Leadership Network
forging cultural identity through sport

When he was based in Korea in the early 2000s, Jay Waters skied every winter day he could. He also loved to go running. He reckons sport can be a great way to adapt to life in a new place.

Jay taking part in the Taupo 320km Enduro cycle race

Today, at home in Wellington with his wife and preschool daughter, Jay is finishing off master’s research looking at how sport is helping Korean Kiwis forge a cultural identity in New Zealand.

It’s a good fit. He coaches endurance athletes, runs ultra-marathons, holds leadership roles in sporting and community organisations and is the only New Zealand citizen working for the Korean Embassy in New Zealand. At home with his daughter he only speaks Korean.

At the School of Languages and Cultures at Victoria University, Jay is researching the '1.5 generation' – Koreans who migrated during their schooling years to New Zealand with their parents, who migrated in search of a better lifestyle and educational opportunities for their kids.

“And many of their parents probably never intended that they would stay in New Zealand for the rest of their life. But that’s what’s happened.”

So far, he’s figured out that as a way of finding a place in their new world, sport can promote successful acculturation but is not that different for some young migrants than participating in other social or recreational activities.

“I would say sport is not critical. It’s one avenue of opportunity,” he explains. “Just because somebody doesn’t play sport, doesn’t mean they won’t successfully acculturate to New Zealand.”

However, far from neatly answering the research question, Jay’s work is throwing up plenty of curly questions around identity.

The greatest portion of Koreans migrated to New Zealand in the 1990s, which makes their situation different from the Korean diaspora in many other parts of the globe. For example, Korean migration to North America grew rapidly during the 1960s and 1970s.

“Koreans that are coming today are leaving a country that’s a desirable place to return to – many want to maintain their connections to their home while also building connections to their new home.

“They can enjoy being both Kiwi and Korean at the same time - there is an emerging Korean Kiwi identity, which isn’t necessary Korean or Kiwi, but a synthesis of both.”

There’s a term for it, Kowi, used by some academics and adopted by New Zealand’s most well-known Korean-born sporting identity, golfer Lydia Ko.

But Jay says he’s not sold on the term, arguing that cultural identity is not so easily packaged.

“Like my Korean Kiwi daughter, many 1.5 generation migrants don’t see themselves as exclusively Korean or Kiwi.”

He hopes that through his research he will be able to explore an emerging hybrid identity - an identity where nationality and ethnic origin are seen as fluid and less important to the individual than the unique form of identity that is emerging.

While broad strokes of the brush can oversimplify the complexities of individual experience, they still have a role to play and sport is an important consideration in this, explains Jay.

Jay: “Like my Korean Kiwi daughter [Dana], many 1.5 generation migrants don’t see themselves as exclusively Korean or Kiwi.”

In the long term, he hopes his research might help shape sports planning in New Zealand.

“Perhaps around how children are encouraged to participate in sports…through to what sports are funded and what facilities are provided and where.”

He says he’s grateful for the willingness of people to share their stories with him in the name of research. Qualitative research that draws on storytelling relies upon people sharing their experiences to build a greater understanding of people in social and cultural contexts, he explains.

He says everyone who has a connection with Asia has an important world view and should be brave to share their experiences with others.

Earlier this year Jay presented his research at the International Conference on Sport and Society held at the University of Hawaii with help from the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

By Kim Bowden