BETHANY SCHOER: Reach Within Yourself
After launching The Pin, we received a message from Bethany Schoer telling us her story and it was too good to resist. On her maternal side, Schoer’s grandfather’s family came to Melbourne from Guangzhou (China) during the Gold Rush period and still maintains strong ties to their traditions and culture. In this interview we discuss how cultural ideals fit with personal values, the importance of self identification, and take a look at the ways multiculturalism is talked about in Australian society.
THE PIN. Where did you grow up?
BETHANY SCHOER. East Malvern. We moved there when I was about four years old and we’ve stayed there ever since.
What was the culture within your household? Was it different from the outside world?
B. I think it’s really hard for me to actually delineate between home and the outside world, because when you’re a child it’s not something you try and make clear in your own mind. One thing I did notice is that my mother’s cultural values very neatly intersected with the personal values of my father. I feel that’s why my family culture has been so cohesive.
Were there family values around the history or the culture of your family, and the identity of yourself and your family?
B. Going back to the idea that I just mentioned about the intersection of culture and personal values, I feel like there are a few examples to draw from. The first one is respecting your elders; respecting your grandparents and that sort of thing. It’s very much embedded in Chinese culture as it is, but I feel like that’s a value my dad holds particularly strongly. In addition to that, I also think that gratitude is a really big one. Acknowledging people and circumstances that have brought you certain opportunities and doing justice to that, more than anything. These are just a couple of things that I’ve noticed both in the Chinese culture and in the way that my dad expresses his values.
With your own identity, do you think it’s important to understand your family’s heritage and the culture that comes with it?
B. I think it’s a really important starting point when understanding yourself. But first and foremost, it’s more important when it comes to understanding other people and actually using it as a way of reaching out to others; reaching within yourself. If you try and attribute everything you do and every belief that you hold to your culture directly, it almost acts as a scapegoat. Whilst you need to draw on that, it’s also really important to draw on your own understanding of the experiences that are occurring around you as well. I’ve really tried to harness my understanding of my own culture by getting to know different people, especially doing my current course which is incredibly culturally diverse in terms of its cohort.
Following on with the concept of identity, do you think that language affects the way you relate to your identity or to the rest of your family?
B. I definitely think it does. As someone who has studied multiple languages, I’ve noticed the ways in which people who have had that upbringing relate to their birth cultures on a different level, with a greater level of intuition. In my case, I’ve always sensed this distance between myself and Chinese culture, and part of that is not necessarily because there’s a language difference (especially in terms of communicating with people in my family who are more conservative and traditionally Chinese); there’s still kind of a discord there. When I was growing up I always felt like Chinese culture wasn’t completely integrated into my upbringing. There was this understanding; I think I learnt when I was three or four that I was half-Chinese. That’s the first time I remember hearing that phrase being said, you know, ‘You’re half-Chinese’, but it kind of assumed a secondary position within my overall upbringing.
When you are of two cultures and even physically two races put together, you don’t actually feel like you’re half of anything. It’s like, where does that line begin? Where does one culture end and one start?
B. Exactly. I feel like it also implies a sort of deficiency, in terms of the phrasing of it. You’re not a whole person, you’re two halves.
What is geopolitical consulting and when did you become interested in it, or in politics in general?
B. Geopolitical consulting is a relatively new field, and it involves advising multinational enterprises about potential courses of action when they have to encounter a foreign government. Usually these are the governments of emerging markets. Analysts usually specialise and have a background at a postgraduate level in international security, economics or history.
Ever since I was about four or five, I’ve had a really strong interest in the way the world works and the nuances that are very specific to different cultures. I studied politics in my undergraduate degree, along with French and Japanese, and it just really seemed to stick. I really like the way that it presents so many opportunities to explore different ideas. It encourages you to challenge the world around you and apply certain ideas constructively while consolidating your own beliefs.
Do you think having a cultural understanding plays into the development of yourself and your beliefs in what you do?
B. I think it does. I was reading an interview probably about six months ago and it was with [a woman named] Esperanza Spalding. She’s a Grammy award-winning bassist and she’s mixed-race; she’s Welsh and African-American. She used this term, which was ‘cultural identity-neutral’. At first I didn’t really identify with this term as such, because I thought it didn’t fit well. But the more I went and thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that it was actually something I identified with to a certain extent, especially in terms of my writing.
My writing focuses on Russian politics, particularly in terms of whether or not Russia identifies as a Western or an Asian country; the implications of this, and how this has affected its overall pivot towards Asia in light of recent geopolitical events that are happening in Europe. Having this sense of objectivity has really informed my overall approach to politics and allowed me to explore more left-of-centre issues, rather than sticking to the conventional norm.
It’s interesting that you’re looking at a country that’s hard to pin down, whether it’s European or Asian, and yourself being someone who belongs to both of those sides.
B. Yeah, I definitely think there are obvious parallels between them. I mean, not to say that I personally identify with Russia – I would definitely say that’s a bit of a stretch! But by actually writing about Russian foreign policy and collaborating with people on those different ideas, it’s been a way for me to indirectly explore my own issues of identity.
With that, do you think that multiculturalism - or the existence of more than one cultural identity - is possible, or does having so many cultures eliminate that idea?
B. It’s an interesting question. I do feel it’s possible to associate with one or more cultures, but in the context of Australia, the way that the media and politics are operating at the moment makes it really hard for that self-identification to happen.
I’ve noticed that multiculturalism in Australia is something that’s been adopted, but only on a tokenism level. There are a few days here and there reserved for acknowledging cultural differences. So in that respect it’s only really skin deep. A lot of self-discovery only really occurs on an individual level and it’s not really something that is necessarily fostered within the wider community.
Do you get asked ‘where are you from?’ And if you do, how often does this happen and how do you respond?
B. I get asked that very frequently because I do look different. Looking at me, it’s very hard to detect the fact that I am actually half-Asian, but I don’t look like whatever ‘conventionally white’ means. The way that I answer that question is by saying that I am half-Chinese, half-Australian, purely because I’m pre-empting the fact that people are going to ask the inevitable, ‘But where are you from?’ question.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin that you’re in, what would it be?
BETHANY SCHOER. Be really kind to yourself, and most importantly, avoid putting pressure on yourself to try and follow the behaviour of someone who is an idealised version of you. Because if you’re going to do that, you’re going to create this dissonance between who you should be and who you are, and that’s just going to make you feel really uncomfortable and insecure. My advice to myself would just be to embrace the imperfections, because no one’s perfect at the end of the day. Avoid putting pressure on yourself to be something that’s expected of you; half the time, people don’t even care.
- This interview has been edited and condensed
Photo credit: Srini Madhavan