Simon Draper: Kiwis need more confidence with Asia

Executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Simon Draper talks about why we need to experience Asia.

Executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Simon Draper talks about why we need to experience Asia.

OPINION: In 1984 I kicked off my big OE with a trip to Hong Kong and China.

I could speak only one Chinese phrase. Thankfully, it was the word for fried rice - chao fan.

China was only just emerging into the world; Lonely Planet didn't even cover it and, of course, there was no internet.

Considering the era, I was relatively well-prepared.

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Growing up in the 1970s, the Draper family, like others, had started experimenting with foods previously unfamiliar to Kiwi palates.

In between my mother's ventures into beef stroganoff, we went off the edge and started using chopsticks with our chicken chow mein from the Golden Horse in Greenlane, Auckland.

Three decades later, I'm working at the Asia New Zealand Foundation and a big part of our work involves sending young New Zealanders off to spend a few months in companies and newsrooms in Asia.

Before they head away, the main concern for many is how they will manage to cross the road.

Once they've conquered that, they find themselves encountering all sorts of other dilemmas.

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Is it ok to help myself to that last steamed bun that's sitting in the middle of the table? Do I really need to call my manager Sir?

No matter how well-prepared, they inevitably get things wrong and they inevitably have awkward moments.

But they come out of the experience with a better appreciation for cultural nuances, a recognition of Asia's scale and diversity, and an appetite for learning more.

It's something more New Zealanders need to experience.

The Asia New Zealand Foundation has just released the latest findings in its New Zealanders' Perceptions of Asia and Asian Peoples survey.

We've been carrying out this survey since 1997 as a way of tracking New Zealand's engagement with Asia and its people.

Asia is a part of our lives to a much greater extent than when this survey began in 1997; notably, more New Zealanders are themselves Asian.

Increasingly, we're not only talking about Pakeha, Maori and Pasifika learning about Asia, but also New Zealanders of Asian heritage learning about other Asian cultures and countries.

The theme we've focused on in the latest survey is confidence.

Two-thirds of New Zealanders say they know little or nothing about Asia – and New Zealanders identify their knowledge of Australia, Europe, the South Pacific and North America as higher.

This is despite the fact that they rank Asia's importance to New Zealand as second only to Australia's.

Over the years, the survey has consistently told us that the more first-hand contact people have with Asia and Asian peoples, the more positive they feel about Asia.

Rates of self-assessed knowledge of Asia were higher in urban areas such as Auckland, Hamilton and Christchurch – centres with higher concentrations of Asian populations.

But Asia-related skills are just as relevant for young people growing up in Oamaru or Ohakune.

They might not stay in their hometowns forever. Even if they do, there's a good chance they'll find themselves interacting with tourists, migrants and international students from Asia.

The Asia New Zealand Foundation's work is focused on building Asia-related skills through individual, real-life experiences.

Our ability to offer young people pathways into Asia made us an obvious partner for the Centres of Asia-Pacific Excellence announced by the Government this month. It's exciting to be involved in helping create a more Asia-capable workforce.

Language skills would no doubt have opened a few extra doors for me on my own travels to China in the 1980s.

But the fact I managed to navigate what was then a third-world country with no major issues should reassure today's young New Zealanders that they're more than capable of tackling contemporary Asia – and having a blast.

What would I have missed out on if I hadn't started my OE in Hong Kong and China?

I probably wouldn't have later put my hand up for two years' full-time language training in Korea, a decision that led the way for the rest of my diplomatic career. Language training opened my eyes to not only the way other people communicate, but also to the way I thought.

It unlocked a part of my brain I didn't know I had.

Simon Draper is the executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, a non-profit organisation focussed on New Zealand-Asia relations, with a range of programmes designed to equip New Zealanders with first-hand experience of Asia and to forge links to the region. In 1992, he became the first person posted to Seoul by the New Zealand Government for full-time Korean language training.

 - Stuff


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