Opinion & Analysis

Reflecting on Asian-Kiwi cultural identities

Our cultural identity forms a core part of who we are as people. But understanding that identity can be a complicated process. Writer Olivia Forman reflects on her Filipino-Kiwi identity and interviews Kachin-Kiwi Julyseng Lahpai on her own experiences.

To read more on cultural and ethnic identity, check out our New Voices page, which features some essays and articles on similar themes. 

There are few questions that strike fear into my heart in the same way that being asked “where are you from?” question does. My answer usually depends on how benevolent and genuinely curious the stranger appears to be. A classically neutral response to test the waters is to say I grew up in Taranaki and moved to Wellington ten years ago for uni. For some people, this is a deeply unsatisfying answer. Oftentimes, what they really want to know is why I look the way I do (aka what is my ethnicity) or what qualifies me to say I can belong to a city. 

Growing up with a Filipino Mum, a Pākehā Dad, and having Māori whakapapa, I frequently found myself questioning my ethnicity and my sense of connection to it. While the other kids at school saw me as Asian, my extended Filipino family saw me as a Kiwi. On one hand, I understand the cultural practices and intricacies of being a New Zealander, but also understand what it’s like to have grown up with multiple languages spoken in my home and feel the discomfort of not knowing how to speak the language myself. Then where would I even begin to understand what being Māori means to me given that I grew up without understanding my whakapapa connection or what that means.

The struggle of not knowing how to identify or how you want to identify can cause one to believe that these worlds are always in conflict. Or in other words, no matter how hard I try I will never be Asian enough and I will never fully be able to say I’m a New Zealander either. I am forever stuck in the in-between. 

After many years of quiet contemplation and introspection, an idea finally sparked in me: I should endeavour to seek out others who also live with a multitude of identities. There are many New Zealanders like me who are on a mission to discover who they are and what their cultural identity in particular means to them. Perhaps in sharing these stories there is a chance for others to understand what this is like, and maybe we might feel less alone.  

In mid-August 2023, my dear friend July and I sat down to discuss identities and experiences living in New Zealand. We met around eight years ago in our first year of university, where we quickly bonded over our shared love for food and sense of friendship, among many other things.  

July Seng Lahpai

We’ve known each other for some time now, but for our dear reader, could you please tell us a little about yourself?

My full name is Julyseng Lahpai. I have so many names and many people call me different names in different languages as well, but my friends call me July. 

I’m really into IT [Information Technology] and love everything about technology, friends, and family. I am currently pursuing my Master’s in Cyber Security and Digital Forensics. My goal in life is to use tech to help people and do something good, and with time that I can develop my niche and have the skills to do that.

Where were you born and where did you grow up?

I was born in a town called Nawng Wan but grew up mostly in Lai Za in the Kachin state in the northern part of Myanmar. Myanmar is a beautiful country with many ethnic groups and over 100 different languages. It’s much bigger than New Zealand! 

Myanmar has a long history of ethnic conflicts since 1948, with no end in sight. Many minority ethnic groups, such as Kachin, suffered from political, cultural, religious and economic oppression. I had no choice but to make the hard decision to escape and leave my hometown alone when I was 13, without my parents and siblings. I have not been able to go back and see them for 15 years, as the conflict is ongoing.

I grew-up in a tight-knit family, and in a community who shared the same cultural practices and beliefs. I didn’t appreciate that fully until I went to university, where at times I felt lonely and that other people didn’t understand what I was going through. I knew that in the community I was safe, but I also wanted to find out who I am outside of that and find my new tribe. I really appreciated it when I found a friend group that shared the same values as me and similar goals. I felt like I can finally be myself, a different self.

You’ve sometimes described yourself as Kiwi Kachin, could you talk more about what that means to you?

I call myself a former refugee, Kachin, and also a Kiwi now. When I first came to New Zealand, the most challenging thing was surprisingly not language or culture. It was a battle with myself and finding my identity in the world. Because I didn’t know where to put myself in the world, I wasn’t sure how I could tell other people who I am. 

It made me question whether if I live in certain ways or think in certain ways, am I abandoning my identity? Am I being ashamed of my past if I don’t talk about my experiences being a refugee? If I am too outspoken or too fun-loving, does that mean I don’t feel bad for people back home who are still struggling?

It was when I heard a story from a former police officer and refugee who changed my life. After listening to his talk, about how he struggled with his identity and finally he accepted that he is a whole lot of things. I asked myself “Why can’t I be that way as well?”, I can appreciate that I am a unique person because of those experiences, and not one experience defines me as a person. I am a whole lot of things!

July graduating from AUT in 2023

What’s one or two beautiful things about your culture or identity that you’d like to share?

The way we introduce ourselves when we meet another Kachin is beautiful. We always introduce ourselves by our surname first, it’s like sharing the tribes we come from. This is because we’re a big family and we need to figure out our relationship with one another. Since we’re a 1-2 million people community it means that we are close knitted and I can feel comfortable because you met another cousin, aunty, and uncle that you can always fall back on, and that’s a beautiful thing.

Thank you for sharing parts of your story and your perspective with us, July. If there was one thing that you wish that other New Zealanders knew, what would it be?

I want to stress the importance of having a sense of community. There is strength in unity as it gives you a safe space to grow. You have the opportunity to put your time into helping others and to also draw strength from others too. Anywhere I go, it’s really important for me to find a community that I can belong to, not necessarily ethnic community but simply being somewhere where you feel seen, heard, and understood.

There are lots of different cultures in New Zealand, and not a lot of people know some other cultures even exist. As a minority group, I want to encourage my community to share our beautiful culture with other people and at the same time hope that those being invited are willing to have an open mind to learn about other’s cultures. 

To follow more of July’s story, see her blog Kiwi-Kachin Life Stories.

Asia Media Centre