A long pause

Hyacinth at the English Wikipedia

Only just last week, life in Aotearoa New Zealand was about being ultra conscious about staying home if sick, washing hands, and being alert to symptoms of COVID-19. From today and moving forward into an indefinite period, it looks like we will have to live in a constant state of heightened awareness and adopt new practices of reduced contact and socialising.

Ordinarily I would be disgruntled at disruptions, upset at being inconvenienced through no fault of mine. But this situation is far from ordinary, in fact, simply extraordinary and unprecedented. It first caused me the typical anxiety about keeping well and protecting myself and my family. But now as the world enters into extreme measures of border control and social directives, my anxiety has turned into more of an uneasy calm. Uneasy because I know the worst thing to do is to be anxious and indulge in panic buying and behaviours; but not ever sure that I am doing enough to do the ‘best’ thing like washing hands and avoiding crowds.

How does one do ‘social distancing’ and keep sane about not being in the company of others? Perhaps my introverted friends welcome the prospect of avoiding the world and all its filth. But for me, I’m trying out alternatives to handshakes and hugs – smiles, awkward gestures and the like. Working from home will be encouraged and while I welcome not having to journey to and fro on the train, I know I will miss the hum of busy minds and bodies about me.

To use a musical term, it feels we have reached a long pause (or a fermata) on a note that was meant to lead on to the next, but holding back for longer than usual. According to the Wikipedia definition, “[e]xactly how much longer it is held is up to the discretion of the performer or conductor, but twice as long is common.” If we are the performers, we take the cue from our country’s leaders, the conductor. Twice as long is probably not long enough, but if we want the music to continue playing, we’ll have to keep on holding the note.

While on this pause, I’ve begun to think about who I want to hang out with, who I could do without, and my obligations to my family if any of us should have to self-isolate. I have learnt to welcome disruption as a way to shine a light on my taken-for-granted values, re-consider knee-jerk reactions, and actually learn how to chill.

For the most part, I would like to be able to meet with people and have conversations. But perhaps they would all soon like to avoid meeting others and making unnecessary contact. And I would probably be persuaded to do so as well. Maybe we do it in the name of self-preservation and keeping the community safe. Maybe we seek solace in avoidance. But we will do what we will be conditioned to do, by political will, by common sense, by social pressure.

May we find the long pause a gift – a gift of restraint to help us become better versions of ourselves when the music resumes.

Journal Notes

Here are more recent poems I’ve put together as a book – of musical pieces.

Journal-Notes_2page

Mobile-friendly view

The poems in Journal Notes feature a different life season from those in Nine at 35 which were written almost eights years ago. I am startled to realise how I’ve grown weary of family life and take the opportunity to escape ever so briefly for coffee and solitude.

My personal fav is ‘Dreaming of Castlepoint’. I initially had ‘a sonata in ten movements’ as a subtitle, but realised it was more dramatic than soothing piano music. ‘An operetta in ten scenes’ felt more appropriate for the highs and lows of a family outing.

Nine at 35

With a renewed passion for creative writing, I’m embarking on a personal project to create folios of work – a ‘folio series’ of poems and essays – forgotten, refreshed and new creations.


Nine_at_35_eBook_2pg-copy_compressed

Mobile-friendly view


“Nine at 35” is a short collection of poems that were written to mark my 35th birthday some time ago. That was a time when my children were still young, not yet in primary school. It was also a time I was trying to return to my creative writing pursuit.

I used to write poems late into the night in my late teens and had a couple of poems published in poetry anthologies in my early twenties. When adulthood and responsibilities caught up with me, the writing seemed to slip away.

At 35, I had formed my family, settled into a teaching career, and now had ambitious plans for a creative comeback with 35 poems. I landed with 9. After that, there were snatches of verses for birthdays and milestones, but little else.

Now I’m in a different season of life. I’m into my 40s and have started journalling during my commute to work, holiday respites, and any other in between pauses. I’m rediscovering my creative voice and doing a stocktake of my earlier writing. This poetry eBook is a result of reviewing my forgotten poems and experimenting with layouts.

With a renewed passion for creative writing, I’m embarking on a personal project to create folios of work – a ‘folio series’ of poems and essays – forgotten, refreshed and new creations.

Don’t call me Migrant or Asian but who do you say I am?

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Despite what feels like a ‘long’ time, I’m really still a newcomer to Aotearoa New Zealand. And considering more than 4 of the 5 plus years were spent in Hamilton, and having recently relocated to Wellington, the Aotearoa I know is just an emerging picture. 

It is a picture coloured by intense periods of questioning my various identities and ‘trying’ and ‘doing’ social integration. It is also not a stable picture, with emotional highs and lows heightened in periods of uncertainty and angst, in the overall quest for ‘settledness’ and normalcy.

With my heart on my sleeve, and a restless mind seeking anchors, I invite you to pause and examine this picture that usually hangs unnoticed on your wall.

Rooting for my team

Image by Natalia Ovcharenko from Pixabay

In the current climate of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ in workplaces, these trendy terms fail the reality test of working in a largely Anglo/Euro-centric culture. I recall the jaw-dropping audience of old-timer administrators when I related my ‘confinement’ experience after childbirth. As I sat at the lunch table with a story that grew scandalous with each cultural revelation, I felt humiliated for trying to strike up interesting conversation. But at the same time it thickened my skin and forced my sensibilities to learn from this faux pas.

When I share such experiences with others, it is often fellow migrants, often Asian, who nod along in agreement and commiserate with sighs of resignation. We learn quickly from our mistakes and embarrassment, but we nonetheless feel indignant over unequal opportunities in accessing jobs and opportunities. Often we hold a special gratitude for our first boss who let our foot in the door. 

These ‘migrant’ or ‘ethnic’ conversations can feel familiar and safe. There seemed to be a natural urge to express solidarity, whether outright or implied, of asserting our shared experience and struggle in a hostile environment, whether real or imagined. There was tacit solidarity over the necessary ‘struggle’ before achieving success for ourselves and our family. 

In recent times, I’ve become more ambivalent about my role and identity in the community script. I’ve moved cities, work environments, professional sectors, and social circles. My affiliations have multiplied, and so have my social identities. But to suggest I play a different role can seem unnatural, unusual, or worse yet, an act of betrayal against my own kind.

At a recent forum on Asian leadership, there was a pervasive presumption that Asians were overlooked and undervalued. I could identify with feelings of indignation and injustice, but also wanted to share my positive experiences of being treated with respect and included in a Pākehā dominant work environment. My story, however, simply jarred with the plot of the day.

Finding safe houses

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I have also shared my journey with another group who are not necessarily migrant or Asian. This is a group I call my ‘safe house’ because with them I felt free and safe to be who I was and who I was trying to be. You could characterise them as empathetic multicultural-minded friends. Some of them were from mixed cultural families, others worked in pastoral care for international students, or had professional or volunteer jobs that served the needs of migrant communities and new citizens. I found them in churches, university services, associations, communities, government agencies, and in families of my children’s schoolmates.

Of course, just being involved in cross-cultural contexts does not automatically make one empathetic to others experiencing or experimenting with new cultures. I’ve met those who claim to be migrant champions or international education professionals but couldn’t wholeheartedly recommend them to others. By all accounts, they did their job. But to me they lacked a personal desire to affirm your value for who you were, whether they found you familiar or strange. 

A more recent discovery of a safe house is the kapa haka group at work. The welcoming nature of the group and encouragement by instructor-colleagues to sing boldly and accurately exemplified to me manaakitanga (hospitality) and kotahitanga (togetherness). What a gift and privilege to learn about, and express through performance, Māori culture – as an outsider looking in, as one welcomed to learn and belong in all my shades of difference.

Who am I again?

Image by BUMIPUTRA from Pixabay

I come back to my picture which has emerged as a self-portrait. It hangs on the invisible walls of my dwelling which intersects with the dwelling places of migrants, Asians, colleagues and friends. The question of who I am will inevitably be answered differently by the various co-dwellers.

To answer that question today in the season of the Lunar New Year, can be simply expressed as ‘I am Chinese’. At work, together with a few Chinese colleagues, we will put together a shared morning tea celebration for all staff. (And I would ask you to think of ‘Chinese’ as diasporic rather than singular!)

Non-Chinese colleagues will look to Chinese colleagues for cultural expressions of the season and explanations of its significance. In doing so, I also hope they will find the opportunity to build safe houses for multicultural-minded conversations flourish in.

Belonging, longing to be

If there is a theme for my 2019 work life, it would be transition. And not just moving from one job to another, but from one city to another, from one work culture to another. Through these transitions, I have journalled my responses to having (and not having) a sense of belonging and fitting into the larger scheme of things. I shared previously about how ‘connectedness’ topped my Clifton Strengths. The more I interrogate that strength, the more I realise how it influences the way I perceive success at work. 

In the spirit of Christmas, I share three gifts of insight. One, ‘settling in’ is not just a matter of time, but feeling secure that my behaviours and values are at least acceptable, if not wholly accepted and celebrated, by colleagues. Two, a sense of belonging at work is dynamic and relationally dependent. Three, as much as there is a negotiation of behaviours and values when transitioning into ‘new work’, there is a core identity that needs to be nurtured.

Time will settle all things

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

I could conjure up an image of the hourglass where the sand trickles through the narrow neck and slowly but surely gravity pulls each grain down into a pile of milliseconds. But the passage of time is most keenly seen and felt in calendars filled with meetings and appointments. Whether an abstract notion or an easily spent resource, time itself cannot create a sense of belonging. It is what happens in those precious non-renewable minutes and hours that contribute to that sometimes hard to explain feeling of being at home.

I think back to the initial few weeks of my career consultant role, and recall the conversations with colleagues. Very quickly I could identify and build on our shared ideals and goals to help newcomers to achieve career success. Over time through regular meetings and discussions, there was a tacit understanding of putting our clients’ needs at the centre of our work, and that our clients’ success was our success. The concept of having a work whānau (family) was borne out of these things: shared values, the regularity and intensity of working together, and our common destination.

The ‘settling in’ to my current role was quite a different experience. It was not immediately obvious what kind of connections I could forge with people working with high-level systems and complex processes. No doubt the technical aspects and specialist knowledge associated with my role was a challenge to overcome, but the greater challenge I saw before me was finding a space in the hearts of new colleagues. At one level it was ‘being liked’, but more importantly, it was being able to sit comfortably with each other in our shared values and aspirations. I was and still am inspired and motivated by my organisation’s mission to serve learners. And I am sure many who work alongside me are driven by that desire to improve educational outcomes. And yet, the grind and exactness of processes-driven work meant that having a reciprocal engagement with people took a lot more effort than I had imagined.

People over processes

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

And so I embarked on a personal mission to make the most of opportunities I had to interact with colleagues – walking over to ask a question, learning more about them as much as they would reveal, setting up coffee dates, and understanding myself and others more by comparing our similarities and differences. This was reflexivity in action – a heightened sensitivity to my evolving relationships with others – as individuals, as work teams, as cultural groups, as social personas.

There were times where was easy laughter, there were times where I didn’t where else to rest my gaze. I’m sure I’ve said things that sound bizzare to others, just as I’ve learnt about things that didn’t seem to fit into my worldview. But over time and with intentionality, I’ve come to appreciate different senses of belonging occurring with different grouping and types of practices.

For example, the most immediate sense of belonging is with my work team where our physical proximity, overlapping responsibilities and growing understanding of one another’s psyche has provided me a socio-physical home base. Another sense of belonging rests in the easy and carefree banter at lunchtime in the kitchen or at the daily quiz event – if surrounded by the right mix of people. And yet another sense of belonging is with the wider organisation in the belief and the hope of paving the way for a better future for all of us.

Who am I, where am I, where do I want to go?

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

With the journey from easy belonging to negotiated belonging, I’m left with a couple of hard questions to answer: who am I, where am I, where do I want to go? Every now and then I pause to think about what my core beliefs and values are, and remind myself what my personal mission is. It has been written and re-written but it sounds something like: to fill knowledge and social gaps in order to empower others to achieve success.

And then I look around me to remind myself where I am – in a place where important decisions are made that have a material impact on many. I remind myself of the privilege and the responsibility of being in the public service, and the duty to act fairly but also with compassion.

The last question of where I want to go remains unanswered. I really do not know. I have a sense of doing something what was somehow uniquely designed for me, doing good and doing well. It’s a vagueness that finds clarity in my deliberate and serendipitous connection building with others. So if I could end my 2019 reflection with a 2020 aspiration – may I go boldly where others fear to tread.