Twelve Questions: Dr Renee Liang

Dr Renee Liang is a paediatrician by day, poet and playwright by night. A prominent figure in Auckland's Chinese community, she is the daughter of immigrants, the sister of film-maker Roseanne Liang and is due to have her second child in two months' time.

Renee Liang says it is prophetic that her Chinese name, Wen-Wei, means 'literary blossom'. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Renee Liang says it is prophetic that her Chinese name, Wen-Wei, means 'literary blossom'. Photo / Brett Phibbs

1. Is medicine and literature an odd mix?

I didn't find out until I was midway through medical school that my unique Chinese name, Wen-Wei, means "literary blossom". My grandfather thought there were too many doctors in the family and he wanted his first grandchild to be a writer. I knew it meant flower but it was only when my mother told me that I realised what it really meant - it's a very special character and is quite rare. I didn't become a writer because of that, but it was in essence fulfilling that prophesy.

2. Your life seems incredibly diverse, and busy. How goes the juggle?

It can get very complicated! I'm 32 weeks pregnant now and find the best place to leave my brain is inside my iPhone - I try to enter appointments as soon as I make them. I make to-do lists, too, but as these are on paper I often find them months after. I try to focus on medicine when I'm in the hospital, family when I'm home, and the writing/emails once my daughter's gone to bed.

The writing often takes place side by side with my husband on the sofa or our king-sized bed (very handy for spreading paper around). I have a study, but it's been taken over by little clearfiles of unfinished things, books from my publishing projects, and empty suitcases waiting for the next time I go on locum.

3. What is the most damaging stereotype about Asian women?

Do I have to pick one? I think people resort to stereotypes when they don't know or aren't interested in knowing someone. It's the lazy and ignorant way out, and I've been guilty of it often. I find when you take the time to sit down with someone, mostly you end up being pleasurably surprised. We're all more similar than we think - one of the more important lessons I learned from my era of solo backpacking. So - there's pliant Third World maiden, kung fu warrior, unsexy brainbox, icy temptress ... all of which can be seen at your local cinema multiplex. I've lost track of the times I've had come-ons from slightly unkempt middle-aged men who make sure to tell me they have New Zealand citizenship. Or the dates I've had with lovely university-educated guys who then tell me I'm too "intimidating".

4. How have your parents coped with you and Roseanne telling family stories for public consumption?

I'll be honest, it was hard for them to take at first. I mean, we've always written stories, but Roseanne's documentary Banana in a Nutshell threw off the guise of fiction, and (to some parts of the community at least) appeared to criticise my parents for not letting her date a non-Chinese. It was not at all how she intended people to take it, but that's the risk of being a creative - there's two parts to it, the other part is how the audience interprets it. These days, I think they're more comfortable with it. Being Chinese parents, they still worry about the "can they make a living out of it?" part but they see we are starting to get recognised for what we do. Their friends and the community support us, which makes a big difference for them.

5. Your mum was keen for her daughters to keep their heads down when you were growing up. Was that a mistake, do you think?

She grew up in the aftermath of war and came to New Zealand in the 1970s, so the cautiousness is just a natural consequence, I think. I don't remember much overt racism when I was growing up in NZ - mostly just curiosity - but in more recent times there's been flareups of racism depending on who's currently immigrating or what's happening, [such as] the Crafar farms, etc.

My mum's attitude is very typical of the Chinese, even now. You're encouraged to think twice before you complain, not stand out and always try your best without expecting to be acknowledged. Maybe that's a reason for the "bamboo ceiling" - the fact that Chinese are not represented in high-level leadership positions despite the fact they are often valued workers at the lower tiers. It's also a big reason why Chinese have been until now unrepresented in the arts.

6. You were critical of Bevan Chuang in the wake of the Len Brown affair: do you still feel the same?

I wasn't critical, I just felt that her actions didn't help in the everyday battle against stereotypes. She was quick to acknowledge her own foolishness - she's human after all. What I was annoyed about was the way she was portrayed in the media and on blogs and social media (as either a dragon temptress or a helpless victim) when the reality was far more complex, as it usually is. What the whole affair uncovered, more than Len's sexual tastes, was just how ingrained prejudices and stereotypes are in New Zealand society (Asian communities included) and how far we have to go.

7. Do paediatricians make less neurotic mothers?

Depends on the paediatrician! I find we come in two flavours - far too laid back and total worry-wart. I used to think I belonged to the former, but my husband quite often points out that I'm worrying too much. Easy to do, I guess, when you are around sick kids all day. My normality doesn't match anyone else's.

8. Does being the child of immigrants affect your personality?

I've always been aware that my parents came here and didn't grow up here and that whole understanding of living in two lands. It's like there's this crack running down the middle of the road and you have feet on both sides. Sometimes the gap is very wide, sometimes you forget it's there.

9. Has your view of your parents changed as you've got older?

I always thought my parents were stodgy, conservative and boring. But I've been looking at a picture of them when they first came to New Zealand and realising how daring and adventurous they were to come. They knew no one but trusted it would turn out alright.

10. Does spirituality play a role in your life?

I'm not religious - never have been. It's the way I was brought up. But creatively - Lorca wrote of the "duende", the earthy, deep passion that infuses true works of art. It's what produces the thrill or shiver when you're sitting in the audience and something really moves you, so much so the feeling might stay with you for days after. That's what I'm hoping to find when I'm sitting there with my computer in the middle of the night - the soul of the work, the reason I'm writing it, the duende.

11. Your first full-length play is about a woman who leaves her family. Is it an Asian story, or a family story, and is there a difference?

It's a story about a family which happens to be Kiwi Chinese. Although all of my plays produced to date have Asian characters, I find audiences relate to them as people rather than "Asian characters" - we're all human, after all. My plays deal with love, longing, the search for identity and meaning, and loss - all universal themes. They could just as easily feature Pakeha or Samoan or Maori or Indian characters (and some do) - but it's always easier to start by writing what you know.

12. It also asks questions about belonging: where do you belong?

I've travelled quite a bit, even lived in various places for a while, and the place I belong the most is Auckland, New Zealand. Most of my close family are here, and there are lots of places imprinted with memories - you know, the "do you remember when ..." variety. Of course things change all the time, but here still smells the most like home. It's the place where inhabiting my many shifting cultures and identities makes the most sense.


Lantern, by Renee Liang, is on at the Musgrove Studio, Princes St, Auckland, as part of the Lantern Festival February 10-15.

- NZ Herald

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