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.

Language rights, agency, and cross-cultural understanding in international education


This post was originally written for Ipu Kererū Blog of the New Zealand Association for Research in Education on 4 March 2019. In light of the Christchurch tragedy that took place on 15 March 2019, I’m re-posting it on my own website with a renewed sense of urgency to champion linguistic and cultural diversity.


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.

The ethical challenges of global connectivity – A response to Fazal Rizvi

A personal response to the opening keynote by Fazal Rizvi – ‘Global connectivity and its ethical challenges in education’ at the 29th ISANA International Education Association Conference, 5 December 2018, Sydney Masonic Centre, NSW, Australia.

Professor Fazal Rizvi, a name synonymous with ‘cosmopolitan identities’ in international education (see his 2005 paper), presented to international education practitioners, a dilemma in our contemporary times. International education, a notion that implies openness, cooperation, and collaboration, operates in a world that is moving towards ethno-nationalist sentiments.

US President Donal Trump encapsulates such sentiments with his calls for US protectionism, and so do the political landscapes in other countries such as Turkey, Hungary, Italy, Brazil, France, and India. Even while the world is becoming ever more connected, anti-globalisation is gaining traction, revealing the tensions and limitations of so-called ‘global connectivity’. There is a deep-seated fear of the potential loss of national sovereignty in the face of job loss and migrant communities encroaching on the spaces of local populations. On the other hand, globalisation offers little tangible benefit for the every(wo)man, and can be argued to favour the transnational elite, i.e., those who have the resources to engage in, and reap the rewards of, global mobility. Viewed as such, globalisation is, in fact, anti-democratic.

Rizvi invites us to understand the concerns of those against globalisation, and question if the assumptions and charges are valid, and how such perspectives can be harmful and unproductive. He also considers the question if there is really a fundamental binary between globalisation and nationalism. Specifically for international education practitioners, how do we get our students to respond to these competing claims of internationalisation and patriotism. Do these go together in parallel, in dialectical fashion, or can they only exist in conflict?

Rizvi also reminds us that nationalist sentiments are driven by both facts and emotion, and so it is important to address both the politics of global connectivity and affect. International education posits a global village of sorts, but the world as a whole is not a community in any real or concrete sense. He stresses that people are inherently social beings who wish to belong to a tangible and concrete community, and such desires undermine the abstract notions of globalisation.

Rizvi points out some facts of global connectivity:

  • Our economy has become dependant on global mobility as in tourism, trade, migration, and education.
  • Growing levels of intercultural exchange are seen in service economics.
  • Different cultures rub up against one another; ‘cosmopolitan’ cities become so because of tourists and international students.
  • Even if government policies appear to curb mobility, migrant populations will continue to increase as a result of complex individual choices.

The overriding sentiment towards these facts, however, is one of resentment. If globalisation used to represent some universal moral truth, then it is now up against those who demand specificity in their own moral truths (plural). While Rizvi proposed the concept of cosmopolitan thinking more than 10 years ago, he now recognises the need for new theories. He argues that cosmopolitanism and the associated images of corporations must be resisted as a universal value, but adopted as a way of engaging with everyday issues and conflicts.

Rizvi looks to education as the hope for such cosmopolitan thinking, in view of the failures of media which have become increasingly fractured, and of religion which appears to divide rather than bring people together. Education, and in particular, public education, has a crucial role to play in teaching people how to engage in ethical learning.

He puts forth the need for engaging in cosmopolitan thinking which views social identities as dynamic, and forces us to consider how we can live across differences. Students need to be taught how to be reflexive, that is, to be critically self-referential. We ask questions about why and how we do things, and learn how to work through contradictions. And before we can ask of our students to do so, we ourselves, need to be ethically reflexive practitioners in international education.

What I have summarised above is Rizvi’s call to arms for international education practitioners to recognise the competing forces of globalisation and protectionism, and to actively – reflexively – work against unproductive outcomes. Both intellectually and in practice, I am inspired to take up an ethical response to the current state of affairs. But before I can take on the giants of globalisation and protectionism, I want to respond to a nagging and troubling aspect of international education that is seldom discussed. My troubling thought can be summed up quasi-rhetorically – What is international about international education?

To paraphrase Betty Leask (2009), the presence of international students alone does not internationalise education, or foster intercultural interactions and understanding. To push the point further, using the term ‘international’ or ‘internationalise’ has the grammatical effect of modifying the nature of the noun that follows, but the meaning and significance of ‘international’ is lost in the everyday concerns, both petty and grand, of those who fall under the purview of ‘international education’. The overriding concern for education providers and student consumers alike is ‘return on investment’ (see Altbach & Knight, 2007).

As part of the system of global connectivity, international education is far more valued as a commodity than an opportunity for engaging meaningfully with cultural and social differences. In other words, international education itself is implicated in the unproductive forces of globalisation. Spending three days at the 2018 ISANA conference in Sydney , I observed well-meaning practitioners showcasing ‘best practices’ of meeting the linguistic and cultural needs and demands of students, but rarely highlighting any challenges related to interactions between international students and the host community. Walking around downtown Sydney, one of the leading Australian cities for international students, I saw rows and rows of East Asian shops (food, services, goods) patronised predominantly by East Asians, suggesting to me that at least this group of international students (who form the majority) can remain comfortably in their familiar spaces, without having to entertain the possibility of intercultural engagement.

I have only painted a broad stroke of what can be considered un-international in international education. Addressing learning and living needs, and helping international students adapt to new surroundings, are important responsibilities to be fulfilled by education providers. Often, national grouping of students are helpful (at least initially) to reduce the sense of isolation, and facilitate more efficient communication. However, beyond providing services and opening up ethnic-friendly spaces, there is also a need to proactively bring together different nationalities, including that of the host nation, to engage in conversation, let alone debate, about being ‘international’ and engaging in ‘post-cosmopolitan thinking’. Where there are international gatherings, at least in my own international student experience, they very rarely go beyond differences safe enough to chat over pizza and juice.

There seems to be an ongoing inertia or reluctance to challenge commonly held narratives of internationals (a common nominalisation for international students which is ironically divisive) who haven’t got enough English to save themselves, and need rescuing from their own deficits. My own research has attempted to thwart the deficit narratives by examining how co-ethnic/national interactions enhance informal academic learning through ‘peer brokers’ who are able to translate and interpret the Western/English demands of university curriculum in linguistically and culturally responsive ways. Through such brokering practices, students experience agency in their academic pursuits.

While one of my conclusions is to encourage sociolinguistically compatible interactions for enhancing student agency, another important implication of my research is the role of brokers who straddle two different cultural worlds. How might such individuals be viewed or view themselves as the missing link in intercultural engagement and difficult conversations about living ‘internationally’? Perhaps brokers who can switch between worldviews are potential bridge builders between the ‘internationals’ and ‘others’ / ‘sojourners’ and ‘hosts’, and eventually lead to alternative vocabulary we can use to describe those in and around international education.

If I were to take on that kind of a brokering role, I would start with difficult conversations. To consider how international education can rise up to the challenges globalisation and protectionism, we must firstly reckon with the ironies of, and tensions in, the global industry international education has become. We have to re-consider how ‘English language’ and ‘Western thought’ are both selling points and selling out in becoming global. And this is just the beginning of my ethical response.

International Education – Global Currency or Global Citizenship

Presentation at the Global Knowledge Economy Seminar organised by the Postgraduate Students’ Association held at the University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand, on 15 October 2018

My topic today was New Zealand’s fourth largest export industry in 2016, then valued at more than $4 billion dollars, and supported more than 30 thousand jobs across the country. International education is big business for New Zealand, as it is for the traditional players – the English-speaking nations of the US, Canada, UK, and Australia.

The recent International Education Strategy released by the Ministry of Education has declared is aspirations for international education to be the vehicle for global citizenship. But I do wonder whether the forces of global currency overwhelm such lofty, but certainly important goals.

First, let’s think about why international students come to New Zealand. While the perceived high quality of educational offerings is one factor, research suggests that the stronger factors are:

  1. that New Zealand is overall a more affordable destination, and
  2. New Zealand’s reputation as clean, green, and safe.

Next, let’s consider what international education contributes to New Zealand. As I mentioned earlier, international education is an export sector, meaning, education is treated as a form of goods and services.

Looking at the 2016 stats, there were about 130 thousand international students enrolled in schools, language centres, private institutions, the polytechnics, and universities.

Half of the international students hail from China and India, both emerging middle-income countries and engines of global growth.

Universities take the largest share, hosting a fifth of the international student population, and receiving almost 40% of the tuition income.

This thin slice of statistics reflects what keeps the sector humming along. The sellers – educational institutions – desire income and profit, and the buyers – Asian students – want decent qualifications from an English-speaking country.


You might think that I’ve painted a rather crude picture of international education, but I’ve yet to meet someone who has attributed the $4 billion dollar figure to the desire for world peace.

But even if world peace is not at the forefront or the producers and consumers’ minds, it doesn’t mean that international education is only worth in terms of dollars and cents. It is, after all, not a sector that deals with milk powder or premium beef, but a sector that is capable of transforming lives of all students, the educators, and the community.

The University of Waikato, for example, hosts many nationalities among its students. As an international student myself, I feel privileged to be able to interact with my peers from Vietnam, India, China, Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Tanzania, Nigeria, Vanuatu , Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Timor Leste. I enjoy learning about their different histories and social customs.

I am beginning to build a global network of friends and colleagues. And while I cannot promise there will be world peace, I can say that I have grown to be more sensitive and appreciative of the different, and at times, conflicting, geopolitics across the world stage. In other words, I am learning how to be a global citizen. I’m not sure whether my Kiwi peers have the same experience, or feel the same way. But the research suggests that they are probably ambivalent or indifferent.

Perhaps Prime Minister Jacinda Arden could offer all of us some inspiration to become more globally minded and action-oriented. In her speech to the United Nations General Assembly, she said, and I quote:

“Given the challenges we face today, and how truly global they are in their nature and impact, the need for collective action and multilateralism has never been clearer.”

PM Arden was talking about climate change. I think the same applies to international education.

The value of international education must not remain solely at the level of trade. It has the enormous potential to build bridges across cultural and political divides. My conclusion is for you to take the first step in making it happen.