An interview with the podcast and video series creators, Julie Zhu and Saraid de Silva
Returning for its third and final season, Conversations With My Immigrant Parents, shares the confronting and heartfelt conversations of immigrant families in Aotearoa. The creators, Julie Zhu and Saraid de Silva, defy the parameters of immigrant discourse and representation by providing audiences with an intimate look into the topics and stories often left unsaid between family members.
What inspired you both to create Conversations With My Immigrant Parents?
Julie: There’s a lot of reasons, but I think we were both hungry for more complex and nuanced storytelling about our diaspora communities. We also wanted to hear perspectives we hadn’t heard as much from, especially those from our older generations. So often immigrant stories are told from the 1.5 or second generation and beyond—the generation who has assimilated and knows how to use the language to articulate their experiences—but it’s rarer to hear from first generation older immigrants directly. So long-form intergenerational storytelling felt like a good fit to express this.
Saraid: Looking back I really think we wanted to queer that narrative. We wanted to complicate it. That seems to be the theme to so many of our episodes: things unravelling in front of people. That feels so much more like our own experiences of being an immigrant (in Julie’s case), and being a kid of immigrants (in my own case), than what we had seen before. There is also just so much that goes unsaid among families. Over the course of a life, and amidst work and school and every other obligation, it’s hard to find the time to sit down and ask one another questions. I think this podcast creates that time.
How do you think your podcast challenges or enriches the discourse around immigrants and immigrant families in Aotearoa?
Julie: We really hope that our podcast and doco series has pushed the discourse locally around immigrant communities. We try to go beyond the tropes of immigrant storytelling that limits our experiences to only experiences of racism and/or identity—not that those are not valid and important elements of the immigrant experience. But we hope to contextualise these experiences in what it means to be an immigrant here in Aotearoa, living as tauiwi on stolen land, benefitting from a history of white supremacy and colonisation. Our individual experiences can’t be divorced from the bigger systemic forces. We try to avoid telling stories of the “grateful immigrant”, and the themes in our podcast over three years have covered everything from mental health, gender, queerness, grief, Tinder dates, to Shortland Street.
What lessons have you both personally learned while undertaking this project?
Julie: I think over the three to four years we’ve been working on this series, we’ve both changed in our own personal outlooks on the world, in some ways we are less angry, in some ways we are more angry. We’re constantly in flux because the context we’re in keeps changing as well. Ending the series after three seasons feels right as it seems like there are more and more immigrant storytellers coming forward to tell stories from a multitude of perspectives, and it’s warming to see the different approaches.
Saraid: Overall, I think this work has helped me to see that I am not unique—but in the most comforting and uplifting way possible. It’s reassuring to hear how many other families have struggled with the same things my own did, to know that our experience is not singular. It’s also shit, of course, and depressing to realise how much of all of our struggles are just to do with the machinations of white supremacy. But, there’s community in all this too.
What has been the public response since the launch of Conversations With My Immigrant Parents?
Julie: We’ve received some really heartwarming and special responses from people who have listened to the podcast. Many people talk about how the podcast has made them laugh, or cry, or both. There’s a lot to relate to for every single family on the podcast, even if their experience and situation is very different, there’s always something universal about family. Some of our favourite responses are, of course, from the families themselves. A lot of them are often nervous about something so personal and private coming out into the public for strangers to consume, but they always let us know how grateful they are to have had a chance to sit down for an extended conversation with their parents or kids. And we are so grateful for them for sharing about themselves so openly.
Saraid: Takunda from the first series messaging to tell us she listened with her family in Zimbabwe was pretty special. So was Emrie from that same series telling us that she, her dad Ty, and her grandmother kept talking for hours after we finished recording and left, that they spoke about things they hadn’t before. That’s what I come back to—participant response, rather than public response. That’s what feels most meaningful.
What was the response of your parents to the podcast? How was filming and recording an episode with them in Season 1?
Julie: I don’t know if my family has actually listened to the podcast. In some ways, the series is still inaccessible to some people. Language can be a huge barrier for second language learners to be able to engage deeply with the podcast and we do acknowledge that as one reason our audiences have typically been younger, and often from the 1.5+ generation. Saraid and I recorded conversations with each of our mums back in Series 1 and that was quite a confronting experience. I didn’t realise my mum would get so emotional. But even though it was hard, I’m really glad we got to do it and that there’s a record somewhere of her story.
Saraid: Yeah, recording with my own mum was interesting. There was a lot we didn’t say, and a lot that she panicked about afterwards. I think it’s easy to fall back into familiar stories, but the process works better for everyone when you discover new things, or ask questions you’ve always wondered about. But that takes a lot of courage and vulnerability. I’m really glad we did it ourselves, because it helped me appreciate and understand the weight of what we’re asking people to do when they take part in this.
What can people expect to see in your third and final series?
Julie: One of the biggest differences in our third series is that the short videos we do for each episode of the podcast now include excerpts from the podcast conversation, which hopefully helps link up the podcast episode and video episode better together.
Saraid: I love this last series of ours. There are so many beautiful moments—Carmel, Adel, and Maxine discussing language in Episode One, the Shortland Street moments with Wajd, Shahd, and Sameer, being able to record a fully bilingual episode. It was also great to get out of Tāmaki a bit more than usual this season, that was one of our goals. It’s a great season to end on.
Conversations With My Immigrant Parents Series Three is now available on RNZ.