Speech by Michelle Huang
Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.
Good morning everyone. Thank you so much to Global Women New Zealand and the Right Honorable Dame Patsy Reddy for giving me this opportunity to speak to you all here today. It is incredibly humbling, and quite frankly, nerve racking, to be able to share a stage today with such inspiring and phenomenal wahine of Aotearoa New Zealand.
A little disclaimer before I start. I do not possess the wisdom of a respected elder in the community, nor the professional experience of one of Aotearoa’s top business women. But what I lack in life experience, I will try make up for today by speaking very candidly and openly about my life, experiences and lessons so far as a double-minority in New Zealand.
So my family, we moved to New Zealand in 1997 from the People’s Republic of China. Which was no small feat for us. Because unlike a lot of the wealthier Chinese immigrants coming in from Tier 1, 2 or 3 Chinese cities today, my dad’s side of the family, we’re actually from the rural countryside of China.
Five years ago, I would have never had the courage to stand up here and share this story of my humble beginnings with anyone outside of my immediate family. Partly because I was embarrassed, and partly because I was so desperate to fit in. Throughout primary and intermediate school, I would often tell my peers that I was born in New Zealand, that my parents and grandparents were born in New Zealand, and that I did not know where we moved here from. It was all a lie, of course. But it seemed like a quick and easy way to justify our being here.
For most of my life, I have struggled with accepting and embracing my identity as an Asian-New Zealand woman. There have been many moments where I have walked into a room and felt the subconscious need to justify my presence and value. And as I started taking on more leadership roles at school and within the community, particularly roles that did not have any defined gender requirements, this subconscious need to justify my presence and value extended beyond just race. And very quickly, it got overwhelmingly exhausting. To the point where I would, in later years, develop rather severe anxiety and imposter syndrome -- something which I still struggle with today.
Around the same time, I also started to notice the “concrete ceilings” that exist for women like myself in New Zealand. Now to be fair, “concrete ceilings,” which are similar to “glass ceilings” except nobody really knows what the other side looks like or if there even IS another side, continues to exist for all women in New Zealand. But they are especially common for double minority women, such as myself. And at the age of 18, I felt as though my progress in New Zealand was predetermined and limited by my ethnicity and gender. Sure, I could one day go on to become a member of parliament; but I would never get the chance to be considered for prime minister or leader of the opposition. There was a cap on how far an Asian women like myself could progress in a predominantly white male society, and that cap was completely and utterly out of my control. So, I did what any curious and ambitious 18 year old Asian woman would do in my position -- I gave up everything I had going for me in New Zealand and flew to Shanghai for university, in the hopes that I would find a place where someone who looked like me did not have to constantly justify her presence and worth in order to reach unlimited heights.
Over the past four years, I have studied in four countries around the world and learned a lot more about my own identity and what it means to be a “New Zealander” at each of these places. I’ve come to realise that there are actually a myriad of qualities, experiences and values that we as New Zealanders share that define us far more than our outward appearances: Our commitment to universal health care and free state-school education. The use of Maori on our passports -- something which Americans and Australians just can’t seem to wrap their heads around. Greeting strangers on the street while you’re walking your dog as though you were old mates. Dedicating an entire island to preserving our native bird species. Being one of the first countries in the world to legalise Gay Marriage under our “conservative” government -- which Australia then attempted to replicate albeit a few years too late, as always. Granting women the right to vote years before many of our other Western allies. And now electing the world’s youngest female head of government. These events, these quirks, these experiences and these shared values -- they are, as I have learned over the past four years, what unites and defines us as New Zealanders to the outside world.
For a country that somehow still continues to get left off global maps today, we truly ARE and HAVE ALWAYS BEEN decades ahead of so many other countries around the world when it comes to our commitment to social justice, to constantly improving ourselves for the better, and to setting the bar just a little bit higher for the rest of the world with every new milestone we reach. Which is why I am confident that if any country is to lead the way for a more just, equal and inclusive society for ALL women regardless of sexuality, race, religion, disability or age, then that country will be New Zealand.
This International Women’s Day, I challenge all the women and all the men in this room to continue fighting the good fight, to be intersectional feminists, and to not settle for anything less than the best for ALL women. Let us all be courageous enough to stand up for women that are socially, economically or politically voiceless -- even if it means sacrificing some of our own power and privilege. And let us be be demanding enough to say that it is not good enough for ANY woman, until it is good enough for EVERY women.
Here in Aotearoa, we have reached many great milestones over the last century; but let us not let smaller victories get in the way of a far larger, and far more ambitious, end goal. To the women that have come before us. The women that have raised us, inspired us, and paved the way for each and every one of us: thank you so much for your selflessness and sacrifice, for your blood and tears, and for your unyielding hope and faith in humanity and for a better tomorrow.
We are not there yet.
There is still a long way for wahine in Aotearoa to go, and there are still many, many concrete ceilings for us to smash. But as New Zealanders, as a nation committed to social justice, to constantly improving ourselves for the better, and to setting the bar just a little bit higher for the rest of the world with every new milestone we reach, we can and we will get there, together.
Ma whero ma pango ka oti a te mahi.
With red and black the work will be complete.
Nō reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.