Unquiet Women - Erica Austin: Curator of connections

Inspired by Max Adam’s original work, Unquiet Women, through this series Dr Hafsa Ahmed aims to share narratives of remarkable women who immigrated to New Zealand. These stories are rarely told, but each one is unique. Hafsa hopes these stories will bring Asia closer to New Zealand by enabling us to see through the eyes of others and nurturing connections.

In the fifth piece of the Unquiet Women series, she shares Erica Austin's (Sijia Liang) story.

With a background in architecture, Erica does not design buildings but something more special – she creates spaces with conditions that enable people to achieve their objective or purpose collectively. When I asked her “what do you do?” – she smiled and says “I always struggle with that question because normally people frame it as one singular thing or work-related – for me, it is a portfolio of things that all add together to contribute or align with my values and my passions, so I describe myself as a 'multipotentialite' – someone with multiple passions.”  

Erica Austin describes herself as a multipotentialite. Image: Supplied

Erica and her parents were living in Guangzhou, China and their search for a better quality of life brought them to Aotearoa. Erica was seven when her family moved here but her initial days at school were difficult and challenging -“I went to school and everyone looked different and everyone thought I was different.” But that did not last for long and Erica made her first friend Heather –a friend who looked after her the whole way, helped her learn English, sat with her at lunchtime and made her feel included. It was Heather who made Erica feel a sense of belonging and became an ally for her. The different approach to education at school posed struggles, Erica embraced the “kiwi” mindset of exploration-based work well. Alongside adjusting to school, setting up in Pakuranga after having lived in Guangzhou was tricky – but Erica gives credit to her mother “a strong woman” who was future-oriented that helped her family settle in Aotearoa.  

It was her mother who chose her name Erica Austin when they received citizenship in early 2000 as there was a general understanding that if you put your Chinese name on the CV – “you’re CV will be put on the side.” She interacts with many people daily, with email being the primary means of communication. However, there’s the unsaid hesitancy that Erica experiences when those with whom she has interacted see her because she looks Asian – “It does take them time to adjust and think about their way of interaction because they've interacted with me before.” Erica tells me her original name Sijia Liang is what family and friends use – “I'm definitely, deeply rooted with my Chinese name, but I'm known in this context as Erica and I'm still very happy with this dual identity.” 

When Erica was a teenager, she returned to China for two and half years with her mother to complete middle school. While schooling was at the core, Erica also learnt her language and history during that time. She gives credit to these years for allowing her to remain connected with her heritage and establish her cultural identity as she was able to attend two different schools in Guangzhou and Wuhan. She describes it by saying “there needs to be a commitment for you to tune into your own culture and the curiosity, and I think that really taught me how to be patient.” I asked her what are the significant cultural differences that she experienced – she had many! A significant one was the hierarchy in relationships that exists in Asian cultures which do not exist in the New Zealand culture – you treat everyone as equals. However, there were more similarities that Erica found between the Chinese and Māori cultures, particularly the family-focused practises.  

As a teenager, Erica studied in Wuhan (pictured) and Guangzhou and learnt about her history and language.

Erica met her husband in Aotearoa, his heritage is from the Cook Islands and she is a proud mother of a son. As a mother herself, I was curious about what her journey and expectations are from her child, her response was incredible – “my son is at a bilingual daycare, I think it is appropriate for me to expose him to as many things as possible for him to create his own identity by aligning with the different cultural practices or traditions.” 

I was curious about what Erica had said about her work - so we delved deeper. Coming from a family that carried traditional education at its core with both her parents being structural engineers, expectations were set high for Erica. She enjoyed maths, design and drawing – so architecture it was! She tells me “Architecture is the one because it has a better balance and a way for me to actually explore research, spend some time in terms of the design process.”  

As a Master's student at the University of Auckland, Erica said she was fortunate to have Camia Young as her advisor who harnessed the skills of collaboration by allowing Erica and her peers to engage with “real people to solve real issues for Christchurch just after the earthquakes.” It totally shifted her understanding of architecture – what is meant to be an architect who is able to influence and create platforms for engagement or moments of collaboration to benefit others. While she graduated with a Master's degree, Erica decided to not follow the pathway of a traditional architect. Instead, she is channelling her architectural know-how for design processes to create community engagement for various projects. 

One such project is Open Christchurch, a festival aimed at bringing people together to celebrate Ōtautahi’s unique, designed places through guided walks and activities based around the buildings and architecture of the city. In this way, Erica does not create tangible buildings but is still an architect who creates spaces for conversations to happen. 

One of the projects Erica has been working on is Open Christchurch, which will encourage kōrero about the city and its architecture. Image: Open Christchurch

Erica likes to describe her work as “creating the conditions that enable people to achieve their objective or purpose collectively by connecting the silos.” She wants to bridge conversations across sectors, industries and communities to be able to create a wider impact or illustrate a wider picture. All of this is driven by her values of community, contribution and lifelong learners. As she says “for me, what I do revolves around the alignment of that and so lots of different projects that really, you know, work with the community and in shaping the built environment for instance, or designing and curating experiences that are meaningful and inclusive.” Erica sees this as critical for the future of Aotearoa where people are being celebrated for whatever identity they have chosen for themselves.  

- Asia Media Centre