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.