BY JUSTIN HU
A new person every 7 minutes and 49 seconds.
Aotearoa New Zealand (2020), population: 5 million.
They’re some rather stark numbers to begin with, but it’s a reminder of just how far Aotearoa has come from being the once small and unidentifiable smudge on a map (or so we think).
With that, has come waves of ethnically diverse immigration from every corner of the globe. But these ancestral and familial stories of immigration are certainly not monolithic — in fact, far from it.
Which is exactly the thought which the new RNZ podcast series, Conversations With My Immigrant Parents, seeks to demystify. With co-hosting duo Julie Zhu and Saraid de Silva, the series features nine candid heart-to-heart family conversations about intrepid journeys to Aotearoa, bringing to light the often under-discussed aspects of being an immigrant minority in New Zealand.
I reached out to the two to talk more about their own history and what they hope the podcast will be able to achieve in the wider conversation about diversity and immigration.
Both hosts come from immigrant minority backgrounds, with de Silva’s mother immigrating from Sri Lanka at the age of seven, and Zhu migrating from China herself when she was only two.
“My mum, Karenza immigrated from Sri Lanka when she was seven and we actually chat on Episode 9,” said de Silva.
“I came to New Zealand when I was four, and my parents had migrated here earlier when I was two,” Zhu said.
Zhu said she identified with being a Gen 1.5 immigrant — a title denoting a halfway house of sorts for a migrant child’s cultural identity.
Being a 1.5 generation immigrant from childhood means you’re unable to connect with the formative life experiences of living in your country of origin, but you also don’t feel at ease being lumped in with second generation immigrants who are born in their parents’ immigrated-to country.
De Silva said she was inspired to produce the podcast after genuine conversations with her own parents following her solo theatre piece, Drowning In Milk, which chronicled her experiences growing up.
“After doing it for a few seasons at a different theatres, I started having way more interesting conversations with my mum, aunt and uncles about our shared experiences than we had ever had before. I think we realised we hadn’t talked about a lot of stuff before, but then found so many similarities. Then came the NZ On Air/RNZ Joint Innovation Fund, so I reached out to Julie and she made the idea about a million times better, so here we are,” de Silva continued.
Zhu said she was interested in covering the stories of immigrant minorities which she believed would resonate within ethnic communities.
“New Zealand is still very monocultural in many ways and I’m really interested in spinning immigrant narratives away from only seeing the perspectives of the assimilated immigrant child (in opposition to their parents) but leaning more into hearing the voices of immigrant parents and adults articulated for themselves.
I hope people feel warm, feel heard and feel like they can relate even if they’re listening to a story coming from families with completely different backgrounds to themselves. The stories are all so different and they might not all be what we expect immigrant stories to be.”
“It’s not always talk about racism, or how difficult the actual uprooting of their lives was, though that’s a very valid narrative. There’s humour, there’s embarrassment, there’s tears, and of course a lot of love, articulated in all sorts of different ways,” Zhu continued.
In producing the series, Zhu and de Silva said they tried to look beyond stereotypes of immigrant minorities and scoured for people outside of Auckland when finding families to listen to.
“So much of what’s frustrating about the portrayal of migrants in the media is the limited scope of it. And the fact that our stories are often/have often been told by people who can’t relate,” de Silva said.
“When New Zealanders think of immigrants, and often it’s framed in a negative way by the media a lot of the time, Asian migrants are the ones that come to mind.
We wanted to dispel this by including all sorts of cultures and countries of origin so we’ve ended up with participants from 11 different countries across the nine episodes.
Immigrant stories are often located in Auckland with the largest migrant population, but we were really interested in immigrant experiences outside the main city centres. About half our families are still from Auckland but we also visited Dunedin, Lower Hutt, Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, and Waiheke Island”, Zhu continued.
The producers said that they found a wide range of experiences in the families which they meet over the series’ nine episodes.
“We looked at differences in age, country of origin, occupation, life experiences, genders, all those things. I think a lot of what we were looking for came down to trying to show a wide range of people and experiences”, de Silva said.
“The Blaha/Brethouwer family makes a good point in their episode about how being Argentinian/Dutch mean that their whānau do not always receive the same treatment that other immigrants receive, and how that comes with pros and cons.”, said Zhu.
“It was a really difficult choice to select our final families though. We received over 100 registrations of interest and there were some beautiful stories and families we had to leave out. It just shows how ordinary immigrant narratives are so often not heard but they are all incredible and special in their own ways,” Zhu continued.
When asked what was the most surprising thing they found, the duo both noted different aspects of the perceptive nature of the conversations they sat in on.
“We share so much in common whether we realise it or not. That our parents and grandparents understand more than we sometimes give them credit for. That our families do things out of love pretty much all the time even if we don’t realise it. We’ve only just scratched the surface of these stories,” said de Silva.
Zhu continued “There’s honestly something new and thought-provoking in every episode. Aside from what Saraid’s said, I think it’s just accepting that all families have such different dynamics and it’s not about comparing yourself to others.”
“All our experiences and relationships are valid and important,” concluded Zhu.
Both agreed on the importance of the podcast in fighting prejudice and hoped that it would alleviate the underrepresentation of immigrant minorities in popular media.
“We’re never going to fight racism, ignorance or white supremacy if we don’t uplift the voices of those who suffer the effects of it,” de Silva said.
“I’m not as interested in representation for representation’s sake. It’s totally important of course to normalise all sorts of experiences and identities in our society, that’s an extremely vital step to creating change in the world and encouraging more empathy, but I’m also interested more in structural change and how we can reshape power to create more balance in our (still colonial) society. It’s not just about being represented but having the power to represent ourselves.” said Zhu.
Click here to listen to or watch the RNZ series, Conversations With My Immigrant Series