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Jay Ooi
Portrait of Jay Ooi
Photo taken by Abby Shen
Interviewed in February 2023

Jay Ooi is a proud Australian born Malaysian-Chinese. Jay loves talking about culture, hearing and sharing stories, so much so that he launched Shoes Off in 2019. Shoes Off is a podcast about Asian Australian culture, where each episode deep dives into a particular topic or issue which questions, explores and celebrates what it means to be an Asian Australian. Shoes Off won the Smartest Podcast in the 2021 Australian Podcast Awards, and placed Silver for Best Interview in the 2020 Australian Podcast Awards. In 2021, Jay was named the 2021 Jesse Cox Audio Fellow, an opportunity which he has been using to develop another podcast, You Have Been Told a Lie.

Prior to working as a Social Media Manager at Square, he has had over 6 years in broadcast television experience, working across shows like At the Movies with Margaret and David (ABC), The Amazon of the East (ZDF) and The Set (ABC), as well as years of freelance video production work telling personal stories for small and big brands.
There’s a reason why Shoes Off, Jay’s podcast, won Smartest Podcast at the Australian Podcast Awards 2021. If you listen to any of his episodes, you’ll think you accidentally clicked on an SBS documentary instead of a podcast episode. You can tell the amount of effort, time and research that Jay puts into each episode in order to create content that listeners can really take something away from. What stood out for me, is how Jay not only features Asian Australian stories very honestly, but how he often includes interviews with experts and academics, to give listeners the language to break down these often fundamental and rarely discussed experiences and ideas. 

Jay also started this podcast in 2019, back when discussion around race and culture in Australia wasn’t as prevalent as it is now. I wanted to interview Jay, because I wanted to understand the process he went through creating such a valuable podcast for Asian Australians, and see how this journey of exploring certain topics relevant to Asian Australians has informed his own identity moving forward.

I hope Jay’s story inspires you as much as it did, me.
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.
on culture and identity
Growing up, what was it like navigating not only your Asian Australian identity, but your queer identity as an Asian Australian?
Growing up, I actually went to a primary school that was quite predominantly Asian. Even then, for whatever reason, the white kids were still the cool kids in school. That just established a  very clear message of the racial hierarchy. Even as kids! Another part of my experience was in realising that my experience growing up wasn’t the ‘norm’. I grew up around a lot of Malaysian Chinese family friends, because those are just the people that my parents hung out with. It meant that I always got a culture shock when I heard how other non-Asian people grew up - simple things like showering in the morning. Just the mere realisation that my experience wasn't normal, was quite eye opening.

Growing up queer as an Asian Australian was tough too because I didn’t have any role models to look up to. And in the upbringing and culture I was in, there was no option to be gay or to be queer. The messaging I always got was to go find a woman to get married and have kids. That was the only thing that was ever communicated to me. With that messaging, I really didn’t want to be gay and I honestly would try to pray it away. Even for non-religious people, I'm sure a lot of people just wished that part of themselves away. Even at school, there were definitely very clear homophobic messages, to the point where if you came out you wouldn’t be accepted, and you would be bullied. It was a part of me that I learned to hide from a young age.

It was only around 2015, after I left the church for other reasons, when I became much more open to exploring and being comfortable my queer identity. And it was around 2017 after I came back from the US and Canada, when I became much more open and proud of my Asian Australian identity.
Why do you think you love talking about culture, to the extent that you started a podcast doing just that?
I think that the Australian identity is loosely built around assimilation, moreso than embracing multiculturalism. But we should all be able to coexist as different humans. So I wanted to express this, and do more in actually embracing multiculturalism. That’s why my podcast is centered around different aspects of my culture and other Asian cultures too, to understand ourselves better and feel more confident in ourselves and the culture that we belong to.
What is a significant cultural memory of yours?
Going to Malaysia as a kid, where we would go once every one or two years. I would just see how all my cousins were living and realised how fortunate I was to be living in Australia. My cousins would just be studying all the time, because it’s so competitive in Malaysia to get into university to get a degree. And I would go back to Australia and play on the street on our cul-de-sac and I remember thinking: we have it pretty good here. I'm very glad that my parents moved to Australia.
What is your favourite food from your culture?
There’s a couple. I haven’t found a place in Australia that does this but I love popiah, which is this wet spring roll. It’s not fried, but it’s filled with turnip and other vegetables. It's so delicious - not overly sweet, but it has this sweetness that comes from the turnips. I always get it when I go back to Malaysia. Also just my mum’s soup, which white people call bone broth. It’s just bones and veggies that you use to make a stock, which you can have on its own or turn into a noodle soup. It’s my comfort food and I cook it at least once a fortnight, then eat it for around 6 meals because you can just do anything with it. 
Who is an Asian Australian that inspires you, and why?
This is a hard one. I don’t have a good answer because there’s so many people who I respect that are doing great work that have paved the way. Penny Wong is a great example of a queer Asian in politics - just her mere existence in great. Benjamin Law who is also just a visibly queer Asian in mainstream media. Poh Ling Yeow from Masterchef cooking Hainanese chicken rice in the very last episode of Season 1. I love that dish because it’s so simple but delicious. She was so gutsy and bold to do that and represent Asian culture like that right in the finale. That was so inspiring, and I really connected to her as an Asian person cooking amazing Asian food. Also Diana Nguyen (actor, writer, comedian etc) who I interviewed for Shoes Off - she just puts herself out there. I find it so amazing how she is just a trailblazer - creating her own acting roles and starting her own web series.

Also, all the amazing academics that I’ve spoken to for Shoes Off -  Dr Jane Park (Senior Lecturer in Gender and Cultural Studies at USYD, trained in literary and media studies), Timothy Kazuo Steains (Lecturer in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at USYD), Professor Yingjie Guo (Professor in Chinese Studies at USYD) and so many more.