The value of hard work

I read an opinion piece today written by the well-known New Zealand property developer Bob Jones about the positive contribution that migrant families make to New Zealand society.

Being a Chinese immigrant myself, having moved to New Zealand at the age of four, I feel like much of the “Asian” identity in New Zealand has been structured around certain characteristics, namely having a disciplined work ethic, and perhaps a willingness to work ‘harder’ than your average Kiwi.

I say ‘harder’ because I’m not trying to make a value judgment on Kiwis being lazy – they definitely aren’t – but rather, I know that my parents (as with the parents of many young Chinese) have worked extremely long hours and in low-paid menial jobs that, had it been me, would have been unbearable. My parents both knew how to “chi ku”, meaning to endure hardship. Both my parents came out of the better side of the cultural revolution in China with Masters degrees (this was way back before the days of academic inflation), but had to start from literally zero when we arrived in New Zealand to put dinner on the table every evening. I knew how hard my parents worked, and so I got my first proper part-time job in high school when I was in 4th form. Apart from having a roof over my head and food in the pantry, I have not asked for a dollar since. I paid for my own school deposits and music lessons through high school, and started giving money to my parents when I started university.

This ‘migrant’ work ethic has been the subject of both admiration and also criticism. I was glad to see Bob Jones write on Tuesday: “I have boundless admiration for the courage of Asian migrants, setting out to an alien land, language and culture, so that their children will have a better life.” But there are still many people who are uncomfortable with the growing Chinese population and their ability to enter into restricted courses (Medicine being a notable example) as well as their competitiveness in the workforce.

I think what I speak about when I speak of Chinese applies to many other migrant communities as well, but here I wish to speak as a Chinese-born Kiwi who has spent 80% of her lifetime living in New Zealand.

The idea of migrants “stealing” jobs is not a novel concept. I remember being quite shocked to discover a number of discriminatory laws in New Zealand’s history: The Shops and Offices Act 1901 where the closing hours of shops were to be decided by “British” New Zealanders only, and the Factories Act Amendment Act in 1910 where the restriction of hours of work in laundries was designed to ‘reduce the advantages of Chinese keepers of laundries in competition with Europeans’.

And one only has to think back to Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother to remember the criticism from Western parents about her “Chinese” strict parenting and high expectations. I don’t necessarily endorse all of the author’s views, but a number of high-achieving white kiwi university students have remarked to me since the book’s publication that they had “Tiger” parents too. These parents were very much the same as your stereotypical “Asian” parent, except that maybe some just chose to substitute music achievement for sport.

Having just come back from a brief visit to the United States, I think what is lacking in New Zealand is competitiveness. New Zealanders push above their weight in sporting endeavours – just look at the London Olympic Games – but no one criticises a sportsman or sportswoman for training too hard. In fact, we celebrate hard work and determination. Many of our national heros come from a ‘zero to hero’ or ‘rags to riches’ story.

Yet somehow this outlook doesn’t seem to translate the same into other areas of life.

The “Asian” work ethic that we like to label here is present in almost all the high achievers in the United States, many of whom are Caucasian, because every single pathway in the US is a competitive one. To get into a good high school, you need to do well in entrance exams. To get into a top university (and therefore have a good shot at finding a good job), you need to work hard and start planning what you’re going to put on your college application form three or four years ahead.

Wasn’t the ‘American Dream’ all about working hard and maximising your opportunities, irrespective of your background? Isn’t that what equality of opportunity, a valued ideal in New Zealand, is all about?

The reason that migrant families work so hard is because they come from places where there was no sense of entitlement. It’s easy living in a population of 4 million because you, the individual, kind of matter. I suspect that had I grown up in China instead, I would have had to work and fight twice as hard to get to where I am now.

In many Asian countries and places like the United States, you are no more than a statistic. To get anything in life, you have to fight damn hard for it. The people do not feel like society owes them anything, and so to put their children through school and get food on the table, parents work three odd jobs and 80 hour weeks. They tell their kids to study hard because they know what ‘really bad’ looks like, and they want their kids to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that the parents have worked hard to give them.

I know that our customs might seem strange sometimes – even impolite, perhaps – but no one is perfect, and we don’t try to be either. A little bit of tolerance and human compassion, on both sides, can go a long way.

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