I Thought I Recognised Her - Vivienne Teo
Vivienne Teo: On Hospo & Humanitarianism, Working With Refugees, & Furniture Design Apprenticeships.
*Originally published on May 22, 2016
I’ve always said I’m from New Zealand. Cos I grew up here. I grew up not identifying with my background. My mother is from Mainland China and she married a guy from Manchester. My Father is from Singapore. So it wasn’t just one Asian background I had to try and identify with, it was two. It was two different Chinese backgrounds at home, and then school during the day, and just wanting to be Kiwi. When I was six, I’m not gonna name his name, there was this one kid who was a total shit-head at school, and he came up to me and pulled his eyes back, and was like, “Ching Chong Waaa!” and that was the first moment that I actually realised what people saw wasn’t who I thought I was. It sort of created this thing - which I didn’t realise until recently - it destroyed my desire to want to understand my cultural background. Because Mum and Dad are from two different backgrounds, it’s not like they could work together to be like, this is who you are. It’s like, well this is who I am, and that’s who your Mum is.
They fought for me to be Chinese. The more they fought, the more I rebelled against it. Everything from language school to just talking at home in their mother tongue, and I just remember growing up going, “I don’t understand you, stop talking like that!” Which would have totally just broken their hearts. It’s only been seeing my four year old niece who has a very similar personality to me when I was a kid...when I realised that my niece could speak better Cantonese than me I suddenly thought, “Wow this is weird, this is making me feel really uncomfortable.” It’s opened up a whole lot of issues between me and my family in terms of my Mum and Dad, because there is so many things between English and the Chinese language, we don’t even realise the way that people express themselves with Chinese language is so different to English. Everything is in context and everything is a lot more emotional. It’s a huge reason why me and my Mum, we get along, and then we don’t get along. We end up in all these conversations about simple things really, but we just don’t understand…it’s like a cultural clash within your own family.
I worked in hospo for 16, 17 years and left six weeks ago. I worked in a bar in O’Connell Street, and at Rakinos, then I did three years on private yachts, then I moved to Melbourne and worked in a club, and then front of house. Restaurants, cafes and moving up to management. Then I moved back here and Orphan’s Kitchen had just opened, and I ended up managing that. It’s just been hospo, and I always wondered why I was still doing it, because it was killing me. But it was always the conversation. Always the people, you just get to meet heaps of different people all of the time. We’re all so different but we all go through the same stuff, but everyone is kind of scared to talk about it. Four years ago I watched a movie called I am Eleven it inspired me to go to Nepal, to work at an Orphanage. That offset this moment, where I realised I really liked doing humanitarian work. I don’t know why, it just felt perfect.
When I moved back to New Zealand I met a lady who is a teacher at a refugee integration school for adults. Once they come out of Mangere camp and are settled into a housing situation they go to her school, if they’re in Glen Innes. She was a customer at Orphan’s Kitchen, and I joked about having Christmas at their house, and her husband was like, well it wouldn’t make a difference, we have refugees here at all times anyway. He showed me all these pictures of these ladies in burqas in their kitchen. I asked if I could check the school out. I found myself sitting in the classroom thinking, "I’m meant to be here, but I don’t know why".
Week after week I kept going back, and would help people who were struggling, and help them catch up with the rest of the class. One day the light-bulb shone, I realised these guys in this room are not any different to my parents when they first arrived in New Zealand. They will go through the same stuff that my parents went through, and their kids will go through the same stuff that I have gone through, the stuff that took me 30 odd years to realise. I thought, what can I do to celebrate different cultures so that people can understand that it’s OK? What can I do that people younger can look at and see that it’s OK to be from a diverse culture? That’s where it all began.
Break Bread is the event I’ve been working on, the reason I left my job. I want everyone in these beautiful, intimate halls, and then, bam, to slap them with culture. Each event will be showcasing one refugee ethnicity. The first event is highlighting Mon culture, who have been displaced out of Burma. We’ve got a really small community of Mon in NZ, about 37 families. We’re such a multi-cultural city, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re still heavily segregated. I thought if I do something fun, and it involves food, and it involves connecting people where everyone is going to learn, you can’t lose. I’ve been searching for about four years to come up with some kind of concept that isn’t a charity – because some people don’t want to give money for no reason.
There is a speaker element where they write letters to their eleven-year-old selves, so it’s self-reflection for them, and also self-reflection for the audience. It’s humanising. I curated the panel to make sure there was diversity, and different stories, and we also hear from the refugee’s culture we are highlighting. We got the chairperson of the Mon community, Naing Min, to collaborate with a local chef, to teach the chef how to make a dish from their culture. We’ve created a short film out of this, which includes Naing Min telling his own story of how he came to be a refugee, and how he came to be here, his goals for the future generation and how he’ll die happy if the culture is preserved through the next generation. Right at the end, we will serve a traditional Mon dish to the audience, so everyone can break bread together.
I think that collaboration empowers people. Education about all our differences just makes us that little bit more comfortable. I’m just trying to create something that’s not debating the quota, or how we’re opening the flood-gates to 500 more refugees. Why don’t we just start celebrating the people that we’ve got and learn a little bit more about each other? We act like we’ve got this rad multi-cultural society, but when it comes down to it, if I was born here, and I feel uncomfortable about being Chinese, I don’t even want to start to think about what other kids go through, like a girl that has to wear a burqa to school. I think the more that people understand different cultures, the more they’ll have respect for it.
I’ve been talking for the last two years about making ‘Break Bread’ happen. Two months ago I said, if I don’t do this now, it’s never gonna happen and I’m gonna work for someone and not be able to put my own energy into what I want to see happen, and maybe what I was born to do. I took the leap of faith and quit.
Deep in the back of my mind though, I knew I had to pay rent somehow. When I was in high school I wanted to be a furniture designer. These chairs I’m sitting on were originally orange tweed, and had heaps of varnish. Over Christmas I did the couches up, whipped out the sewing machine, did the cushions, sanded everything back and oiled it up. Recently I bumped into a regular customer, we made small talk, I asked what he was up to and he pulled his instagram up – and I realized he was Ben Glass. I have driven past his workroom on the way to work, and would look and have this feeling, like, that was the high school dream. When I saw his name on his instagram, I ran out to the car, grabbed my phone and showed him pictures of my couches, and geeked out. I asked him if he needed someone to sand some stuff, I went in for a trial, and I channeled all my inner-workshop goddess and watched him like a hawk, and he showed me how to use the table saw, and that was it. I’m there three days a week. I’ve been calling it a furniture design apprenticeship. My dream might still come true. It’s like university, but being paid.