Expert views: Perceptions of Asia report

The Asia New Zealand Foundation Te Whītau Tūhono has released its annual Perceptions of Asia report, which explores the way New Zealanders' relationship with Asia is evolving. 

The Asia Media Centre asked several New Zealand-based Asia experts about what they considered to be the most significant findings from the report.

Sian Halcrow, Associate Professor in Biological Anthropology, University of Otago:

"It seems intuitive that the Asia New Zealand Foundation Te Whītau Tūhono's latest Perceptions of Asia report shows that New Zealanders who have a personal connection with Asia — whether gained from personal relationships, language, cultural involvement or travel — are more likely to feel knowledgeable about Asia. New Zealanders’ knowledge of Asia has seen a marked improvement over the past five years. This finding coupled with the fact that nearly half of New Zealanders surveyed say they have either lived in Asia or travelled to the region for more than just a stopover means that these connections and knowledge will continue to grow.

"As social beings it is through our personal relationships and cultural interactions that we develop understanding and affinity with other societies and places. For me, nothing is more illustrative of this development of cultural understanding than my own children’s understanding gained of Asian culture and language through their living in and visiting Southeast Asia. Through immersion in Asia from a young age they have developed deep understandings and empathy with other cultures, sophisticated understanding of present-day social issues, and have advanced foreign language acquisition skills."

Sharyn Graham Davies, Associate Professor, School of Social Sciences and Public Policy, AUT:

"Most New Zealanders (78 per cent) think learning an Asian language would benefit New Zealand children. This is fabulous news. Now the New Zealand government needs to provide opportunities for kids to learn.

"To date, it is nearly impossible for Kiwi kids to learn an Asian language. I should know; I spent enormous amounts of time and money trying to help my young children learn Chinese. After five years of expensive and ineffective private tuition we’ve given up.

"New Zealand needs to invest now in opportunities for kids to learn Asian languages if we want a future generation of Asia-focused kids.

"Indeed, there is nowhere in New Zealand that you can comprehensively study Indonesian, and Indonesia is a most populous neighbour. There is a short course run through University of Auckland and AUT, but this doesn’t go nearly far enough.

"Asia holds enormous opportunities for younger generations, and we need to equip them now with language skills if they are to benefit from these opportunities."

Tze Ming Mok, sociologist, political scientist and writer:

"I always have to laugh about the fact that the measure of knowledge used in the Perceptions of Asia report is completely self-rated. Who among us has not encountered the Asian ‘expert’ who says ‘ni hao’ to random Asian women and then tells us all about his OE?

"But we should expect that knowledge of Asia in New Zealand is increasing, because the Asian population of New Zealand is increasing, with a New Zealand-born baby-boom for the biggest communities. Ideally, increasing rates of knowledge and positivity come from social contact between Asian populations and other ethnic groups, and from the Asian population itself. However, while the data shows that this plays a part, much of this so-called ‘knowledge’ is driven by narratives of colonial mastery, leisure, and cultural consumption (including pop culture), as well as extractive commercial imperatives, rather than by meaningful interaction between Asian communities and other New Zealanders. If you only know me through consuming me, how well do you really know me?

"For example, the large Indian and Chinese populations in New Zealand are of a similar size; while Southeast Asian communities are individually very small. But self-rated knowledge of South Asia is markedly low compared with reported knowledge of everywhere else in Asia — because South Asia is a less convenient holiday or OE stopover destination, and that’s where many New Zealanders get their ‘knowledge’ of Asian culture from, according to the report itself. Another really important litmus test is the tiny little box in the margins on p.20 on how Māori feel that they aren’t part of this narrative of commercial gain and opportunity via relationships with Asia. Me either!"

Kuntal Das, Director New Zealand South Asia Centre, University of Canterbury:

"New Zealand’s strongest economic ties are with Asia. Seven out of the top ten trading partners of New Zealand are Asian countries. Yet, for most Kiwis, the knowledge about Asia is somewhat limited.

"The future is Asia. With a population of over 4.5 billion people, Asia is increasingly becoming the global economic centre of gravity and this process is set to continue over the next few decades. Thus, it is of vital importance for Kiwis to strengthen that connection and gain more knowledge about Asia.

"Economic growth in the Asian region and foreign direct investment from Asia into New Zealand are vital for the New Zealand economy. In an increasingly automated world, with the impact of AI and robotics on jobs, we need to be able to work with machines to boost our productivity. Countries like China and India are well placed to lead the way in key areas of innovation and digital technologies. In a global economy, the more we know about Asia, the better prepared we will be to avail these opportunities. The Asian growth train is running and New Zealand needs to be onboard."

Views expressed in this article are personal to the authors.

Main image: Asia New Zealand Foundation

- Asia Media Centre