Helene Wong is a writer, actor, director and film critic who was born in New Zealand from Chinese immigrant parents. Her recent book, “Being Chinese: A New Zealander’s Story” made her a natural choice to present the Michael King Memorial Lecture at the Auckland Writer’s Festival. She discussed the dichotomy of being both part of this place but also set apart.
New Zealand is considered a multi-cultural society whose core identity is a bi-cultural mix of Maori and Pakeha (British, Irish and Scottish colonial ancestry). Our location in the South Pacific accounts for the large numbers of Pacific Island, Indian, Indonesian, SE Asian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese immigrant populations. Colonial ties also explain the large numbers of immigrants from the United Kingdom (UK) and South Africa,
The core of Helene Wong’s talk focused on how we look on the outside as opposed to who we are on the inside. As a Chinese woman she has dealt regularly with other people’s stereotypes. She played a funny but cringe-worthy film clip on the experiences of three actresses applying for t.v. roles. Each was from a different Asian country but all were seen simply as “Asian” and expected to either know martial arts or to react unemotionally (‘Asian’?!) in stressful situations.
Helene’s parents set aside their Chinese heritage in order to ensure their children grew up identifying as Kiwis. They succeeded in their goal but only to a certain point. There was no getting around the fact that they still looked Chinese on the outside even if they felt like Kiwis on the inside. It was only as an adult that she began to reconnect with her Chinese heritage. She shared a moving story of visiting her father’s birthplace in China where she was told, “This is your home,” by villagers.
Helene helped organise the ‘Banana’ Conference with other Chinese New Zealanders who were interested in reconnecting with their cultural heritage. It was their humorous way of identifying the sense of being yellow on the outside and white on the inside.
She also discussed the rising levels of xenophobia not only in New Zealand but globally. It is not a new phenomena. Historically, large movements of immigrants have resulted from the need for cheap labour, wars, famine or simply to maintain stable population numbers as a balance to emigration. While most people enjoy cultural diversity, there can be a fear of cultural invasion, otherwise referred to as ‘inv-Asian’.
The session resonated with me on many levels. I immigrated to Zealand almost 22 years ago. I look Pakeha but as soon as I speak my accent gives me away as American. My friends and colleagues tend to overlook or downplay this fact. I’ve lost track of the number of conversations about the US or Americans that have been halted mid-sentence with the comment, “But we don’t mean you, you’re not really American.”
It is a challenge facing millions of people today. As an immigrant, how do you retain those parts of your past that reflect your values today? Each year, my family hosts a Thanksgiving party that has grown in excess of 100 family members and friends. They have fully embraced this holiday that values the universal theme of giving thanks for all that we have in our lives. I cook American recipes handed down by family members, and at Christmas I am renowned for my over the top tree and lights that are a little out of place in what is now a summer holiday.
I attend Waitangi and Anzac Day services, have learned to cook scones and pavlova, and understand and support our national rugby and cricket teams. Every year we dress up for an afternoon tea to celebrate the Queen’s birthday. Cucumber sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, and other treats are washed down with cups of tea on the good china. That is not a typical Kiwi tradition, but it is ours.
If it was a question of getting used to new foods, clothing and celebrations it would be simple. However, today immigration poses huge challenges. How do you tackle the differences in values and morals of immigrant groups that might view women’s rights, sexual orientation or protecting the environment in significantly different ways to the culture where they settle? This is of particular concern in practicing democracies where citizens elect their politicians. It is sensible to question what impact voters with different values could have on government decision-making and legislation.
Helene Wong finished by challenging the audience to speak up rather than remain silent when witnessing the hate speech of xenophobia. Kiwis are traditionally non-confrontational but she questioned, “Is this who we are? Who we want to be?” She pointed out the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S. as symptomatic of the frustration and fear that can result from unchallenged bigotry. When there is no more room for discussion or differences of opinion democracy falters.