Sun Min Elle Park has a research background in postcolonial theories in racism and is currently a Union Organiser. In this conversation, we talk about Sun’s upbringing and Korean culture, her research, union work, and Sun’s own recent journey with ADHD and Autism.
Elina: Really cool to chat with you on this really rainy Saturday morning. Tell us a little bit about your journey. Where you come from, how did you grow up?
Sun: I come from South Korea. I moved to New Zealand with my mum and a younger brother in 2003. We moved here as soon as my mom signed the divorce papers. There's a stigma in Korea: although the divorce rate is really high now, 20 years ago there was still a stigma around divorce, for the children. If you do anything slightly wrong, people will blame it on your parents’ divorce, like “it's because you're a divorcee's child” and so on. That was one of the reasons why we moved here.
When I moved here, it was just really liberating. My friend would be bringing their stepsister to church like it's just normal. It was a culture shock for me, when I got to know that a lot of my friends in church or school have stepdads, stepmums, stepchildren, and stepsiblings.
I came here when I was 15, 16 years old. When you enter high school in Korea, you study from 7am to 11pm or midnight. So I escaped that kind of lifestyle. There was this really popular Korean drama called Sky Castle. It's ridiculous, but unfortunately it does reflect some of the reality quite well. Whereas at high school in New Zealand, you finish school at three o'clock, after just five periods. I go play at the playground, then go home and watch SpongeBob. Those were my high school days! [laughs]
Elina: You said you came here with your mum, because she wanted to leave Korea. Was that a common thing? I'm just thinking in Kazakhstan, it's not really easy to leave the country. What was that like?
Sun: Both my parents worked all the time. In Korea, the working hours are crazy. You go to work at 7am and finish at 10pm. It's kind of the norm. It's improving, but my mom currently lives in Korea, and she still works those hours. S
he moved back because she got bullied at her workplace here in New Zealand, working in a factory. She couldn't pick up English very well because she was working two jobs, and had no time to really get to know the culture, language, and people here.
She also got really sick. The winter weather here really didn't suit her, and we also lived in damp housing. The doctors here just kept giving her paracetamol and ibuprofen, painkillers. She borrowed money from her friend back in Korea to buy a plane ticket back. And as soon as she landed, they put her in the emergency room. Her condition got a lot worse because she had been left untreated by the healthcare system here. She just cannot live here, you know? She was bullied and dismissed by her colleagues, and then dismissed by the healthcare system here.
Elina: Have you been back to Korea since your mum left?
Sun: I was studying and working for about 10 years. While I’ve worked full time at points, it was usually a mix of both, so I couldn't really afford to go back often. I did make it to Korea a few times to see my mother. The last time I saw my mother was about five years ago.
Elina: What has been your experience in New Zealand? Have you ever considered moving back to Korea, or are you happier here?
Sun: I’m having a good time here in New Zealand.
I suppose there are different challenges, being in Korea and being in Aotearoa. Obviously in New Zealand, I’m an Asian female with a bit of an accent. I'm not small, but I'm not big, and I’m kind of slim. I'm in my early 30s, but people think I'm 10 years younger. All of these things can become a barrier. As everybody is probably aware, it is a struggle on a daily basis. People will think that I’m incapable of doing something that I am totally capable of. That just happens at every corner. I have to prove myself constantly. But sometimes I just let it go and give up, because you need to pick your battles.
Elina: You said you did three postgraduate degrees. Could you tell me more about them?
Sun: I was at university for 10 years. There was a four years gap between high school and university, while I was getting my residency. I was just doing all sorts of jobs, like cleaning toilets, waitressing, making coffee, retail... I've done a lot of minimum wage jobs on casual contracts - zero hour casual contracts were a thing back then. It's illegal now. Because I was longing to study during the four years, when I could study, I just went for it. I studied until my student loan ran out [laughs].
My mum and dad, I think they may have only completed primary school. They are from a really poor family. They're born in the 50s and 60s, which was just after the devastating Korean War. There was just nothing left after three years of constant war. Russia and America came onto our soil and just destroyed everything. My parents were born just after that. So I had absolutely no guidance around my education. Although they did everything to provide every opportunity possible for me to be educated, I just studied whatever interested me. My undergraduate degree was Musicology. It's like theories of music, but not performing. Also media, film, TV studies, although after that, I thought I will never work in the media industry.
Elina: Why is that?
Sun: After I finished my Media Studies degree, I kind of stopped watching movies and TV series for a couple of years. It's just my personal position that I hold, but it's all about making money. And a lot of the content is really extreme. Stuff that'll catch your attention - sex, drugs, profanities, murder. It's all about making money, and these bad influences are an outcome for them to make money. My position isn't necessarily right, it's just my position. I just became quite sad about that section of the industry.
So I thought, oh, art history seems fun, and I picked up an art history degree. While I was doing that, I got really interested in how you can read art, mostly contemporary art, through the lens of post-colonial theories. I looked at a few major strains of post-colonial studies like Orientalism by Edward Said, and Subaltern theories by a wonderful Indian wāhine, Spivak.
Elina: Was that postgraduate? Did you have a thesis?
Sun: My thesis was on how European Caucasian people, white people, if you like, perceive Asian contemporary art. My subject of investigation was a South Korean contemporary art movement of the 1970s, during the brutal dictatorship. It's the Korean minimalism movement called Dansaekhwa.
There are a lot of art criticisms and writings on Dansaekhwa, by mostly American art critics or scholars or commentators.
They look at the minimalist art - usually there’s nothing much, it's all about colours and shapes and geometrics - and they'll love it and say, “Oh, this is amazing Zen art, or Zen Buddhism, I can feel the Zen Buddhism”. But when you actually look into it, it's nothing to do with Zen Buddhism. It's kind of a misconception, orientalizing the Orient further, if you like. Because Zen Buddhisnm is one of the few things about East Asia that have become really popular. There's Zen sushi shops, Zen dog books, Zen wedding themes, Zen cafes. People love it. But the things that the Korean Dansaekhwa artists themselves have written and said about their art, that's all dismissed.
They said that it's nothing to do with Zen Buddhism, but the voices of Western scholars seem to override everything. I think that the most important thing when learning about Western minimalist art is what artists themselves had to say. But when it comes to Korean minimalist art, the voices of the artists are not important anymore. They just misunderstood the entire thing. So I wrote about that. But it's not very important, you know, it's not gonna get you a job [laughs].
Elina: I think it's fascinating. I'm learning so much from you Sun. Thank you so much for sharing those things. So you wrote about this - is that something that you wanted to do more of?
Sun: When I studied art history, I became so pessimistic about the entire art industry (again!). [laughs] For example, there's a butt on a piece of paper, and you'll sell it for $2 million. How do you make sense of that, you know?! I was always struggling to put food on my table, working three casual minimum wage jobs. So it just didn't make any sense to me, after looking into it.
Elina: Since finishing your thesis a few years ago, what have you been doing since then?
Sun: I was working at the University for about five years doing many different roles. Apparently, that's an ADHD thing - that you change your jobs really often. I thought it was because I was in poverty that I’d done about 40 to 50 different jobs over the past 20 years. I recently learned that it is a trait of ADHD.
While I was at the University, studying and working, I had a wonderful friend called Nicole Wallace. She, and also my colleague Jossane, are both unionists. They kind of nudged me to join the Union. At first I thought I couldn’t afford it. It's about $500 a year. But as soon as I got a small $500 pay rise and a permanent contract, I joined the Union. They made me a union delegate as soon as I joined, who would have thought I would love it so much? It's a direct contrast to the media and art industries. I was a delegate for three years. After that, I figured I’d like to actually work for the Union. I did about 16 interviews over two years, during the pandemic, to get into the trade union movement. I am now working for First Union. I was an administrator first, and after a secondment to do some organising work, and I was recently offered a permanent role as a full time organiser, after many years of attempts. So yeah, I'm in my happy spot at the moment.
Elina : Oh wow, that's incredible, Sun! I would love to know a little bit more about what you do for union.
Sun: There are two types of employment contracts: individual employment agreements and collective employment agreements. If you're a union member, you're in a collective agreement. It's negotiated by union members together as a group. The document includes all your working rights and conditions, including pay rises. Union members are covered by the collective agreement, and you have union representatives supporting you if you ever go through a restructure, redundancy, disciplinary or performance management.
Elina: Do you reckon you’re using any of the things you learnt, about post-colonialism and orientalism, in your union work?
Sun: I would like to think so. You don’t need a degree to do this job.
But there was a bullying case which I clearly recognised as racism. I can help these people because I know exactly what they're going through. They don't need to explain to me, I just get it. It doesn't mean that other people wouldn't get it, but I think I feel the pain because it's my lived experience.
There was a Chinese lady at one of the sites that I cover. But she felt that her issues kept being dismissed. As soon as an Asian woman (me) came on board to look after her site, she felt that she was finally being supported. This is why I think our workforce should more or less reflect our demographic, whatever industry it is. Otherwise, there will be people who will miss out on services that they should be receiving.
Elina: Something that we want to talk about on this podcast is how we can imagine a better New Zealand, when it comes to anti-racism, migration, belonging, ethnic communities. Any things that you personally wish were better?
Sun: That's such a big question. I hope the next generations will have it better. But I don't know what the answers might be. I think just getting to know different people and cultures really helps, instead of isolating yourself in a comfort zone of hanging out with who you know. Auckland is one of the most multicultural cities in the world. More than just enjoying people’s food, maybe get to know them.
I think it's the stereotypes and biases that you have against certain groups of people. You’ve just got to get to know them. My European Pakeha friends, Maori and Pasifika friends, we all felt inter-ethnic racism against each other. Korean people will be mean to the Māori & Pasifika community, and it could happen vice versa. But just mingle a little bit more than just watching a K-drama or eating Korean food, just get to know us a little bit better. Then you may learn that we're just another human being. We may have an accent, but you may enjoy our company if you get to know us.
Elina: Before doing Storyo, I remember thinking I was so open to different cultures, ethnicities, sexual orientations, worldviews… and it’s only when I started interviewing people for Storyo, that I feel like my world really opened up to so many different perspectives and cultures. And it feels like having these conversations forms such a powerful sense of the world. I just feel so much more connected, and in touch with myself through learning about other cultures. My wish would be that people watching or listening to our interviews also feel that - like they’re talking to this person and getting to know them, so they’re not just a stereotype, but a whole person with journeys and interests and passions.
Sun, I would love to ask you a little bit about the parts of your identity. You mentioned you're Christian, and you’re a Korean migrant. Is there anything else that forms a big part of how you think about yourself?
Sun: I recently discovered that I may have ADHD and autism. I became friends with this wonderful woman, Rafika recently. I went out to dinner with her, and she told me that I have all the traits of autism. For ADHD, I learnt about this because my boyfriend's sister was diagnosed with ADHD, then he was also thinking he may have it because he has been suffering from a severe depression for four years. He’s on medication & treatment for ADHD now, and he's improved so much, he's a different person. So that made me wonder whether I have ADHD.
I looked into it and kind of self diagnosed it, but I'm going to see a psychiatrist on Monday. I’ve waited for this appointment for five months. I'm kind of spending money that I don't have to get this diagnosis. It's exciting.
I told my mom, "Hey Mom, I think I may have ADHD and autism". In Korea, the awareness around mental health is still quite behind. You've got to just “man up” and “just be happy”, you've got to be “strong”. The stereotype that "it only manifests in weak people" still exists in Korea. So I was really careful talking to my mom about this. Her first response was short. She got so sad.
I don't know what other words to use, but for me, these diagnoses give a really liberating feeling. All those weird traits and problems that I have or had can be traced back to ADHD and autism. This might be weird, but all of a sudden, I feel very normal and accepted. Even if nobody else accepts me, I accept all my behaviours. I feel more normal. It's just a neurodiverse condition, nothing else. I'm just made this way.
Elina: Hopefully your Monday appointment happens - five months wait time is a long time. This feeling of liberation - that's beautiful - how do we enable that to happen sooner for people?
Sun: I don't think there is a good awareness around it just yet, but it's happening. Chloe Swarbrick recently came out, saying that she has ADHD. It's improving. But when I say, "I may have ADHD, autism", I do sense people thinking, "Oh, I'm sorry", or, “Can’t you just get better if you really try?”.
So there are still misunderstandings, misconceptions, and stigma around it here too, even if Korea is probably a bit more behind. The most important thing is that I have wonderful friends who just accept me as who I am. I think that's really important. I feel like I can accept myself better. That's a huge improvement for myself.
Elina: Oh, Sun, thank you so much for everything you're sharing. Topics of mental health, neurodiversity, racism, art, culture are so so important and as we talked about it before, I wish people listen to this and learn more about other worldviews and look at their behaviours, patterns and make changes. I hope people’s hearts change. At the end of the podcast, we asked four quickfire questions. The first one is: what is your favourite Korean dish?
Sun: Instant noodles/ramen. Oh, I recently learnt that the brand “Ottogi” hires everyone as permanent staff, not casuals. So I tried their noodles for the first time and it was a whole new world. I really like it. It’s the one called "Jin Ramen".
Elina: Sweet, that's a good recommendation. If you could be the main character in a movie or a TV show, what would it be about?
Sun: When I was a little I always wanted to be a pianist. Maybe I could play a pianist in a movie.
Elina: If you could introduce one policy change to decision makers, what would it be about?
Sun: Housing reform, because it's become a crisis, a catastrophe. Just build more houses and give it to the poor [laughs].
Elina: Last question: What makes you feel like a badass?
Sun: One of the traits of ADHD and autism is that you get fixated on things that you love. Recently, the thing for me is dancing. And sometimes, some weeks, I look and think, “Oh yeah, that looks good.” Not all the time. [laughs]
Elina: Amazing, Sun, thank you so much for sharing. I hope you enjoyed your time with me as well because I've enjoyed this a lot.
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.