Living and thriving with labels: A journey towards cultural intelligence

5 years ago, I took a leap of faith to start a new life in Aotearoa New Zealand. I had a vision of being part of a uniquely multicultural society – one which honours its indigenous culture and heritage, and offers hospitality and friendship to others from different backgrounds. It sounds hyperbolic and naively idealistic when I say it out loud to a sceptical audience, (my readers included). It seems far-fetched compared to my everyday interactions that categorise me as ‘international’, ‘foreign’, ‘migrant’, ‘ethnic’ and even ‘exotic’. Yet, it is this vision that gives me hope and a purpose for my new life. It prompts me to interrogate what these labels mean to me, to others doing the labelling, and experiment with what I can do with these labels. I share my journey as an academic, a migrant service provider, and a policy advisor, and conclude at a tentative destination called cultural intelligence.

The ‘International’

I stated my new life as a PhD student, but was also several other personas: an international student, a mid-career professional, a mother of school-going children, a partner to a stay-home parent, a novice scholar, a Southeast Asian Chinese. At times, it felt like I was living out the theory of intersectionality. I was predominantly concerned with being a ‘scholar’, but my other labels seemed more pertinent. While I was intent on proving my intellectual credentials in a passive-aggressive academic environment, I was mostly treated as an ‘international’. I was ‘international’ according to student records, orientation, welcome morning teas, and support groups. And although rarely articulated, embedded in being ‘international’ was also being ‘Chinese’ – I suppose my fair skin and black hair gave me away – but also that I was from a singular place of origin. One memory of being identified as Chinese sticks firmly in my mind: After introducing myself as ‘Sherrie’, I was asked, ‘But what is your real name?’ In this instance, the question came from a genuine regard for my cultural background, but similar questions from others have had a cumulative effect of ‘othering’ to which I have an ambivalent response till today.

But one wonders if all that was achieved was mild curiosity or polite indifference about these ‘foreign bodies’ floating about on campus – scholars, students, parents, professionals, women and men of some unfamiliar culture, colour and creed.

The ‘International’

Of course, the scholar in me was railing about (in silence but sometimes in more measured tones) the irony of the university as a critic and conscience of society, that is, to question prejudice and preconception. But one wonders if all that was achieved was mild curiosity or polite indifference about these ‘foreign bodies’ floating about on campus – scholars, students, parents, professionals, women and men of some unfamiliar culture, colour and creed. I was provoked enough to set aside my actual PhD research topic, and put together a presentation about international doctoral students as diaspora academics after reading Wendy Larner’s conceptual framing of diasporic academics (Geoforum, 2015) and Taha Kukutai and Arama Rata’s chapter ‘From mainstream to Manaaki: Indigenising our approach to immigration’ in Fair borders? Migration policy in the twenty-first century (BWB, 2017). This was presented to a crowd of curious onlookers at the 2017 NZARE (New Zealand Association for Research in Education) Conference, and received words of affirmation from a couple of respected Māori scholars. I was encouraged by the response, but also walked back into the world of troubling intersectionality.

The ‘Migrant’

Fast forward towards the end of my PhD journey and I was ready to start the next phase of my new life – being employed. My grand illusions about being an academic championing constructive discourses of cultural diversity were tested against the local academic job market. After a string of rejections, and numerous self-doubting reflections, my conclusion was that I simply did not have a research area in demand, nor did I have potential sponsors, and I was either not ready for academia on this side of the world, or they were not ready for me.

Just as one door closed, however, another opened. An opportunity to provide new migrants with work-ready skills came through a phone call just as I read yet another job application rejection email. I wasn’t ready to give up academia, but neither was I ready to be jobless. The offer of a fixed term role as a career development consultant with Work Connect was not just attractive as paid work, especially compared to those long hours of unpaid labour of academic writing! It was a privilege to be helping marginalised communities, and to put my cherished theories on brokering and culturally-embedded social interactions to the test.

This non-academic service-oriented world also offered its own set of labels. ‘Migrant’ was the ‘official’ word for newcomers to the country seeking employment or business opportunities. Soon, I was introduced to other labels such as ‘diverse’, ‘ethnic’ and ‘inclusive’. A few months into the job, I was physically out of academia having cleared out my office and attended graduation. But there was little hope in taking the academic out from me. Thoughts about what those words meant to me, to those they seem to refer to, and to those who used them, started to stir up my restless mind.

One of the troubling thoughts I had was related to my own career progression. My fixed term role would have an end date and I needed to move on to something more permanent. As much as I loved the work I was doing, and the people I worked with and worked for, I knew career consulting was not the path for me. After talking to several contacts working in policy and government agencies, and getting positive feedback on a small policy-related project for work, I was convinced that policy was a respectable thing for a PhD graduate to do.

The personas I owned, and those placed upon me, didn’t seem to translate into a policy person. I wasn’t white, I wasn’t schooled in Wellington, I didn’t do the hard yards in Parliament, I had no inkling of the machinery of government.

The ‘Migrant’

But as I looked through the job descriptions and looked at profiles of policy folk on LinkedIn, my labels were starting to fail me. The personas I owned, and those placed upon me, didn’t seem to translate into a policy person. I wasn’t white, I wasn’t schooled in Wellington, I didn’t do the hard yards in Parliament, I had no inkling of the machinery of government. Some of my contacts suggested I look at work relating to supporting migrants. My first reaction was one of indignation. Did my ‘migrant’ label restrict me to ‘migrant’ work? When I shared my reaction with others, they assured me it was meant as a reference to my particular expertise.

I still hold on to my suspicion that ‘migrant’ / ‘ethnic’ / ‘diverse’ labels have a whole lot of baggage attached to it. And yet, I take those labels and wear them with pride, being unabashed for intersecting layers of who I am and who people make me out to be. The biggest challenge for me was to translate who I was and curate a novel persona that was worth hiring as a policy person.

The ‘Advisor’

Fast forward to where I am right now – a senior advisor in operational policy – a long label which belies my actual work of facilitating consensus building processes among different teams, levels and personalities. It is not a role that has any ‘migrant’ labels attached to it, and the one label which apparently trumped all others in the selection process was one which I had not even thought about – ‘connector’. This was both refreshing and concerning. I was delighted not to have the typical labels plastered all over me, but I seemed to be entering a new world of new words – and new expectations.

The initial period of ‘settling in’ was a roller coaster ride of feeling a loss of identity without my usual labels, and an uncertainty of what other labels to go by. I found myself wondering if I would have been happier with a ‘migrant’ role, and wondering if those convictions of doing policy work was another grand illusion waiting to disintegrate. The turning point for me came in the form of yet another set of labels called Clifton Strengths. Taking part in the individual Strengths Finder exercise and having a team workshop to examine each others’s strengths provided me a new vocabulary to make sense of people and labels. And true to the ‘connector’ label others placed on me, my number one Clifton Strength is connectedness. Knowing my #1 and other core strengths helped me clarify my life purpose. My vision was rekindled, and the labels I both cherished and loathed were refreshed.

As an advisor, fostering productive relationships and contributing to decision-making processes are key to putting policy into practice.

The ‘Advisor’

I now feel emboldened to take whatever labels are presented to me and test them out. For now, let’s call it cultural intelligence (CQ) or the ability to relate and work effectively with people from different social and cultural backgrounds. To me, this is the heart of policy work if policy is to have any positive benefit for its intended audience. As an advisor, fostering productive relationships and contributing to decision-making processes are key to putting policy into practice.

I’m also starting to realise that I have evolved, and will continue to evolve, in what labels I use, reuse and refuse. I know I haven’t even begun to question the use of labels in the first place. And honestly, I don’t even know where to begin since I have lived with labels all my life. But instead of being frustrated at inaccurate or incomplete labels, I’ll start by testing out new and more complex labels for myself.

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