What prompted you to create Shoes Off?
Growing up Asian in Sydney, I always had this sense that I wasn't quite fully Australian as an Asian person. This was through subtle messaging or whatever bullying you experience in school. I didn't know why it was like that and I didn't feel empowered to talk about it. But when I travelled around the US and Canada in mid-2016 for three to four months, I saw a very different expression of Asian identity in a western context. I saw Asians who were really proud of their culture and heritage, something I didn’t experience much of when growing up and even as an adult. It was moreso the opposite, where I wanted to shy away from those parts of myself.
When I came back to Australia, I found it strange that we were like this. Why do we feel like we don't belong? Why do we have this internal, unspoken shame? Travelling to the US and Canada changed my perception on what I thought could and should be normal in Australia. I came back in 2017, and after meeting different people who were pursuing passion projects outside of work, I then realised I could do something similar, ultimately propelling me to starting Shoes Off.
What do you hope listeners get out of listening to Shoes Off?
The goal of Shoes Off has always been to be welcoming, open and curious so that anyone can listen, even though it is moreso geared towards Asian Australians. I didn't ever want the show to be angry and overly negative, even though we do tackle some difficult topics. I wanted it to be constructive, so we could productively talk about difficult topics and take learnings away. That's always been how I've approached the stories. I want Shoes Off to be a space where anyone can listen and learn. Particularly for Asian Australians to find commonality and similarities in their experience, and to feel good to know that they’re not the only person who thinks or feels a certain way. I hope it really gives that sense of community.
And then the other part is empowering people with the language to then talk about their experiences. We experience so much, but we don't necessarily have the words to express it or to understand what they mean. So a reason why I often interview academics as a part of the podcast, is because they can help give us the words to express our experiences, being people who have spent years of their life researching these topics.
That's what I hope listeners get out of it - getting to take part in a constructive discussion, feeling like they’re truly a part of the Asian Australian community and understanding themselves, their experiences and Australia better.
How do you think the public discourse of race relations in Australia has changed since you first started Shoes Off in 2019?
I think it’s changed quite a lot in the past three to four years, which I honestly didn't expect to happen. My best guess is that COVID-19 had a really big part to play in this. One part was that there was so much fear-mongering happening around Chinese people (since the virus originated in China). From that, we saw very overt racism that we don't usually see so publicly in Australia, with people graffitiing Asian people's driveways, Asian people getting attacked on the street. And I think for a lot of Asian Australians, this was a wake up call - with the realisation that our country is still a little racist, with the worst coming out in moments like this. And the other part of COVID-19, was that everyone was stuck at home. From there we had so many podcasts, including Asian Australian podcasts that started during COVID-19 talking about the Asian Australian experience.
This, along with the Black Lives Matter movement and the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings where six Asian women were killed really prompted the #StopAsianHate movement, which wasn’t the same in Australia, but prompted more Asians in Australia to start thinking about race and how that plays out in Australia.
That, along with seeing more Asians in mainstream media has really shaped the public discourse around race relations. Michelle Yeoh just won the Golden Globe for Best Actress and SAG Award for Outstanding Performance. It’s taken so long for her to win this award but you can feel the air changing. The representation has helped so much. There’s been a lot of things happening these past few years that have prompted Asian Australians to reclaim their identity and also want to carve out a space for themselves.
Tell me about this new podcast project that you’re working on, You Have Been Told a Lie. What is it about?
You have been Told a Lie is a project that I'm working on with my best friend Thinesh Thillainadarajah. He had been following the story of a Tamil Sri Lankan asylum seeker family who were living in a small Queensland town called Biloela on bridging visas (a temporary visa that generally allows people to stay in Australia after their current substantive visa ceases and while their new substantive visa application is being processed). One day they were taken by Border Force and put into a detention centre in Melbourne, and were attempted to be deported twice. During the second time they were being deported, their plane stopped midway and they were diverted to Christmas Island which caused massive media coverage.
All this time, there’s a group of community members from Biloela, who were campaigning and advocating for this family to come back to Biloela. Thinesh found it really intriguing that people from rural Queensland were fighting for asylum seekers’ rights - it’s not really something you hear in the same sentence. So initially we wanted to do one episode covering this story and interesting juxtaposition.
So I applied for the Jesse Cox Audio Fellowship and pitched this project. I got the fellowship, which gave us a bit of funding and a lot of connections in the industry to help us craft the story in the best way. As we dug into the story and talked to more people from the campaign team to the family themselves, the story got really, really big.
It went from “how weird is it that rural Queensland people are advocating for asylum seeker rights” to “wow there’s so many things that have affected this family's journey that aren’t ever discussed in the media stories”. The media only focussed on the family pain - how what was happening to them was so unjust, how the kids were born in Australia and how the parents, Nades and Priya were true community members. This is all 100% accurate, but their pain is only a part of their story. We wanted to focus on all the other factors that impacted their story, like Australia’s awful treatment of people who arrive by boats, which ultimately affect the visas that they can apply for afterwards. After uncovering their story, the podcast is now going to comprise of 6 episodes. We follow the family's journey from Sri Lanka, what caused them to flee to Australia, their life in Australia and everything that happened during and after deportation, whilst talking about the things that have affected them along the way outside of their control - usually thanks to the Australian government's doing or something to that effect.
I also play a ‘part’ in this series, as a person who is discovering what's happening as the episode goes on, representing me two and a half years ago when I didn't know anything about this family. I didn't read the news before working on the story, and I didn’t know about politics. I play this role as if I’m learning all these things for the first time, as a proxy for the sort of listener we want for the podcast. People like me who are ignorant of the story, don’t really follow the news, and who get confused by politics and don’t understand how certain policy decisions affect people. I hope that the podcast is accessible to the wider public, and that people not only learn about the family’s story but all the external factors that played a role in it.
We’ve been working on this story from early 2021. Since 2022, I’ve only been focussing on this. It’s a really huge story - I’ve never done a multipart podcast series on a single story, which has been challenging but also fun. Currently this podcast is slated to be released on the 10th of June 2023, which is the one year anniversary of when the family arrived home in Biloela.
As a queer Asian man who has worked in various forms of storytelling, from broadcast television to freelance video production work to podcasting, what do you think is the importance of intersectionality in storytelling?
Intersectionality adds a layer of nuance and relatability that wouldn't exist without it.
For example, in Shoes Off, I interviewed author Rebecca Lim who talked about how all the novels she read growing up were about girls who wanted to find a boyfriend, which she did not find relatable at all to her experience. She then ended up writing a novel about a kid who was going through a lot of issues at home, where her family life was always on the top of her mind. There’s so much importance to showing the experience beyond a singular lens, to show that people's experiences are diverse and different. It’s not even that Rebecca’s story is every Asian girl’s experience, it’s just one, but there are so many aspects of it that are more relatable than the dominant narrative.
Even as a queer Asian man, the dominant gay male experience on shows and in narratives is still very white, even though it is changing. There’s still a lot of racial preferencing amongst gay men, which can lead to gay Asian men feeling like they're not deserving of love and connection which naturally leads to low self esteem. All because of the culture that we live in and the stories that we see and consume.
The more we can tell stories that show intersectionality of experiences, the more we can diversify the views that people have, and the expectations we all have.
There’s this quote from Ben Nguyen (used to work at the SBS) in an interview I did with him, where he said - this might not be exactly correct - “When an Australian TV show is looking for a universal character, universal means white”. There’s this view that if you make the main character - who you want everyone to relate to - not white, then you're going to isolate a bunch of people who can't relate to someone who's not white...
Another example is when Turning Red came out (the Disney and Pixar film centered around the story of Meilin, a Chinese Canadian 13-year-old, battling the ups and downs of the early 2000's with her friends, trying to please her mom) and there was an awful review talking about how they couldn’t relate to the story since it was such a specific experience of a Chinese girl growing up in the 2000s (it was CinemaBlend’s managing director Sean O'Connell who wrote that he couldn't connect with the film because "By rooting 'Turning Red' very specifically in the Asian community of Toronto, the film legitimately feels like it was made for Domee Shi's friends and immediate family members. Which is fine — but also, a tad limiting in its scope."). There were so many comments saying - you can relate to a car in Cars, or a fish in Finding Nemo, but you can’t relate to an Asian person? That just highlights how there is still such a racialised view in this industry, and how there is still so much more that needs to be done to introduce intersectionality in storytelling.
You have always been podcasting outside of your day job, working after hours and weekends to conduct research, outreach, write and edit your podcasts. What motivates you to keep telling all these stories?
I think I’m mostly driven by obligation and duty, which sounds super Chinese. I have a brain that doesn't like to stop working and I feel like I have a really specific skillset that’s good for podcasting, so that’s how I’m motivated to produce stuff that is actually useful for people and helps people understand themselves better, and will hopefully in a small way, change the way that we view Australian identity. I want to be able to use my skills in a productive way.
The other part is, the connection I get with people who write in and tell me how much the stories in Shoes Off mean to them. Or how they feel lucky to have found the podcast. I would still probably Shoes Off even if I didn't get those messages, but they’re definitely reassuring and affirming that what I'm doing is at least somewhat on the right track.