Saturday, August 08, 2009

Rising Dragons, Soaring Bananas

I was intrigued by the soaring bananas but quite afraid to ask.

Since when could a banana even think about getting airborne?

One of the first speakers at the Rising Dragons, Soaring Bananas conference soon answered the question in my head.

The aforementioned fruit was a derogatory term for someone who was 'yellow' on the outside, but 'white' on the inside, often applied to Chinese by people both within and outside the community.

Hence the clever title of the conference - surely the best way to defuse a potential insult is to embrace it?

As a forum it aimed to "celebrate the journeys, stories and identities of leading local and overseas born Chinese personalities".

Across the weekend there was a huge variety of sessions to attend from the standard "Yellow Peril - Early Chinese In New Zealand" and "Cracking The Glass Ceiling" to the unexpected like "The Unique History Of Chinese In Cuba" and "Chinese Immigrants In Equatorial Guinea".

There was even the slightly bizarre "Chinese Culture And Dental Behaviour In Wellington" and "Manipulating Loyalty - Chinese Americans And Taiwan's Canned Mushroom Export".

There was plenty of inspiration to be had over the weekend, but it was always accompanied by a fair degree of sadness.

On the periphery

A fifth generation Chinese New Zealander told of a tough childhood where she always felt an outsider, completely on the periphery of all things 'Kiwi'.

At the age of 23 she visited China for the first time and felt an immense sense of pride in her ancestral home and culture.

But the feeling of social dislocation and isolation remained, as she couldn't speak Mandarin and struggled to relate to her relatives.

This appeared to be a common thread that ran through the entire conference.

People who felt too Asian to be a 'real' Kiwi and far too European to ever feel accepted as a local in China.

But such dissonance, confusion and isolation can produce remarkable drive and resilience as was epitomised in some of the tales.

Prominent public lawyer Mai Chen told of arriving in 1970's Christchurch along with her three other sisters.

The marching quartet caused a car crash on the very first day, so astounded was the male driver at the novel sight of these Asian faces.

Years of struggle

Chen spoke of years of struggle, desperate to fit in despite knowing she probably never would.

It was only when she stopped trying to be like everybody else, and started to see her ethnicity as a potential strength that she began an incredible journey that now has her as one of the most well-known legal faces in New Zealand.

This was a story with a happy ending, but Chen was quick to dispense lavish doses of realism into her presentation.

She reminded the audience that their ethnicity will continue to be a disadvantage in New Zealand and they will have to work harder, be better and more persistent than everybody else if they want to succeed.

Real estate mogul Don Ha shared his classic rags to riches tale, delivered with an engaging personal style.

He came to New Zealand (from Vietnam, via China) as a 12-year-old in 1980 and spent the first few months in a Refugee camp.

The young Don had an amazing work ethic and a real entrepreneurial streak.

Noticing a local liking for Watercress he collected it from a nearby creek and sold it by the bunch to a nearby New World. When the Council cleaned out his supply he began a lawn mowing round, later taught Karate (elevating 35 people to Black belt level) before going to work in the family bakery.

Tiring of the 72-hour weeks, he got a start in Real Estate and was soon the top salesperson at the branch, before opening his own company which quickly began to dominate the local market and now employs 100 agents.

Ha seems to constantly be looking for new challenges - recently he bought a $2 million racehorse "to see what it felt like" - while also being aware there would be a major publicity payoff.

He is constantly striving to improve and sees potential in everybody to be better, happier and more successful.

To sign off he broke a roof tile with his bare hands which certainly added some real punch to his 'nothing is impossible' message.


Across the weekend the level of self-awareness, and willingness for self-analysis by the various delegates was quite pronounced.

The speakers told of constantly questioning who they are, who they should be and who they would be.

It is a fight that the vast majority of Kiwis never have to contemplate but one wonders if we are poorer for not having embarked on such a crusade.

There was a sense, through the pain, confusion and struggle, that the Chinese are richer for the journey.

There is no doubt that as a race they have developed an incredible resilience and an ability to thrive, to survive and to flourish in communities in every corner of the globe.

While it is common to reflect on your culture and national values when living overseas it is hard to envisage Anglo-Saxon Kiwis anywhere managing this level of introspective honesty and self awareness - at least without the help of alcohol!

At one point it was seriously debated as to whether Chinese in New Zealand should be doing more to gain an understanding of Te Reo Maori - as well as English and Chinese.

Surely this is not a realistic question until somewhere close to the majority of Maori and Pakeha exhibit a propensity to learn Maori.

But the willingness to think outside the square, to question and to challenge accepted wisdom was an overriding theme of this conference where Dragons roared and Bananas definitely soared.

Published: 6:31PM Thursday August 06, 2009 by's Michael Burgess
Source: ONE News

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