I was born and raised in New Zealand and have lived quite a ‘kiwi lifestyle’ all my life, with a few Asian quirks and traditions growing up (but I didn’t realise they were different until I went on school camps). My parents were born in New Zealand too, and their parents moved when they were quite young. Even though I’m a second generation New Zealander I’ve noticed that our families throughout the generations are quite heavily involved in the Asian community and still keep in close touch with the other Asian families we’ve grown up with.
One embarrassing thing about me is that even though I look Chinese I can’t really speak Cantonese or Mandarin. This was disappointing to a lot of people when I visited Shanghai for the first time three years ago! I’ve just completed my third year studying in Dunedin. One thing I noticed is that there really isn’t as much ethnic diversity down there between all the students – everyone is mostly European. However, despite this, it hasn’t bothered me too much.
What has someone said to you that has culturally offended you or an experience of racism you’ve had in New Zealand?
I’m fortunate to not have been a target of severe racism, however, a few small incidences have happened like a stranger calling me ‘ching chong’ when he wanted to talk to me and sometimes even my own friends making strong comments about the ‘unusual’ food I’d bring to school e.g. little fried fish.
What are some Asian stereotypes you have experienced?
Everyone expects me to be very studious and innocent. Once a group of girls who were talking badly about another girl in our class got freaked out when they noticed I had been in the room with them. This was because they thought I was too innocent to be hearing them talk poorly and use bad words about this girl. And this was at the end of year 13! There was a bit of pressure for me to do well in school even though naturally I didn’t feel as smart as everyone else.
Did you have any Asian role model to look up to when you were younger? Who were they?
Haha I think the only people I looked up to was Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu because they were the only Asians that were in Western films! But other than that I wasn’t really exposed to many other Asians role models that I could take interest in.
A situation where you struggled with your cultural identity, or where you had to choose one identity
When I started flatting I felt very different from the rest of the people I lived with. This was more apparent in my food choices and little ways in which I operated around the house. For example, I was a lot more aware that I couldn’t make the same stews and fry-ups that I’d usually have at home because they’d have lots of Chinese ingredients (e.g. mushrooms) and let off certain smells that I know my European flatmates wouldn’t have wanted to try (they had quite a refined taste). I ended up making lots of pasta dishes and if any dish was Asian, it would be more ‘Asian-fusion’. Another thing is that I hate being wasteful, which resulted in me having quite a cluttered room. This didn’t look too good in my flatmates books, I’m sure!
A situation where people made you feel embarrassed about your culture
Food is definitely a big thing that I’ve been quite embarrassed about. Of course, like many other Asians, I’ve eaten things like chicken feet, rabbit, pig trotters and frogs. Most of these foods I find delicious but around my European friends I get really embarrassed and feel the need to avoid eating in front of them. I’ve had incidences where they’ve screwed up their noses and asked me to put away my lunch because they didn’t like the look of it. This year I was even embarrassed to show my flatmates that I put soy sauce with my oats (because I was brought up making it this way as a savoury food) – if they saw it they were really understanding, but I get tired of explaining that it’s because of my Asian palate and it’s what’s normal in my family.
Something you wish people knew about your background/culture
There’s nothing too specific I can think of about my background that I wish people knew. It’s more of a generalised wish that people were more culturally sensitive and accepting that everyone has their own way of doing things and not to be too judgemental around it. There are many situations where I’ve felt embarrassed and uncomfortable about properly being myself (particularly when I go out to eat with friends), but people aren’t too harsh about it, it’s just the fact that I’ll always get a comment like “that’s a bit weird” or “that looks strange” or “why would you choose soup over eggs on toast for breakfast” kind of thing that I can’t be bothered trying to justify. A few times my parents have had to tell me not to do things a certain way that I’m used to because they know that the people at school or university would find it odd or off-putting (from their own experiences growing up as Asians in NZ).
What do you love about being an Asian Kiwi?
I really love that there is a massive Asian Kiwi community that have very similar struggles and that you can strongly relate to. They understand the clash of cultures and go through the same perks and downsides as you. It’s really exciting when I meet an Asian Kiwi who gets what it’s like to have European friends or even just classmates, and then what it’s like to go back home to your Asian family. It’s pretty special. I know that even when I feel embarrassed about not being Kiwi enough or not being Asian enough, there’s a whole bunch of other Asian Kiwi’s I know that are probably feeling the same.
What’s something that you would love to learn/know more about your Asian culture
I really wish I knew the language! Even though my family speaks Cantonese and it’s not as popular as Mandarin, I just wish I could hold a conversation with my grandparents. I especially want to know what stuff my parents are talking about when they are both looking at me with disapproving looks and talking in Cantonese – they think they’re being subtle talking about me but as soon as my English name pops up it’s easy to conclude that they’re about your bad attitude or your laziness haha
I also wish I knew how to make a lot of the Asian food that my grandmother makes. On the odd occasion I’ve helped my grandma wrap dumplings and make wontons, but I’d love to make pork buns and her special stews with her from scratch – I can’t get enough of them!