Thank you for taking part in our Asian Amplification Series Stephen! We are excited to hear and share your story with our members. To start with could you share a little on your Market Research journey and what you do now?
Thanks CORe for having me! Before MR, I cut my professional teeth in the public-relations industry. My first job was as an intern with a PR firm in Seattle. I moved to Hong Kong and worked for a couple of PR firms before being approached to be the Director of Communications for a start-up in the audience-measurement business. That became my bridge into MR.
One of the great things about working in a place like Hong Kong is that you can progress your career quickly and take unconventional routes, compared with the UK where there is more of an emphasis on “paying your dues” and switching industries is comparatively more difficult. My very first research job was as a Research Director, despite having very little actual research experience at the time. That was with NFO in Hong Kong, which was acquired by TNS in 2003. In 2008 I returned to London, just as TNS was becoming Kantar. I worked there until 2013 when I joined Ipsos MORI, where I stayed until 2019 when I became self-employed.
I'm sure working in Hong Kong was amazing! Talking on your background, do you feel your your ethnicity has defined you personally and at work?
Actually I’ve never been strongly defined by my ethnicity. Growing up in the UK in the 1980s, I didn’t know many other East Asian people other than family and I didn’t have any East Asian friends.
It was only after leaving the UK that I discovered my “Chinese-ness”. Today, I consider myself a “Third Culture Kid”, someone who belongs both everywhere and nowhere.
When I was growing up in the UK, East Asian people were relatively few and the ones that were here kept a low profile. We kept our heads down and lived a quiet life.
In hindsight the issue for me personally wasn’t so much about having to deal with overt racism, but something more subtle yet equally as insidious. The best way I can describe it as, is a feeling that one was always going to be a beta at best, with no hope ever of being an alpha. In every country there are social hierarchies, and in 1980s UK as a Chinese person you were aware of your place on the ladder, with no hope of reaching the top.
British standards and icons of aspiration and success are rarely represented in East Asian form. They’ve started to emerge more recently, but when I was young there were none. Even today, how many British public figures can you name who are of East Asian descent?
Spending time in North America, where there is a much larger East Asian population, opened my eyes. Then I moved to Hong Kong, to be surrounded not only by people of the same ethnic background but immersed in a rich diversity of people of many different backgrounds. Those years spent overseas were some of the happiest of my life, and I flourished personally and professionally.
Upon returning to the UK some years later I experienced some unexpected “reverse culture shock”. I found it hard to relate to people and people found it hard to relate to me. This was a problem not only with friendships but also in the workplace. Office culture in the UK is very different to Asia and I had to re-learn a lot.
The confidence I never had as a youngster in the UK, which I only gained living overseas, was damaged when I came back, as if I had stepped back in time.
I’m very happy now, but my experience has taught me that for all the progress we’ve made on diversity and inclusion, the UK is still a place where “fitting in” is really important. 1980s UK wasn’t an easy place to be different, and that’s still true today.
Is ethnicity & culture something you feel comfortable expressing and being open about in the workplace?
It’s not so directly relevant to me now that I’ve left the office behind and now work for myself, on my own terms. Although I did spend a long time working for other people in big firms, so hopefully I’m qualified to share some insights.
The first issue is the lack of East Asians entering the MR industry. Thanks to history, culture and family expectations East Asians tend to navigate to better-known professions. It’s not just an East Asian issue of course – it’s well known that the MR industry struggles to compete against more “glamorous” professions. East Asians are a small percentage of the population to begin with, and furthermore they are under-represented in research.
For the few who do enter the industry, the lack of role models is the next problem. Not only are East Asians under-represented in research, even fewer make it to director level. I can count the ones I’m aware of on one hand.
It’s a generalisation, but East Asian people are generally brought up to mind their own business and not make a fuss. Yet to be successful in the UK you need to be seen and you need to be heard. Being a great researcher isn’t enough by itself, if you want to progress. You need to know how to make friends, get your elbows out when needed, make sure people know who you are what you’re about. East Asian culture, upbringings and educational systems prioritise hard skills and academic achievement. In the corporate world, your soft skills and ability to influence people are really important.
We can agree with you on that, there is a real lack of ethnic minority role models in the industry, which we are hoping to change with our work! Now touching on why we started this series, there has been a rise in Asian Hate Crimes around the world and as someone from the community how do these affect you?
I’m very fortunate to be able to live in a lovely part of the world, surrounded by people of all nationalities. My personal experiences with overt racism are few and far between, although the ones I have had are etched in my memory forever, more than any physical pain or illness I’ve experienced.
The world is becoming more polarised and more parochial. We’re living in a golden age for extremism and hate. If you’re a moderate or have an internationalist outlook there’s a lot to feel dismayed about. Democratic societies like the UK, US and Australia are becoming more populist and nationalist, while elsewhere, authoritarian governments are tightening their grip.
In my younger days I wouldn’t think twice about walking into a pub anywhere in the country. It never used to even occur to me that I’d be the only person in the room from an ethnic minority.
Nowadays, if I walk into a monocultural environment I notice it right away. Having experienced monoculture then diversity, today I instinctively feel a lot more comfortable within diversity. My favourite type of dinner table is where every person is from a different country. In a monoculture you have to try to fit in otherwise you’ll feel excluded. In a diverse group, people’s differences are a source of positive energy.
Do you think there is enough done to condemn these outrageous attacks?
Condemnation is one thing but if we’re going to make a difference, we’ve got to face up to the root causes. We know what the root causes are and it’s in our gift to tackle them. We’ve got to address the serious problems in our public discourse and politicians’ rhetoric, the misinformation and disinformation that’s rife in our information sources, and we’ve got to value education and understanding more than we do today.
Knowing your community is under constant threat how do you manage and what advice would you give to those also experiencing the same?
It’s human to feel afraid. I worry about my children, walking to and from school every day. But you can’t allow fear to take over. You always need to be vigilant but recognise these are very rare, isolated incidents. And don’t let the attacks put a wedge between you and the country in which you live. The vast majority of people who live here are decent people who are every bit as shocked and revolted as you are.
Is there anything companies can do to help and support their Asian employees?
1. If your East Asian colleagues don’t seem to speak up, make an extra effort to engage them. They’ll have a lot to contribute, but probably don’t crave being the centre of attention.
2. Remember that an East Asian working in MR is something of an anomaly. An East Asian who has landed in research is likely to have an interesting story to tell.
3. Celebrate and showcase East Asian success stories in MR – there are so few!
Lastly is there any proverb, tradition or anything from your culture that strongly influences you which you could share with us?
In Asia it’s completely normal to take naps in the office. This ought to be a thing in the UK as well.