How dreams change and grow

Migrant stories

He first came here to study to become a filmmaker, but Ken Liu’s path has altered since then - and he’s become an excellent example of how to embrace change.


Following his dream of becoming a filmmaker like Peter Jackson first lured Ken Liu from China to New Zealand. Ken was studying English Classics in Henan, north-east China, and first became aware of New Zealand through the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. Then in 2005, he saw Peter Jackson’s King Kong, which set in motion his dream of further study.

“I thought about the UK and America, Canada, even Australia, but the fairytale that Peter Jackson depicted was already imprinted in my mind. So I made a decision to come to New Zealand to study film making at AUT [Auckland University of Technology].”

Though his family had encouraged him to study overseas, this was still a radical change. “Sometimes I can still feel the excitement of being rebellious, because my father always wanted me to be a lawyer, like himself – but I knew I was not the kind of person to sit in a law office and give advice.”

Ken arrived in 2006 to a pre-arranged homestay, but the first night away from family was still a challenge. “When I closed my door behind me, the loneliness hit me, even though I was grown up [24 years old] at that time.”

Being an outgoing person, he made an effort to get into Kiwi life. “I realised I came here with a dream, and I just can't wait to meet people here. So I joined the gym, joined clubs, and took whatever opportunities I could to meet people,” Ken says. He also went flatting with friends for three years, and the loneliness faded away.

There were cultural adjustments to make, especially around money. “I used to carry a lot of cash with me – in China we do that – but I realised that people here don't. They have a bank card and everything is digital.”

Ken studied for a graduate diploma in digital media at AUT. Working as a lab supervisor there meant he gained a good reference that helped him find a job after he finished studying.

“It was so smooth and I think it all came down to communication, to how I see myself as a person who wants to interact with the rest of the world.”

Originally Ken wanted to work for Weta after graduating, but his first job was as a multimedia developer for a company that created training materials and e-learning modules. “It's quite different from what I thought I could do,” he says. “Being a stranger in a strange place, you just take the best option you have.”

But he happily stayed there for three years. His workmates were from New Zealand, Australia, Macedonia, Indonesia and China; everyone was young and engaging, and they would play foosball or board games together at lunchtime. Ken now works for power company Genesis Energy, as a multimedia designer for the learning and development department – he designs e-learning modules with rich (or advanced) media technologies.

He nearly moved to America at one stage for further study, but a two-month trip discovering the beauty of the South Island convinced Ken to stay here. “I just fell in love with the country. It sounds quite cliché but that's really what happens.”

Within three months Ken had gained his New Zealand residency, and later he met Vikki, a makeup artist who came here from China in the late 1990s. They met playing majiang (also known as mahjong), before becoming a couple and marrying in 2011.

Their wedding blended Chinese and Kiwi cultures: Vikki wore a white gown and later a traditional qipao dress, they held a tea ceremony, and speeches were in English and Mandarin. They plan to raise their baby daughter to know both cultures.

“In the future New Zealand needs multitalented people who can speak many languages, who have cultural sensitivity and awareness. I want my daughter to grow up to become a talent like that,” Ken says.

In 2010, with his friends, Ken started the New Zealand Chinese Youth Federation, a non-profit organisation that helps migrants and international students deal with cultural differences and settling down in New Zealand. They work with the likes of Auckland Council, Immigration New Zealand (he recommends their website, for those thinking of moving here) and other organisations to build links and share information, and run events focusing on culture and employment.

Ken feels he has had a “smoother” experience of migration than others, and wants to help those who find it more challenging. “Help is always there, you just need to make an effort to find it.”

The challenge for migrants lies in finding that delicate balance between remaining proud of your own culture and adapting to a new culture. “Immigrants are different, but we should celebrate the difference,” Ken says.

“Embrace change: you need to adapt but you can’t change who you are. So celebrate your identity, then focus on what you're going to do to enjoy the free land of New Zealand.”

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