Latu at the Grand Palace in Bangkok
Somewhat unexpectedly, it was in Suva, Fiji, that Latu Clark learned traditional Chinese dance.
Growing up in the Pacific capital Latu was a pupil at a local Chinese school – her parents sent her there as it had a reputation for academic excellence, something they put a high value on for Latu and her siblings.
Latu reckons the island nation’s culutral diversity is probably less obvious to a visitor on a fly-in, fly-out resort holiday.
But it had a lasting impact on her: “There’s long been Chinese communities and Indian communities...When we went to school, there weren’t just Fijian children, there were children from all sorts of backgrounds. I think that was really good for us to be exposed to so many different cultures from a really young age.”
So, back to learning traditional Chinese dance as a highschool student – it came naturally to Latu, the daughter of a Tongan mum and a Pakeha dad.
“We’d learn these dances and we'd get to perform them at significant events like Chinese New Year or if we were having a special assembly at school.
“In my own culture, in Tongan culture, young women have a prominent role to play dancing at family and community events as well.
“So, there was an overlap there that was really familiar to me.”
Latu (second from right) celebrating her grandmother's 90th birthday with her sister, grandmother (Latu Snr) and her mother
Fast-forward a decade or so and Latu continues to marry a strong sense of her own cultural identity with a curiosity and respect for other cultures.
She’s working at the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), where she chairs a network of Pasifika employees.
Working at MPI was her first job out of university and, like other graduates, it took some time to find her feet.
“It was really positive, but it was quite a big change. And what really helped with that change was connecting with the Pasifika staff community at MPI...finding people who had a very similar background to me, who shared some of the same values, but also who were going through that experience of finding their place in the workforce, specifically being a representative of our government.”
The group encourages the use of Pasifika languages in the workplace and celebrates important cultural days throughout the year.
“But we also explore what it means to be a Pasifika person working for the New Zealand Government, and how we can bring our culture into that and also how we can utilise that to connect with the communities that we're serving.”
There’s also power in a collective.
“There is still a real lack of diversity in leadership positions, and that's the case across any sector that you look at. I think if we're truly going to move forward as a society, leadership tables need to look much more diverse.
“Networks like ours are starting to chip away at that. Because we're organised, because we mobilise, we're a group that can provide a specific voice on things and, I guess, just really have a presence.”
Latu’s one of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network’s newest members.
“You'd be living in a bubble if you couldn't see all these connections to Asia everywhere. You can’t just ignore its presence," she says.
“I just thought joining the network would be another way to broaden my horizons and be a bit more intentional about the interests that I have with Asia and wanting to build on that.”
Latu’s already been doing that, in small, tangible ways. Recently, for example, she’s been seeking out books by Asian authors.
“Because they have a different perspective, and I’m curious to understand that and also see how it connects to me – where there may be similaritities but also where there could be differences.”
And that’s another theme that motivated her to join the network: the opportunity to meet other young leaders with a diversity of world views and experiences, and to focus on the ways to connect.
“I have friends already in the network. They spoke about connecting with people who are just as passionate as they are about leadership and about the changes we're starting to see in society, where hopefully we're moving to a place where we are more comfortable with having diverse voices and faces and cultures at the forefront, not just on the edges of society, but really in it, you know, in our government, in our media, in our schools, and so on.”
Latu: "As I've gotten older, I have a much deeper understanding of how important culture is, not just to an individual but to society."
Latu acknowledges that at other points in time, members of minority communities in New Zealand sought to blend in, rather than stand out, and that may have served them well.
But now, cultural identity should be treated as a superpower, she says.
“As I've gotten older, I have a much deeper understanding of how important culture is, not just to an individual but to society.
“Understanding myself, understanding my culture, respecting my culture, celebrating it - not only enriches me, but it enriches the people around me.
“It creates a space where others can do the same – if people can see me leaning into myself and leaning into my history and my culture, enjoying it, seeing how it's a value-add, it's a superpower in the spaces that I move in or the people that I interact with, hopefully, that encourages them to do the same.
“The more that I learn about my culture and my heritage, the more that I just realise how rich and how interesting other cultures are.”