OPINION: A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with an old acquaintance I hadn’t seen for a while.
The normal stuff: family, time passing, Trump and what we were doing these days in terms of work.
When I told him I worked at the Asia New Zealand Foundation, he replied: “Well, I’m not sure we need that. Seems like we already have enough Asians in New Zealand”.
It’s a recurring issue for the Asia New Zealand Foundation that we are mistaken as an organisation that advocates for Asian immigrants, or a settlement agency.
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And it’s interesting to reflect that when we talk about Asia and New Zealand, immigration is often the first thing that pops into people’s heads.
You might say that it’s natural. But what if I worked for the Europe New Zealand Foundation, or the US-New Zealand Foundation?
Would immigration immediately spring to mind – or would you think that these (fictional) organisations were working to build international bridges and understanding?
It occurred to me that I’ve written a few of these columns now and haven’t talked about what the Asia New Zealand Foundation actually does.
We’re an outward-looking organisation.
Our core work is helping all New Zealanders – whether Pakeha, Maori, Pasifika, Asian or other – understand Asia and be able to thrive in it and with it.
I mean, we call ourselves an Asia-Pacific country, right?
The Asia New Zealand Foundation invests a lot of resource into New Zealanders you might call “amplifiers” – people who can share what they learn about Asia with others.
Some of the key groups we work with are academics, artists, business leaders, journalists, sports teams and teachers – as well as talented young people in a range of sectors through our Leadership Network.
These are the people we hope can prod and provoke other New Zealanders to take an interest in the region, rather than seeing it as something that has nothing to do with them.
Of course, we’d love to be able to reach all New Zealanders – but we know our limits.
To give you a snapshot of some of our work over just the past couple of weeks: we’ve taken a delegation of New Zealand international relations experts to Japan for a range of meetings.
This was partly to inform New Zealand’s understanding of that country’s contemporary political and security issues, but also for us to share the issues that are preoccupying New Zealand – swapping notes, as it were.
We’ve welcomed a Chinese journalist who will spend the next four weeks in a Wellington newsroom, so that when New Zealand makes it into the Chinese media, there is a perspective from someone who has worked here.
Meanwhile, a Wellington journalist is currently spending six weeks at Shanghai Daily, an experience that will inform her future reporting on China.
We held a cultural briefing workshop for the St Mary’s College Sevens Rugby Team who travelled to Fukuoka, Japan, to take part in the Sanix World Rugby Youth Tournament (and they won, for which we can take no credit).
We’ve had a couple of staff members down in Invercargill, attending the Sister Cities New Zealand conference and talking to the business community there.
And we’re preparing to take seven budding New Zealand business leaders to Malaysia to learn about that country’s food and beverage sector.
On the arts front, Auckland artist Richard Maloy has just begun a residency at Youkobo Art Space in Tokyo.
Our exhibition, The Crescent Moon: The Asian Face of Islam in New Zealand, has just opened at the Taupo Museum.
Last week we partnered with New Zealand India Research Institute to host Amitabh Kant, the 2017 Sir Edmund Hillary Fellow and an economic advisor to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Kant discussed issues facing the enormous and growing Indian economy.
Now, some people may see this some of this work as the soft stuff, but I’d disagree.
If New Zealand is to “succeed”, not just economically but as an Asia-Pacific country, then we need to have many more connections – and many different types of connections – to help us understand each other.
It’s a big project, but it is an investment New Zealand absolutely needs to make.
As we head into an election year, we see public debate about Asia-related issues sharpening, particularly around immigration.
Immigration and Asia tend to get conflated, when in fact multiple factors contribute to high net migration, and when New Zealand’s relationship with Asia goes far beyond migrants.
So no, the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s job is not about settling Asian migrants into New Zealand.
It is about helping all New Zealanders on the journey of understanding that we are an Asia-Pacific country and our geography is not going to change.
And even if it could, we wouldn’t want it to, because being in the Asia-Pacific is an exciting place to be.
Simon Draper is the executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, a non-profit organisation focussed on New Zealand-Asia relations. www.asianz.org.nz