Who am I? Moving to New Zealand and Navigating my Asian Identity in New Zealand

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Below is an article which I wrote for my friend Asher Emanuel for his publication Ours. You should check it out. It contains different perspectives of young people leading up to the New Zealand General Election in 2014.


Max Lin and his family moved to New Zealand from Taiwan when he was very young in search of a fresh start. But being Asian in New Zealand has brought its own challenges. Now at uni, Max hopes that New Zealand can still live up to the qualities that brought him here in the first place. 

When I was six-years-old my father told me that we would be moving to New Zealand. I didn’t actually question why at the time; neither did I think about what it would all mean. To me as a child, it merely felt like we were going on another holiday – I went through the motions of life and jumped on a plane with my mother, sister and brother. Except this time we would stay here.

My mother had to give up her job as a pharmacist in Taiwan to look after us. My dad had to stay and work in Taiwan despite being a haoemodialosist because his licence would not be recognised here. I know many families who gave up their jobs, left their friends and their culture so that their children would have a better life. I wasn’t allowed to tell any of my friends and extended family that we were leaving (not even my grandparents) because it would jeopardise my parents’ employment and my grandparents would not ‘allow’ it. My parents did not really explain why at the time. They just told me it was a secret and I treated it like a game.

I had never received formal education in Taiwan, so going to school was always going to be a new and frightening experience. This was all the more confusing with was so much going on in my head—I used to think in Mandarin Chinese, and it was impossible to articulate my mind in what would be my third language. I was extremely shy and for the first few years my report card at school was filled with “poor” and “average” ticks.

I have had elderly people say to me, “You people come into my country”, and then have them “compliment” my English in the same breath.Max

It was difficult to navigate between two cultures at once. My mother eventually returned to Taiwan when I was ten, and I went through three different home-stay families.  I remember as a kid, I used to have to attend a large number of extra-curricular classes. Over the years this included numerous instruments, English, maths, science, painting and even abacus classes. This was similar to cram schools in Asian countries, and it often isolated me from my friends who were doing sports and going to social events. The turning point happened when I decided I would get more involved in high school, and I started to get involved in the arts. I was not particularly good but I felt like I was beginning to take more control and responsibility for my own life.

With these conflicts came a strong desire to integrate into New Zealand society, despite numerous challenges. Discrimination is more subtle than having your classmate call your racial slurs, but more than once I have had young people on the street approach me and speak in the most exaggerated and denigrating ‘Asian’ sounds they can put on. I have had elderly people say to me, “You people come into my country”, and then have them “compliment” my English in the same breath. I know that most New Zealanders would not harass a stranger on the street, but the fact that it still occurs and is carried out by young people as well is concerning. They don’t know me. They don’t know whether I’m just a tourist or if I’ve lived here all my life. They don’t know whether I’m an international student or a New Zealand citizen. They don’t know if I can speak English or not. Yet they feel justified in harassing me, a stranger, at face value. In the past I would just walk on, but now I usually smile and talk to them. This the only way I can make them feel like an idiot because they are the one who is not speaking English.

People often ask me, “Where are you from?” I reply, “I was born in Taiwan and I grew up in New Zealand.” But these categories cannot capture who I am. If I simply say that I am “Taiwanese”, I would be discounting how living in New Zealand has shaped my life. If I say that I am a “New Zealander”, I would be renouncing a significant part of my heritage.

These encounters remind me of Chinese Cinderella, a novel I read when I was a teenager: “You may be right in believing that if you study hard, one day you might become fluent in English. But you will still look Chinese, and when people meet you, they’ll see a Chinese girl no matter how well you speak English. You’ll always be expected to know Chinese, and if you don’t, I’m afraid they will not respect you as much.”

I am optimistic about my future living in New Zealand. I love this country and I want to be part of what makes it great. My hopes are for everyone to be decent to one another and appreciate but not exaggerate our differences. I believe that political parties can move away from appealing to xenophobia and understand the positive contribution that Asian New Zealanders have brought to this country. You see, my parents told me that the reason we applied to immigrate to New Zealand was that everyone had been so kind to my grandparents and me when we visited almost twenty years ago.

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