February 25, 2018

Who are we, New Zealand? Lawyer Mai Chen champions new social media campaign #myidentity


#MYIDENTITY: Prominent NZers involved in a new social media campaign called #MyIdentity. They are uploading one-minute interviews about themselves to prove that we all have multiple identities, in a backlash to separatist propaganda which drove Brexit and even Trump’s election.

Sometimes when Retirement Commissioner Diane Maxwell’s Samoan partner is at functions in their home suburb of Remuera, people ask him to take their coats.  When he’s out walking in the central Auckland garden suburb, others scurry away.   And when the couple’s five-year-old son took part in a classroom project on family roots, Maxwell pointed to Samoa — only to discover the home of his grandparents hadn’t been included on the map at the school.  “[I thought] How is he going to be proud of his heritage?”

Maxwell knows what it’s like to feel out of place. She spent 20 years in the United Kingdom from the age of 10.  At her new British school she was publicly shamed by a teacher over her feet – hardened by a barefoot Kiwi summer – but her eventual return to New Zealand also sparked feelings of displacement.  “For years I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a New Zealander. I’m not big on rugby … but I got the impression very early on that those statements were very ‘Un-New Zealand’.  “It took me a long time to work out that I could be [myself] and still be a New Zealander.”

So when high-profile lawyer Mai Chen asked Maxwell to join other Kiwis in talking publicly about identity for a new social media campaign she was starting, Maxwell didn’t hesitate.

#myidentity is aimed at showing everyone has multiple identities and, by doing so, breaking down divisive agendas which have driven major change overseas, such as Brexit in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States.

The campaign, which Chen is championing as chairwoman of the Superdiversity Centre for Law, Policy and Business will be launched by Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy on Thursday.

Dame Patsy and several other high-profile Kiwis, including Green Party co-leader James Shaw, former Prime Minister Dame Jenny Shipley, GirlBoss founder Alexia Hilbertidou, comedian Ete Eteuati, psychiatrist Hinemoa Elder, National Council for Women president Vanisa Dhiru President and ACC boss Scott Pickering, have all shared their identity in short video clips for the campaign.

Others are also involved, including secondary school pupils. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been invited to take part but is yet to confirm.

Maxwell said she hoped the campaign would encourage people to challenge themselves about assumptions they made about those around them.

“Maybe think a bit more about how we are going to make this multi-cultural society work for everybody. I don’t think it will just happen, it needs some intentional work.

“It’s a simple thing, but a big point.”

Chen is challenging all New Zealanders to film a video of their identity and post it under #myidentity.

She was inspired in part by reading a book by Nobel-winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen challenging the falsehood that people have only a single identity.

“Nobody has a single identity. We all have multiple identities … most importantly identity is a choice. You can’t say to me, ‘oh you’re not a Kiwi’. I am a Kiwi … that’s my choice.”

Her own experiences since moving to New Zealand from Taiwan as a child also inspired her.

Chen knows what it’s like to be stereotyped — she’s had people address her using the Japanese greeting of konnichiwa, she’s been mistaken for Nadia Lim and Pansy Wong, she’s heard insults in the street.

“People will look at you and they will automatically stereotype you.”

New Zealand was already diverse —fourth most in the world for Auckland and fourth most in the OECD for New Zealand — and that was going to increase, she said.

“In the 2013 Census it found we had over 210 ethnicities and that 25 per cent or more New Zealanders were not born here. Imagine what the 2018 Census is going to find,
particularly when you know that Statistics New Zealand has put out projections that by 2025 one in three in Auckland will be Asian.”

It was for everyone’s benefit that our curiosity about each other increased, Chen said.

“We have successfully managed all these years to have numerous different ethnicities and cultures living side by side. We need that to continue for our economic prosperity, because social capital is fundamental to people wanting to be here.

“It’s important we’re not saying to people ‘we’re excluding you, you’re an outsider, you can never become an insider’, therefore you’re going to have to drive a cab all your life and you’re never going to be on a board, because people that look like you can never get on a board, people that look like you can never be the get the top job.

“It’s not us and them … it’s all of us.”


Ete Eteuati, actor and comedian, one half of the duo Laughing Samoans

“I never thought I was going to be a actor, a comedian. Because at school, you know 1st XV boys, ‘no we don’t do drama, no no no, we create drama’. But I stumbled on theatre, I stumbled on acting … I found being on stage was amazing.”

Scott Pickering, ACC chief executive

“As a family we’ve lived in eight different countries, in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. And I think I’ve done business in almost 50 countries … but in my heart I’m a very proud Kiwi.”

James Shaw, Green Party co-leader

“One of my great-great grandmothers had an upright piano brought over from London, wrapped in mattresses and dragged by bullocks up the Gisborne-Opotiki Gorge. You could almost make a movie out of it.”

Priti Ambani, The Next Billion co-founder

“I’m an environmental engineer, I’m a businesswoman, I’m an educator and a technologist. I’m also mom to two young boys. I was born and raised in India, but I’ve lived in the United States and now in New Zealand.”

Mele Wendt, consultant and board director

“I’m a very proud Samoan Kiwi or Kiwi Samoan, depending on how you look at it, and I believe my life is enriched every day by the many multi-cultural experiences of the diverse and interesting world I live in.”

Mai Chen, lawyer and founder and chairwoman NZ Asian Leaders, SUPERdiverse WOMEN and the Superdiversity Centre

“It’s important that we accept that people aren’t necessarily what they seem. We just need to accept that diversity means accepting difference.”

Rob Hennin, nib NZ chief executive

“I’ve been fortunate to spend a large part of my career overseas. I’ve lived in Delhi, in Singapore, in Sydney and New York, and now I’m back in New Zealand running nib.”

Diane Maxwell, Retirement Commissioner

“When we first arrived in London when I was 10 in the middle of winter my PE teacher at my new school asked me to put my feet up on a chair, so the whole class could come and look at my feet, and used me as an example of what happens when children don’t wear shoes. So, I felt like a strange New Zealander.”

Alexia Hilbertidou, GirlBoss founder

“When I was very young there was times where I would lie about my ethnicity all together, ignore my Greek and Samoan side. People would ask me what my ethnicity was and I’d just reply with ‘oh, I’m New Zealand European’.”

Hinemoa Elder, psychiatrist

“I am a descendant of Waimirirangi. My mountain is Tawhitirahi. My river is awapoka. My tribes are Te Aupouri, Ngāti Kuri, Te Rarawa and Ngāpuhi. My name is Hinemoa Elder.”