“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.
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
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
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?
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.
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
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
International Mother Language Day has been observed on 21 February every year since its establishment by the United Nations in 2000. In New Zealand, the day is recognised and celebrated by organisations such as The New Zealand Federation of Multicultural Councils and The Office of Ethnic Communities, as well as schools and universities. In countries with migrant populations, recognising people’s mother tongues or heritage languages upholds respect for linguistic and cultural diversity. According to the UN, International Mother Language Day aims to do just this – to “inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.”
Understanding, tolerance and dialogue?
In contrast to the positive messages surrounding International Mother Language Day, the recent debacle at Duke University (North Carolina, USA) over Chinese international students speaking in their native language in the lounge area appears to contravene the very tenets of linguistic diversity. An assistant professor at Duke had emailed all first- and second-year biostatistics graduate students with a message directed at international (and, obviously, Chinese) students. An email excerpt quoted by several news reports reads:
“To international students, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak in Chinese in the building. I have no idea how hard it has been and still is for you to come to the US and have to learn in a non-native language. As such, I have the upmost [sic] respect for what you are doing. That being said, I encourage you to commit to using English 100% of the time when you are in Hock or any other professional setting.”
The “unintended consequences” the assistant professor mentioned refer to students being disadvantaged during internship and employment opportunities because of the their apparent lack of interest to improve their English. Another possible consequence was that not conversing in a language that others could understand would be considered “impolite”.
A swift apology came from the dean to rectify the matter:
“To be clear: there is absolutely no restriction or limitation on the language you use to converse and communicate with each other. Your career opportunities and recommendations will not in any way be influenced by the language you use outside the classroom.”
The Duke Asian Students Association and the Duke International Association have condemned the discrimination against Chinese students, while external commentators have highlighted how the Duke incident is symptomatic of wider tensions in US academe with regard to international students. Their responses highlight xenophobic sentiments among faculty staff and the institution at large despite the goals of inclusivity and cross-cultural understanding of global higher education. Another point raised is that international students, as with all other students, have personal rights to communicate in the languages of their choice. Furthermore, speaking in one’s native tongue does not indicate a deficiency in English language abilities.
The value of native language use in tertiary settings
My doctoral research on international students’ brokering practices has demonstrated that using one’s native language can be tremendously helpful for succeeding academically. First-year Chinese university students’ help-seeking interactions with peers often utilised Mandarin Chinese, a language they had in common with their academic brokers. Within a shared linguistic and cultural communicative framework, students were empowered to ask a range of questions about assignments, test their assumptions, and occasionally display their epistemic authority. In other words, using one’s native language facilitated learner agency in ways that formal English-medium instruction could not.
The analytical insights on my participants’ brokering interactions were further enhanced by my own bilingual capabilities in English and Chinese. I was consciously engaged in acts of translation between raw data and analysis, but also between my participants’ informal learning experiences in Chinese, and my largely English monolingual readership. In this small way, I, too, wish to “inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue” about international students in English-dominant universities such as Duke.
Priorities and responsibilities
With international education becoming an increasingly valuable export sector in New Zealand, it’s easy to see international students as cash cows rather than celebrating the linguistic and cultural diversity they represent. If international education is to fulfil the broader aims of global citizenship (as laid out in the NZ government’s long-term international education strategy), there needs to be a two-way street where local staff and students learn from international students as much as international students learn from them. Thus cross-cultural competency training is an urgent need, and so is a re-imagined curriculum that pays more than lip-service to the terms ‘international’ and ‘diversity’. To this end, may I invite multilingual educators and researchers to consider how you can play an important role in bridging cultural worlds.
The original blog post was re-posted with permission and can be found here.