It’s in the name. Conversations with My Immigrant Parents, a podcast and video series, is a necessary space where immigrant whānau have heart-to-heart and honest talks about topics they normally wouldn’t, while learning from each other’s experiences.
Saraid de Silva and Julie Zhu are the co-producers and hosts, having travelled across Aotearoa to meet with families and listen as they unpack their immigrant stories across language and generational boundaries.
The second, recently launched, new season continues the conversation around the concept of home, alongside a range of complex issues that these families experience.
The series was a product of its environment; an exciting but tumultuous challenge for the pair. Filming and recording took place throughout 2020, in what Saraid describes as a heavy year. That’s reflected in the series and Julie says it’s understandable that in a difficult time, people were perhaps more nervous to be vulnerable with their storytelling.
There was plenty of rescheduling – mostly due to the multiple lockdowns - and the project didn’t finish up until early December. For the creators too, 2020 was particularly tough with Saraid losing a close friend in the middle of recording in September, and Julie stepping up to take care of her two ill grandparents.
We met months later in Sandringham on a Friday afternoon, just as the last hot days of Auckland’s summer were coming to an end. Saraid and Julie are eloquent, thoughtful and extremely talented artists – in real life appearing to balance each other, as they do through their work on the podcast (Saraid likes to research the country and political background of the families and does the Instagram; Julie does essential things like budgets).
Both have an extensive background in theatre and film but their shared journey with the podcast began three years ago when the pair applied for funding through the RNZ/NZ On Air Innovation Fund.
At the time, they had each been separately working on projects that touched on navigating the migrant experience: Julie had made her documentary East Meets East, a love letter to the Chinese East Auckland community, while Saraid, upon completing her solo theatre show, realised she needed to have more conversations with her family about their migrant stories.
Both agree how so many migrant stories are often left unsaid because, “they just don’t think it’s interesting enough to share”.
But Saraid stresses how these same stories end up being puzzle pieces for life - and ultimately change the way we see family members.
Lofa: Let’s start with storytelling. For many people of colour, our history and our family stories are often passed down from generation to generation orally. From these stories, we get a lot of detail, as well as heaps of emotion and also - the facts.
Saraid: And all the embellishments?
Lofa: Yes exactly! A lot of what I know about my heritage and my identity as a Pacific person stems from the stories of my grandparents and their journey as immigrants and their identity as Pacific people on their fanua – their homeland.
What was the place of storytelling in your own upbringing and in your household growing up? Has it changed?
Julie: I always think that my mother's such a good storyteller but I'm actually a terrible storyteller, even just a story about what happened to me that day, how to paint a picture.
I always think about how I grew up for a long time really rejecting my Chineseness and not wanting to be that. Which resulted in rejecting family because they embodied Chineseness. So, the storytelling was there; I just spent a lot of time pushing it away.
Now, being older has made me want to find and know those stories more, but it’s harder because those chasms have become more concrete. And it’s also harder to access that relationship now and try and mend the years of rejection and get that time back.
Saraid: I realise now that I thought I knew lots about my family when I was growing up, but I really didn't. I was raised by my gran who was Singaporean, but my family is Sri Lankan, because she married a Sri Lankan man and raised her kids in Sri Lanka before moving here. It was this weird thing of like, we called ourselves Sri Lankan, but no one who I was raised with was really connected to our Sri Lankanness.
The stories that I actually have about my family are about my gran growing up in Singapore, when the Japanese invaded. Basically, part of her childhood was in a war zone and it was a strange time.
It’s really strange for me to have identified with that as being part of my lineage, but not identify as Singaporean. And also, I think, my family didn’t know that I cared for a long time - so the stories we had were surface level, skipping over important details. I just realised that recently because I’m trying to write a book about them. My gran’s dead now so I can’t go back and check details, so I didn’t know that until recently.
Lofa: That is quite common – rejecting ourselves and then coming back to it later. Do you find that now, you cling to those stories more?
Julie: I think that the desire is definitely there, it’s just hard to access it; even with things like language. I don’t even know how to ask my grandparents, but I really want to record it because I know they are getting older. A lot of the time our lives are busy, and we don’t prioritise it until something happens and you’re like, crap! I need to take things down!
Saraid: Yeah. Sometimes someone will ask me something about myself or my family and I’ll realise that I don’t know...
Julie: I always get the sense that your whakapapa is stronger if your family has always been in one spot, whereas if you have moved you’re most likely to know two generations back because it’s almost like your whakapapa has started in a new place.
Saraid: It was really interesting, on one episode of the podcast we had a family that is Indo-Fijian and Māori – and they were comparing that part of their genealogy. On their Māori side they could trace generations back but, on their Indo-Fijian side, they couldn’t.
Lofa: What are your thoughts on the future of storytelling and intergenerational conversations?
Saraid: I think people seem to care more now. That’s partly because our generation and the generations below us - way more so now, actually - are interested in knowing their families and who they come from.
Every movement based around re-indigenising and learning about what was present in your culture before colonisation - especially queer storytellers - it’s still necessary to go back.
Julie: I just hope it keeps evolving and builds and becomes more complex and nuanced, as opposed to rehashing the same conversations.
Saraid: So much of those conversations being nuanced is allowing them to be conflicting! I think that is happening and I hope that it continues to happen, and people learn to hear multiple sides of a story. I say that as someone who has really struggled with that.
Julie: So, we aren’t just telling stories from the younger perspective -
Saraid: - And casting judgement on the older generation.
Julie: Or only focusing on that narrative that our parents have sacrificed so much.
It focuses on generational things, and I realised that we are still talking about some of the same things but years later. And how we usually go through the same cycles - it’s a very cute and wholesome film though; definitely watch!
Lofa: What stands out for me in the podcast is that it's more than the negative stereotypes. It covers the highs and lows and love and grief. It’s honest… It addresses racism but it’s more than discussing racism and what racism looks like and feels like for migrant communities.
I really feel that the podcast affirms the entire identity and experiences of migrant families, which is something that mainstream media has failed to do, and most communities in New Zealand to be honest.
I want to talk about that and whether or not you feel a responsibility to that narrative? Or to pushing that voice, not only in the podcast, but also in your own work.
Julie: What was important for us, and it may be apparent in the first season, is that we wanted to be unapologetic about migrant stories and not just presenting this grateful, migrant story where they come and they struggle. There were identity issues - but now they're all good. Which I feel like that's the dominant narrative right? There’s this successful immigrant that's so grateful to be here.
We thought it was important to show the ‘bad stuff’ in a way that is not like, ‘oh they have been able to overcome this’, but in a way that said: this is the reality. This is the system that caused this, as well as bigger issues.
Saraid: Every family we have interviewed has many reasons about why they came, how they came, their relationship with each other, their relationship with their community.
Inevitably there will be stories about racism and sometimes we talk about whether or not to include them in the podcast. Sometimes when we are talking to a family and sharing those stories, I feel like I want to tell them that they don’t have to share them with us. That it isn’t necessary.
Some of the experiences are really horrible and I worry about what it’s like to relive those experiences. I also know that some of those stories are really useful, especially if you are listening to this and you are not a migrant – then you will maybe need to remember that these stories happen and yes they are really hard. But sometimes I’m like – we’ve moved on… You know? We’re interested in the things about your family that you love! I’m not trying to discount those stories though.
Julie: I feel the same way.
Saraid: I don’t mean that we have moved on as a society. I mean, maybe it’s because we get it and have lived it and our families have too but… I don’t want people to think that they have to offer those stories as proof that it’s hard to be here.
Julie: Or that that is the narrative people want to hear.
Saraid: Almost like trauma porn. That’s not what it’s about or the central part to the migrant story.
Julie: That’s so true. I think that’s what artists of different backgrounds tend to do. I don’t think it’s a bad thing either, but when you’re starting out and you’re trying to prove difference, it can be something you latch onto – that trauma porn sort of phrasing.
You feel like you have to rip apart your vulnerability in a very particular way because that’s what people want to see from you.
Saraid: Yes, yes, yes, yes. That is it exactly. I read somewhere that BIPOC stories can be silly and can be fantastical and can be surreal - they don’t just have to be trauma.
Julie: Yes! Same with queer stories.
Saraid: Sooo relevant with queer stories. That speaks to your question about having a narrative that encompasses all these things – what families have been through here and in their own countries. Well both are really important, and are just as important as the stories they have with each other and what they love about each other.
Lofa: This reminds me of during the Black Lives Matter movement last year – there was a lot of heaviness, but there were some really beautiful moments where Black people within their own communities chose to share and affirm and celebrate their joy.
Saraid: Yes! Also the trauma is still a package for the person who's causing it. It still can be proving something, like: and then therefore this needs to change. But it should just change.
There’s a really cool podcast, these queer podcast makers in Kenya who interviewed this artist who was making some things. The art was all silly and it was meant to be silly because she was sick of seeing Black pain. She wanted to make art that was joyful.
Lofa: It's really interesting that you bring that up because I've noticed that in my own family, when I ask about the past, it's either the everyday living or like you said – things that have caused trauma.
I wonder if we should be asking questions like: I want to hear about what made you laugh? Or what did you do for fun? What happened when you got drunk? Stuff like that.
Saraid: Yes! Those things become really important when someone dies as well. It's like, we want to know the things that were funny about them. As much as we want to respect everything they went through as well.
Lofa: Do you think there's a tendency for people - in particular our migrant communities – to think that those kinds of conversations are frivolous? Have you seen that with your podcast? And is there any talk about beauty or fashion or social events?
Julie: In a way that’s not political?
Saraid: Actually, I think that because the families talk to each other, yes. We do get stories that are funny and silly.
Julie: We’ve had a few, definitely. It’s hard to think about some of the stories as non-political.
Saraid: The question about beauty is really interesting to me because in my other work at the moment, I'm trying to create these characters that are glamorous, because I perceive the women in my family as glamorous and I don't think they could see themselves that way. And that's because of their Eurocentric standards of beauty or the things that we were told were important.
We get that so much sometimes when people will share pictures of their mums when they were young and we’re all like, wow! But that stuff really does take a back seat when you’re struggling with other things. Like feeding their family.
Julie: We talk about that – even the people who decide to come on the podcast are generally, of the more privileged background where they can afford to –
Saraid: Or they are in that position now.
Julie: Yeah - where they aren’t working with double shifts all the time or trying to make ends meet. We are definitely aware of how class makes a difference and there is more that could be told.
Lofa: Have you had to face any criticism or politics from your own communities?
Saraid: Not really, no one’s said anything to us. From white supremacists, yes. Sometimes I feel like the criticism that we've received is from ourselves, about ourselves.
Julie: We can easily criticise ourselves.
Saraid: Even the name of the podcast. It was kind of a working title that stuck. I like it now – it says what it says! But in some ways, I think, are we just appealing to white people? Is it bookmarking it for people? Because I wouldn’t call my parents ‘immigrant parents’. I don't have that in my brain when I think about them. And most of my friends have immigrant parents and it’s the same.
Julie: For me the title is more like, the privileged is the younger generation – because it’s your or my immigrant parents.
Saraid: Interesting - that's another critique. But you know I'll read things and be like, yes so relevant to me, but it hasn’t been directed at me or us.
I don't know how anyone could possibly be more critical of the podcast than we are.
Lofa: Do you often think about your audience? Do you want white people to listen to it?
Julie: That's not the audience I have in mind. I think of the audience as my friends and community. I think that’s also where the potential criticism could come from. The criticism that I would respect the most – that’s who I have in mind.
Saraid: Yeah, white people can listen to this podcast but I don’t care what they think. I care what the people who have those experiences think.
How do you take care of yourself? What do you do for fun?
Julie: I don’t think I take good care of myself – that is the answer. I always say this; I want to do better and be someone who reads…
I’m gardening at the moment! I’m very proud and I’ll post a picture of my beautiful bok choys, they are so pretty! They came from little seeds. I’ve been doing this Kai Oranga course and we’ve been learning about soil, planting and Maramataka – it’s motivated me to start my own garden.
Saraid: I watch Bob’s Burgers, that makes me relax. I’ve seen nearly every episode but - and this pisses my girlfriend off so much - I watch all the series out of order.
What brings you joy?
Julie: My garden! My plant babies.
Saraid: Seeing beautiful pictures of my friends. My friends bring me so much joy and I love hyping them up! They are so beautiful.
The last cool thing you bought?
Julie: I almost don’t want to say it but gardening supplies. There was a sale at King’s Plant Barn.... I’ve also been donating a lot – everyone’s crowdfunding.
Saraid: A dress by this Melbourne designer called Olivia Rowan; her designs are amazing. Books! Lots of books, they are a course cost actually. But books are great.
Does fashion and beauty have a strong place in your life?
Julie: I do like fashion. We always used to watch award seasons and talk and judge with my friends but Saraid probably is more into it all.
Saraid: Yes, fashion and beauty play a big part in my life – I do acting! I feel like I have to do that. And all my friends are beautiful so I’m like… Just trying to keep up ya know?
I love labels that are made-to-order like Layplan and Loclaire. That’s such a great model that designers are following more now. It’s not that much more expensive than other brands and it’s made specifically for my measurements, which I love.
What are your podcast recommendations?
Julie: I’ve been listening to Back to Kura, because my friend does that. It’s about these two friends who do a full immersion course for a year.
Saraid: I listen to Still Processing – two culture writers for The New York Times. Also I’m Grand Mam, by my friend in London. They are two queer Irish guys and it’s just really funny. It was a relief to listen to during lockdown.
What brings you the most joy from your own podcast?
Julie: I like the moments when the family members themselves get something out of it. Like ‘I never knew that before’ or ‘You never told me that’. It’s a reminder that we aren’t making it for us.
Saraid: I love when the families message us afterwards and tell us how they had stayed and talked for three or four hours after we left. Takunda from episode 8 told us how their family from Zimbabwe were listening from overseas.
Also, I love how Julie and I write down the same notes when we’re listening to people.
What’s happening for you in 2021?
Julie: I’m working on some doco projects – one with The Spinoff [Editor's note: a docu series called Takeout Kids that sounds amazing: focusing on those who grew up helping in takeaway shops and restaurants owned by their immigrant parents - they’re currently looking for kids to feature], and one for Māori Television which will be out early next year. I’m also working on my short film LǍO LAO LǍO LE/姥姥老了, which is about a young boy who is left at home with his grandma who has Alzheimers.
Saraid: I’m doing a reading at the Auckland Writers Festival as part of the event Streetside: Karangahape on Friday May 14 [Editor’s note: This sounds so great! Details here].
I’m also doing my Master’s in creative writing, which means we have to write half a book. But I’m going to try and finish it by the end of this year. Not much else actually – I really want to give my time and heart to it.
Photography and styling / Aasha-Samara Nimo
Interview and styling / Lofa Totua
The second series of Conversations with my Immigrant Parents is available to listen to here, with new episodes released every Thursday.