome argument, however true and trite, of ‘money makes the world go round’. Migrants are good for the economy, whether high or low value migrants, and if migrants have made us more diverse, then we want to make sure we serve our migrant populations and earn their money.

I hope this provokes us into thinking more about (im)migration and (im)igrants; what the big nebulous words of ‘globalisation’, ‘ethnic diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism’ (to name a few) actually mean to us in our daily lives; and be challenged to think ‘multiculturally’ when it’s easier not to.

Travelling between darkness and light: Reflections on lockdown

Photo by Vladimir Fedotov on Unsplash

In the past two months, my world was shaken, stirred, and has only begun to settle. My professional world was squished into a corner of a room with the strongest wifi signal. The physical structures and rhythms of office life were exchanged for self-managing feats of video calls, long email trails and easily forgotten coffee and toilet breaks. If this wasn’t intense enough, then the backdrop of home life tantrums and discontent weaving in and out of a busy workday would crank up the dial. As work pressures increased with urgent responses, so did the disillusionment of family bonding in forced spaces. 

Without a doubt, my whole family’s disrupted routines were colliding with each other. And when I was able to mentally put this evolving drama aside, I looked to my work for a sense of balance and peace, only to find that I was walking a tightrope above imbalance and chaos. These were the dark times of lockdown – working from home, but also at home with everyone adjusting to restricted activity and forms of expression.

I recall my effort to lighten the burden of lockdown: Snapping gratitude pics of home baking, crafting, dressing up for work selfies, and posting them on a personal board to remind myself of life’s little pleasures. But these moments were transient and shallow comfort compared to the recurring emotions of feeling spent and helpless, often at bedtime, sometimes in tears. Evening disappeared into the morning; another day had passed, but a new day also brought hope again.

I was travelling between darkness and light. Darkness was the calmness of night time rest; a private room to wring distress from my mind; a welcome end to a day of strife. Light was the promise of plenty; the engine of action; an illusion that productivity was the elixir of life. I had naively thought that the lockdown was a long pause of meaningful recalibration of life’s wants and needs. As I emerge from being held prisoner in my own home (and mind), the recalibration is only starting.

During the journey through darkness and light, I searched the Psalms for comfort. King David had worse days than me. He was hunted down by a jealous and raging King Saul; he had to come clean before God about his adultery and committing murder to cover up his adultery; he was besieged by enemies, including his own son who turned against him. But in all these trials and tribulations, he cried out to God, declaring that while we are only but a breath, God is our Rock and Dwelling Place, ever close to our broken spirits, and delivering us from our troubles.

Each time I crawled into a dark place of despair, I remember the last time God rescued me from myself. I’m also thankful for being part of a church community where we encourage each other in our faith, reminding each other of our ultimate source of comfort and assurance. Travelling between darkness and light has been trying, but the struggle has made me realised more than before that “everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure” (Psalm 39:5). I have understood more deeply what it means to be fragile, and I see more clearly the futility of temporary fixes.

In terms of recalibrating after lockdown, I’m making a gradual transition back to the office. I value work from home arrangements a lot more now that our family’s routine is more or less restored. Saving a few extra hours a day from travel means feeling less tired and being able to have more conversations with my children and husband. But I also value the measured rhythm of an office environment such as walking to the printer to pick up documents, being physically present with colleagues (that is, whoever is at the office), and knowing that I will leave the building at some time and return home.

We have been talking about a new normal after lockdown and in the aftermath of the pandemic. While we figure out what this new normal looks like, we also need to build up our resilience and capabilities to address the helter-skelter of our times, and travel with more confidence between darkness and light.

Using your PhD in a non-academic job

… and staying true to your world-changing aspirations

Image by Raam Gottimukkala from Pixabay

It has been one year since attending my graduation ceremony at the marae grounds of the University of Waikato. It was a momentous occasion to mark the achievement of attaining a Doctor of Philosophy in Education. The preceding months of successfully defending my thesis and having my thesis bound and deposited into the library felt like a holding statement, and the graduation day was the public announcement that I had become a ‘doctor’!

Yet, I have to admit, it felt anti-climatic. The long hours of research, reading and painstaking writing did not bring me to the promised land of academic milk and honey. In fact, I had fallen out of love with the university and academia, almost like a jilted lover after years of unrequited love and adoration. 

Recently, I shared my story of how failure to secure an academic job led me to the public sector, seemingly by accident, but in hindsight, it was the right match for my interests and passion for social justice.

While I have indeed taken my PhD elsewhere, the PhD in me hasn’t disappeared completely. My academic reading habits have helped me scan wordy or lengthy documents for key ideas, and be sensitive to underlying epistemologies and critical of seemingly easy solutions. So while the PhD is not usually a pre-requisite for government jobs, or the vast majority of jobs for that matter, having the frameworks and skills of rigorous thinking has given me great tools for navigating rapidly changing landscapes. The challenge, however, is being able to do this as fast as possible to keep up with the changes!

My interest in good ideas and arguments hasn’t disappeared either. I’ve taken an interest in policy research and have been following the updates of policy think tanks such as The New Zealand Initiative and the professional organisation for public servants IPANZ to keep pace with the latest thinking in the public sector.

At some point, I would like to return to research and writing, but this time for a professional audience, and with the purpose of addressing the elephants in the room. I already have one topic in mind: The Case for Slow Thinking in Fast Places. And another: Is Multiculturalism All Things to All People? And to make a neat three: The Freedom to Act Justly and Love Mercy.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.
Micah 6:8