Lovely Dizon is a 1.5 generation Filipino-Kiwi who grew up in Aotearoa New Zealand. Lovely is currently a PhD candidate and her research focuses on supporting 1.5 and second-generation Southeast Asian migrant adolescents as they negotiate their ethnic identity. She is passionate about youth health and ensuring that Asian young people have access to culturally safe health services, in particular mental health services. In this episode, we talk about living in 'in-between' spaces, mental health, deconstructing faith and dating!
Elina: Lovely, I would love to start off with your research around Asian communities because I feel like it closely relates to our topic here on #PassTheMic. Tell us about your topic and your journey?
Lovely: It's really interesting because I started my PhD not really knowing what I was doing. And to a broader extent, still not really knowing what I'm doing, but what happened along the way is I realised I was really interested in learning more about how Asian young people negotiate their ethnic identity being here in NZ. And they're not really feeling a sense of belonging to either places. And then, as I started my PhD, I realised, at least overseas, there's still quite a bit of research in that area but no one ever talked about how to help them. So it was often that these guys are having a crap time, they have crappy mental health, look at them, they're struggling, and then it ends there. I really want to make a difference to these young people. I want them to know that they're being heard. So I try to put myself out there a little bit in terms of being in the media, even though that's really scary, because I want these young people to know that they're being heard.
And often the perception is that Asians are super healthy, that they've got no problems, that there's nothing wrong with them, that they're basically like white people, but they're not white.
And in some of the research that I do personally for my PhD, but also some work I do alongside my supervisor and the Adolescent Health Research Group, Asian young people are going through it just like any young person and have a particular set of needs that aren't being addressed at the moment.
Elina: If you were to explain a little bit of the background of that research, what is it? What did you find? What picture is out there that exists and what is the real picture behind it?
From that paper, in particular, what we wanted to highlight was that when you look at Asians as one group, they're actually not a homogenous group of people. Different cultures have different needs, what a surprise!
What that paper argued, and did with some analysis, was that it disaggregated the Asian populations a bit further down. So South Asian, East Asian, Chinese and Indian and found that there were differences between these when it comes to Asians being not as healthy as you think. So while Asians typically don't drink, at least it's so in the data, and they don't have sex, which I thought was quite funny, they actually have really high mental health need. There's a particular subset of Asian young people who experience quite high rates of socio economic deprivation, witnessing or being a part of household with domestic violence, not feeling safe in their neighbourhood, experiencing discrimination, not getting access to health care when they need it. So there's actually quite a lot going on for them. But those things often aren’t addressed.
Elina: What was your path going into during this specific research? I actually studied biomedical sciences at uni, and when I was in my third year, I remember we had lots of PhD students who would come and tell us their topics and I found it fascinating but I was like, how did you know, especially when you are a bachelor's degree level student how the hell did you choose this from a million options?
Lovely: I think I kind of fell into it. So I I did a Bachelor of Health Sciences because like any good Asian, I wanted to do the best thing and honour my parents and become a doctor. But I moved up to Auckland, 17, living in halls was really hard for me and I totally bombed my first year. And then as the degree went on, I just fell in love with population health. One of my lecturers from my second year sent me this email, saying: “Hey Lovely, what are your plans for next year? Have you thought about doing honours? You're a great student of mine, I'd really love you to supervise you in your honours.” And so I was shaking and I said yeah. Her name is Janine Wiles and she's just absolutely incredible and saw something in me that I couldn't really see in myself. And honours was the worst time of my life. It was so hard! When you are in undergrad, I found that if you formulated an opinion that reflected the degree that you were undertaking, you would get the grades. Whereas higher up or postgraduate, you have to have your own opinion. And that was really scary for me, especially looking back on it now as an Asian young person who never really felt like I could voice my own opinion. So I lacked a lot of confidence. And I remember sitting in my thesis meeting, when we were deciding what my project was going to be. And someone asked me “So Lovely, what do you think?” And I said “Me? you're asking me?” Because I really didn't know that I could have an opinion. And so I scraped there by the edge of my teeth, I had to get an extension. I had a little mental health crisis around August and was diagnosed with anxiety and took a month off. So it was a real journey. And I don't really know how I got to Asian young people and ethnic identity. But I got there somehow [laughs].
Elina: So if we take it way back into your childhood. Because as we were speaking before we started recording about how this work obviously has lots of threads and intertwines into our personal identities. I’d love to ask you a little bit more about your story as a child. Where did you grow up? What kind of family did you grow up in? And what was it like?
Lovely: I am Filipino, and I was born in the Philippines. We moved to Singapore when I was about one. And then my mom and I moved here to New Zealand at two and a half. And my dad stayed in Singapore until I was five. And we moved in with my mom's sister and her family. And so we were living in a bedroom in GI, in Tamaki. Growing up, I was pretty oblivious to a lot of the difficulty of being an Asian migrant, especially since we moved in the late 90s. There weren't a lot of Asians around and my mom is a dentist, and she had to retrain, and so she worked really hard on that. But I don't feel like when I was growing up, I missed out on anything. I didn't really feel too different until we moved to Otorohanga when I turned 10. A very different vibe, it was a really different way of life.
And we were one of maybe two Asian families in a town of 3000. I did have my share of being bullied for being Asian, and a lot of “she's the smart one”. But when I found out what happened in those communities, there was no animosity behind it. For the most part, I felt quite connected to the kids I went to school with, even though we're all quite different, had different backgrounds and stuff like that.
And then in my last two years of high school, I moved to a private school in Hamilton and that was really hard. I was quite behind on school, compared to the people that I went to high school with. And so that imposter syndrome of “I'm supposed to be smart”. I was a smart kid back home. I would top the class without any struggle. Coming to this environment that was very white, and had a lot of expectations was really hard. At the same time we had moved to a church where I felt really ashamed to be Filipino because it just wasn't really encouraged both at school and at church. And those are the two places I was at most of the time. And often when I was at church, I would be teased for being the smart person but that became my only identifier and so I have done quite a lot of unpacking and therapy around that.
And then at school, it was very white. So there wasn’t a lot of freedom to feel like you could be yourself, there were a lot of microaggressions, little things like the headmaster never pronouncing our names right. And we had a catered lunch, so I always ate white food at school. But I never really thought too much of it, because my friendship group was relatively diverse in ethnicity. So it wasn't until I went to uni that I started to unpack a lot of that stuff, and how I felt about my identity.
Elina: What would make the places where you felt a little bit excluded or a little bit whitewashed, versus some spaces where you didn't? Is the representation the only difference, the people around you, or particular things people did or said that made it feel better that you belong?
Lovely: Unfortunately, I don't think there were a lot of experiences I had, as an adolescent where I felt like I belonged. In all the spaces, even at home, I was really uncomfortable with who I was, I was struggling with stuff that I felt I couldn't talk to my parents about. And so I don't think I felt a very good sense of belonging for quite a long time, until maybe, the first year of my PhD, two years ago.
Elina: How did your work around the PhD stuff in any way change the way you think? Because now you're looking at the Asian young population and seeing that stuff? Did it change, make it better or worse?
Lovely: I started going to therapy in my honours year, and have had a few different counsellors since then. But I've had one counsellor since my time doing my PhD. And I love her so much, she is the greatest. And I met her preemptively knowing that my PhD is about essentially my own experience and wanting to make sure that I was safe. But also that the people I would be talking to are safe. And so I did quite a lot of unpacking, because I would do these interviews with young people and I would realise that, oh, my gosh, actually, some of the stuff that I went through in high school was actually really racist. And I would then start to unpack that. It's a lot of unravelling. And not just in school. I love the church, but the church is a really messy institution, and has a long way to go in terms of making people feel safe culturally. And I really struggled in that as well. It's only now that I feel quite safe within my particular niche of academia, because I have awesome supervisors, and good support.
Elina: When you think about your own identity, whether it's ethnic, and any other religion, or any other parts that intertwine or intersect, what are some of the things that you really love?
Lovely: I love Filipino food. It's so good for the soul. I love the Filipino spirit of celebration, how they’re so loud, they're always late. It's always such a good time. But I also love my family. My mom's from a family of nine and my dad's from a family of 12. I have got quite a big extended family and all the drama that having just so many people brings, so many different personalities. I wouldn't trade any of them for the world. I love them. We always protect one another. Dating is always such a funny thing in Asian culture. And sometimes mom will come up to me and say oh, is your cousin dating blah, blah, blah? And I’d say: So the weather’s nice today. We have each other's back. That's just that's really fun.
Elina: With those parts of you and those cultural things you celebrate. And as you said before, when we say Asian, or ethnic, there is such a diversity in that regards. If you had to address or speak to teachers, university tutors, maybe workplaces, or people who can create spaces for others, what would you want them to know about acknowledging or bringing those facets up out of people?
Lovely: My leaning towards health services or someone in population health is around cultural safety. It's a huge thing. And cultural competency and cultural awareness isn't enough. I need to feel safe that I can talk, for example, around parent dynamics. It's such a huge thing.
If I say, oh, I'm having a hard time with my mom, you can't come and say to me, well just cut her off and set good boundaries. That's not really how it works in our culture. That's not really how it works, full stop. I need something where I feel like I can voice these particular nuances of my culture to you. I think representation is a huge thing, just having people who look like you, in all these different spaces.
Young people have talked about that being a huge thing. And I think, pākehā can only do so much to create space, but we really need to make space for the voices that need to be heard. I really struggled wondering if I was being seen because I'm Asian, because I'm smart. And because of the modern minority and stuff like that. I didn't know which one was which. So that was very intertwined for me. So I hated being called smart. Because to me, it felt like all they could see was that I was Asian. And so just being able to understand there are different facets of a person, but they're not even just talking about the nuances of dating or even food and it’s such a huge thing. I got really sick in my first year of uni because I wasn't used to eating white food all the time. And it was really hard for me. And I ended up seeing a nutritionist later on in life to reconcile how I felt about food because even the way we talk about what's healthy food and what's not healthy food, and there's so much work that needs to be done.
The fact that we only talk about white authors, when we read because I'm a huge reader, or white artists or white TV shows and whenever there's an Asian they're usually super dorky, real ugly, and like have nothing to offer.
Elina: I'm just thinking about when I started Storyo, the platform where I share stories that are specifically about women and gender diverse people and non binary people, and then it quickly became more than just one axis of diversity and representation, but actually, ethnic diversity came out stronger. Through doing the work and reading and researching and realising how much, when we speak about gender diversity in workplaces, for example, we usually mean white women. And a lot of companies who want to do better with diversity usually mean we are going to hire some white women to our boards or our exec. That narrative is so harmful because now you're just saying women are only worthy if they are white. I'm really interested about when you talked to a nutritionist and you have been going to therapy, how did you find those places in terms of cultural capacity or cultural capability?
Lovely: I have been really blessed to have really awesome counsellors. Two of the counsellors I worked with for over a year are both women of colour and that women of faith, who are also on the same sort of journey of deconstructing their faith, which is something that I've been on as I've started my PhD because I remember going to people who I thought I could look up to who I really admired. And I would say like, I'm really struggling with this. And the rhetoric is, oh have you prayed about it? And I’d say, yeah. Or maybe it was something along the lines of, maybe you're just depressed because of some hidden sin. And I’d think, well, that's bullshit. And so it’s about having people who are on that same journey. I've been really blessed to have really safe counsellors, but I think having them being women of colour, who are also academic and deconstructing their faith, means they're an awesome fit for me. And I'm really thankful that I haven't had to hustle so hard for those relationships, because I know that not every counsellor is that amazing unfortunately.
Elina: Oh that's wonderful to hear. And whenever I hear a story like that, I always think about when people say, we don't want to hire for skin colour, we hire for skills. Now, just even hearing what you're saying, that safety, that knowledge, what do you consider skills? When we say skills, what do we mean? What about if you're selling to the population and you are always serving a diverse population. Whether you are a teacher or you are hiring a tutor, or you’re hiring a customer support engineer, a designer, a lawyer. There is so much to it that is cultural safety that people can bring. And it's not automatic, it's not just straight away, definitely not. But there is so much to it about how people have done their own work to reconstruct some of these things and to be represented in that space.
Lovely: Yeah I was always really scared of offending the pākehā person, especially when I started. At the end of the day I came to a conclusion last year that I'm tired of making myself small to be comfortable for white people. Like I've had enough, obviously, with respect and good boundaries. But yeah, I'm not here to make a white person feel comfortable.
Elina: Throughout this we touched on all the things that we wanted to touch on around the system change and what needs to be done better. Your research, where you come from, you build up the sense of belonging. For your personal experiences, and it's ok if you want to bring any of your research into this, but what are some of the topics, or things that you wish we talked more about among ethnic communities or our specific cultural groups? Or maybe topics we were encouraged by adults and teachers to talk more about?
Lovely: I can think of a few, off the top of my head, obviously, mental health was a huge one. I've been diagnosed with clinical anxiety and depression and I'm on medication. And that in and of itself was really hard to reconcile as an ethnic person, but then having to communicate that to my quite traditional family. My parents have been really awesome. But there have been points of tension with all different understandings of that. And my other thing is dating. I remember, I went on a date. During high school I liked white guys and then last year, I went on a date with this Filipino guy, and it was the first time I went on a date with someone who was Filipino. Because growing up, the only Filipinos that were around were my family.
And I went on this date with this guy, and as soon as he opened his mouth, I thought, oh my gosh, it's like talking to my cousin, oh, no. But I sat there for the whole 45 minutes thinking, do I not think he's attractive because I've been socially conditioned to think that white men are more attractive.
We just didn't gel and now I'm dating the most amazing guy. He's Sri Lankan and it's been really awesome doing that journey together. He's a primary school teacher and hearing about his experiences being not only a male teacher, but a brown male teacher has been really interesting. But it’s also about how we navigate dating from two similar but quite different cultures and our parents expectations and all of that. And we both sit in that Church space with those expectations and demands. We're talking about cultural events, I might have to wear a sari. And I think, is that cultural appropriation? Because I don't really understand what that is, and having to learn the appropriate customs and things like that.
It would be cool if we talked about that more, because in our family, we don't talk about dating. It's like, you don't date and then you're married, and then you have kids. There's not really a lot of conversation in between. You don't really get taught how to date in a healthy way.
And particularly the Western Church has done a really poor job of teaching young people what healthy and safe, fulfilling relationships look like. So I have been victim to, and a lot of my female friends in particular have been victim to, lots of abusive and really toxic relationships, because the patriarchy is real. It's cool to unpack that, but people are uncomfortable with exposing the truth.
Elina: We'll hear a lot about identity ethnicity, but actually things like dating, things like relationships, those things are on people's mind sometimes more often than all the other things, especially when you're younger and you are figuring out your identity. When it comes to Western narratives, dating is way more accepted as a thing. At least from my experience, all my friends who are Pākehā, I don't think their parents talk to them at all about relationships and stuff but it doesn't need to be kept a secret as much as I feel that it is in kazakh culture. Although my mom was quite different as a grown up, all my friends had to hide their relationships. It was lots of drama and because of that also toxicity, but it's just something that is part of the culture and is so ingrained in you that you're so used to it.
Lovely: Yeah and it's been so interesting. Even when you ask someone, would you tell your family? For him, it was a really big deal. His dad works at Sylvia Park and we had just gone on our fourth date, and he was so scared [when his dad saw us] that he dropped my hand. For him, it was that he really wanted to honour his family and tell them all face to face before he introduced me. It was quite formal, but I had dated white guys before that and they just did not care. But also for me, because my family lives in so many different places that was just impossible. So even those little things are so different. Even when I go to their events. I think, oh, what do I wear, can I show my shoulders? It's super fun and the best having someone who can resonate with you from that cultural sense. I don't think I could be as confident doing the work that I do if I didn't have him backing me. Because he can understand to an extent what I go through and that's been really freeing for me.
It’s about being able to talk about the difficulty and the strength in tandem. Talking about the difficulty doesn't take away from the beauty but talking about the beauty doesn't take away from that complexity and the nuances that people don't want to address or aren't willing to or are scared to.
Elina: And even those conversations, at least when you're younger, there are places like schools and universities where they encourage that a little bit. The access to younger minds are a little bit more democratised, more accessible. You can, if you want to, go through channels, even social media as a channel. I wish this conversation took place much more with our older migrants too, who came here when they were older or grew up here as they still haven't had the opportunity to discuss those things. I feel relationships and dating have all these layers and a lot of people who came here when they were 30, 40, 50, 60, maybe haven't had the opportunity to safely, openly have discussions about those things. And now a lot of young people struggle to be in two worlds. I love my culture, I love these parts but I don't like this part of my culture. And I want to talk about them more openly, but I can’t because there is this parental situation going on.
Lovely: Yeah and that's why having these spaces and even just having these conversations is so awesome. It was funny when that article came out, my partner's parents and my parents were super proud of the work, but I'm not sure if the understanding of what I'm actually doing is there and that's fine.
You know we stand on the shoulders of giants. I get the honour of learning things like emotional literacy, because they did all the hard work that they did beforehand. And that's how I honour them. Honour and family is a whole other kettle of fish but I honour my parents by doing what I can now because of the sacrifices that they made.
And taking that even further, that's honouring to them. Even if they don't always agree with me. I told my parents I didn't want to do medicine. Oh, my God, it was really bad because I didn't have another option. I thought, I don't know what I want to do. And for someone who has sacrificed their whole lives, you can't afford to not know what to do. That was really hard and it wasn't really until I settled into my PhD that they said okay. Even now, they say, they don't really know.
With mental health and the way that we deal with it and family members, in Filipino culture is to toss things under the carpet and pretend like everything's okay. It's so complex and when people say, well, you're an adult now you can make your own decisions. I think, yeah, but the crippling guilt says otherwise. It is cool, having friends that you can commiserate and share those stories with.
Elina: Lovely, thank you so much for our wonderful chat. I wanted to jump to quick fire questions but I just wanted to ask if there's anything else, maybe something I didn't ask you or something that you wanted to add, if anything comes to mind?
Lovely: I just wanted to say thank you so much for creating this space. A lot of the work I do with therapy is tending to my inner child and my inner child would be so thankful for the work that you do. My adult child self is also super thankful. But this is the stuff that these young people want. So to have these spaces, it's such an honour. So thank you for the work that you do.
Elina: Thank you for being here and sharing the story. Let's go into quickfire questions. First one: The food you mentioned, Filipino food, I would love to hear about your favourite dish.
Lovely: So it's called Oxtail Kare Kare which is a peanut butter curry and nobody makes it better than my dad.
Elina: Nice. So my next question would be where can we get it in Auckland or New Zealand?
Lovely: My dad's house. Tāmaki has really good Filipino food, but my dad's food cannot be beaten. One of my best friends, Hannah, dreams about my dad's food.
Elina: I love that. Okay cool. If you were the main character in a TV show or a movie, what would it be about?
Lovely: Oh my gosh. Okay, my immediate thought was Lara Jean from To All the Boys, because I got a bunch of friends texting that this is like you were in high school. But I would pick the brown boy in the second movie because Peter Kavinsky can just bugger off [laughs].
Elina: Oh my God, I love it. I love that movie. I think it was one of the first times when I watched a movie and it wasn't, look, this is an Asian person. It was just about a person who happened to be Asian and they've incorporated a lot of that into the plot without making it a trope.
Lovely: Yeah, I love Laura Jane, she's the best.
Elina: If you had to suggest or propose one policy, either to the New Zealand government or to an organisation or organisations, what would it be?
Lovely: Mandatory cultural safe counselling, training for counsellors but also for deans. And for whoever looks after people, all the way from primary to to high school. Also pay our teachers more, please?
Elina: Yes, yes, yes. 100%. And last one, which is my favourite. What makes you feel like a badass?
Lovely: I've gone through a whole weird interesting time with the way I think about my body, which is also culturally ingrained and societally ingrained. But wearing an outfit that I scored second hand for a steal, and wearing earrings and being with my friends, makes me feel pretty bad-ass.
Elina: Cool. Cool. Thank you so much for your time.
Lovely: And it was so lovely. Thank you so much. I feel pretty, and I really appreciate it.
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.