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.

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.

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.

From PhD to professional: Seeking mentors, finding brokers

Sharing a personal journey of seeking mentors but finding mentors instead.

Pursuing a doctoral degree for most is not just about following one’s passion, but is likely to be motivated by a desire for a career in academia or research. However, finding an academic teaching or research position is increasingly difficult, not just in New Zealand but also in Australia and elsewhere. As a result, PhDers are often encouraged to think about their ‘transferrable skills’ and look at non-academic options. Regardless of whether one chooses the academic or non-academic route, moving from PhD to professional is more than filling out an application form. Developing an understanding of possible future careers and taking steps to be employable are crucial. While there may be guide books, seminars and career services to draw from, the most valuable resource, I believe, are mentors – those who have been there, done that, and offer advice that meets your particular needs and aspirations.

As an international doctoral student seeking career opportunities in a new country, searching for mentors seemed like an impossible task. For one, I didn’t have any established social networks in New Zealand. Secondly, at least within my faculty, there didn’t seem to be a culture which encouraged doctoral students to engage with faculty staff or the wider disciplinary community. Unless you had a pro-active supervisor, or knew how to get into the inner circles of your field, important opportunities remained invisible. This reality dawned on me early on and I began to consciously seek out individuals and interest groups that aligned with my research interests, in the hope of finding mentors.

I joined one particular research group and made an effort to attend its meetings and presentations as often as I could. After a few months of being an active participant, I was asked to help coordinate its meetings. Through that role, I interacted with a few academics who were in a field I considered as a career possibility. However, to approach these academics to ask them to become mentors was quite another matter. We did not meet in person as much as we interacted through email, since we were in different departments or different organisations altogether. Nonetheless, the occasional conversations over coffee or in a corner away from the crowd were helpful in some ways. For example, I gained an insight into academic culture in New Zealand (political and precarious!), and was able to ask one to be a referee on my CV (but as yet this hasn’t landed me a job!).

I also followed the widely promoted advice in books and from the mouths of career advisers – I attended conferences. Conferences are often touted as prime networking opportunities. But as I soon found out, for a conference newbie, networking was (at best) a few good conversations without any promise. This was particularly true for conferences that already had regular attendees. These regulars were part of an existing academic or professional community who were more interested in renewing ties and meeting important contacts, and seldom interested in making connections with those at the periphery. As challenging as it was for an outsider to break into a fraternity, I finally found a conference that made the challenge less difficult. This particular conference had a session reserved for doctoral students’ research, and included a workshop tailored for doctoral students. At least for a few hours in a three-day conference, there was a deliberate attempt at recognising those at the periphery of an established community of academics and practitioners. The academics who facilitated these sessions were friendly, helpful and inspiring. However, again, there were some barriers in approaching them to be mentors. They were there at the conference for a particular purpose and only for a limited time. They were not part of my regular and immediate environment. Most importantly, they had no obligations towards me and neither could I expect any.

By the start of my third year of PhD study, after having been involved several research interest groups, symposiums and conferences, I started to evaluate my mentoring-seeking efforts. What had become of these academic acquaintances? Could any of them cross into the ‘mentor’ zone? Mentorship, even in its simplest form, had to be intentionally and willingly done as part of an ongoing relationship in a shared context (see this resource on mentoring from the RSNZ). Why then bother chasing after these relationships that could take far more time to build than it would take to simply complete my PhD? Why not embrace the precarious and fragmented nature of academia, or many other contexts for that matter?

Given my frustration after my unsuccessful efforts to pursue a formal mentoring relationship, it was ironic that that my own PhD research was on informallearning and I had used the concept of brokering to understand how first year international students strategically approached peers and others for academic help. Despite the overtones of a task-oriented transaction, brokering was what I had been engaging in all along – the very thing I had mistaken for failed attempts at accessing mentoring. I had been doing the right things, but calling them by the wrong title.

I realised I had already cultivated several brokers over the past two years – individuals from specialised fields or who held particular positions, who provided useful responses to specific questions or predicaments. These brokers were insiders in the fields of my potential future career. I communicated with them as and when I needed to, sometimes in person, sometimes through email, but often through social media for those who were comfortably connected with me in those online spaces.

With this epiphany, I now have a different attitude towards mentorship. While I still recognise the importance of having a more formal mentor, I no longer have it as part of a to-do or wish list. I now view it as a bonus. It may happen that some of my brokers will evolve to become mentors in the future. But for this season of preparing to transition from PhD to professional, I appreciate the brokers who have already become authentic social and professional connections.