NZAL Ambassador, Wen Powles | Speech from Public Sector Forum in Wellington

Is cultural knowledge important as a ‘tool of the trade’?


Wen Chin Powles, NZAL Ambassador

Director of the Confucius Institute at Victoria University of Wellington

From the not-too-different perspectives of my recent work at Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and as Te Papa’s international strategy adviser, and my current role as the Director of the Confucius Institute at Victoria University, my consistent view of our society is its rapidly developing multicultural character, particularly in the larger cities, and that this is a key factor to be taken into account in policy planning, implementation and corporate communications.

For instance, in the case of public institutions such as the national museum (“Our Place”), it not only needs to grow new audiences but also serve as a mirror to our country’s history, cultures and evolving society. So the policy imperatives of government agencies and the private sector are not that different – whether the goal is to serve the public or sell to the public, embracing diversity is a fact of life and we should be well equipped to deal successfully in, and with this diversity.

My view is that if you’re able to operate comfortably and successfully across the different communities, I reckon your chances of operating well internationally are heightened.  I don’t mean you will necessarily be immediately successful as an exporter – but it is a good start!

Being comfortable culturally with each other, whatever our backgrounds, comes from being  ‘culturally empathetic’ – not just having a few words of Arabic or Chinese or doing a crash course in How To Do Business With China, India and so on, but developing empathy towards other cultures and histories as a stepping stone towards mutual understanding and, hopefully, successful interactions.

From my time working in China and in New York where you deal with not only myriad cultures but the official policies of 180 countries and their diplomats, you may not always win the argument – in fact you usually don’t – but you can certainly use your ‘cultural toolkit’, as it were, to influence others in supporting New Zealand’s foreign policy goals. And we did do that, and still do.

One really intrinsic taonga that all Kiwis have is Maori culture. I’m not talking about cultural appropriation here but about genuine pride in the mauri (life force) and distinctiveness of Maori culture. If you can project that, it is a very powerful emotion that will directly touch a foreign audience.

I know because I have observed it and felt it at close range in China when I helped organise a pounamu exhibition there for Te Papa. The cultural connection there is jade. So here was a case of two distinctive artistic traditions actually coinciding, even though everything else was different – including the traditions and histories of the two cultures. But cultural empathy was right there. We had Chinese officials in tears when they placed their hands on the pounamu touchstones. Guarantee you that’s not an everyday occurrence!

My point really is that you need to know how to make that connection in order that your own goals might be reached.  In this case it was the Chief Executive of Te Papa at the time, Mike Houlihan, and his Chinese counterpart, the Director of the National Museum of China, who both had the experience and cultural knowledge to select that particular exhibition for Chinese audiences.

Understanding is probably the highest form of communication – even if you and your interlocutor cannot agree on the facts.  From my experience, for instance, working in Shanghai as the New Zealand Consul General, even though I am ethnically Chinese there were still natural barriers to communications and connections. Lack of a common language is only one issue, albeit an important one.  Other issues are personal backgrounds and personality, differing perspectives, different experiences, even different goals.

But if you are willing to demonstrate you are sensitive to and can understand the other side, that you are in sync with their cultural norms and appreciate the nuances, it is likely to lead to a closer connection with your interlocutor.  It’s not so different from us Kiwis desiring the wider world to understand and appreciate our culture and traditions – rugby, for instance. Won’t you feel closer to someone from, say, the UK if he tells you how much he appreciates the nuances of the haka?

Coming back to New Zealand, how do we, as concerned professionals, help fellow Kiwis, and especially young people, fit out their ‘cultural toolkit’ so that they can succeed in a multicultural world? I think it’s a timely challenge for public institutions and the media.

Here are some examples of things that are happening (I’ve used Wellington examples but you will have others around the country):

  • cultural knowledge tends to be naturally concentrated within communities – which are themselves diversifying, for instance, the Pasifika groups
  • some community groups, including media groups, have been pioneers in spreading cultural knowledge within their groups but also outside their groups and overseas, eg. ethnic media – radio, newspapers and TV (just attended the opening of Oceania TV)
  • public institutions, eg. the Confucius Institute at VUW with its strong focus on Chinese language teaching in schools and support for collaborative New Zealand-Chinese music and literary projects, the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s programmes in education, art, media internships, youth networks and the iconic Lantern and Diwali festivals
  • Radio New Zealand which has been broadcasting well-researched programmes on culture and music, very often highlighting the cross-cultural nature of collaborative projects. I’m speaking in particular of National Radio’s Voices programme and the Concert Programme’s Upbeat
  • there have been one or two nationally significant cultural diplomacy projects with Asia and Mexico, but it’s nowhere near enough. I’m referring to the exhibition exchanges Te Papa had with China between 2012 and 2014 which saw two Chinese exhibitions come to Wellington early last year. And the Mexican Aztec exhibition in 2013. The cultural impact of those went beyond dollars and cents (and, incidentally, as an illustration of the long-term value of cultural diplomacy, a Chinese art exhibition that toured New Zealand in 1937 had a lasting impact on New Zealand intellectuals and artists, Rita Angus among them)
  • the efforts of other governments in actively bringing their contemporary culture to New Zealand, whether these are the ASEAN, Latin American or French film festivals, food festivals, or the international arts festivals.

But won’t you agree that all those added up is only a drop in the bucket when you think of the rapidly changing face of Auckland, for instance, where one in every 4 persons is Asian?

So the challenge to the public sector, the media and concerned individuals everywhere is – how can these developments be built upon so that New Zealanders everywhere will have much more access to cultural knowledge?