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.

Book Review: Discourse Analysis beyond the Speech Event

SUMMARY

“Discourse Analysis beyond the Speech Event” by Stanton Wortham and Angela Reyes is about using a new approach to discourse analysis that draws primarily from linguistic anthropology. It emphasizes the importance of analyzing the pathways across linked events in order to understand social processes such as learning and socialization. The authors argue that “[i]n order for discourse analysis to be a useful method for studying social processes …, it must uncover how people, signs, knowledge, dispositions and tools travel from one event to another and facilitate behavior in subsequent events” (p.1). The intended audience are students and researchers who are already familiar with discourse analysis. The authors clearly present the tools and techniques of discourse analysis applied to a range of data including data from classroom observations, historical artifacts, and internet-mediated communication.

Chapter 1 ‘Discourse analysis across events’ introduces the approach to discourse analysis through an example from a ninth grade classroom of mostly African-American students in an urban American high school. The authors make a distinction between the terms ‘narrated event’ and ‘narrating event’. Narrated event is what is being talked about, and narrating event is the activity of talking about the event/s. For example, interactions among students and teacher make up the narrating event, while the topic of discussion is the narrated event. The narrating events that are linked through recurring patterns form a pathway in which the analyst examines patterns within individuals events, and across linked events over time.

Through several segments of classroom interaction, the authors introduce key terms used to analyze discrete events, as well as the steps to examine patterns across events. Some of the key terms include indexicals, voicing, evaluations, positioning and actions. The authors show through their analysis how social action is accomplished through language use – and in this case, how teachers and students exclude and discipline a particular student. Thus discourse analysis across speech events combines within-events and cross-events analyses to understand social processes such as learning.

Chapter 2 ‘Central tools and techniques’ elaborates on the authors’ approach to discourse analysis. This chapter clarifies the authors’ primary focus on “how participants establish relationships with others, they position themselves interactionally, perform social actions and evaluate both others and the social world” (p. 41). The authors elaborate on the three phases of discourse analysis. Phase 1 focuses on mapping narrated events, which means identifying characters, objects and events that participants refer to as they speak to one another. In order to map a narrated event, the analyst needs to look at grammar, lexicon and the sociocultural context. Phase 2 is an iterative process of establishing the meaning of signs through selecting, construing and configuring indexicals. Finally, in Phase 3, the analyst engages in drawing conclusions about the positioning of participants and interpreting the social action occurring in the narrating event. Phase 2, in particular, employs concepts found in linguistic anthropology such as voicing (Agha, 2005), entextualization (Silverstein, 1976), and enregisterment (Agha, 2007).

The chapter illustrates the procedure for discourse analysis with different classroom examples, this time, focusing on instances of crying ‘racist’. Through the analysis, the authors demonstrate how understanding the sociocultural context of crying ‘racist’ in the mass media, and linking it to the analysis of the classroom events, lead them to the conclusion that the instances are best understood as being humorous instead of serious.

Chapter 3 ‘Discourse analysis of ethnographic data’ applies discourse analysis to ethnographic data such as interview transcripts, recordings of naturally occurring events, and documents. In using discourse analysis on ethnographic data, the goal of the researcher is to record potentially linked events over time and across different settings and subsequently “identify which events are in fact linked into pathways through which consequential social action occurs” (p. 73). The chapter refers to two ethnographic case studies in which data was collected from classroom settings over a period of one year. Analysis was based on transcribed audio recordings of classroom events, and supported by the researcher’s observational notes and sociocultural meanings of the classroom and the broader context.

The challenges of using ethnographic data to conduct discourse analysis across speech events are i) the researcher must record numerous events in the settings being studied over an extended period of time; and ii) the researcher cannot tell in advance which events are significant although he/she can predict certain topics that might be relevant in the long term. The authors stress the importance of collecting as much data as possible as the analysis is dependant on “pathways of linked events that together accomplish social actions” (p. 109).

In Chapter 4 ‘Discourse analysis of archival data’, the author’s model of discourse analysis is applied to archival data used in two existing discourse analytic studies, one on Japanese women’s language and the other on Irish English accent. The archival data used in the studies differed in their sources. While much of the data was taken from print media, including visual images, in one study, three books were referred to in the other study. The authors thus demonstrate that discourse analysis beyond the speech event can be applied to a wide range of data sources from historical materials.

Drawing from material used in the study on Japanese women’s language, the authors present a pathway across three narrating events across a long temporal space; the three events were based on publications dated 1888, 1907 and 1908. While separated by historical distance, the events share several features such as referring to the same linguistic style spoken by Japanese schoolgirls, characterizing such speech negatively, and giving similar historical accounts of where the speech originated and how it spread. In a subsequent set of events, the authors similarly demonstrate how the negatively evaluated linguistic style took on a positive meaning as seen in print advertisements from the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s.

In analyzing the material used in the study on Irish English accent, the authors trace a pathway of four events from publications of 1802 and 1910. Focusing on evaluative indexicals and voicing in the data, the authors demonstrate how speakers of Irish English who make language and pronunciation mistakes are contrasted with superior speakers who do not make such mistakes. The authors further conclude that the readers of the publication are invited to align themselves with the superior characters and make fun of the mistakes. In two events taken from contemporary publications, the authors similarly analyze how Irish English is construed as ignorant and humourous, again pointing out that readers of the publications are enlisted to laugh at the mistakes.

The authors point out some key differences between analyses of ethnographic and archival data. In ethnographic studies, participants are often the same in different narrating events. In archival data, because of the historical scale, participants often change from one event to another. In addition, ethnographic studies focus on relatively few linked events in a pathway, while archival studies involve a larger set of events. Thus the challenge of engaging in discourse analysis of historical artifacts is to choose events from a very large set of potentially relevant events.

Chapter 5 ‘ Discourse analysis of new media data’ focuses on discourse analysis of new media such as email, blogs, and social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The authors apply their model of discourse analysis to recent studies of new media, one focusing on a YouTube video and the comments posted in response to it, and one that traces the recontextualization of stock storyline elements in music videos.

The case study on a YouTube video and its comments focused on how the YouTube performance indexed African American culture or ‘blackness’, and how the subsequent comments demonstrated whether viewers aligned themselves with the performer or not. Using data from the case study, the authors highlight the indexical cues that take the form of nonstandard pronunciation and orthography, emoticons, and abbreviations that contributed to an understanding of the viewers’ attitudes toward the YouTube performer’s interpretation of blackness.

In the study of storylines in music videos, the authors focus on the comparison of two music videos that employed stock storyline elements. In the analysis of videos, images and non-verbal communication form a substantial part of the data. The authors make two important points about the music videos. One, the use of stock storylines demonstrates how the two videos establish a pathway across a genre of music videos, and yet differ in their treatment of the storyline elements. While one video simply replicates the the stock storyline, the other creates self-reflexive distance by “juxtapos[ing] stock and contrasting elements to produce ironic commentary” (p. 169). This analysis is further supported by the commentaries on the videos. Two, the self-reflexive music video and the previous YouTube performance video on blackness together form another pathway that “perform ‘ironic blankness’ and position themselves as clever and self-aware” (p. 169). These two different pathways thus show how discourse analysis beyond the speech event can account for media that are separated from one another in time and space.

In Chapter 6 ‘Conclusions,’ The authors conclude their four primary contributions to discourse analysis by applying discourse analysis beyond the speech event:
A systematic method for doing discourse analysis of discrete speech events based on existing linguistic anthropological concepts;
Moving from discrete and recurring types of events to cross-event patterns;
Using pathways of linked events to demonstrate social action; and
A productive approach that can be employed in different ways for different data.
The rest of the chapter goes on to elaborate on their primary contributions.

The final point made by the authors is that their approach to discourse analysis beyond the speech event circumvents the issues surrounding conceptualizing discourse analysis as focusing on either micro or macro processes. Instead, discourse analysis beyond the speech event “uncover[s] intermediate-scale regularities that take shape across pathways of linked events, … allow[ing] us to capture the heterogeneity of relevant resources from various scales” (p. 182).

EVALUATION

The authors of “Discourse Analysis beyond the Speech Event” have achieved their goal of communicating a systematic method of discourse analysis by detailing the processes and demonstrating how their analytical approach can be applied to different types of data. What was most impressive about the approach was its productivity across dissimilar data (i.e. ethnographic, archival, new media) and contexts (i.e. classroom, history, internet communication).

The intended audience is supposed to be advanced students and researchers working in the area of discourse analysis methods. Since discourse analysis spans various disciplinary fields, and the authors adopt particular analytical terms, readers may find the book on the outset somewhat alienating if they are not familiar with the particular terms used. However, the authors take care to define key terms and illustrate the use of such terms through examples and thorough analysis of the examples. Students and researchers with a background in linguistic anthropology will probably be more familiar with the concepts and terms used since the approach is based on linguistic anthropology.

Overall, the authors present a robust methodology that aims to uncover how participants accomplish various social actions. It is hoped that future research employing discourse analysis will consider what the authors have to offer.

REFERENCES

Agha, Asif. 2005. Voice, footing, enregisterment. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 15(1): 38-59.

Agha, Asif. 2007. Language and social relations. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Silverstein, Michael. 1976. Shifters, linguistic categories, and cultural description. In Keith Basso & Henry Selby (eds.) Meaning and anthropology, 11-55. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

This review was originally published on The Linguist List.

Lee, S. (2015). Review: Anthropological Ling; Discourse: Wortham, Reyes (2014) [Review of the book Discourse Analysis beyond the speech event]. The Linguist List. Retrieved from http://linguistlist.org/issues/26/26-4511.html

ASEAN Student Voice 2015

I was nominated by the Faculty of Education at the University of Waikato to attend an event organised by Education New Zealand (ENZ). The event is called Student Voice and it provides the opportunity for internationals students to network, and for ENZ to hear from the students themselves about their educational experiences in New Zealand. This year’s Student Voice was named ASEAN Student Voice 2015, in celebration of 40 years of partnership between New Zealand and ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations). It was held on 11-12 August, 2015 in Wellington.

I met 29 other international students from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam, as well as 10 Kiwi students who had previously spent some time studying in ASEAN countries. The 40 of us spent two days discussing issues international students face, as well as learning from representatives from government, educational institutions, and private companies.

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It was a packed programme, rich with ideas, possibilities, and inspiration. There were practical tips for job search and interview skills, as well as perspectives of what international education means for New Zealand. I was especially inspired by Simon Chu from Otago University, Lester Khoo from AUT, and Jimmy Walsh from Beca. While Simon and Lester shared their personal stories and motivations for building networks with international students, Jimmy spoke about the increasing importance for New Zealand to engage with ASEAN countries.

Despite a full programme, there was time during breaks and meals to interact with the participants. I formed new friendships and also had the opportunity to discuss my PhD research with fellow participants. My research on informal learning practices of international students struck a chord with many and I received insightful comments and encouraging words.

I didn’t have much time for sightseeing but managed to see a good part of the city early Wednesday morning. You can’t beat Wellington on a good day, as the locals say, and I’m blessed to have been in Wellington on a good day. Instead of ducking my head in wild wind, I faced the rising sun along the waterfront, and ambled along the streets as the city came to life.

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I left my heart in Wellington. The city reminds me of San Francisco – the waterfront, the hilly landscape, and a vibe that makes the city come alive.

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Chanced upon a magazine shop tucked behind a coffee place. Apparent, only one of two in New Zealand. The other of its kind is in Auckland. Here, I found serious reads and childhood favs (Beano!). Picked up kids mags that came with freebies.

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The Railway Station. A regular means of transport between suburbs and city.

The timing of ASEAN Student Voice 2015 was also opportune for personal reasons. I was invited to attend a gala dinner organised by the Singapore High Commission in celebration of Singapore’s 50th National Day. I had never been so excited to be part of a Singapore community since leaving home more than nine months ago.

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A cultural performance by a Singaporean arts group flown in for the occasion.

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A mishmash of Singapore dishes – or rather, a Kiwi version of Singapore dishes. Somewhere in there was Chicken Rice.

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The final course of our gala dinner – a dessert platter with Kiwi and SG elements. The only recognisable dessert for me were the three chocolates.

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A spontaneous selfie moment with the Singapore High Commissioner, His Excellency Mr Bernard Baker and his lovely wife, Susan.

Reflecting on ASEAN Student Voice 2015, I am impressed with New Zealand’s commitment to creating a positive international student experience, and even more impressed with the passion and personal convictions of the speakers. Their common message was about relationships – cultivating meaningful and long-lasting relationships between New Zealand and its ASEAN neighbours.

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Group photo with Minister for Tertiary Education, Hon Steven Joyce

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Group photo from Education New Zealand (taken from FB page – Study in New Zealand)

I now have a renewed vigour for my research, and a clearer vision of how my New Zealand journey can make a difference in the international student experience for my immediate community and beyond. I’m grateful to have had this experience and look forward to many more.

Postscript (19 October 2015): Read the article by Education New Zealand about Student Voice 2015.

My love-hate relationship with writing deadlines

I can’t write without them. I mean thoughtful, focused writing when your mind could wander off on another theory, another concept, another methodology.

I can’t think without them. I mean fast and furious thinking to complete paragraphs of thought formation, to decide when to review and revise, to decide when to cut it down, throw it out, and move on.

I can’t relax without them. I mean truly be at ease and appreciate other things (like blogging) – after the deadline. What is rest if there is no stress?

Today marks the start of Month 5. I have exactly two months before my application for confirmed enrolment is due. This is a crucial point in the phd journey here at Waikato. Once I’m confirmed, I move from being a student to a candidate, and work on the phd research can start proper.

I’m not sure if I can meet this all important deadline. I know there’s the option to extend the deadline but I’d rather not if I can help it. Unless my supervisors think I need the extension, I’d like to stick to the deadline.

Sure, it’s stressful to have to keep up with revising my work, reading for purpose rather than for intellectual curiosity, and working at every available hour in order to meet deadlines. But in the pain, there is gain. I’m learning how not to waffle through ideas, honing my skills at paraphrasing summarising, critiquing, and developing original thought.

Without deadlines for writing, as it was in the first few months, my time was spent reading and thinking and making notes, but in a rather loose fashion. I felt I had something important to say, but I didn’t have to present these thoughts formally, and so they were left as that – informal, inside, inert.

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Writing, not just any kind of writing, but writing for purpose, for someone to read and critique, within a reasonable time frame, shapes thought. The act of writing, entwined with thinking and reading, must be the vessel for those ideas. And those pressing deadlines that create pockets of time when there were none, is the fuel to keep the vessel afloat and moving.

I’ve just met a writing deadline today. It is a feeling of sweet relief. Now, I rest. I thank God, for he arranges the best schedule, that this period of rest is during the Easter weekend. A time with the family away from home. A time to rest from writing (and thinking and reading). A time to count my blessings.

Productivity Moment by Moment

It has become clear to me that pursuing full-time academic or research work revolves around writing. There’s thinking, reading, musing, but writing is the central activity that binds all the activities of scholarship and knowledge finding and creation into a visible, searchable, reflect-able artifact.

To be able to understand my writing and reading patterns, and to track the work I have been doing and need to do in the next steps, I have created a writing/reading log. It is an excel spreadsheet (I use Google Sheets) with columns for date, time, activity and comments. I was skeptical that I could keep up with a mundane task as this but after a few days into logging, I can see the benefits.

First, it helps me to track how long I spend on various tasks. By logging the start and end time of a particular activity, I can see how long I have taken to write a few paragraphs, or clarify a thought. With this log, I realise that it can take all of two hours to write three paragraphs, and part of me wants to shorten that time, but the other part of me is thinking that I need to allocate that time in order to think and write.

Second, with the comments column, I write down what follow-up work I need to do, for example, extend the argument or find more references. These comments are important so that I don’t forget what I need to do when I start the next writing activity. Previously, I used to spend time figuring out what I had thought about the previous night before I could carry on.

Thirdly, this log helps me track my overall progress and serves as an encouragement to keep on writing and reading! It also helps with planning what to do and when do do it in order to meet deadlines.

With a busy household of three school going children, I welcome tools to increase my productivity but more importantly, to help me improve my writing habits. This blog post, for example, will be logged as an activity so that I can track how often I blog and how long it takes me to write.

Seize the day! Tomorrow may throw you a curve ball but take each available moment and make it count. Having a log will help you count that moment!

Don`t copy text!