If I am meeting someone new the first three questions I get are: Where are you from? No, where are you really from? Do you work in IT? Usually, that is the spirit of the questions I get most of the time.
A few years back I was in a café on Lambton Quay, sitting there eating chips and reading a magazine. When a middle-aged Pakeha woman sitting nearby staring at me leant over and asked:
“Do you actually understand any of that?”
“Of course I do you stupid cow!” I replied, in my head, while my mouth simply said: “Yes, I do.” My conditioning to 'take it on the chin' kicked in.
Looking down her nose at me, she replied: “Oh, I thought you were one of those FOREIGN STUDENTS that doesn’t understand English.”
Little did she know that I used to teach English to speakers of other languages, and at the time, my knowledge of English grammar was well above that of the average New Zealander.
When these things happen, it’s usually in a social setting, and you don’t want to make a scene even though they are incredibly rude. This woman was clearly an educated person, but being educated doesn’t stop someone from being offensive or ignorant.
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Another time I was flying back to New Zealand from the Pacific after a work trip and a senior cabin crew member asked me if wanted something to drink and when I replied, in what was a pretty recognisable 'Kiwi' accent, she did a double take and asked if I was Samoan.
I said, “No, I’m a New Zealander”.
And she said: “Really? Well, you don’t look like one.”
Then she walked off.
I was shocked, and I let it slide for fifteen minutes. Then I decided I wouldn't let this slide, so I confronted her. I went to the front of the plane and said I didn’t appreciate the comment she had made; it wasn’t appropriate. I asked her why she said it and she couldn’t answer except that you don’t really look like a New Zealander. Her colleague was horrified, I deliberately made sure there was another person to witness the conversation.
I asked her: “If I were white, would you have asked me that question?”
She was a migrant herself, from England and she replied:
“Oh well, when people hear my accent they always ask where I’m from”.
And I said: “But that’s because of how you talk not because of how you look. You don’t walk down the street, and people don’t ask where you come from whereas I get asked where I come from all the time”.
She apologised, and I would like to think it was genuine, when I got off the flight she pulled me aside and apologised again, saying that she was upset that she had upset me.
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Once I was asked to take part in a project team that was doing work with Chinese clients and my inclusion wasn’t due to my ethnicity but because of other skills I offered. I felt very honoured and asked my Father for tips on protocol. In the late 1980s, when China was beginning to open up, my Father was responsible for negotiating several business projects with Chinese companies. The project lead, a Pakeha, had been on a one-day course about cultural protocols when doing business in China and she thought it appropriate to teach me about Chinese culture as she saw herself as the expert.
My opinion was never asked for. She made many faux pas while we were in Beijing, errors that were gently corrected in a very Chinese way but she was so sure of herself she never picked up on their hints that she’d greeted the wrong person first or sat in the wrong seat at the meeting or misquoted a proverb. The Chinese delegation were very good people who were interested in me and quietly pleased to learn that even though I did not speak Chinese, I knew where I came from in China and that I not only knew my about village but had knowledge about my family history.
Back in New Zealand at a planning meeting I was appalled that the success of the trip were referred to as “the Chinese takeaways”. The woman who’d been on the cultural protocol course couldn't understand why this terminology was not appropriate and later decided that I would not be participating in that project anymore. Later on the people we had met in China visited New Zealand and when they were told I wasn't part of the project team, they made a point of politely asking to see me again.
I worked for a team that has a lot of customers from overseas, and our staff is also very diverse. One time, the husband of a staff member was introduced to people in our workspace, and he was asking people where they are from. As many staff are from overseas, this was fair enough. But when he asked me where I’m from, when I replied “Lower Hutt”, he just stared at me.
“No, I said where are you from?” He said, again. He had assumed that I didn't understand the question.
I replied again. “Lower Hutt”.
He asked again, “Well where were you born?”
I replied again. “Lower Hutt”.
Then he just looked at me and stormed off angrily. Afterwards, my colleague told me I should have said I was a New Zealander; she didn’t understand why I didn’t just meekly answer and said to her husband “I am a New Zealander”. The thing that is ironic about that guy is that he isn’t even a Kiwi, he’s an Australian anyway.
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I have had a lot of discussions with people about citizenship vs. ethnicity vs. cultural identity, both here and overseas. A lot of people don’t understand the concepts of citizenship, ethnicity and cultural identity and getting these concepts mixed up causes a lot of tension. So we might describe someone as an English citizen, but they may be ethnically Indian. I am a New Zealander by citizenship and by legal definition, my ethnicity is Chinese, and that is genetics. My cultural identity is more fluid, there is, of course, my Chinese ancestry but a lot of my identity is also about being a New Zealander. I’ve also lived around the world, in Colombia, Germany and Finland and these experiences also impact on my personal culture.
Unfortunately, I think there is potential for negative things to get more common and to get worse, especially when you look at the online climate. And the ease, how easy it is for someone to write hateful things, I hate reading the comment section in Stuff for example. The people there, it doesn’t matter how rationally you can rebut their argument or point of view they refuse to accept it. I’ve lived in Germany and while their historical, official racism is well known, they still actively talk about racism a lot more than we do. At every level, local to central government, private businesses and sports bodies publicly join in on campaigns to say racism has no place in German society.
A good place to start I think is with our children. Growing up I used to get kids actually pointing at me on the street and saying: “Oooh look Mum! A Chinese!” The thing is, why did that child’s mother do nothing? (This was the 1970s, so it was usually the Mum looking after the kids) The parents should have told the child that some behaviour is just not acceptable. I know if I pointed out someone I thought was different looking to my mum she would have told me off, and that’s the right thing to do. I hope the current generation of children don’t have to go through the crap I had to, but I think they probably will. I don’t get that so much anymore in the streets, but this definitely happens online.
I was born in Lower Hutt and grew up in Lower Hutt so I describe myself as a Hutt boy. But I say that ironically because people don’t really think of me as a Hutt Boy because I don’t match their expectations of what a Hutt boy looks like.
When I was small I felt like I was like any other kid at school, but other kids quite regularly pointed out that I was Chinese, you know making slanty-eyed gestures and calling me Ching Chong and putting on fake accents. Unfortunately, this is what kids do. Unfortunately, as I later discovered, this is what adults do, too.
At school, the only non-white kids were me and my brother, a Samoan family and a Māori family. On Maori Language Week, us non-white kids got to lead the haka, and at the time I thought it was pretty cool. But I look back now and realise that it wasn’t right, me leading a pretty lame haka (Ka mate, of course) wasn’t the best way to honour Te Reo. But the reality is if you weren’t white and middle class in the 1970s and 1980s, you were thought of as foreigners, even Māori, and that’s what they thought of us. My ancestry in Aotearoa goes back five generations; my family were amongst the first Chinese invited to New Zealand by the Government. When they arrived, they had to pay a poll tax simply because they were Chinese.
We didn’t speak Cantonese at home, and I think that as recently as in my parent's generation that people were beaten for speaking Chinese. My grandmother grew up in Blenheim in 1910, and as a kid, she refused to speak Cantonese, and I suspect something traumatic happened to her, as I understand that her family were targeted in the community for being Chinese. But it was something that was never really talked about; we just needed to put our heads down, get on with life and take it on the chin.
I remember people in our family’s social circle at neighbourhood gatherings turning their noses up and commenting negatively when my parents would use Chinese words – usually talking about food or something like that – apparently, it was rude to speak anything but English, even in our home. I remember one man relentlessly quizzing my father as to why we don’t have Chinese first names. The reality was that we were given English names to make it easier for us to blend in.
He was basically telling my father “Oh it is a shame your kids don’t have Chinese names, it is a shame your kids don’t speak Chinese”. But this is the same guy who would quietly complain if my parents spoke Chinese in front of him anyway. You can’t win with some people. I don’t feel as if my parents or any of my forebears should feel shame for not teaching their children Cantonese. The shame is on those people who prevented people from speaking other languages.
I am a nerd, and I loved school. I found it fascinating and interesting so teachers by and large liked me, culturally I wasn’t overtly Chinese. At college the demographics were different to my primary school, it was half Pakeha and half-Maori/Pasifika/Indian/Asian. I was picked on by other kids, picked on for being a nerd and for being Asian: I was sort of picked on for being both. Probably more for being a nerd, though, and being Asian was an added bonus for the bullies. I think it is almost human nature, if someone is oppressed in some way, they will find another target they can oppress themselves. My Samoan friend from Primary School was at college with me too, and he’d sometimes protect me and other Asian classmates. His parents would often tell me about the Chinese families in Samoa, and the respect they had for each other.
In the nineties, the first wave of new migrants from Asia began arriving. It was a stressful time for established Chinese community members as it meant that suddenly Asians were more visible. Culturally we were different, and we couldn’t relate to the new migrants that well, many were Mandarin speaking and even those who spoke “Chinese” could not understand them. So we couldn’t easily relate culturally or linguistically. The new migrants reacted to us in a way by saying we are not really Chinese anyway, so yes there was a lot of tension in the community at that time. In effect, there was racism within the Chinese communities, which I feel still exists.
The reality is connecting back to our roots in China has always been important such as sending money back home to help family. My great grandmother helped set up an organisation to benefit descendants from our home province, and it is still operating now. For generations of our family, it was virtually impossible to visit China as they’d closed their borders and the idea of going back to China to our village to pay respects to our ancestors was just a dream.
For years, even though they could never visit, my paternal grandfather and his brothers kept sending money back to a neighbour in our village to look after the family house and this carried on for years. When the borders opened again, my family returned, and the house was still standing. When I saw the house for the first time, I was struck by the tributes to my ancestors represented by paintings and carving throughout the house, and around the villages, especially around community buildings. I like to think of my ancestors arriving in New Zealand and seeing wharenui with its carvings of Māori tipuna and seeing people thousands of miles away honouring their ancestors in a really similar way.
We have no direct family living in China anymore, when we were walking around our paternal family village (that is now part of a city), some people stopped and asked us if we were from New Zealand. Apparently, it is quite well known in our village that many people migrated from there to New Zealand. Since then I used google maps to locate the nearest mountain and river, and I incorporated them into my pepeha when I take part in a powhiri or a whakatau. Mountains have some significance for Chinese. New Zealand is an important part of my identity, Tangata Whenua are an important part of New Zealand.
Connecting with my own Chinese culture and Māori culture has been quite a fascinating thing to be able to do. My philosophy is to focus on the common things, because while things seem different on the surface, below the surface they have a common root. The challenges are people who focus on our differences too much. I kind of think of me “going back” to China, or my (usually New Zealand born) Pasifika friends “going back” to the islands as the same as many Pakeha New Zealanders going to England for their OE. We are reconnecting with our roots.
I agreed to share my story because this discussion has to happen and if it doesn’t happen now, when will it happen? While I am excited it is happening, I am also nervous about it.