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Equity, Diversity & Inclusion in the Workplace Episode 1: Choon Tan, Culture Shift

Welcome to the first episode in the Robert Walters mini-series on Equity, Diversity & Inclusion hosted by Beth Tappenden, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Associate at Robert Walters. Beth leads on a number of ED&I initiatives from the Manchester office, aiding our candidates and clients on best practice around hiring and recruitment with a focus on ED&I.

In this first episode, Beth is joined by Choon Tan. Choon is the Content Marketer at Culture shift, which has the mission to make places of work and study free of bullying, discrimination and harassment. Choon has a very keen interest in ED&I, with a particular focus on ESEA discrimination & representation.

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Beth Tappenden:  Hello and welcome to Robert Walters'  Powering Potential and to our UK mini series on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in the work place. My name is Beth Tappenden and I lead on a number of ED&I initiatives from our Manchester office, aiding our candidates and clients on best practice around hiring in recruitment with a focus on equity, diversity and inclusion. I am very excited today to welcome Choon to the podcast. Choon is the content marketer at Culture Shift, where he helps the mission to make places of work and study free of bullying, discrimination and harassment. He has a very keen interest in, ED&I, with a particular focus on ESEA Discrimination representation. 

Choon Tan: Hi! Thank you for having me.

Beth Tappenden: Thank you very much for coming on, so Choon we're going to go a little bit into Lunar New Year's celebration. And ESEA culture representation in general. Could you tell us what Lunar New year is, and who celebrates this?

Choon Tan: Yes, so Lunar New Year is a celebration based on the beginning of a lunar or lunar solar calendar across several different cultures and countries particularly across east and southeast Asia. So obviously it is predominantly celebrated in places like China, Hong, Kong, and Taiwan, and also countries such as Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia, but also other countries, and around the world, with a particularly sizable  population of Chinese people, even people in Thailand in Philippines, and sometimes Japan also celebrate them as well. It's just one big massive celebration, to mark the start of a new year in these countries and cultures.

We talk about Lunar New Year as a more inclusive term, because, although many places and people and businesses have traditionally called it Chinese New Year. That's not quite inclusive of everybody from those other places that do celebrate it. So Lunar New Year is absolutely more inclusive and diverse.

Beth Tappenden: Yes, fantastic, and so you've gone over a little bit why it's important to bring attention to the celebration relation to ESEA Culture. Could you just tell us what ESEA stands for yeah, just for those who don't know.

Choon Tan:  Yes, so ESEA stands for East and South East Asian, so that is all those many countries I have just and talked about. There are a vast number of countries and territories around that celebrate not only Lunar New Year but other special dates around that time. It's really important to bring attention to ESEA culture and heritage, because of the minimal recognition that a lot of them get, especially in the UK.  So there's around 1.2 million ESEA people in the UK at the moment. Around half of those are of Chinese ethnicity, and so while Chinese people are more populous around the UK, we can’t forget about everybody else and their differences and the nuances within their cultures and traditions, which might all interlink but are also separate and valid.

Beth Tappenden: That point you made earlier about it being called Chinese New Year rather than Lunar New Year, that's definitely a term I've heard before myself. So in terms of from a D&I perspective, what can you do to make sure ESEA people are included, and that we’re not just, you know, putting it down to just one nationality.

Choon Tan: I think, one of the main things is to just ask and listen to people from within those different cultures for inputs and opinions, and to talk about their experiences. Just ask them, do you celebrate it as well? How do you celebrate it? and things like that, and just to make sure people understand and just to educate people on these things. When you're talking about Lunar New Year, just to make it known that other people will celebrate it, and why it's called Lunar New Year as I just mentioned. It's really important to just make sure that all the strategies are supportive, inclusive of all of those different cultures, in some way or another.

Beth Tappenden: Yeah, definitely, I guess outside of Lunar New Year, what are some of the challenges that ESEA people might face? Why is this something that you want to address?

Choon Tan: Well, obviously, in the past few years there has been a lot of racism and racial discrimination in that ESEA people although this might predominantly be people of Chinese ethnicity or Chinese heritage. People from other ESEA backgrounds have also faced that racism, simply because of their so called similar or alleged similar appearances to Chinese people, so they've also beared the brunt of that. For the communities it's important for us all to get together and stand with each other as one big community.

That’s obviously the main problem that they have faced but I think a lot of the time a lot that has gone unheard of, or relatively swept under the carpet or not as publicised by the media and things like that. There are also lots of generalisations and stereotypes about ESEA people which kind of siloes them and almost imaginises them under one umbrella. We talk about ESEA people as one community, but there are so many different aspects within those communities and the people within those.

There is also a lot of underrepresentation of them especially in the media and the arts on TV, in theatre and things like that, especially which I always focus on a lot, in my blogs and things like that. A lot of that is probably down to institutional racism where those stereotypes have made people think oh ok there aren’t as many people to fulfil these roles, so we wont add roles for them anyway, or if we do have roles they will be based on a stereotypical look or storyline and then that’s where that underrepresentation comes from. 

Beth Tappenden: Yeah, I saw a post you made the other day about that actually, about different storylines in the media, and the myths that they continue to push about ESEA people. One stereotype that you actually brought to my attention Choon, I think I knew the stereotype, but I hadn't heard the term before for the Model Minority Myth. Could you please explain what that is?

Choon Tan: Yes. So, this myth is based on generalisations and stereotypes which I just mentioned which are then based on what so called positive attitudes towards ESEA people, in particular the Chinese people, but they do, because of traditions and cultures and mindsets, they do branch out to other cultures as well. So examples are that they are high achievers in education, and are high earners at work. That they're well behaved, and don't want to cause trouble, and that they are non-confrontational and like to stay quiet. So things like that have often subconsciously or consciously being used to pit, East and South East Asian people against each other and other ethnic minority groups as a minority to kind of look up to and be like, especially in a white dominant society, so it kind of feeds into that white supremacy idea as well as the anti-black, anti-brown narrative, where some of them might think why do we have to be like them? why are they put on this pedistool, so for them it isn’t great, but alos for ESEA people it isn’t either because they might not fit into those stereotypes, they want to rebel against those, they don’t strive to fit into that model. Especially for a lot of them it has come down, not just from society thinking this and the media, but its also from parents and upbringing and traditions that have passed down, that mindset that they’ve got to be hardworking to get somewhere. They’re told to keep their head down and not get into trouble. That’s something that for many is a big thing, so from all sides really, so that’s why a lot of them especially in my generation, a lot start to rebel and they're alot more assimilated with British culture rather then their own, and that’s what a lot of us have actively in the past, seeked to do, to actively disconnect ourselves from that, so that we're not siloed into that myth, because it is harmful for us and other minority groups

Beth Tappenden: You as an ESEA person, have you experienced this stereotype, or has affected you in any way?

Choon Tan: Definitely, my parents and family always talked about the importance of education, which is, it is a big thing, but obviously they were very strict on it as well. They really wanted to steer me into particular career paths and things like that, and you know, always question why I wanted to do marketing instead of something such as law which my brother did do. It was quite stressful growing up, thinking that at times I did feel disconnected from that Chinese heritage side of me. Until I got into my later teen years and I reconnected a bit more with that. I realised that I can help turn this around, I can help bring attention to this and change that narrative, and fight against those stereotypes, and that view that society and the media, and people in general might have of us.

Beth Tappenden: Yeah, that's fantastic to hear, and in terms of educating yourself more about ESEA people and culture. Are there any other dates that we can recognise or celebrate, or you know any other way that you would recommend people go about learning more about ESEA culture?

Choon Tan: Yes, so for me, being quite active on LinkedIn and speaking with any other ED&I people I found quite a few people from other ESEA cultures that I had learnt things from, even just how they celebrate Lunar New Year, from Vietnamese, Filipino, and Korean backgrounds as well for example. I think that’s a really good tip, just to to ask those questions again, and share those experiences with each other, to see the similarities and differences that they each have.

But yes, one of the big ESEA dates to think about is ESEA heritage month, which takes place each September, so it only started in 2021 so this year 2023 will be the 3rd year in the UK. It's a time to celebrate and honour ESEA people and culture, and in particular how they have helped shape UK society and culture. So something that several non-profit organisations that started around the pandemic have got together to highlight and create this date first of all, to start highlighting it and promoting it, and there’s been several events which have cropped up over the past couple of years, predominantly in London but there have been more in the last year across the UK, a couple in Manchester as well, which I’m hoping to be able to take a more active stance in that for this year.

Beth Tappenden: Fantastic. So that's in September, be looking forward to seeing what you share Choon, and also how you mark the occasion. So Lunar New Year it's a bit closer. When is that happening?

Choon Tan: So it starts this year on Sunday 22nd January and in many ESEA zodiac calendars that is the year of the rabbit, but I do believe it is the year of the Cat in Vietnam, so that is one example of a difference that you can see from them. Usually that is a two week or 15 day long celebration that ends with the lantern festival which is a big celebration at the end of those two weeks, half way through that the first month. Again, that is celebrated across the ESEA region and in different ways again, by different cultures. That usually takes 14 or 15 days, but some cultures only celebrate the first few days perhaps.

Beth Tappenden: Okay. Fantastic. I know you have an event coming up later this month to mark the occasion. But will you be celebrating this year outside of that event as well?

Choon Tan: Yes, I will be celebrating with family down in London, around that weekend actually as well, and I will also be doing a celebration at my workplace with Culture Shift, by doing a lunch to impart wisdom again on that diversity of Lunar New Year across the ESEA region and hopefully that will be really interesting for people, and my team mates to learn more about that. 

Beth Tappenden: Great to hear that you're sharing this with your colleagues and people at work, and that  you're opening up in terms of how you celebrate and what you'll be doing around this date. So to finish off Choon, I know you have an event coming up to mark this. Would you like to tell us a little bit about what that is, and if people can get involved or attend, how to do so?

Choon Tan: Yes, so on the 25th, that's a Wednesday of January at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, on Cambridge Street,  myself and a few others will be hosting and organising, a Lunar New Year event which we've dubbed, LNYxMCR, and that is about the power and importance of ED&I during Lunar New Year and beyond. We will be having talks about the diversity of Lunar New year across the ESEA region again, as well as a talk I will be delivering on what Xenophobia is. Xenophobia is a hatred and fear of China and East Asian cultures and people and things like that, as well as debunking the Model Minority Myth which we have already just spoken about. Then someone else will be talking about how organisations and people can help and support and include their ESEA colleagues in the workplace.

So it'd be great for people to get together to learn a bit more about Lunar New Year, the challenges that we face, as well as how they can fight those challenges especially in places of work, and really support and include their colleagues who if they’re from ESEA backgrounds, they may have always felt a little bit unsupported or forgotten about, especially when it comes to ED&I strategies. That is understandable in a way because sometimes they're the only person who identifies at ESEA in that workplace or of very few. I think it is absolutely important to not forget them as well when your talking about Lunar New Year and just generally how you can support colleagues throughout the year. We’ve also got some really great local caterers across the ESEA region who will be supplying some great food and also some great beverages from across the ESEA region as well will be available. We’ve also got a raffle with prizes donated from several ESEA creatives and organisations as well which is really great. Donations from that raffle will actually go towards a non-profit organisation called ‘On your Side’ which is a help line for ESEA people to report incidences of hate and racism that they have faced, so that they can get any sort of advice and what to do next and support on that, so that is really cool. We will also be having someone from that organisation join us to talk a bit about that too.

Beth Tappenden: Sounds like a fantastic event. and a lot going on. I would really recommend going to the event if possible and to do so follow Choon on LinkedIn. I'm sure you sign posted it there a few times. I also recommend following Choon on LinkedIn for more content as well as his blog for more information around ED&I and specifically ESEA heritage and culture. Thank you very much Choon for coming on the podcast today.

Choon Tan: No worries. Thank you for having me

Beth Tappenden: Fantastic. Well, thank you all for listening as well to our UK mini-series on equity, diversity and inclusion in the workplace. If you would like to hear more content along, please subscribe to Robert Walters' Powering Potential.

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