Cambodia & NZ: From Me to You

New Zealand-born Sochetha Meng is a 3rd-year communication design student at Victoria University School of Design in Wellington. 

‘From Me to You’ is a design project comprised of 3 Zines—"The Past", "The Present" & "The Future" which recount her family’s migration experiences, her personal experiences as a second-generation Cambodian New Zealander and her re-imagining of the future for Asian New Zealanders. The project also explores the theme of culture and identity from a personal perspective. See her zines on Issuu or follow her work on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/project.frommetoyou/ 

What's the central idea of the project? 

My project is called ‘From Me to You’ and the essence of it is that it's a "care package" designed to help young Asian diasporas in New Zealand cope with their unique identity, and provide a stronger sense of belonging. While at the same time raising awareness and normalising conversations about migrant experiences in New Zealand. I want the name to portray that all of my design is a gift “From Me to You”. 

Wellington Cambodian-Kiwi design student Sochetha Meng / photo supplied

 Where did the core idea for the project come from?

Not being able to visit my parents and extended family in Cambodia since the Covid pandemic began has taken a toll on me both mentally and emotionally. The feelings I describe have always been with me for as long as I can remember and I thought this project was a good way to let those feelings out. I created this project as a way to shed light on the difficulties of navigating unique identities—being stuck in between two cultures, common to individuals in immigrant families like me.  

How did your family come to migrate to New Zealand?

My family immigrated to New Zealand in the late 90s around 1997-1999 through the suggestion of my dad’s extended family who was already here. At that time there was huge political and economical instability in the country due to the chaotic aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. The war with the Khmer Rouge dragged on through the 1980's, and in 1991 they signed a peace treaty, but broke it and went back to fighting a year later. Cambodia at this time was a broken country.  

 How has the experience of the Khmer Rouge impacted your family?

The Khmer Rouge will always impact my family no matter how much time has passed since those dark days. The regime has created massive holes in my family's lives that will never be replaced. I don’t think any member of my family who survived the regime has fully recovered, or properly healed. Everybody is trying to move on at their own pace. But every year on the 7th of January, a national holiday is held, commemorating and honouring those who have passed, and the survivors, Cambodians are yet again reminded by the regime.  

 Have you been to Cambodia recently and what were things like there?

The last time I visited Cambodia was late 2019 during the summer holidays for around two months, just before Covid hit. Before the pandemic, I visited Cambodia in the summer every year, so I became quite familiar with how things are there. Cambodia has changed in the past 5 years with rapid development in its infrastructure and businesses. 

 Being born in New Zealand, what is your experience of being a “Kiwi”?  

I often feel like I’m in the middle ground. I can’t exactly say for sure that I feel like a Kiwi because that would be a lie. Sometimes, I feel like a local while walking around town but sometimes, I feel like a tourist in my own home. Recently, I think I have become more self-conscious about my identity and become aware of people’s reactions towards me. I think the response of New Zealanders to the Covid pandemic has affected me in many ways. I have experienced things I never thought I would. 

"From Me to You" / photo supplied

 It’s obvious you have some feelings of being caught between two cultures – how do you handle that?

I try to take things one step at a time. Being bilingual doesn’t help me either because I sometimes feel I understand too much but on the other hand, my vocabulary doesn’t allow me to fully express my thoughts, especially in Khmer.

I balance two cultures -  my home life is majorly based on Khmer culture and traditions with a little hint of “Kiwiness” where we mix English in our daily conversations or eat takeaways. Once I leave the house, that part of me is now hidden and the “Kiwi” switches on and I speak and think in English. The hard part is when those sides of me don’t switch on or off as I would like it to and it all jumbles up. There’s a constant cycle where I try to express myself in Khmer but my family doesn’t understand so I try to explain in English but they’re not as fluent as I am so we end up not fully understanding each other at times. 

 Do you think Pakeha New Zealanders understand the experience of Asian migrants to NZ?

To a certain extent no, I don’t think they fully understand the Asian experience because they only see the outcome. The New Zealand media likes to paint Asian New Zealanders in a certain light and it shows in people’s actions towards Asians throughout the pandemic. Some common myths are that “Asians have it easy” or “they’re stealing our jobs” but that is not the case.  

What can New Zealanders do to learn more about Cambodia and its people?

I think that New Zealanders should keep an open mind and perhaps try to learn a bit about the country and their people in their own time if they’re interested. Cambodia is quite unknown to a lot of people, unlike its neighbours Thailand and Vietnam. 

Asian migration to New Zealand has been significant, and the Asian diaspora here is increasing quickly. How do you see the future for a country with an increasing population with an Asian background?

I can only hope that New Zealanders will be more welcoming and accepting to those who wish to migrate here. I hope that New Zealanders will see every person of colour as a person, before their race, culture or ethnicity.  

What is your next move post-university?

As of now, I am looking for summer internships I can apply for now that I have finished my degree and also considering the option to do a Masters of Design Innovation which would begin immediately next year in February. 

- Asia Media Centre