This episode, I chat to Ashley Petau-Ah Poe. Ashley is Samoan-Chinese, she grew up in Hong Kong and moved later to New Zealand. She's currently graduating with her law degree. And in this episode, we talk about the feeling of being displaced or not being connected to your Pacific roots, the whole idea of being a plastic Samoan and what it actually means, and then also finding a community of people who feel the same. We touch on good and bad leadership, and Ashley shares some examples of organisations that she loves. Lastly, we talk about that feeling of not doing enough or not knowing if your story is important enough to share. Welcome, Ashley.
Ashley: This is my first time doing a podcast. When I first applied, I didn't really think I'd get it. I thought maybe other people with better stories would get a chance to be on this podcast. But when I got the news I was able to, it was really exciting.
Elina: This is such a classic thing, Ashley. It happens all the time when I interview people, them feeling if their story is good enough. And that’s the whole idea of this podcast and of Storyo in general, to show that every story is freaking beautiful and worthy of being heard. So let's start by getting into who Ashley is. Where did you grow up? What made you into who you are today?
Ashley: My name is Ashley Eva Petau-Ah Poe. That's my full name. I was born here in New Zealand, I'm Samoan-Chinese, but I grew up in Hong Kong. It was an interesting childhood because I was so young and to move there, I considered my life there normal. I was used to the fast pace, humid climate over there, and surrounded by a lot of Asian people. But I went to an international school, so I felt like I had exposure to different cultures. We were there for my dad's work as an accountant, so it was a really cool opportunity for him and for us to experience a new life in Hong Kong. And to move there, we had no family, no friends, so it was totally new, totally fresh. But usually the following question people have for me after they hear that, they’re like, ‘do you speak Chinese or Hong Kong-ese?’ I'm like, ‘No.’ [laughs] Because I went to an international school, it was just all English speaking,
Elina: Coming back from Hong Kong to New Zealand, what was that like? You were 12, right? So you were still a kid.
Ashley: When I was leaving, I remember preparing to say goodbye to all my friends, goodbye to everything I was comfortable with. And I remember being so excited to be back in New Zealand with family. That's what I was looking forward to. But the reality when I went to school, I had the hugest culture shock. It hit me that I had to make new friends, I had to adjust to the Kiwi culture, so it was very scary, very anxiety inducing for me. Actually a lot of cultural difference, because you don't see a lot of Pacific Islanders in Hong Kong, so it was so weird seeing, like, ‘Wow, there's more people like me, but actually not like me.’
The pace of life in New Zealand, compared to Hong Kong, it's so different. It's so much slower here, almost, more laid back and chill. And Hong Kong was like, so busy, everyone's always moving or trying to get stuff done. I remember having so much homework and then coming back here, it was like no homework. So weird to me. [laughs] When we moved back, my dad actually stayed behind in Hong Kong to keep working as an accountant just to keep up our financial stability, because the pay in Hong Kong was better.
Elina: You said you're of Chinese-Samoan descent. What is your parents’ heritage?
Ashley: My parents are both mainly Samoan, but my dad's side is Chinese, so he's one quarter, but that makes me one eighth. So sometimes I feel weird bringing up I'm Samoan-Chinese, but got to reclaim the Chinese side. It’s really important to me, because actually, I grew up around China and I know more Chinese than Samoan, so it’s that balance.
Elina: Something that comes to my mind - so I'm from Kazakhstan, right? And I've been in New Zealand for 11 years now. And I find that sometimes people who talk a lot about diversity or belonging or inclusion, there's a bit of a perception that ethnic people have that strong sense of connection and relationship to their culture. And yet I feel I'm personally not very connected to it. I guess first of all, being in New Zealand, we have almost no representation of what Kazakh people are like. And also I’ve been here since I was 16 so I grew up here into an adult that I’m today. I wanted to go to a Western country and kind of disconnect, almost. And so I feel like I talk about belonging often, or diversity or inclusion, yet I question a lot of it myself. What do those things mean to you and how connected do you feel?
Ashley: I was really resonating with what you said. I definitely feel like I don't really belong in that mould of being proud of my culture, or knowing my culture enough to share it with everyone.
Because with a lot of Pacific Islanders, you see they share how proud they are of their culture, how proud they are of their village and where they come from. And they know the language and culture enough. And there's me - a lot of meetings or a lot of times where I'm sitting with that sort of group of people, I actually don't know my village, I don’t know my language, I don't know. When people ask me questions about Samoa or my culture, I’m just like, ‘I don't actually know.’ It's a shame. It makes me feel displaced. Like, ‘maybe I'm not Samoan enough.’
Because I obviously look Samoan, a typical Samoan, maybe an elder, will come up to me and speak Samoan, and it's really embarrassing at times, because you're like, ‘I'm sorry, I don't speak Samoan.’ But they know I’m Samoan. And with other people outside of my culture, they would point to a word and ask ‘do you know what this means?’ They kind of expect you to know certain Samoan words or traditions and I'm just like, ‘I have no idea, sorry.’
Elina: It's almost like it doesn't matter where you're from, we have this common thread of experience. I'm half Russian, half Kazakh, but I definitely look more Kazakh. People start speaking to you in Kazakh, and I don't know the language. And people around might make comments to try make you feel ashamed almost. Teachers or random people on the streets, random adults would be like, ‘your parents never taught you?’ I'm sure they don't mean to be rude, but that's what happens.
Ashley: Yeah, it comes off like that, definitely. Because you know Samoans as well, they like to joke around. But me, I'm quite sensitive. And so when they say, like, ‘you're plastic,’ or like, ‘you don't know the language, you should learn,’ or, ‘your parents should have taught you,’ or something, I'm like, thank you… I feel like I'm missing out or I'm not good enough at times when they talk like that. Because it is something I'm insecure about.
Elina: Tell me more about the idea of being ‘plastic’, because it's something I've heard a few times now, but would love to hear from you.
Ashley: Definitely. It’s when Samoans or Islanders in general feel like they're not Samoan or Pacific Islander enough, they don't fit in the mould, I guess, of knowing the language or culture, feel like they're plastic, like they don't belong. And other people in the same culture tend to say it or point out that we're plastic.
Elina: I interviewed Holly Bennett, wāhine Māori who does a lot of advocacy & lobbying work, and she talked to me about that idea of being plastic Māori and how it’s so common. That was the first time, two years ago when I heard that term. Keeps coming up in interviews now, actually, a few times. And it's interesting because you’re having to sort of reclaim that, like, ‘I don't need to be any certain type of Samoan to be Samoan.’ To define what does it mean to be Samoan, what would that be for you?
Ashley: I guess, again, sort of being proud of your culture. Because inside, I feel proud. But with other people, I feel almost ashamed when I don't compare to their level of being Samoan or Samoan enough, so it’s a struggle.
I'm still trying to learn to be more proud and reclaim my culture. To be Samoan, other than my experience, the values are the same - we value family, being together, we care about serving communities, serving others, and respecting elders. It's the same, so even if I don't feel like I'm Samoan enough, actually, the values I have are the same as other Samoans.
Elina: And what is it like with your Chinese heritage? How does that play into your life or your identity?
Ashley: When I say I'm Samoan-Chinese people don't really have an issue with it. Some people have pointed out ‘you don't really look Chinese.’ And it’s hard. It’s like, ‘yeah, I'm a little bit Chinese’ [laughs]. Or even to Chinese people, because I've worked with Chinese people in retail, and they're just like, ‘Oh, wouldn’t have guessed you are Chinese.’ So it is a bit of like, ‘Am I Samoan? Am I Chinese? How do I fit in with both?’ when I talk to both sides.
Elina: I guess, again, it’s that sense of belonging or being part of some cultures, that feeling of acceptance. I hope if we share those stories, so many people would resonate and some people might change their minds about how they think about that ‘enoughness’ and how they treat themselves and other people too. And also question where this came from, you know?... Before we started recording, you told me that you're graduating soon, so tell me about that! What did you study? How did you get into it?
Ashley: I pursued commerce and law, but I finished with just law because commerce is not for me. I thought it was for me. In high school, I was like, ‘Yeah, I can do this. I love accounting.’ I think I conditioned myself because my dad studied commerce and law at uni, and he was really good at accounting. And I thought because I was good at it, that I could actually enjoy it or carry on with it. But university, [laughs] it was not what I expected. And I found out very early that this wasn't for me, so I pursued law. And that's what I'm graduating with.
Sticking with our Pacific Island side, we have a group called PILSA, Pacific Island Law Student Association, and they've been really supportive. I think that's what made me feel like I could reclaim more of my Samoan side, because before this, I had a bad experience in high school, or not a great experience with Pacific Islanders. I felt like I was such an outsider, I couldn't join in. I wasn't invited to a lot of the Pacific Island events that were going on, so it made me even more distant. But in university, I found there were other people who felt like me. That was really encouraging for me. And that was through law school, so I'm really grateful for that.
And in terms of what I want to pursue, I think more family and youth and child law. I've always had a lot of issues with people’s reactions, they've been a bit like, ‘are you sure? It's an intense area.’ And it's true, but I just can't help being passionate about that area. And I've always been passionate about helping children. I used to be a swimming instructor for children! So it's kind of like community and children. And it's also in my values, in my culture, branching out to arts. I love art. I think that's also a cultural thing. Pacific Islanders love art and music and all that.
Elina: It's interesting to notice that a lot of people from minority communities gravitate towards social issues. Do you have some experiences or thoughts around bad leadership or good leadership in this space? Big question [laughs].
Ashley: So I guess bad leadership - it’s always been a sense of Pākehā, or white people in power not understanding the importance of certain things in cultures. I remember last year going through family issues, or needing to support my family in certain ways. And it was hard to explain to my manager that I'm going through things, because he was more results driven and more focused on getting stuff done. It was almost really uncomfortable to have that lack of empathy or lack of understanding for just the importance of family and being there.
I feel like that's a sense of bad leadership, just not being able to be empathetic or be supportive. For good leadership, I'd love to see a woman of colour up there, you know? Just, it's… [sighs] There's so many strong women of colour that are really good in leadership. They're nurturing, but also strong willed and just uplifting as well. It's encouraging for me too, for ethnic women or women of colour to see another woman of colour in power, or up there in a leadership role, because it’s like, ‘I can be there too. I belong in this space, because someone who looks like me or someone who represents.’ Yeah, it's so comforting.
Elina: I know it might be tough off the top of your head, but do you have people or companies, or even brands that you really admire in that regard?
Ashley: I think lately, I've been exploring that, because during university I've just been focused on trying to get through all the study. But coming to the end of it, I've joined up with different communities like Authenticity Aotearoa. They've got their Women of Colour conference coming up later in the year, and I've just been helping volunteer my time, and the women there are so intelligent, so inclusive. It’s so inspiring. I love being in there.
There's Nevertheless - I've just been following them - they talk about mental health, and seeing the people that speak on their Instagram lives. I just feel so, like, ‘Wow, I resonate with this person. I want to support this person.’
Even Belong Aotearoa, with this whole #PassTheMic initiative, and Storyo, of course. It’s just all coming together, like, wow, I feel so comfortable in these spaces to share my story or to be a part of them.
Elina: I'm wearing a Nevertheless t-shirt right now [laughs] I love all your examples and these organisations! When I started Storyo, it was all about surrounding myself with stories of people around me, who are similar and different to me. Hearing them share their vulnerabilities and struggles, but also everyday joy moments made me feel like… Ah, we can really redefine what ‘success’ means in our current culture and really feel like we belong no matter where we are. For me, my life long lesson has been about feeling I’m doing enough and I wanted to ask you about that. Is it something that maybe you've experienced as well?
Ashley: Yeah, definitely. Definitely with comparisons, even to my other ethnic friends. They're such high achievers that sometimes I'm like, ‘maybe I'm not doing enough extracurricular,’ or I feel like there’s other Pacific Islanders who are there for the community and who really showcase themselves - I'm really proud and really happy for them, but at the same time, I feel like ‘maybe I need to be like that. I need to do more. I need to.’ Yeah, so there is that at times, where I feel just like I need to do more, pretty much.
Elina: I spoke to Nurain from Authenticity about that actually: how we have this culture of trailblazers and that when it comes to communities, especially minority communities, it's almost as if there are selected few spots that are only allowed for these high achievers. And in order to be a successful, let's say, ethnic person, you also have to have 15 extracurriculars and 15 volunteer positions and be on some organisation boards. And that narrative makes it actually harder for all of us to be in the space. That narrative is so strong that now we think, ‘Oh, I'm only going to be a valid or valuable, worthy ethnic person or woman or whatever, if only I do all this 15 million other things.’ And I'm sure this narrative is strong in Pākehā communities as well, that narrative of success. We really need to smash it! [laughs] I was wondering, Ashley, what made you submit an application to be on this podcast with me?
Ashley: Actually, my friend Marie, she brought up the opportunity. She was like, ‘Oh, if you're interested, you could sign up.’ and I was like, ‘Okay, yeah, I'll try. I'll give it a go.’ So that's why I initially signed. I had doubts that I would actually make it with this far. Again, with the trailblazers or someone successful, I thought maybe someone with more achievements or more to say would get this podcast opportunity. But when I got it, I was like, ‘Wow, I'm so excited.’ But also, it's so strange to me, I didn't think I would get it. Sometimes I have a lot of doubts, someone better than me or someone with more to share will get this opportunity. It’s so strange. I’ve never felt like my story was important enough to share. Some people just ask for basic questions or something, but never the deep questions about the experiences of growing up overseas as a ethnic person. I'm just really appreciative that you care about my story,
Elina: Oh, Ashley! Yeah, I just extend all the heart and love to you because I'm so grateful you did submit and we had this conversation. And your story is so worth it and so freaking powerful! To close us off on some yummy notes, let’s do quickfire questions: first one, tell me about your favourite dish?
Ashley: In Hong Kong, me and my dad always ordered barbecue pork on rice. It’s char siu fan, that's the Cantonese way of saying it. So whenever you go to Hong Kong and you want barbecue pork on rice, you can say ‘I want char siu fan’ and they'll get it. But I'm vegetarian now, so that's off the table [laughs]. And then Samoan culture, there's this dish called lu’au. I’m always worried I pronounce it incorrectly. But it's banana leaf and coconut cream, and it's in tinfoil and it's cooked. And it's always best paired with taro.
Elina: Yum! If someone wanted to try either the Hong Kong dish or the Samoan dish, do you have any thoughts on places in New Zealand or in Auckland that they could go to?
Ashley: It's difficult because my grandparents make it, and it's always best when grandparents or people who are elderly from the islands do it [laughs].
Elina: If you could be the main character in a movie or a TV show, what would it be?
Ashley: It’s so funny, the first thing that comes to my head is Barbie movies. Growing up, I loved those movies. Maybe I could be like, the Samoan barbie. [laughs] Barbie’s like blonde, white, skinny - maybe it needs to change.
Elina: I love that answer! We need more Samoan Barbies and all different Barbies of cultures, yes! If you could propose one policy or change to either government or to an organisation that you would want to work for, what would it look like? What would it be?
Ashley: Radically, I was like, yeah, give the land back to Māori, to tangata whenua. That's all I was thinking.
Elina: Amazing. Love it. And the last one, what makes you feel like a badass?
Ashley: Just blasting music from strong women of colour, you know? I was gonna say Megan Thee Stallion, like, rappers or just women who sing about self love and confidence. Yeah, that's what I like to do that hypes me up.
Thank you so much for listening, folks. We've recorded this conversations from the comfort of our homes, you know, the global pandemic at all. So we really hope you felt that cosy listening to your friends over the phone kind of vibe. If you haven't already, check out our remaining series with 14 other incredible conversations. Share, Subscribe, send to someone who might benefit from either feeling seen or you know or learning more about ethnic voices in Aotearoa. This wonderful podcast has been brought to you by collaboration of Belong Aotearoa, Storyo, Planet FM and Sport Waitakere. With thanks to our funder, the Auckland Council Regional Development Fund. Follow us on Instagram @passthemic.aotearoa and @story.co And until next time.