The Curiosity Of Asking Someone’s Ethnicity

Culture

Curiosity is often one of the main reasons someone asks about a person’s ethnicity. Where are you from? is a common question that many people are asked throughout their life. When I was younger, I would respond with ‘I’m from Auckland.’ As I got older, I began to respond with ‘I was born and raised in New Zealand, but my parents are from Taiwan.’ which would save time with questions such as ‘Where are your parents from?’ ‘Are you an immigrant?’ and ‘Were you born in New Zealand?’. Often it can become a bit of a guessing game where someone may try to guess what your ethnicity is.

Depending on the person’s intention, asking about someone’s ethnicity can bring about certain stereotypes. There are times it can create a sense of judgment when it’s the first question someone asks. There are other times when people have good intentions and are asking out of genuine curiosity. It’s a difficult question to answer because it’s also asking someone where is home? Taiwan is home to me but New Zealand is my natural response since I grew up here. It’s great to be interested in someone’s culture but I’d advise not to ask it as the first question when you meet someone for the first time.

The question also asks where do you belong? What’s your history? What’s your culture? Why do you look the way you do? and an endless array of questions that can really go deeper into one’s background. Stereotypes, assumptions, and generalizations are sadly often drawn from ethnicity. Growing up, I’m grateful to have been brought up in a home where Taiwanese and Chinese culture were a significant part of my life. Speaking Mandarin at home, eating Chinese food, reading Chinese books, and watching television in Mandarin.  

I was reading Mabel’s post on Reasons Why The Question “Where Are You From?” Is Offensive. And Not Offensive here and she writes “No matter how polite the conversation, when we get asked, “Where are you from?”, often there comes a case of mistaken identity, a case of “othering” in the sense of “Us” and “Them”. It can often lead to a lot of questions for example in my experience ‘Why did your parents move here?’ and ‘Your English is very good’ or ‘Do they speak Taiwanese in Taiwan?’ and other interesting questions.

In The Guardian it states “People move an average of 12 times during their life. The notion of a ‘hometown’ or culture can be complex.” It can be a personal question that we may be more comfortable in sharing with those we feel close with or once we’ve opened up and had deeper conversations. Nowadays I’m upfront about expressing my cultural identity, which has taken time as I felt a lot of shame during my teenage years. As you get older you realise those differences you perceived growing up that made you feel left out are an important special part of your identity.

The article says “We seem to want to put people in boxes, to size them up quickly.” When we are asked the question predominantly because of the way we appear, it can make one wonder about the intentions behind the question. It takes the focus away from who we are as a person and our personality. It causes those aspects to be tied to our ethnicity. Perhaps, if you ever want to know someone’s ethnicity, ask once you have talked to them more, shared about your own background, and be sensitive, curious, and interested.

We’re all visual creatures, and when we see someone we may become intrigued by their features, appearances, and the way they speak. Those are all the external aspects we can see and hear. When you’re living in a multicultural society it’s common that these curiosities will happen frequently. It’s natural that we want to know, but it’s important to think before you ask, why you want to know. Sometimes we might be interested to know what other languages they might speak or understand more about their culture. Our stories are ultimately what connects us with one another.

I recommend reading these articles:

What’s Wrong with Asking “Where Are You From?”

How To Politely Ask Someone About Their Ethnicity

‘Where are you really from?’ How to navigate this question of race and identity

Photography by Leslie Zhang

We Live In A Society That Praises Extroverts

Culture

Is freedom giving up the need to be understood by everyone? The exhausting part of our daily lives erupt when we feel the need for most people to understand. Every person is deeply complex. The greatest blessing can lie in feeling understood by those who truly care. I was reading the article Introverts are excluded unfairly in an extraverts’ world here, which was incredibly thought provoking and eye opening, as I spent many years thinking that there was something innately wrong with me.

Around seven years ago I discovered the term introvert and felt a greater understanding. We live in a society that praises extroverts. In the article it states that “The main cultural problem is that introverts are widely seen as not adapted to the environment, instead of it being acknowledged that the environment is designed to profit extraverts. Society’s praise and acceptance of extraversion as the norm has led many introverts, along with many ambiverts, to suppress different aspects of their personality, or to see them as flaws. This state of affairs is bad not only for introverts, but for society as a whole.”

Susan Caine cites studies which suggest that the majority of teachers think the ideal student is an extrovert, and more extroverts are groomed for leadership positions in the workplace. However, the level of introversion or extroversion does not equate to one’s level of competency. We need to live in a world that supports both introverts and extroverts in all environments. We need to create environments that allow both to shine through their positive traits.

Negative connotations tend to be associated with introversion and introverts can often be stereotyped as shy, socially anxious, awkward and quiet. However, shyness is not the same as introversion and being an introvert means that you need to spend time alone in order to recharge your batteries. The two important areas of our societies are schools and businesses. These are areas that individuals spend a significant amount of their lives in. These are designed largely for extroverts and the extrovert’s need for stimulation.

A person should not be measured by how well they can engage in small talk but in the ideas, values, character, opinions and empathy they express. The greatest freedom is being yourself. As children we are taught to play with other children, and isolating oneself is seen as an issue that needs to be resolved. In some cases there may be clear signs that the behaviour may be concerning, however it’s common a child may feel more stimulated through activities such as reading a book or painting a picture

The implication that it’s a fault is created by societal expectations and norms. Social exclusion through not conforming to societal expectation can also increase feelings of isolation and rejection. The ending of the article beautifully says that “More importantly, we must remember that introversion is not something to be fixed – but a blessed source of human diversity that comes with many strengths. The way to advance our personal and collective growth is not by eliminating this diversity, but by embracing it.” Every person has the ability to create change and to contribute towards society.

Art by Lieke van der Vorst

The Masks We Wear

Culture

The complexities of the human condition are deeply reflected in the layers that we each have. The antidote to this are the authentic acts of vulnerability and empathy. The fear of judgment causes us to hide our childlike self under a hard shell, rather than allowing our true self to flourish. It takes energy to not be ourselves. The masks we wear can become definitions that we create for ourselves and the ways that we present ourselves to the world. Reflecting on my own masks, I thought about how the words we are told as a child are powerful and they can become deeply ingrained into us as facts throughout our whole lives. The powerful truth is recognizing that only you know who you are and only you are in control of changing who you are. No one can really define you, unless you let them.

Growing up, I was often told that I was shy, quiet and reserved. This was repeatedly said to me throughout my life to the degree that I thought that there was something wrong with me. As an Asian New Zealander, there have been many moments throughout my life where I felt an unexplainable invisibility. The stereotype of the ‘Quiet Asian Woman’ has followed me all my life, deeply affecting the way I previously saw myself. My experiences, though, have really helped me to understand the harm of minimising people through categorizing them. The undoing of a lifelong feeling of not fitting in a mould came through the development of self assurance within oneself despite external voices. You are the author of your novel and the beauty and freedom of this is that you can create whatever you desire.

Masks are an internalisation from how other people perceive us. It can make us succumb to the perception of the world to protect ourselves. The fear of vulnerability can hide our true self as we wear a false mask as a protection to feel safe from the world. The desire for acceptance leads to wearing a mask that society puts on us for fear that being your true self is not the way the world wants to see you. Our identities are constructed on how others perceive us, but the lack of vulnerability constrains the diversity of human nature and potential. Vulnerability openly invites us to talk about how we feel without judgment, builds trust and a sense of security and connection, the freedom to be ourselves and the deliberate act of being kind.

When we struggle with our mental health, we often cling to our masks even tighter. For example, when you have experienced depression, you may have fought to bear a smile on your face. We experience an inner battle when we hide our depression and anxiety; holding tightly on our masks can provide temporary relief, but never allow us to fully heal. The surface may not reflect the reality. The dangers of this comes in the deterioration of authentic connections when we create an appearance of perfection to the world that doesn’t exist. Perfection is a false façade to create an illusion of happiness to the world but it never achieves true happiness. True happiness is the freedom we feel when we are living in the world as the person that we were born to be.

Our true selves tend to shine when we let go of external pressures or validations. True understanding comes from taking the time to listen and see through different lenses. When we judge ourselves or other people, it comes from a deep rooted insecurity within ourselves and a desire to feel a false sense of superiority. Wearing masks are a learned practice that we have picked up as a survival tactic as a way of hiding what we are feeling. Masks are worn as a socially expected concept such as when we may have to keep a polite demeanour even if a situation is difficult. When we really unpeel everything, everyone wants to be understood and loved.

There is a beautiful photography series by Justin Rosenberg that you can view here that brings to light the reality of how we tend to perceive things through what we see rather than for what they are.

What are the masks that you wear?

Art by Marcel Dzama

The Art Of Slow Consumption

Culture

The psychology of sales, discounts and promotions tend to convince the need to buy in order to feel a sense of satisfaction through saving. This is a powerful marketing tactic as it encourages consumers to buy and therefore increases production demands. The use of special offers and a strong favourable brand image deliver a lifestyle and a promise of happiness that is attainable through purchasing the product. The cycle boosts the long-term profitability and sales for the company, but it also comes at the price of feeding on our insecurities and telling us that we need materials in our lives to fill up the spaces to attain a certain status, appearance or lifestyle. However, the increase in mass production encourages mass consumption. The increasing consumption cycle is damaging to our environment, well being and mind set.

In our rapidly changing world, we are more impatient due to instant gratification and being bombarded with more choice and opportunities. The gamification of smart phones have also caused a change in socialising, communicating and interactions. The fast paced society has caused an increase in stress, depression and anxiety. It reminds us to take a moment to practice mindful consumption in buying, reading, exercising, cooking, socialising, eating and so forth. We can take time to have a more leisurely approach to life rather than conform to the rush of a busy life. Over-consumption presents an ecological threat to individual, social and global well-being. The ideology that should be shared is that buying less things that are better quality can help us lead a more fulfilled, less wasteful life.

In The stuff of life, Immig writes “What if you piled up all the stuff you’ve ever owned and consumed in your lifetime? Would it make a tall tower reaching into the sky like a high-rise building, or is it more of a discreet mound?” The article is fascinating and creates visualisations of the waste that we have contributed to in a lifetime. It seems as if we can obtain everything we could possibly imagine if we have the financial means to, yet large numbers of people remain deeply unhappy. The chase for personal status and material wealth is built from consumer culture which encourages extrinsic goals that bring an illusion of temporary happiness. We are increasingly obsessed with superficial ideals such as material possessions, wealth, fame and status which is a result of the declining care, empathy and concern for others and for our environment.

The garments we hold tend to lack meaning due to the idea that they’re instantly replaceable or out of trend through the fast-pace cycle of the fashion industry. Adopting the models of slow consumption creates more respect and value for what we have, rather than affording cheap clothing that creates a throwaway culture and encourages the cycle of fashion produced under exploitive work conditions and are environmentally unsustainable. A focus on environmental ethics would help bring the focus on a collective level on the impact and change that can be made for global well-being. If we strive to be conscious consumers, we make the first step in deliberately trying to minimise permanent footprints on the environment. We consider the difference between needs and desires and to purchase and consume slowly and accordingly.

Art by Renée Gouin

Taking A Break From Facebook And Instagram

Culture

Connection is an important part of relationships, and having a sense of community can affect our well being. True connections are incredibly valuable. It’s been a few months since I stopped using Facebook and Instagram, and the relationships that are the closest are the ones where you are engaged and in contact regardless of your online presence. They are the ones you will message or call on the phone every day. I really value close and long-term friendships, and I found that often on social media we are viewing and sharing to people we don’t have a close connection with. The aspects of privacy, mental health, phone use and what value it has on my personal life were just some of the areas that made me remove several social media apps.

The people who care about you will make the effort to be in your life. The people that really matter will make the effort to call you and personally invite you to events or to catch up. It’s not the frequency of contact or quantity of friendships, but the time spent. A natural part of life is that people come and go in our lives. Those who are meant to be in our lives will be there.

Your productivity levels will increase. The ability to sustain focus for longer periods of time will become a habit. Social Media can be distracting and take away our attention. Phones have caused us to have shorter attention spans. I remember as a student how distracting social media can be, and how much time can go by if we spend our time on it.

Decrease in anxiety and online noise and distraction. My mental health greatly improved, and so much time will be in your hands for things that add value in your life, rather than scrolling mindlessly. There was something about Facebook and Instagram that really triggered my anxiety. Our phones can be a form of escapism. There is an overwhelming amount of information online.

Spending time doing the things you love. Time spent on your favourite activities, hobbies and time spent with the people you love. In the past few months, I love to spend the early morning going for a jog or reading a chapter of a book, whereas in the past one of the first things was to turn on my phone. Time offline means that I put more conscious time in achieving my goals.

Conformity, validation and acceptance. I think about how I really value the opinions and views of those close to me, regardless of if I agree or disagree with it. However, I find on social media there is a lot of external validation from strangers which can have an impact on ones authenticity. True validation and acceptance is through accepting yourself.

The time spent on my phone is minimised. More or less the phone is mostly used for texting, calling and replying emails. I check my phone far less, whereas when I previously had several social media apps, I’d check it more often because there would be notifications that most of the time weren’t important. Excessive screen time is unhealthy, and takes us away from the present.

The value of privacy, and realising that most people don’t truly care about you. We are essentially the products on social media platforms. It’s hard to define privacy in one definition nowadays. I am quite a private person, and would rather spend time sharing certain things with those close to me. Most people are friendly, but there really are only a handful of people in our personal lives who truly care about us.

Body image and unrealistic expectations. There is a layer of social media that can feel unrealistic. We only catch a glimpse, and even then we can’t really know someone without engaging in conversation and spending time with them. To an extent, social media can shape perceptions of body image.

Being present and focused in my own life. I’m not sure if I’ll be back on Facebook or Instagram, but it feels good to be fully focused on my own life. I do miss the days before social media where there was a sense of mystery in our lives. No one’s life is perfect, even though it can seem that way online. Spending less time on our phones can create space for us to be present in our daily lives.

Art by Lisa Perrin

Living Between Two Cultures

Culture

After watching The Farewell at the cinema last year, it made me reflect on how powerful films, books, photography and art can tell stories that make us reflect on our own personal experiences. There have been many interesting stories growing up in New Zealand, and being aware that often I will first be viewed as an Asian woman. I was reading from Old Asian, New Asian, the words: As the ethnic makeup of New Zealand continues to change, the nature of our race relations will continue to impact the very real everyday experiences of those who live here. We are in a position to build on the rich exchanges that have already taken place, but we need to keep talking.

Being born and raised in New Zealand, I grew up feeling never quite fully Kiwi, and yet when I would visit Taiwan, I’d feel never quite fully Taiwanese. In New Zealand I would often feel that I didn’t fully belong because of the common questions asked on where I was from and when did I come to New Zealand. In Taiwan, I would often be asked if I’m a foreigner because of my mannerisms and appearance. Sense of belonging and having a strong sense of one’s cultural identity can be a struggle when you grow up between two cultures.

I grew on a farm which meant that I was often one of the only Asians in most settings. The experiences of being treated a certain way as a result of stereotypes was something I was aware of from a young age. I witnessed how people would speak to my parents and I witnessed the contrast of how incredibly kind people can be and how deeply rude people can be. There have been aspects of my personality and who I am that are often associated directly with my ethnicity or with a stereotype. There are aspects of values from Asian and Western culture that I can and cannot relate to.

Our family grew up interacting with the Taiwanese community and family friends were predominantly friends we spoke Mandarin Chinese with. When I was in primary school, I struggled in my first few years as I was adjusting to learning in English. The students and teachers thought I was mute until I started singing in a musical one day and everyone was shocked that I could talk. My parents were surprised and told the teachers that I was a chatterbox at home. Despite growing up in New Zealand, I spoke Chinese at home but now my English is more fluent than my Chinese now. Our environment and interactions have a significant impact on the language we speak.

Language is important in connecting with people and building empathy. That’s why it’s so important to treasure and speak your mother tongue. The beauty of living in New Zealand, especially in cities such as Auckland and Wellington, is that there is a diverse mixture of cultures. Living between two cultures is a blessing, as I am grateful for growing up in a household filled with Taiwanese and Chinese food, language, music, media, books, customs and traditions while growing up being surrounded by nature, animals, lakes, mountains and beaches.

Photography by Sun Jun