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Emrie Meng looks at photo albums with her grandmother Mom Meng in Lower Hutt, Wellington. (Photo: Saraid de Silva / Julie Zhu)
Emrie Meng looks at photo albums with her grandmother Mom Meng in Lower Hutt, Wellington. (Photo: Saraid de Silva / Julie Zhu)

SocietyJune 19, 2020

Whānau like ours: Listening to the podcast about NZ’s immigrant families

Emrie Meng looks at photo albums with her grandmother Mom Meng in Lower Hutt, Wellington. (Photo: Saraid de Silva / Julie Zhu)
Emrie Meng looks at photo albums with her grandmother Mom Meng in Lower Hutt, Wellington. (Photo: Saraid de Silva / Julie Zhu)

In our RNZ podcast Conversations With My Immigrant Parents, immigrant whānau across New Zealand have frank conversations about ancestry, love, expectation, acceptance – and food. We asked immigrant kids to listen to the podcast and share with us their responses.

Last year, we had the immense privilege of making the first season of our podcast and video series Conversations With My Immigrant Parents, thanks to NZ on Air and RNZ’s Joint Innovation Fund. We travelled the length of the motu spending time with eight immigrant families, recording different generations in conversation with each other, getting ourselves (over)fed, and in all cases, not wanting to leave when our two days with them were up.

We made the podcast out of a motivation to connect more with our own immigrant whānau too, wanting to open up discussions that really hadn’t been given the time, from either generation. For Saraid, this came about from speaking more to her mum about the ways being half Sri Lankan has affected her life and her experience of whiteness in Aotearoa. For Julie, it came out of long held blocks in communication built across language barriers and internalised racism.

A lot of the desire to make the podcast also stemmed from seeing how thinly veiled the expression of white supremacy is in this country, historically and presently, but how reluctant as a nation we are to readily acknowledge and dismantle this. We wanted to offer nuanced stories and experiences of how the systemic marginalisation of migrants in Aotearoa hurts all of us, and how we can actively work against that.

Right now, we’re starting on our second season and looking for families to feature (applications close Jun 24 so please spread the word no matter where in Aotearoa you live!). We’re also thinking a lot about why we’re doing this and how to do it better, in relation always to the changing discourse around the world. Immigrant stories will always be important, and so will people of colour speaking out against a culture that systemically has never cared about us; we hope the series has offered new insights. But the best responses we’ve had to the series are from the people who see themselves or their whānau in the conversations. We made this for our communities because making something for and about people who get you without explanation is the best part of the job.

This is exactly why we asked eight kids of immigrants to respond to episodes featuring families from the same cultural background as theirs.

Luciane Buchanan on episode 1: A Dress and a Cardigan for Mele

Liliani Waigth, featured in ‘A Dress and a Cardigan for Mele’ (Photo: Saraid de Silva / Julie Zhu)

As I listen to Tongan immigrant Liliani and her daughter Kesaia talk, I notice the immediate lump in my throat. Familiar vowel sounds when Liliani speaks in broken English, rings in my mind of how my mother Losi, who’s also a Tongan immigrant from the 1960s, speaks. I feel a huge affinity to Kesaia, as her life experiences are almost identical to mine. My deep love for my mother and my Tongan culture is reflected in their conversation. As children of immigrants we share this evolved struggle. And it’s hard. But it’s a beautiful journey, something I wouldn’t change if I could.

One thing to know about Tongan people is that we have a hard ‘get on with life’ exterior, but we have the softest hearts. When we talk about our family, the flood gates open. I really felt this when listening to this intimate exchange between mother and daughter, as tears streamed down my face throughout the episode. I found comfort and I felt heard in this conversation.

Luciane Buchanan is a Tongan actor and writer.

James Roque on episode 2: Really Nice Potato Sacks

Grace and Joseph Trinidad, featured in the ‘Really Nice Potato Sacks’ episode, at a party organised by their Filipino community group. (Photo: Saraid de Silva / Julie Zhu)

Look, I’m going to be upfront with you here: this episode made me cry in a queue at K-Mart. Not because it was sad, but because I felt like I was listening to a conversation my Filipino mother and I were having. I knew it would too, after the first thing Joseph’s mother Grace says is “you underestimate us”.

I’ve underestimated my migrant parents most of my life growing up in NZ. Not in the usual way that all teens think their parents will never understand them, but a much more insidious underestimation that a lot of migrant children do. “They won’t get me cause they’re FOBs,” I used to think. Now that I reflect back it was just another way for me to erase myself in order to assimilate into white New Zealand.

I remember a few years ago my family were playing the game Cranium on holiday. It was a heated game and my girlfriend and I were teamed up with my parents. We were in the last round and in order to win the game my dad had to spell an incredibly long English word backwards. “We’re screwed now,” I thought subconsciously. My sisters had the same doubt. Then, my dad got up, took a breath and without skipping a beat spelt the entire word backwards. My sisters and I were shook. “You didn’t think I could do it, did you?” my dad said, a cheeky grin on his face, my mum clinging on his arm like a hype man. It wasn’t ‘til recently that I realised that that story was symbolic of how much we underestimated them emotionally too.

Nowadays I try not to underestimate my parents anymore. The more I do the more I see how beautifully empathetic, nuanced and kind they are. I’m glad to have them in my life and look back with shame at how I used to see them.

James Roque is a Filipino comedian and one third of comedy group Frickin’ Dangerous Bro.

Brynley Stent on episode 3: Argumentative is an English Concept

Nina the dog, Francisco Blaha, Felix Blaha, Kika Blaha, Vibeke Brethouwer, featured in the episode ‘Argumentative is an English Concept’, in their home on Waiheke Island. (Photo: Saraid de Silva / Julie Zhu)

Because of the racist, hierarchical society I’ve been brought up in, when I hear the word ‘immigrant’ my mind imagines a person of colour. This has been so ingrained in me that I’ve never really thought of my Oma, and the rest of my Dutch relatives as immigrants. But of course they are.

Listening to the Blaha-Brethouwer family talk so frankly about their cultural identities made me think deeper about how I identify culturally. I’ve always been proud of my Dutch heritage – I used to do Dutch folk dancing as a child (complete with traditional garb and clogs) and therefore have a stronger link to my Dutch side of the family – the other side, culturally, are “just Pākeha”. I think Julie makes a thought-provoking point when she talks about Pākehā pride (not white power just to be very clear), where if we all knew a little bit more about the intricacies of our white culture, i.e where exactly we hail from, we might be able to see beyond white being the default.

Hearing the Blaha-Brethouwer kids talk about speaking multiple languages, and wanting to represent their heritage, it made me feel sad that I never got to learn Dutch. My Oma got pulled into that “it’s easier to speak English” system that I feel many immigrants feel obliged to do when they arrive in New Zealand. I’ve been working on my Dutch on Duolingo and one day I hope to turn up to her house and surprise her by saying, “Goedemorgen, hoe gaat het!” – but only when I’m feeling a little more confident. Last time I tried to say it on the phone to her she went, “What? Speak English!”

Brynley Stent is a performer and writer of Dutch heritage.

Tayyaba Khan on episode 4: It Was Clearly a Joke

Aliyaan Abbas and his mother Masooma Mehdi, featured in the episode ‘It Was Clearly a Joke’ (Photo: Saraid de Silva / Julie Zhu)

If you’re expecting a 13-year-old Pakistani boy talking about the traditional food his mother cooks him or his refusal to wear the shalwar kameez of her choice… this is not that.

Aliyaan is mature, well beyond his age. He and his mum Masooma give the audience a glimpse into the significant impact Islamophobia has had on their lives, and the changing nature of conversations over generations with immigrant parents.

“We hope it’s not a Muslim who has done it” is representative of many Muslims in Aotearoa as the events of March 15th were unfolding. This episode is a window into the excessive expression of being grateful to New Zealand from a self-flagellating faith community who has been made to question their standing since 9/11. The episode challenges whether we have collectively made it harder to speak up about the impact of the Christchurch terror attack.

Moments where Aliyaan reminds us he is of a generation who will hold their footing in this country and speak out make me thankful. Masooma and Aliyaan’s conversation is one of friendship between a mother and her son, even when times aren’t friendly to them.

Tayyaba Khan is a Pakistani social justice activist and founder of the Khadija Leadership Network.

Hye Ji Lee on episode 5: Actually I’m Korean

Sue Kim (centre), featured in the episode ‘Actually I’m Korean’, doing principal duties for the Korean Language School in Dunedin. (Photo: Saraid de Silva / Julie Zhu)

Navigating motherhood and womanhood in an environment where one is Othered is a narrative we don’t often stop to think about. The conversation between The conversation between 어머님 김수남씨 Sue and 따님 문보경씨 Bokyong reminded me of the immense capacity of migrant mothers.

I grasped glimpses of the challenges my own mother must have faced, and like Sue, how she just got on with it. Got on with it for me, for us, the kids of migrants, so that we could live a life that was better than theirs.

Listening to the conversation I felt the vulnerable and precious space that is the interpersonal relationship between a mother and daughter. My heart ached, and I missed my mum. The giants among us are often the ones that raised us.

Hye Ji Lee (Erica) was born in Korea. She researches and teaches in the sociology department at Te Whare Wānanga o Tāmaki Makaurau.

Ashleigh Williams on episode 6: The Best Street in Birkdale

Tammy Lawrence-Solomon, featured in the episode ‘The Best Street in Birkdale’ (Photo: Saraid de Silva / Julie Zhu)

From Tammy’s dad moving over and working to set things up for them, to hearing Tammy talk about one of their racist experiences, there is something so special about hearing the voices of people from your home and crying because you’ve experienced the exact same things.

My dad left school at the age of 15 to work and support his family growing up, then years later left his home in South Africa to work and support us before we moved over. My first year living in New Zealand, at the age of nine I was told that my school did not allow black people and that I should go home. Listening to this episode I resonated with the stories.

I thought deeply about my family and our own journey here. I thought about how similar our experiences were at the beginning. I thought about my family at home, our time in NZ, and how much work there is to do here still around racism. It hasn’t only made me cry, it’s made me smile and laugh, it’s made me angry, and it has also made me think.

Ashleigh Williams is a South Africa-born actor and creative based in Tāmaki Makaurau

Sarita So responds to episode 7: Sucking on Chicken Feet

Featured in the episode ‘Sucking on Chicken Feet’, Emrie Meng looks at photo albums with her grandmother Mom Meng in Lower Hutt, Wellington. (Photo: Saraid de Silva / Julie Zhu)

Listening to this episode made me think how fortunate I feel to know my culture and speak my language. In a way that might not be as fluent as I would like, but where I have a different way of thought, a distinct sense of humour, an insight into another world. The ability to communicate – I’ve luckily always seen it as my superpower.

It makes me sad for those who haven’t had this opportunity, or people who have lost it or had it beaten out of them. I think of the many experiences within a collective trauma and how different they can be. Even between a generation how much can be lost, what is lost in translation? Will my children and my parents be able to communicate?

I hear through the episode possible misunderstandings between the family members, the wanting to make sense of how their lives have unfolded, and the desire now to connect. This is why I hold on so tight to my relationship with family, history, trauma and the beauty of where I came from.

I’ve never needed convincing, I’ve always loved my culture and have celebrated it but listening to this reminds me that there’s always something to be lost, and that there’s always more to learn, especially from the ones you love.

Sarita So is a Cambodian writer, performer, and co-founder of Wellingtonian company I Ken So Productions.

Batanai Mashingaidze on episode 8: Nothing Other than Beauty and Hope

Nyembezi and Takunda Muzondiwa, featured in the episode ‘Nothing Other than Beauty and Hope’, in Ōwairaka, Auckland. (Photo: Saraid de Silva / Julie Zhu)

I know that sacrifices needed to be made in order for me and my siblings’ lives to look the way they do, but hearing the Muzondiwa family made me think back to the first few years of being here in New Zealand.

My family are also from Zimbabwe. My mother raised us as a single parent and I can only imagine how hard that must’ve been for her, being here alone with three kids, knowing there wasn’t anyone coming to help any time soon.

Hearing Nyembezi talk to her experience of being alone and not being able to eat anything reminded me of the memories I have of Mama making these beautiful meals for us out of nothing, meals she often wouldn’t eat with us. She would say she wasn’t hungry and I wonder if like Nyembezi, the worry of what family back home in Zim would be eating was too much for her to stomach.

My generation may not ever know how hard it was for our parents. We all get told the “basic” version of the story but there are things that she doesn’t talk about at all. I want to know all that information, but I’m also not sure which questions to ask… How did you get through all by yourself? What would you say on the phone when back home asked how it was going? What happened when you told Gogo that you were leaving? Do you still desire to go back home? Most importantly, MAMA, WHY ARE YOU SUCH A BOSS!!!!!!!

I appreciate and cherish everything my mother has done for me and my siblings. The first thing I did after listening to the podcast was to message her telling her how much.

Batanai Mashingaidze is a Zimbabwean actor hailing from Pōneke and currently based in Tāmaki.

Register your interest in being featured in season 2 of Conversations With My Immigrant Parents here.

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