By Janna Tay
Whenever we are in a crowd or watching a show, someone in our group inevitably asks, ‘Where are the Asians?’, and so it was with the Labour campaign launch at the Auckland Town Hall in late August. It’s one thing to ask this question for mainstream TV shows or in Asian fusion eateries in Ponsonby, but it’s quite another to play “spot the Asians” across the stage behind Jacinda Ardern and struggle to see more than a handful.
My friends and I are East, Southeast, and South Asian. We are the 1.5 generation: we were born in our parents’ home countries before moving away as children. Western accents colour our speech. Our cultural recollections are hand-me-downs. When we are told in an election year to pick the party that most captures who we are, it is difficult to find anything close to a reflection. Though studies have suggested that the low rate of Asian political participation is linked to language barriers and a lack of understanding of local politics and culture, this arguably fails to explain why generations 1.5 and 2 still lack in representation.
Sapna Samant, for The Spinoff, criticised how ineffectual Asian representation is in New Zealand. Asians are roughly 12 percent of the population. This should translate to 14 or 15 Members of Parliament (MPs). In the last (51st) Parliament, there were six Asian MPs. Not only is this disproportionate, but Samant also argues that these MPs have done nothing significant to advance the position of Asian New Zealanders. All six are list MPs and can represent a constituency that is not geographically bound.
But perhaps this is too harsh. Perhaps Asians only get to be MPs when they don’t pursue anything too unacceptable. Māori representation initially faced similar challenges. In the early 1900s, Māori parliamentarians had to assimilate to Pākehā views to gain political credibility in Parliament. But even if Asian MPs have credibility, they do so arguably by reinforcing the harmful model minority myth. Samant claims that Pākehā see us in only two ways. There is the model minority comprised of Asians who are educated, hardworking, and can integrate themselves into Western culture while still bringing a palatable level of diversity. Then there are the job-stealing immigrants who barely speak English. One perpetuates the other—the model minority myth creates ideas of “good” and “bad” immigrants.
That is part of the problem: Asians seem to be automatically classed as immigrants. Political parties give us little more than tokens angled at winning non-English speakers. Metronews collected views from the public on whether Asians should be better represented politically. “If you’re not from this country,” said one, “then they shouldn’t be able to make judgements on what happen”.
But what if someone of Asian descent was born, raised, and educated in New Zealand? What does it take to be “from this country”?
The homogeneity imposed on Asians means we are burdened with representing all who resemble us. Earlier this year I was on Waterloo Quadrant with my mother when a white woman ran towards us, yelling, “Where are the drugs?”, my mother asked me whether any Asians had made the news lately. They had. Taiwanese and Chinese nationals had been apprehended in a multi-million-dollar drug bust. My family is from neither Taiwan nor China.
When a white person commits a crime, we condemn the individual.
When a person of colour commits a crime, we condemn the entire race. Which is why, Asian MPs end up representing not only their countries of origin, but also anyone else who looks like them. For a generation who spent their childhoods dealing with internalised racism and the desire to distance themselves from their race, it’s difficult to willingly take up this burden in public office.
But does Asian representation matter? As another Metronews respondent said, “I don’t think that it should be based on race at all. I think it should just be based on views and the amount of support you can get.” Some think that the solution is to be ‘colour blind’. But the inability to see that there is a problem is itself part of the problem. I grew up in Howick where nearly 40 percent of residents are of Asian descent. Yet Sharon Stewart and Dick Quax, long-standing Howick ward councillors, see no racial divide and no need for Asian representation. By contrast, Julie Zhu sees “a huge underbelly of covert racism” in East Auckland. Zhu ran for the Greens in 2016 as a Howick ward councillor and is now the Green candidate for Botany. Like Zhu, I moved to the area when I was four years old. Though Quax also immigrated to New Zealand, I identify with Zhu because we had similar experiences because of our Asian descent.
As author Emma Ng relates, strangers greet her with “konnichiwa” or “ni hao” whilst journalists compliment her English. Ally McCrow-Young, a second generation Kiwi Chinese, feels the need to constantly prove her “Kiwi-ness”. My mother has had white people ask her in slow, broken language if she speaks English.
She does—she teaches it.
Because it is well-meaning, Pākehā representatives don’t consider this racism. These microaggressions are alienating because they tell us that we are seen as Asians before we are seen as individual people.
Asian representation matters, and not just to have someone recognise and understand shared issues like casual racism. Seeing Asian MPs in positions of influence shows young Asian New Zealanders that their voices matter. Representation is also linked to the media—we need more Asian faces on TV and more recognition that being Asian is “not one, singular thing”. We need to move from stereotypes and inferiority to representations that reflect our realities. Where a population lacks cohesion due to a gap between people and their representatives, democracy suffers. To be constantly labelled as an outsider in the only home some of us have ever known is to leave us unsure of our identities and where we belong.
If we feel no connection, we will not be inclined to get involved politically, to make this house our home.
So, it’s heartening for me to see Zhu and Rebekah Jaung for Green, and Jin An and Naisi Chen for Labour, bridging that gap. Yet the poverty of the situation as it stands is that we ask for any Asian representation at all, not even for different Asian cultures. But one day I want to see my parents on that town hall stage, my friends, their families. We have to start this change now, and increase the number of representatives who are proudly and unashamedly Asian.
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