A Christmas Letter: Messages from a Life in Translation

To my family in Singapore

Firstly, to my sister who celebrates her birthday on Christmas Day, because the celebrations are often conflated and lessened when they ought to be separate like it is for other people whose birthdays are far from Christmas – I wish you first a very Happy Birthday and then I wish you a very Merry Christmas – this is my feeble attempt at separating the two! But more seriously, may all the double feasting give you some temporary relief from your year of adaptations – and maladaptaions – in home and work lives, in personal reckonings and the search for meaning in everything that you do. 

To my ‘Christmas’ sister, my other sister, and my mother, the ones I share a group chat with, every so often we talk about you visiting us, and all of you have, Mother being the most regular visitor who comes for a few weeks leading up to Christmas. And less often, you ask when I am coming home. Last Christmas, I probably said ‘next year’ without commitment and sincerity. But this Christmas, I want to say ‘next year’ – still without commitment but with a lot more sincerity. This year I truly mean it – I do want to go home – next year – when the border re-opens, when I can travel with managed risks, when I can gather the financial and mental resources to arrange travel for my family of five, when I can finally say with conviction it is worth all of it to go home.

To my father, the memory of you sending us off at the airport with cold burgers and fries as we were delayed at customs, your warm wishes of asking us to ‘enjoy the good life’, and your polite promise of visiting us, taunts me now and again. But this Christmas, I will remember the neat Christmas gifts you have given me and my sisters when we were kids, the toys and quirky things you’ve given my children, and the skill of gift wrapping I learnt from you – Merry Christmas Daddy! 

To my family with me in New Zealand

Our Christmases since we have moved to this country have been low key compared to our feasting with family back home. I’ve tried to start some Christmas traditions – remember the mac n cheese for Christmas in the first couple of years? And then the agar agar with condensed milk – an adaptation of my grandma’s recipe – for another couple of years? And the Christmas tree with homemade decorations outshining the store bought ones? And of course the boxing day shopping – often for Christmas gifts! And your grandma visiting us a few weeks before Christmas was the Christmas family cheer (along with suitcases full of prezzies) that we all looked forward to. And then this Christmas – after this year of ‘Sturm und Drang’, with grandma not visiting, with the hopes of settling in Wellington with our own home dashed over and over again, I’m almost out of breath and simply too tired to get into these new traditions. But I’ll summon all my energy and try something new and get all of us into the Christmas spirit – a time when we need to be grateful – and hopeful – to be sure of why Christmas is called Christmas! We remember Jesus Christ, son of God, born of the virgin Mary, sent as a Gift of Redemption.

To my friends and colleagues in New Zealand

Friends from Hamilton – you became friends through our shared circumstances of being ‘international’ PhD students, or you emerged as part of campus life, or were two degrees of connection with my immediate circle – Merry Christmas to you and thank you for the happy memories of Hamilton life. I don’t know if our paths will cross again but if they do, I hope we will easily pick up where we left off a few years ago.

Friends in Wellington – I found you in church and our friendships are still new and growing – may our bonds through faith be strengthened slowly but surely. To friends from elsewhere, some of you may be from the distant future as parents of my children’s friends but I won’t be disappointed if it doesn’t work out (as friendships in Hamilton taught me a few lessons). And some of you may come from unexpected places that God has planned – perhaps to be reported in the next Christmas letter.

Colleagues from the various paid and volunteer work I’ve done, you probably know me the best of this category called ‘friends and colleagues’ – or more precisely, you know the ‘best of me’ since it is work where I have to present the ‘best’ version of myself, the professional persona that justifies my being in this country – it is being employed in work that utilities recognised qualifications and skills that allows me to live here. I hate to be called one but it is true, I am a ‘skilled migrant’.

Before coming to New Zealand, I thought these labels were just administrative and that once I was in the country, I would simply be part of the fabric of a wonderfully accepting and inclusive nation. But that must have been some sort of marketing gimmick that played on the naive desires of a ‘wannabe’. I’ve been living with administrative labels for the past 6 years, and often working hard to justify the label. 

But this Christmas, after several years of working as a professional alongside other professionals, and experiencing a work culture that recognises the individuals for their unique contribution, and having colleagues who value and appreciate each other as individuals, I can start to peel off these labels. No doubt I will be tagged with various descriptors as it suits those who need to, but I am thankful that my colleagues know me for who I am – and spell and say my name correctly!

After reading this Christmas letter, and after you have decided it has been too short, and too long, not enough context or too much information, I look forward to hearing from you – whether as a Christmas letter or message, or some form of communication – in the translation of your choice.

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.

Using Google Hangouts on Air for a Research Presentation

Using Google Hangouts on Air for a Research Presentation

Although Google Hangouts on Air launched in May 2012, I only recently discovered it when I chanced upon a colleague’s live lecture while scanning my Google+ feed. And what I saw, I liked. Google Hangouts on Air (or HOA for short) broadcasts what happens in a Google Hangout session. In that session, you can choose to have a conversation with people you invite, work on Google docs, or what I thought was the most promising, conduct a presentation via screenshare. The live session is streamed via YouTube and that live stream is automatically saved as a video whenthe broadcast ends.

Google Hangouts on Air
Google Hangouts on Air

Practice Makes Perfect

While the process sounds simple, I had to practise going through the process of setting up a HOA, broadcasting it and checking if the recording of the session matched what I imagined it to be – five times to be exact – before I was convinced I was sure of what to do at the actual presentation. Through the practice sessions, here are some of the pitfalls I encountered:

  • Entering a name for your HOA generates a YouTube link for the live session in standby mode. Hitting the broadcast button makes the video ‘live’. However, if you open the page for the YouTube live session and record at the same time, you will get two sets of audio being recorded. So after checking that the YouTube link has been created, close the browser or tab.
  • There are several options for screenshare – desktop and the various windows that are open. Although it may seem obvious to screenshare the particular application you are using for your presentation, that did not work for me – the slides did not appear to move as I clicked through them in presentation mode. What was more reliable was screensharing the desktop and then activating whichever application I wanted.
  • A mic is necessary for the best sound input. Otherwise the sound quality in the video sounds muffled.

HOA For Real This Time

The use of HOA at my presentation (of my research paper Understanding the Identity of One ELL in Singaporewent fairly smoothly but it was only after the whole process was completed did I realise the finer details of implementation. A few realisations as I watched the playback of my presentation:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPO8943kD3M&w=560&h=315]

  • The screenshare (using desktop) of my powerpoint presentation was exactly what I had on my desktop (presenter mode), but not on the projector screen (full screen mode). Using Microsoft Powerpoint 2013 meant that once the application detects a projector, it goes into presenter mode with the notes of the current slide and a preview of the subsequent slide show at the side of the screen. I didn’t like it but others thought it was cool. Note for future HOA: change the default presenter mode to full screen presentation.
  •  The mic I used was an arm attached to headphones and had a long wire so that I could move around with ease but stay connected to the laptop. While the long wire was helpful for movement, the awkward shape of an arm mic dangling from my neck resulted in inconsistent volume in the recording.
  • I recorded both the presentation and the Q&A which meant a 58 min recording. 58 min is an overwhelming duration for a YouTube video clip. In fact, some friends gave feedback that the video would stall halfway through. Not sure if it’s because the recording is too long or it’s a technical glitch. Either way, I intend to edit the video to include just the presentation portion which would last about 30 min.

More Tech Won’t Hurt

HOA aside, I was also experimenting with the use of Padlet during the presentation for audience members to post their questions, comments, etc. As it was a live audience, I guess few were inclined to post anything since there was going to be a Q&A session immediately after the presentation. A friend who was keen to try out Padlet did a little more than post comments. He posted a related link as well as uploaded a few photos of my presentation to my Padlet wall. I wasn’t expecting photos but this turned out to be a neat way of capturing moments of an event.

Using Padlet during a presentation
Using Padlet during a presentation

Conclusion

The best outcome of my presentation experiment was that the entire event was captured and archived. The YouTube video serves as a reference for me to reflect on how I could conduct a presentation more effectively, on how I could refine my thought process, and provides another avenue for me to share my research ideas with a broader audience. As long as HOA remains free, it will probably become the tool of choice among tech novices like myself to create (and archive) live presentations.

The Academic Life I Never Imagined

The Academic Life I Never Imagined

The first time I dabbled in a thesis, I was 21 or so. It got off to a shaky start, not helped by the fact I changed my topic mid-way because I had lost passion in the initial topic. And while I was a whole lot more motivated with the newer topic, I had less time, lost focus now and then, and when I finally handed it in, felt I had let myself and my supervisor down. The honours year was disappointing for me and with less than stellar results, I decided to abandon any thoughts of academia, even though I previously thought it was a possibility.

More than 10 years later, after 5 jobs in 4 industries, I finally found myself quite settled in my current position as a lecturer in a polytechnic. I was in my element – interacting with people, particularly young people, teaching and sharing knowledge, and having a part in shaping people’s futures. I also had completed my family and the intense years of child-bearing and nursing were coming to an end. And then I started thinking about doing a Masters. I cannot remember whether it was by instinct or intent (perhaps both), the thought grew stronger and on May 2011, I embarked on the Master of Arts in Teaching (TESOL) with the University of Southern California.

And so I moved from one intense period to another. Really intense.

The academic experience this time was not just about engaging in ideas with professors and classmates, but juggling work, family and studies at the same time. At times I wished I was singularly focused on studying, especially when it came to completing my Capstone project, a qualitative research paper on language learning and identity. But there was no escaping the multiple responsibilities I had. It meant committing a few hours each evening to study and writing – as soon as the kids went into slumberland, or as soon I could convince them to let Dad or Grandma tuck them into bed while I studied behind a closed study door. It also meant being focused during the precious snatches of time I had. The two years spent on the Master program honed this skill of multitasking, or what I would rather call focused tasking.

I completed my Master of Arts in March 2013 and am proud to say that it was the best academic and intellectual experience I’ve had so far. While I successfully completed my research paper for the program, I considered it unfinished business as I wanted to improve it so that I could have a chance at publishing it in a journal and also present it at a conference. As I learned in a learning theory class, self-efficacy boosts student learning and confidence. What a far cry from my undergraduate ending!

Now more than ever, I see myself as an academic, that is, one who is interested in pursuing the truth of education through the application of research and scholarship. Just to be clear, I have no title that is commonly associated with academics, and neither am I in a position formally related to such work. But the whole experience of doing the Master of Arts in Teaching has opened my eyes to the needs of struggling students, and has rekindled a lost love for scholarship.

I am currently preparing to present my research paper at the 2013 Joint SELF Biennial International Conference and Educational Research Association of Singapore (ERAS) Conference. And so the academic thinking, academic writing and of course, focused tasking, continues. The one thing that is missing though, is the sociocultural practice of discussing ideas and collaborating on projects with like-minded folks. That was one of the defining aspects of my Master of Arts experience and I miss it each time I engage in the solitary act of being an academic, which unfortunately has been institutionalized as a typical and highly legitimate way of being.

Solitary or not, I will continue exploring this academic life that I’m growing into.